Saturday, February 22, 2020


Can you write a song based on a single word? 

Peter Underdog apparently took on this challenge when he wrote lyrics for a 4-chord cyclic chord progression which modulates back and forth along tritones. He had devised this progression years before during a layoff from his Clark-Kent day job at Massaversity of Unichusetts. That brief two-week layoff, due to a budget crisis at some level of the government bureaucracy in the funding food-chain, was productive, song-writing wise, for our hero. According to previous interviews in the mass (and not so mass) media, his noodling on a 24-year-old Fender Rhodes in his basement during that period resulted in no less than four compositions with potential, three of which yielded fairly easily to the lyric-writing process and were promptly arranged and recorded, but one of which, namely 'Crestfallen' (a word that always fascinated PU), that, except for the title, appears to have been elusive wordsmithing-wise, probably because it started as a one word title.

The musical concept was pretty simple: take a I-iv progression (e.g., G / Cm), and twist it, turn it up, down, backward and forward. The I-iv, and iv-I progressions, contrasted with the more typical I-IV, evoke a mournful or yearning feeling, just like the word "crestfallen". For example, check out the verse to the 1970s Philadelphia soul hit "You Make Me Feel Brand New" by The Stylistics: 

So "Crestfallen" started with a I-iv in the key of G (G / Cm), then jumped up to a iv-I in Bb for the next two chords (Ebm / Bb), and rolled along merrily from there.

"Crestfallen", first several bars

At some point, a turnaround was needed to glue the first part together. How about a ii7-V7? No, Frank Zappa claimed that progression is evil, in spite of the fact that the bebop era was built on those changes. So as a tip of the cap to Señor Francisco Zappa, Señor Pedro Underdog just flattened the ii and turned it into a bII7-V7 -- another opportunity for tritone-hopping.

Electronic lead sheet with lyrics and chord symbols

A note in an electronic version of the lead sheet states "chorus - repeat verse in higher key w/new chords", which is indeed what happens -- the chorus moves up to a Bb/Ebm/Gbm/Db progression, then returns to the original progression for the next verse. 

In terms of the lyrical origins, here are some results of research by this reporter, which involved looking at scribblings on a sheet of graph paper found in a fat three-ring binder with "Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute" printed all over it. As the aforementioned Mr. Underdog was on a space expedition at the time, this scribe was able to get access to these primary sources by means that were only moderately illegal. That binder contains scraps of paper, printed sheet music, lead sheets, and other artifacts of nascent Underdog compositions. Computer files and archives on dusty hard drives and cloud storage were also inspected. 

The graph paper contained work-in-progress lyrics for several Peter Underdog compositions including "Saturn Sunburn", "Burning in the Rain", "Sunday of Two Noons" among others.

From the "Carnegie Mellon" notebook

In the upper right corner of the graph paper, now laminated in polyethylene terephthalate, is a small section labeled "Crestfallen", with some attempted wordsmithing. These spitballed lyrics include swing-and-miss rhyming attempts like "guatemalan", "joseph stalin", and "downtrodden". One of those entries eventually made the final cut after a bit of tweaking -- "joe strummer singing 'london calling'". Another, "she was downhearted, i was crestfallen", reveals what became the overall structure of the lyrics -- "she was X, he was Y", apparently describing some kind of dysfunctional romantic relationship.

So "Crestfallen" eventually became a song, complete with lyrics. However, examination of timestamps on computer files on backup drives reveals that there were many failed attempts to create a fully realized, fully arranged, fully musical version of the composition. A Cakewalk 8.0 file entitled "crestfallen.wrk", containing only a scratch drum and keyboard track, dated 2004-08-08 was found on one drive. Other similar files, containing only MIDI tracks, and at various tempos, were also found. An empty Pro Tools project ("crestfallen.ptx") from 2013 was also uncovered. The title "Crestfallen" also appears on several "TODO" lists found in the notebooks.

A TODO list from the CM notebook

The final released version appears to have been started in 2019 as an Ableton project ("crestfallen.als"), with early versions containing a drum track, keyboard track, and guitar and bass samples. A nearly complete version with several virtual synth tracks (Kontakt 5.0 "Massive") were found, but were apparently abandoned, as the next version does not appear until months later. This was what became the "golden master", and has the virtual synth tracks removed, and an audio track gloriously labeled "MOOG" in their place. It appears that the virtual synths were replaced by a decidedly non-virtual hardware synth at the last minute, which may have been the impetus for the project finally getting finished and released.

We can follow up with Prof./Mr./Dr. Underdog himself when he returns from somewhere in the universe. In the meantime, he was kind enough to transmit the music video embedded at the top of this report from deep space for our enjoyment and edification. As he usually says, "play it loud". 

That's all for now, and as reporters used to sign off in the days of Smith Corona typewriters, linotype machines, and lead type, "-30-".