Tuesday, December 30, 2008

COLUMN: Coldplay

"You say 'Long done, do, does, did,' words which could only be your own / And then produce the text from whence was ripped, some dizzy whore, 1804... / If you must write prose and poems, the words you use should be your own / Don't plagiarize or take on loan / Because there's always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows / Who'll trip you up and laugh when you fall."

That's an exceptionally pretentious yet exceptionally ACCURATE lyric from Steven Morrissey, the lead singer of the legendary Smiths. I've spent the last 37 years on Earth becoming a card-carrying and highly skilled music nerd, and let me tell you, nothing riles up my brethren and I quite like a pop culture plagiarist.

In the grand scheme of things, the idea of thievery should be nothing new to the world of rock & roll -- the entire genre is little more than a rip-off. Listen to some of the original iconic rock & roll records and you'll hear shades of blues, R&B, gospel, folk, and country music homogenized down to a mass-appeal goo. Blues music might have too extreme for 1950's suburban America, but once that music was delivered via the swaggering hips of Elvis, suddenly it was fair game for the middle class. Soon, every kid with a guitar was learning riffs seldom heard outside of a Delta blues club.

But sometimes, musicians get caught with their hands a little too deep in the cookie jar of inspiration. In 1971, George Harrison was successfully sued over his classic song "My Sweet Lord," a tune with a melody a little too reminiscent of the old Chiffons hit "He's So Fine."

Earlier this year, Canadian pop songstress Avril Lavigne settled out of court with an obscure California band called The Rubinoos. It turns out that Lavigne's hit single "Girlfriend" is almost a carbon copy of little-known Rubinoos single, "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend."

One of the most notorious band of thieves in music is arguably the greatest in rock & roll history: Led Zeppelin. Go have a listen to Willie Dixon's "You Need Love," a blues gem from 1953. The words AND the melody eventually made their way to the Led Zep catalog, where heavier guitars were added and the name changed to "Whole Lotta Love." The only credited songwriter? Page/Plant of Led Zep.

Of course, hip-hop and pop music have been sampling the songs of others for years. In 1997, Richard Ashcroft and his band The Verve scored their only global chart-topper with a tune called "Bitter Sweet Symphony." The Verve were poised to make a killing until it was revealed that the song's 12-note repeating string section was sampled from an orchestral rendering of a Rolling Stones tune. Despite the sample being only 4 seconds long, the ensuing lawsuit reverted the songwriting credits of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards alone. The Verve never saw a dime from their hit single and broke up shortly thereafter. At the time, a defiant Ashcroft was quoted as saying, "This is the best song Jagger & Richards have written in 20 years."

And now another accusation of plagiarism has come to light, and it involves a band modeled on a public persona of earnest righteousness: Coldplay. It's nearly impossible to hate Coldplay. Their songs may all be incomprehensible mid-tempo schlock about love and yellow stars, but Coldplay are clearly A Band Who Cares. If there's a charity concert happening in any major arena on Earth, you can all but guarantee Coldplay's on the bill. The Live 8 concert? They played it. Fair trade? They're all over it. Gwyneth Paltrow? They married it.

Earlier this year, Coldplay released a single called "Viva La Vida."

A fine tune, sure -- but then came along Andrew Hoepfner. Andrew fronts a struggling band called Creaky Boards. And he claims that the melody of "Viva La Vida" rips off a song he wrote a year prior, a tune aptly called "Songs I Didn't Write." With no money for legal representation, Hoepfner took his cause to Youtube. In his video, the two songs play next to one another while Andrew claims Chris Martin of Coldplay was spotted at a Creaky Boards gig in 2007 and that he "seemed pretty into it."

While it's undeniable that the two songs are strikingly similar, that's only the tip of the iceberg. A couple months later, guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani filed a federal lawsuit against Coldplay claiming that "Viva La Vida" incorporates substantial portions of one of HIS songs -- a 2004 instrumental called "If I Could Fly."

Again, when the two songs are compared, the similarities are astonishing. Enterprising remixers have taken to the internet blending the two songs together seamlessly. So the perhaps million dollar question -- are Coldplay thieves?

For once, I'm inclined to say no. For one, Coldplay and Joe Satriani are NOT musicians who roll in the same circle. I find it hard to believe that Coldplay would be rocking out to a heavy metal instrumentalist on the tour bus. In fact, I'd venture a guess that they probably detest one another's music. For another, if Coldplay thieved from Joe Satriani, then by logic, so too must have Creaky Boards -- it's all the same melody. And Creaky Boards DEFINITELY don't strike me as Satriani fans. In fact, they don't even look like they could afford a Joe Satriani CD.

