Writer, producer and music lecturer Godfrey de Grut takes a closer than usual look and listen to see what makes Don McGlashan’s single, Lucky Stars, tick the pop song success boxes.
I first heard Lucky Stars on National Radio while driving home from a gig late at night and was immediately moved by its matter of fact imagery and well designed pacing. Lyrically it shines with the type of contemplative internal discourse many only acquiesce to during those brief moments when introspection can thrive outside of our hectic daytime lives.
Structurally Lucky Stars presents four efficient verses packed with nifty internal secondary rhymes, ’Morning –– warning’ and also including the super catchy eponymous refrain at the conclusion of each one.
The third verse is extended and acts as the ’bridge’ section with a dynamic build up incorporating non-diatonic 7ths to the chord structure to add some harmonic tension. The fourth verse is a composite meshing of the first half of verse one and the tail end of verse three, an economical use of text that epitomises the song’s recurring touch points of geography and the cyclic shifts of electric and natural light.
In between verses two and three, and between three and four, are what I will refer to as choruses, as they are the only full sections that repeat exactly within the song.
Although Lucky Stars can be thought of as based in D major, the harmonic framework includes sections of the competing key centre of G, which combined with some extensions to the length of certain vocal phrases, adds a level of uncertainty and tension to portions of text, before resolving eloquently to D major at just the right moments.
This, for example, is accomplished early on with the simple addition of a non-diatonic minor v chord, Am, and later in the chorus with a red herring bVII, C major chord.
McGlashan sets the framework of D major with the static movement between I and IV (G). (Interestingly both D and G belong to either D major or G major key centres, but we most naturally perceive any starting chord as the home key.)
The first verse describes a place, ’Henderson’ (D major) and a time, dawn, ‘Still in the dark’ (A minor – the ii chord borrowed from G major – nicely woven together with the text!), and an action, ’Gas in the car’ (G major). Already the majority of chords can be derived from G major but McGlashan then chooses to lift us back up to the sharper key (D) by introducing A major (the V chord from D major) sung over, ’See my reflection in the smash proof glass’, followed by Bm and G respectively.
It’s a neat game, played throughout with the push and pull of key centre mirroring the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist as they consider their life and surroundings. There are allusions of danger with ’Smash proof glass’; beauty in the various light sources, ‘Light from the forecourt spills all over the cars’; equal parts sympathy, ’Barefoot man who’s buying cigarettes’ and neighbourly, ‘Stand in line with all the rest’.
A rich tapestry of the human condition is woven together with the refrain, ‘I thank my lucky stars’ as the lyric payoff that frames the answer to the question of our protagonist’s place in the world and his seeming wonderment of being alive to reflect upon it.
The remarkably simple act of extending a phrase beyond the square shape of four and eight bar lengths is underplayed in today’s popular songwriting, but McGlashan is particularly canny with his pacing in general and this song benefits from the addition of uneven phrase lengths at two points.
Firstly at the end of the chorus where we hang on an unresolved Bm chord for an extra three measures after, ‘Glad of the company, glad for all they’ve done for me’. This sets up an unexpected breathing space and an opportunity for the listener to reflect on the meaning of what has been said. Is McGlashan thankful for the characters in the story giving him inspiration to write a song?
There is also a nifty one-measure extension of the IV chord to the third verse phrase where he repeats the ’Stop to put gas in the car’ line. This struck me at first listen as a witty meditative pause to consider the repetitive nature of our lives and the deja vu aspect of the mundane. It is juxtaposed beautifully with a following line, ‘The dawn comes creeping up the harbor mouth’, to put it all back into context.
Sometimes songs hit your ears at just the right time, when you are most receptive to them. Lucky for me it was Lucky Stars by one of our most thoughtful and generous songwriters, Mr Don McGlashan.
Godfrey de Grut is a Silver Scroll co-winner with Che Fu, MD of the 2013 & 2015 Silver Scrolls and co-artistic director of Coca Cola Christmas in the Park 2015. He is a freelance writer, arranger and producer, lecturing in popular music studies at the University of Auckland. Follow his musical ramblings @GodfreyDeGrut on Twitter or email email@example.com