The Aging Punk.004

Thursday, 11 October 2007

My co-workers and I were discussing the Avril Lavigne/Rubinoos controversy (in case you live in a cave, Lavigne's last hit "I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend" quite obviously steals its chorus, hook, and title from the Rubinoos' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend"). One of them argued that, plagiarism or not, Avril's song was much better. Now, I have no desire to get into a debate about which cheesy pop song is a better cheesy pop song, but it did get me thinking about the whole idea of stealing someone else's work, and improving on it. About just how often that happens, and how sometimes it is condemned as plagiarism, and other times heralded as genius. Where exactly do you draw the line between copying something, and rewriting it into something new?

I'm not talking about sampling here, although it has definitely clouded the debate. One of the issues in plagiarism is: how much of a composition can you use before it becomes stealing? That question is easier to answer when you're using someone else's actual recording of a chord progression, rather than playing the same chord progression yourself. At that point, any use becomes plagiarism. This has lead to much more stringent enforcement of copyright laws. In the process, I believe that musicians (and/or their publishing companies) have become hyper-vigilant, and more sensitive about other uses of their material as well, to the detriment of musical creativity. (I will come back to sampling as a creative process later in this essay.)

No, I'm talking about cover songs, and about that hazy area where a cover song gets reworked until it becomes something new. Lavigne certainly could have avoided legal trouble if she had called her song a cover of the Rubinos tune. But that would not be totally honest either, for it is obviously a different song.

Before I can really explore this, you'll need to indulge me while I digress on the nature of a cover song. The concept of a "cover song" is actually a fairly recent idea. It is pretty much a product of the rock'n'roll era, for only then did we develop the (perhaps ridiculous) notion that a musician and a songwriter are the same thing. Before that, no one assumed that the best person to sing a given song was the person who wrote it. Sure, many musicians wrote songs, but not all. And even those that wrote their own compositions never felt they had to limit themselves to those songs. They felt no compunctions about playing, or even recording, their own versions of the popular songs of the day. (This practice continued into the mid-60's; it seems like every garage band in America recorded their own version of "Gloria" in 1965.)

The notion that a real musician, or at least a real rock musician, writes his own material can pretty much be blamed on the Beatles. There were plenty of rock'n'rollers before the Beatles who wrote their own songs (Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly come to mind immediately), but there were also plenty of others who relied on professional songwriters and/or old classics. Elvis Presley did not write any of his hits. And many of the big hits of the late 50s and early 60s were the product of songwriting teams (Lieber/Stoller, Goffin/King), which were then farmed out to various singers and bands.

But the Beatles changed all that. After them, you had to write your own songs to be a credible rock star.

Still, musicians, for various reasons, liked to perform others' songs. Hence was born the "cover song." This was merely applying a new label to something people had done all along, but, as often happens, that label subtly changed the item being labeled. For those musicians who did write most of their own material, cover songs came to perform several specific roles in their repertoire.

First, and least, bands often use cover songs to get a hit. The charts are filled with bands who got hits (often their first and/or biggest hits) with cover songs. A few examples: "Smokin' in the Boy's Room" by Motley Crue (originally by Brownsville Station), "Killing Me Softly" by The Fugees (Roberta Flack) and "Crimson and Clover" by Joan Jett (Tommy James & the Shondells). (Be honest now, how many of you did not know all those songs were covers?) Even established bands often shoot for the gold with a cover, like Guns'n'Roses with Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die." Granted, many of these bands may well have been paying tribute with their cover, but it always seems a calculated play for sales when a band (or their record company) pushes a cover song as a single; the song has already proven itself.

A more important function of cover songs is to acknowledge and pay tribute to their influences. For years, the Rolling Stones included a Chuck Berry song or two into their live shows (maybe they still do, I haven't seen them in years). On his first U.S. tour, David Bowie paid tribute to his diverse influences by playing Jacques Brel's "My Death" and the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man." The first time I saw Heart (1977), they did something similar, encoring with Nilsson's "Without You" and Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." The same impulse seems to motivate bands—think Duran Duran, Rush, Guns'n'Roses and Annie Lennox—to release cover albums, where they pay tribute to a dozen or more influential bands.

