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.

No comments: