How I wrote ‘Underdog (Save Me)’ by Turin Brakes’ Olly Knights
One-half of the band’s songwriting partnership, Olly Knights talks about the song that provided their first taste of chart success
Acoustic indie band Turin Brakes was formed when Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian started jamming together in a South London bedroom. Their first EP, The Door, was released through Anvil Records in 1999, but it was Source Records that would put out two more EPs and their debut album, The Optimist LP, in 2001. Greeted with critical praise and a Mercury Music Prize nomination, the album spawned several modestly successful UK singles, which included Underdog (Save Me). But, as Olly reveals here, the story of Underdog began several years earlier, with a different name and completely different lyrics…
“It was the perfect scenario of how you’d think a Turin Brakes song might come into existence. It was literally just me and Gale sitting in his bedroom, when we were like 19 years old, and he was jamming out those chords that we all know as Underdog (Save Me). I was almost rapping over the top with melody, just spitting out lyrics and ideas.
“Once we’d pinned something down, we recorded a nice little demo of it on our MiniDisc four-track that we had at the time. We had like an hour’s worth of music. It was very embryonic, but you can hear bits of The Optimist LP in those original demos.
“Underdog (Save Me) was originally called Sally, which was more like a love song about a girl. It had the same chords, the same groove, all the changes and it even had almost the same guitar solo as Underdog, but it had completely different words and a very different meaning. I remember Phil, our manager at the time, saying, ‘I love the feel of this song but I’m not sure about the lyrics.’ And I totally agreed with him and said, ‘You know what, I don’t think the lyrics are right either. I’m just going to re-write them.’
“So I re-wrote the lyrics in something ridiculous like 20 minutes, the week before we were going into the studio to make the record. It was all done off-the-cuff and really instinctively, but we always work like that. It’s funny when you look back in hindsight and think, ‘Imagine if I’d have written it differently again, what would’ve happened?’
“When I’m writing lyrics, I always imagine that I’m like an old TV set: I put up my aerial, pick up on something in the air and channel it through into the pen. I wish I could say it was more conscious than that, but it’s really almost like ‘remote writing’, the way I’m doing it. I don’t give myself a hard time about making too much sense.
“That’s my favourite thing about songwriting: how utterly abstract it can be, yet you can still transfer the most intense and specific feelings into people. Underdog was just me doing that. There are feelings and imagery of escape, and if there is a character in it, I think it’s a pissed-off businessman that got off the train at the wrong stop, he’s lost it and he’s going to escape. So this is what might be going on in his mind and that’s the only picture I was taking with it.
“We had essentially recorded what would become the album years before it came out. We had to wait and it was very frustrating, but it was necessary because we didn’t really have a fanbase – we had to make a couple of EPs to put out, in order to have someone who was going to go out and buy the album when we finally released it.
“The Door was the first single off the album, which came out a good few months before, and then we put out Underdog (Save Me) as the second single. That was the one that got picked up by Radio 1 and I think it actually got playlisted at that point, which was pretty amazing.
“It’s a very simple song, but all these years later, people sing back every word better than I can! It amazes me and that’s what I love: there seems to be something about being human in that song. It’s something about being alive, some shared experience of the human condition that’s buried somewhere inside those lyrics.”