Bob Dylan lyrics and Vancouver acid inspired the Guess Who’s “Undun”

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 2, 2001

By Steve Newton

Most red-blooded Canuck-rock fans over 40 have memories of their favourite Guess Who tune. Some prefer the riff-driven bluesiness and sneering attitude of “American Woman”; others are more drawn to the celebratory, peace-and-togetherness vibe of “Share the Land”. There may even be a few sad sacks out there who rate the band’s final Top 10 hit, “Clap for the Wolfman”, as number one.

But I’ll take “Undun” any day. To me, that 1969 gem—with its jazz-inflected chords, percolating bass runs, and tasty flute solo—is the Guess Who’s shining moment. When I reach original guitarist Randy Bachman by phone at his home near Victoria, he explains that he feels that way sometimes himself.

“A lotta times people ask me what my favourite song is,” he relates, “and when I’m in the mood I’ll say ‘Undun’, because it’s so different than anything else. It’s not a standard pop song; it doesn’t have a big chorus that you’d sing along with. And in its day it was even more weird. I remember the joy of hearing that on the radio, figuring ‘Wow, a song with more than three chords,’ you know, ‘with lyrics that don’t rhyme.’ ”

The lyrical seed for “Undun”—which was originally released as the B side of the single “Laughing”—was planted at a Vancouver party that the band attended in 1967. Bachman, who was soon to embrace the Mormon faith, wasn’t too impressed when the era’s drug of choice made an appearance at the bash.

“I was very frightened at this party when the acid came out,” he recalls, “so I just left.” But one unfortunate young woman took the drug, freaked out, and was taken away in an ambulance. When Bachman heard that she wound up in a coma, he had the inspiration for “Undun”, but it took a lyrical nudge from Bob Dylan for the song to reach full bloom. Bachman recalls that he was staying at the Sands Hotel on Davie in ’67, listening to the Flower Power Hour on the then-new CKLG-FM, when Dylan’s “Ballad in Plain D” came on the air. The verse-heavy number seemed to go on forever.

“I got sick of it,” he says, “and was just about to lean over and turn the radio off when I heard Dylan say ‘She’s come undone.’ I went ‘Wow!’, ’cause for years I had had this light little melody and a chord progression, but neither Burton [Cummings] nor I could think of any lyrics. So I scribbled down ‘She’s come undone,’ and then just wrote the whole song out. I ran next door to show Burton, and he said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve written this song alone; I can’t add anything to it. It’s weird, but it’s perfect.’ ”

After cowriting several Guess Who hits with Cummings—including “These Eyes”, “No Time”, “Laughing”, and “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature”—Bachman left the band in 1970, at the peak of its popularity. Of course, he went on to create a few more perfect tunes in Bachman Turner Overdrive, some of which—like “Takin’ Care of Business” and “Let It Ride”—will be heard among the Guess Who tunes when the band plays on a bill with Joe Cocker at the Coliseum on Tuesday (August 7). At first, Bachman wasn’t expecting any BTO tunes to make it into the set, but Cummings had other ideas. “Burton said to me, ‘You know, I’m singing 30 songs, and I’m really trying hard to hit every note, so it would be great if you sang a song or two to give me a break.’ And just last weekend we added ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’, so I’m singin’ four songs in there now.”

Along with Bachman and Cummings, today’s Guess Who includes original drummer Garry Peterson plus rhythm guitarist Donnie McDougall and bassist Bill Wallace. The reunion tour came together after former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon sent a letter asking the band to perform at the closing ceremonies of the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg.

“It was just different than some person saying, ‘Why don’t you guys play together?’ ” relates Bachman. “You know, you’ve got the premier of Manitoba saying: ‘The Pan-Am Games, four songs, with the Winnipeg arena filled, and two to three hundred million people watching on TV.’ And I flashed back to 1967, when the Guess Who played in the mess hall at the Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg! I have a picture of this, with nobody paying attention to us! So to go back to the same place 30-something years later, and play pretty much the same songs, and get paid a huge fortune for it, and get all the accolades… I said to my manager, ‘I want to change my schedule.’

“So we went to Winnipeg, and it was like ‘Let’s leave all the baggage behind, this is a celebration of four or five songs that we wrote, which are like soundtracks to people’s lives.’ So we rehearsed for a coupla days and did it, and when it was over I said to Burton, ‘That feeling I had—I felt like I was 30 years old. If we could bottle this feeling, we’d make millions.’ And he said, ‘We don’t need to bottle it, we know how to get it. Let’s get together and play again.’”

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