Phish took this notion to its logical, or perhaps illogical, extreme, covering entire albums (including The Beatles' White Album and The Who's Quadrophenia) in their Halloween shows. In doing so, they were also indulging in the third (and most important, as far as this essay is concerned) role of cover songs: to give musicians a chance to demonstrate their talent by reworking a familiar song into something new and original.

Jazz musicians do this all the time, improvising off familiar standards. Rock musicians often like to go even farther, rearranging oldies until they are almost unrecognizable. Punk bands play incredibly sped up, punked-out versions of classic oldies. Now days, there seems to be a trend in the opposite direction—stripping hard rock songs down to their acoustic basics.

But what I'm really interested in are the musicians which turn an old song into something truly new. This is where sampling comes in. While I have ambiguous feelings about sampling, I will admit that it can be used to create a new work of art out of an old one, often literally building a new song with pieces of old ones. In the hands of some truly creative individuals (DJ Shadow and the Dust Brothers come to mind), sampling can be used to create something genuinely new. But it strikes me as a lazy way to do it, not just using someone else's creation, but their actual musicianship. And too often it seems the equivalent of using a cover song to get a hit, building a "new" song on an instantly recognizable hook or beat.

No, I'm more interested in a more organic process, one where a musician takes an old song and reinhabits it, turning it this way and that, turning it inside out, until it becomes something new. Before they turned into purveyors of Beatles-esque pop music, Electric Light Orchestra were exactly what their name implies, a cross between rock and classical music. They perfectly expressed this ambition with their version of "Roll Over Beethoven," which incorporated Beethoven's Fifth Symphony into the Chuck Berry song.

Perhaps the greatest reworker, in this fashion, is Patti Smith. Her version of "Gloria," which opens her debut album, Horses, completely revamps the song. Even more drastic is her reworking of "Land of a Thousand Dances" later on the album, which becomes a new song altogether, only incorporating a few snippets (samples?) of the original song. The song credits even list the song, now called just "Land," as consisting of three parts: "Horses" (P. Smith), "Land of a Thousand Dances" (Chris Kenner & Antoine Dominoe) and "la mer (de)" (P. Smith). This covered her legal ass, while also claiming original credit for the total song. The end result is undeniably a work of genius.

Unfortunately, Smith has not been that audacious since. When she recorded a version of Prince's "When Doves Cry," he forbade her from adding any additional lyrics (this according to an interview with Smith in L.A. City Beat). This is, perhaps, an example of that hyper-protective attitude I mentioned earlier. In my mind, that's a real pity. I would have loved to hear what Smith might have done with that song, had she been allowed to run wild through it. And her latest album is a covers album, which she plays totally straight (at least lyrically, she does do some interesting rearranging, especially on "Smells Like Teen Spirit").

Smith is certainly not the first musician to rework someone else's tune into some she could claim for herself. In fact, it seems to have been a fairly common practice in the early days of rock'n'roll, and back into the blues music before that.

Compare Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" to Louis Jordan's "Fish Fry." Both tell the story of a house party busted by the police, and they do so with a remarkably similar chorus. Jordan: "It was rockin'/ It was rockin'/ You never seen such shuffling and scuffling/ til the break of dawn." Berry: "The joint was rockin'/ going round and round/ They never stopped a rockin'/ Til the moon went down." Today, Jordan would have surely hauled Berry into court over that one. In fact, the case would be remarkably similar to the Rubinos/Lavigne case — steal a hook and build a new song around it. But are you going to deny that "Around and Around" is a worthy addition to the canon of rock'n'roll?

