Author Playlists

Tim Murphy’s Playlist for His Novel “Speech Team”

“As I age, this is the music from the era I fall back on the most, and it was my internal soundtrack for Speech Team, where I was trying to recapture a 1980s…”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

The characters in Tim Murphy’s novel Speech Team jump off the page into your heart.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“Murphy, a longtime journalist and author of the novels Christodora (2016) and Correspondents (2019), again brings his finely tuned ability to portray subtle group dynamics to bear in this semiautobiographical update of the Big Chill trope…Misfit kids of the 1970s and ’80s—here’s the class reunion you were waiting for.”

In his own words, here is Tim Murphy’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Speech Team:

When I was in high school in Massachusetts in 1983-87, I had incredibly eclectic tastes in music. As a piano player, I loved the American songbook of Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart as interpreted by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Sinatra. As a budding gay, I also love the r&b and dance-pop of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, The Pet Shop Boys and ABC. But I think because I was a melancholy, closetedly lovelorn teen, I was mostly drawn to what I’d call 1980s indie emo—primarily acoustic rock with rueful lyrics, satisfying chord structures and layered, chiming guitars (sometimes, in the case of, say, The Cure, overlaid with synth). As I age, this is the music from the era I fall back on the most, and it was my internal soundtrack for Speech Team, where I was trying to recapture a 1980s that, sonically, was not so much the neon squiggles of Cyndi Lauder, Culture Club and Wham! but the more moody, earth-toned, inky palettes of bands like (early, pre-pop) R.E.M. and the Smiths. I’m talking the Susan Seidelman/Stephen Frears 1980s of thrift-store herringbone overcoats, oversize black blazers, combat boots and rat’s-nest hair rather than the garish 1980s of fuschia and periwinkle parachute pants and aerobics gear.

Here are some of the tracks that were part of that internal soundtrack:

“Don’t You Forget About Me,” Simple Minds (1985)

You may remember this was the opener for “The Breakfast Club,” which I think was one of the most quietly revolutionary movies of the 1980s, a teen smash way ahead of its time in its interrogation of gender roles, social hierarchies and stereotypes, and in its call for empathy. The song, so dramatic at the outset with its slashing guitars and frontman Jim Kerr’s urgent “Hey, hey, hey, hey!”, has this anthemic quality that pairs with the film’s opening quote from David Bowie, “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world…”. It’s such great underscoring for the film’s elegant opening, when the tone of simmering rebellion against the status quo is set and we get the perfect taste of each character’s discontents as they are dropped off by their parents to serve their Saturday detention. It was such a seminal movie for me when I was 15—I couldn’t believe that a film was taking on so squarely the bigotries and biases that ruled daily high school life, and I saw myself in the character of Anthony Michael Hall, who I think is subtextually the gay character. He was bullied and weak and hurt, but he could write and was drafted by the group to write their manifesto (that he reads in voiceover at the film’s beginning and end), and that sent me the message, as a writer, that if I had a skill to offer the world I might survive despite my gayness.

“Dear Prudence” by Siouxsie and the Banshees (1983)

I love Siouxsie’s trippy, goth cover of the Beatles. I have a very vivid memory of staying the night at a friends’ place in high school when her parents were away, getting really drunk on ouzo and watching the video for this song that, for some reason, was playing over and over again on VH1 or some alternative channel to MTV. The video is trippy and has a kind of acid overlay effect on it and was shot around the canals of Venice, making it kind of like the dark cousin to Madonna’s delicious but tacky-campy Venice-shot video for “Like a Virgin.” Siouxsie was the Dark Lady of 80s music—the fright wig, the raccoon-like pancake makeup, the unshaven armpits, stories of her hitting audience members with her microphone at concerts. I was scared of and mesmerized by her as a teen, and I’m sure that, in Speech Team, the not-yet-out gays Tip and Anthony are just as obsessed with her witchy glamor as they are with Madonna and with Joan Collins and Diahann Carroll on “Dynasty.”

“Appetite” by Prefab Sprout (1985)

This was the “hit” (along with “When Love Breaks Down”) from the British band’s best known album, called “Steve McQueen” in the UK and “Two Wheels Good” in the U.S. But I could just as well name every single song from this album, which I think is one of the most underrated art-pop gems of the 1980s. The lyrics are so clever and rueful and allusive, the melodies and harmonies so lush, the vast combination of acoustic and synth sounds so rich and surprising. To this day, it’s one of those albums I can happily listen to the entirety of while on a long car trip, no matter how many times I’ve heard it.

“Jump” by Aztec Camera (1984)

Aztec Camera is an 80s art-pop band I put in the same bucket as Prefab Sprout—so catchy in such a full-throated, acoustic way—and I always say that I learned the true definition of irony from this slow, gorgeous cover of Van Halen’s bombastic pop-metal hit of the same year. I loved that it seemed to be squarely mocking the original and bringing out its inherent lyrical and melodic beauty at the same time. I can very much see Speech Team besties Tip and Nat loving this track in high school, thinking how cleverly it subverted the hair-metal fodder so many of their classmates were listening to—and feeling themselves clever and sophisticated for getting the joke.

