After exposing my delight at listening to old George Harrison songs courtesy a new collection (Let It Roll) last week, it turns out that I’m going through a full-blown Beatles fest. And I don’t seem to have timed things badly either. Apart from all the Beatles albums being released in digitally re-mastered form earlier this week (frankly, they won’t make much of a difference on my clunky, downright moody Aiwa sound system), the video role-playing game, The Beatles: Rock Band, was also released worldwide this Wednesday.
This is the third in the music game series ‘Rock Band’, where don’t-wannabe rockers can now pretend to be John, Paul, George and Ringo holding on to their consoles as they show off their gaming talents while they ‘perform’ Beatles songs from a database that will hopefully grow as the game picks up. Okay, so this super-glorified karaoke isn’t my kind of thing. But the thought that ‘pretending’ to be a Beatle via a video game may short-circuit the old-fashioned routine — that I and millions of others before and after me employed and will employ — of forming a band to play Beatles songs on-stage makes me twist if not shout a bit. “Why shake your shoulders, jangle on guitars and holler with Lennonish-throat nodules all-audible when you can do all that in your living room more ‘realistically’?” you ask? Answer: To get the chicks, morons!
This ‘pretend’ Beatles thing, however, has also shot me off in yet another tangential direction. As I listen to John hustling the words, “Here come ol’ flat-top/ He come groovin’ up slowly” in ‘Come together’ from Abbey Road on my dinky Aiwa system, I know that Lennon had to settle out of court charges that he had lifted this part of the song from Chuck Berry’s 1956 ‘You can’t catch me’. Funnily enough, the October 1969 single release of ‘Come together’ had, on its B-side, George Harrison’s ‘Something’, that took its opening line from a song by James Taylor that George had heard called ‘Something in the way she moves’ (and not, as I had mistakenly written in last week’s column, filched from the Chiffons’ ‘He’s so fine’; George stole that tune for ‘My sweet lord’).
But what is it about big names supposedly pinching tunes from less famous acts? I mean, I can understand the small, struggling fry along with the likes of Anu’n’Bappi the Rippers with their ‘we-won’t-check, we-can’t-check’ crowd whacking tunes to be noticed. (And chaps like Vanilla Ice did get noticed when he filched the riff from Queen’s ‘Under pressure’ without a toodle-loo. My theory is that the big bands consciously or otherwise nick as much as the small bands — except the former don’t bother pressing plagiarism charges because, well, they’re already rich and famous.
In 1993, when Killing Joke, the post-punk 80s London band, announced that Nirvana’s opening riff in ‘Come as you are’ was filched wholesale from their song, ‘Eighties’, instead of getting pissed off with Kurt Cobain’s ‘forgetfulness’ (and the riffs are the same) — and since Nirvana had mentioned the British band as an influence — I was introduced to Killing Joke. I still think that their albums Pandemonium and Democracy are knuckle-breakingly good. (Killing Joke tastefully dropped plagiarism charges when Cobain died.)
The Dandy Warhols’ ‘Bohemian like you’ is also a great track I love playing — along with the album it’s on, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia. But you don’t have to be Keith Richards’ choir-master to recognise the lick that holds the song together: the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown sugar’. The credit line has ‘All songs [by frontman Courtney] Taylor-Taylor.
The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, on the other hand, chickened out and put a last-minute Jagger-Richards credit-line to their hit single, ‘Bittersweet symphony’ because even he was embarrassed at the total steal-job he had done on the Stones’ 1965 song ‘The last time’.
In the end, Tom Petty put it best when asked what he thought of the “incredible similarity” between his 1993 track, ‘Mary Jane’s last dance’ and the 2006 Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song, ‘Dani California’: “A lot of rock’n’roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry... It doesn’t bother me.”