Now, I'm not advocating returning to an earlier day, when copyrights were often flaunted, and musicians (especially black musicians) were ripped off regularly. I'm just saying that sometimes the charge of plagiarism obscures artistic accomplishment. There's plagiarism, and then there's "building on what went before."

In my youth, the big plagiarism controversy involved big rock bands ripping off old blues artists. For some reason, perhaps because he was too long dead to exert much claim, Robert Johnson seemed to be the most abused of the old bluesmen. Everybody, or so it seemed, covered his work; few gave him credit. Even current editions of some Rolling Stones albums attribute Robert Johnson songs ("Love in Vain" on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, and "Stop Breaking Down" on Exile on Main Street) to "Traditional" (which is supposed to mean, "We don't know who wrote it"). Even worse is the album Let It Bleed, which claims "Love in Vain" for Jagger/Richards. Now, that's plagiarism.

Cream did better, crediting their "Crossroads" to Johnson, although lyrically it is actually a blend of two Johnson compositions, "Crossroad Blues" ("I went down to the crossroads/ fell down on my knees") and "Traveling Riverside Blues" ("Goin' down to Rosedale/ take my rider by my side/ we can still barrelhouse/ on the riverside"). Musically, of course, it rocks up Johnson's tune into something barely recognizable. By giving Johnson proper credit, they avoid the plagiarism charge, but they certainly took liberties with his work.

Perhaps strangely, Led Zeppelin earned the most scorn for ripping off Johnson, although their "crime" was far less egregious than the Rolling Stones. For Zeppelin only ripped off a single line. The song is "the Lemon Song," off their first album, and the line is "You can squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg" (coincidentally, also from "Travelin' Riverside Blues"). Which is a great line, and people got pissed that Plant seemed to be claiming it as his own. But the rest of the song bears no relationship to any Johnson song at all. The rest of the lyrics are almost a medley of old blues cliches. If anything, "The Lemon Song" is more a tribute to Johnson than a rip off of him. There is a long standing tradition of poets composing new poems based on a line from some other poet. Perhaps Zeppelin were doing something equivalent.

In fact, it could be argued that Zeppelin are firmly rooted in a long-standing blues tradition of working other musicians' material into their own songs. Because it is not like the old blues artists didn't borrow (steal) freely from each other. They would often hear a song, and rewrite it so it was about them. Just like Chuck Berry (probably) did.

Back then, no one was really keeping track of who wrote what. No one was collecting, or paying out, royalties on any of it. (If anyone was collecting royalties, it was the record companies, which certainly weren't sharing them with the artists. Which is a far different level of ripping off than artists copying each other.) Actually tracing who wrote what is a lot harder than it might seem. Some of those Robert Johnson songs might actually deserve that "Traditional" label. The liner notes to The Complete Robert Johnson Recordings states "He had recorded a good many of his original compositions in the first session, and in the middle of this one he began dipping back into some of the material he had learned from his mentors." Yet no attempt is made to list which of the recordings are not Johnson compositions.

Musicians have always "borrowed" from other musicians. All artists do. Remember, Shakespeare "borrowed" most of his plots. Great artists rework that material into something truly original. Lesser artists are happy with copying what has already been. Reworking previously existing material is an essential part of the creative process. I'm not denying the existence of true artistic genius, which is capable of creating something genuinely new, I'm just saying it's a lot rarer than one might suppose.

Again, I don't advocate a return to the day when musicians were regularly ripped off for their compositions. Still, I do find today's hyper vigilance a bit stifling to artistic creation. And I also see a difference between being ripped off by a recording and/or publishing company, and being "ripped off" by a fellow artist. Maybe we need some sort of "inspired by" category in our copyright laws, which could pay tribute to source material without penalizing such use. Or maybe that would just open another legal can of worms.

Or maybe we should just accept that the legal mind will never understand the creative mind. Let the artists create, and let the lawyers fight it out over who owns what. The audience will come out ahead.

G. Murray Thomas writes and performs poetry because he can't sing. He can be found at

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