“The Whole of the Moon” by the Waterboys (1985)

I went through high school with so much pent-up yearning and romance in me that I was like a magnet to any song that had big, full-throated emotionality to it, almost as if such songs were, to quote Roberta Flack, strumming my pain with their fingers and singing my life with their words. This track gut-punches you right from the chunky, emo chords in the intro before any lyrics, but then you get frontman Michael Scott’s “I wandered out in the world for years/While you just stayed in your room/I saw the crescent/You saw the whole of the moon.” What a gorgeous way to describe someone. Then those magisterial horns that come in in the middle of the song. Perfection.

“Maureen” by Sade (1985)

I loved Sade so much in high school (and still do). I had never seen such an embodiment of understated beauty and class, both visually and vocally, especially in a pop landscape that was so overdone, with overteased hair and overbright colors. But everything about Sade was minimalist cool: that pulled-back hair, those big gold hoop earrings, that simple white turtleneck, that soft-spoken, smoky British accent—and that face. I remember rushing home with her second album, “Promise,” thrilling to the sound of rain that opens “The Sweetest Taboo.” But the song on the album that really pierced my heart was “Maureen.” Oh my God, I remember thinking as I listened to the lyrics, she is actually singing about a dead friend. This was such a revelation because, at the time, I could not think of another song in which a woman sang about another woman—not even romantically, but simply as a friend whom one loved and missed. “You were a souped-up car in that rent-a-go-cart town…and I miss you, girl.” Still breaks my heart.

“Sitting Still” by R.E.M. (1983)

it’s actually hard for me to pull out one song from this album (Murmur) that defined my inner life when I was 15 or 16—the entire album to me is a song cycle of suppressed emotions made more so by the fact that the lyrics are so muffled, hard to understand and hence endlessly open to interpretation. I was in love with Michael Stipe at this time, with his romantic pre-Raphaelite curly hair, and I remember thinking, “I wish he were gay, but he’s way too cool to be gay.” (Haha—guess who turned out to be gay?) I guess I chose “Sitting Still” because you get that urgent rush of guitars at the very beginning before the song begins in earnest, and because the only lyrics that are truly intelligible are Stipe’s anguished call at the end of the song, “I can hear you/I can hear you/I can hear you/Can you hear me?” What was he singing about? I never fully knew, and the fact that I didn’t allowed me to project all sorts of aesthetic and erotic longing onto early R.E.M.’s swirling, chiming tracks.

“Crazy for You” by Madonna (1985)

This song is obviously the outlier here—Madonna was hardly indie emo. I include it because this is the song in Speech Team that serves as the ballad at the cafeteria dance after one of the speech tournaments. This was always the moment when boys and girls would pair up and dance in that awkward way with the boy’s arms around the girl’s waist and the girl’s arms around the boy’s neck. Nothing could make a young closeted queer feel more alone and exposed. If you were lucky, you had a female friend or even “girlfriend” you could dance with—I usually did. But in the novel, Tip finds himself alone at that moment, watching everyone pair up, and honestly, is there anything like the introduction of a French horn at the very beginning of a ballad to drive the sadness home? This song also proves my long-held belief about Madonna’s voice that it’s not extraordinary like Whitney’s or Mariah’s, but has always been able to serve her songs perfectly, so who cares?

“Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe (1979)

Okay, this song is one year off from officially being eighties emo but I do love it. I don’t know if other writers do this, but I always need a song that, in the film version of whatever I’m writing, would be the song over the closing credits, right after the final scene cuts to black, and for me, with Speech Team, this is it. “You gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure/Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign/Cruel to be kind, means that I love you/Baby, you gotta be cruel to be kind.” To me, it’s almost like the theme of the novel—that the group’s long-ago teacher and speech coach, Gary Gold, probably thought he was being kind by saying the things to the kids that he said while perhaps having no idea of the profound cruelty of his words, and of how they were going to stay with the kids for years, to the point of reuniting 25 years later and tracking him down to ask him what the hell he was thinking, or if he even remembered saying them. It’s also just a standard C-E-F-G or 1-3-4-5 chord progression, which I am just a sucker for.

also at Largehearted Boy:

Tim Murphy’s playlist for his novel Christodora

Tim Murphy is the author of the novels “Correspondents” and “Christodora,” both published by Grove Atlantic. “Christodora” was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal. Under the name Timothy Murphy, he is also the author of the 1990s novels “Getting Off Clean” and “The Breeders Box.” He has been for nearly 20 years a journalist focusing mostly on HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ issues, for publications including the New York Times, New York magazine, Out magazine, the Nation, POZ magazine, and for the magazines of the ACLU and Lambda Legal. He was a founding member of the NYC-based activist groups Gays Against Guns and Rise and Resist. He has taught journalism at City College of New York and currently teaches creative writing once weekly at Arts & Letters junior high school in Brooklyn, where he lives. A proud Boston-area native, he loves spending time in upstate New York/western Massachusetts as well as in Beirut, not far from the home of his maternal ancestors. He is at work on a new novel as well as some TV projects and, when not tethered to his laptop in his Brooklyn bedroom as he is right now, tries to see as much theater as one possibly can on a freelance writer’s salary.

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider supporting the site to keep it strong.