Instead, I propose a more plausible explanation: The shared melody of "Viva La Vida," "Songs I Didn't Write," and "If I Could Fly" is so simple, puerile, and banal that I'd be surprised if only THREE bands have come up with it over time. The tune isn't rocket science, it's just a simple chord progression, and hey, there's only so many chords in music. But I'm still excited because it means a looming court case, tons more gossip fodder, and the chance to see the holier-than-thou Coldplay taken down a peg or two. On top of that, I'm just happy that the scandal caused me to discover Creaky Boards, who are actually a pretty great band.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Bad news. It appears that I'm facing a crisis. It's a personal and secret shame, but I'm afraid it's true: I'm no longer at the cutting edge forefront of modern technology.

Gadgets, gizmos, and grossly overpriced toys are clearly the best measure of a man's worth, and I've strived to remain as high up that ladder as my paychecks allow. Sadly, though, there comes a time when even the most zealous of gadget-hounds has to stop and realize that his life is lacking.

Specifically, it is lacking an iPhone.

I want one soooo bad. Foot-stomping, pouting kinda bad. Especially right now, for I am trapped via contract for at least five more months to what I have come to call Eddie the Wonder Phone.

I really liked my old cell phone. Its life, however, was extinguished by a girl who decided that the best place to set her drink would be all over my lap.

A sad loss, aye. But a chance for me to step up my game. At the store, I was immediately drawn to the phattest (or fattest, as both apply) and most technologically intense phone in the joint -- a Palm Treo. It had a shiny keyboard, a huge screen, and a magnificent price tag. This was no sissy phone. This was a phone that clearly said, "Hold me and be a man." At the time, I even wrote a column touting its virtues.

Then, well, I turned it on. It seems that my over-priced bundle of joy was, shall we politely say, quirky.

One of the primary reasons I opted for the Treo was its ability to plug into a laptop and serve as a wireless modem. A cool feature for an on-the-go newspaper professional, no? Too bad no-one knows how it works. I got my little cord, installed the software, plugged it in, and... nothing.

After playing around with it to no avail, I took the entire ensemble to the phone store and said, "HELP!" Their response? "Umm, we dunno how to do that. You need to call Palm corporate. Here's the 800 number." Nifty. Good to know there's a fleet of trained salespeople who are, apparantly, trained in SELLING their product but not operating it.

Still, I went home and called the number. I explained the problem in detail and this was what I got:

"Sir, is your phone currently plugged in to your laptop?"

"Umm, no, my phone is currently in my hand allowing me to speak to you."

"Well, sir, you're going to have to plug the phone in to the laptop and call me back."

"Umm, and how do I call you back if the phone's plugged in to the laptop?"

"You'll have to call me from another phone."

"So in order to fix my Palm Treo, I need to buy ANOTHER Palm Treo?"

This went on until I gave up and cancelled that part of my service.

But that was only the start of Eddie the Wonder Phone's charms. He also comes stocked with software like Word and Excel -- neither of which I've opened in the year and a half I've owned the thing. Strangely, it turns out that I've yet to experience the sort of on-the-go accounting and/or word processing emergency I had imagined Eddie to be necessary for. And if I ever found myself in a scenario where I'm walking down the street and suddenly need to balance a spreadsheet, only a trained surgeon could access the microscopic keys on Eddie's keyboard. I can barely manage typing a cohesive text message as is. If your phone ever says "DDUDEE, CVALLK ME," you'll know it's from me.

Eddie DOES have an additional feature not specified in the sales pitch, though, and it's rather exciting. It turns out that my phone has the stunning ability to unlock itself and call friends, family, and random numbers from inside my pants pocket. I learned this the day it dialed directory assistance 17 times unaided. And the time my slacks dialed 911. And from the many friends no longer speaking to me because I've called them 8 times in a row at 3 a.m.

Once, as I walking into work, from the bowels of my pants pocket, Eddie managed to unlock itself, dial my parents, AND turn on the speakerphone all at once. If you've ever thought your life required therapy, try hearing the voice of your mother spontaneously erupting from your crotch. "SHANE? SHANE MICHAEL! ARE YOU PLAYING GAMES AGAIN? ANSWER ME!" And I wonder why my relationships fail.

Meanwhile, my friends now have iPhones. iPhones don't have Excel or Word, and they don't call your mom from your nether-regions. Instead, iPhones have software you can install that turns the screen blue and makes swoosh noises when you wave it around like a lightsaber. Clearly the phone for me. There's even a program for the iPhone that can instantly identify any song playing on any nearby radio. That's the coolest thing, well, ever.

Yet I wait. Five months remain on my contract with Eddie, and I don't want to pay the penalty charges for early termination. And of course, if I finally DO get a chance to upgrade, by the time I get home from the store, they'll have launched iPhone 2010, rendering mine instantly obsolete.

All I know is that I'm iRate with Eddie the Wonder Phone, and our time together is nearing its end. And if my pelvis ever calls you up, I'm truly, truly sorry.