It was pointed out in a thread about LCD Soundsystem on ILM the other day that Dance Yrself Clean, probably my favourite track on This Is Happening, is a rip-off of a tune called Jamaica Running by The Pool. This revelation caused a little bit of consternation in some people: that Dance Yrself Clean was just Jamaica Running with some singing over the top; that it was “rotten” of James Murphy not to credit The Pool; that if you stripped away the unoriginal bits from LCD songs you wouldn’t have much left over…
I remember a quote about The Verve from years ago: “the original bits aren’t good, and the good bits aren’t original”. At the time, maybe 1997, I was too young to have the breadth of musical knowledge that I have now, and thus didn’t find myself recognising what Mad Richard and co had robbed, bar realising that the openings lines of History had been “adapted” from William Blake’s poem, London. If The Verve had nicked a riff here, a lyric there, that was fine; I couldn’t tell, so it was new to me.
But then I remember hearing the orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time for the first time, the Andrew Loog Oldham version that Bittersweet Symphony sampled. I’d read something which suggested that all The Verve had borrowed was a chord sequence played by the string section, that the drum pattern and main string hook, the two most vital identifying parts of the song, were their own work, Ashcroft’s own work, and the sample was buried and barely audible, and that it was pure avarice that made Loog Oldham seize songwriting credits for himself, Jagger and Richards.
Rubbish. That whole sweeping string hook, the double-thwack rhythm of the drums, the stately pace, the swell and poise of Bittersweet Symphony all came directly from The Last Time. Ashcroft had said they’d “made it like a hip-hop record” but it was more like dancehall; this wasn’t someone stringing together a batch of varied samples and creating a new tune from elements of old ones; it was an MC making up a new vocal over an old backing track. Except that the backing track was being played by a house band rather than on a battered 12”. Years later I heard Funkadelic’s I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody Got A Thing for the first time, and discovered where the intro for The Rolling People had come from, and the quote about the good bits not being original started to make much, much more sense.
As teenagers, some of my friends had been of the “sampling is theft” mentality, which never made a great deal of sense to me, or, luckily, many fine musicians. Sadly it made sense to lawyers to a degree, which is why only Kanye can afford to sample someone else’s music these days, and why, say, the reissue of Paul’s Boutique (which, of course, features the lyric “there’s only 12 notes that a man can play”) couldn’t append any bonus tracks – legal issues would mean they’d have to classify it as a new release and thus pay to clear all the samples. Maybe that’s fair enough, but I know for a fact that I’ve bought records on the back of them being sampled on other records, from Jimmy Smith and Curtis Mayfield albums to those Blue Note compilations laden with treasures like Marlena Shaw’s live version of Woman Of The Ghetto; surely that benefits artists more?
Intriguingly, I doubt The Pool could sue LCD Soundsystem for appropriating the rhythm from Jamaica Running anymore than CAN could sue The Stone Roses for half-inching the bassline from I’m So Green for Fools Gold, even though Men At Work got sued for Down Under having a flute solo that was a little bit similar to the melody from the Kookaburra kids’ song. Maybe this is a western cultural thing, a privileging of melody over rhythm in terms of musical importance and the rights of authorship. G.C. Coleman has never received, nor looked for, any royalties from the use of The Amen Break, pretty much the most famous and widely used drum sample ever. I’m pretty sure the Incredible Bongo Band never has from their Apache break either. Which makes, despite the flagrant nature of the steal, Loog Oldham look even more mealy-mouthed and greedy regarding Bittersweet Symphony.
So what is musical theft? Is it stealing a chord sequence? A melody? A rhythm? A sample? A bassline? An idea? I know of bands who, in moments of existential songwriting crisis, have jammed around the chord-sequences of other people’s songs and come up with their own songs, not reinterpretations or reimaginings but completely different, new, unrecognisable songs with their own unique arrangements and character, but who are petrified of this creative methodology being talked about lest they look like thieves or, worse still, people whose own creative well has run dry. This is madness, especially when, with one band in particular, a couple of key early-career moments were comprised of wide-eyed, blatant, loving homages to musical ideas from their influences.
There’s another big, loaded word: influence. “Influenced by” and “sounds like” being worlds apart almost all the time.