Purchase: The National, High Violet
This month, I was going to write about Pearl Jam’s Blood, but then I had to remind myself: this isn’t a blog about my personal favorites. Modern music is a galaxy without limits, and studying it is like attending an endless history class (and a scientific and sociological and anthropological class, too.) One of the great things about researching for these entries are the discoveries I make looking for appropriate tunes to fit our theme. Some tunes I know, but I get the chance to discover a little more. Like, did you know Bon Scott was a bagpipe player (AC/DC’s If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)? Or that Ryan Adams' Bad Blood is way better than Taylor Swift’s? Well, that’s probably not something I needed to research to know…
One of the most interesting thing that I’ve come across is a write up about a song I knew well, yet obviously hadn’t listened to as closely as I should. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield makes the case that The National’s Bloodbuzz, Ohio, from 2010’s High Violet, is a literal and exact copy of INXS’ brilliant and timeless Don’t Change. Listen to Bloodbuzz right now—you won’t be able to unhear it…But, you can’t really blame The National, or take points off their paper for plagiarism. Sheffield quotes the dearly departed Michael Hutchence as saying: “ ‘...You couldn't make a bad record copying ‘Don't Change.’”
So, we can forgive The National for working within that nebulous world of inspired by, or in tribute to. When it comes to rock songs sounding too similar to a predecessor, it’s hard to assign blame. I think loving imitations make some of the best work we encounter. The National do little wrong in their music—moody and smoldering yet driven with an intensity of sulk and smoky atmospherics that is hard to define, even harder to imitate. Accusing them of plagiarism comes across as jealousy more than anything else. But, wait: their lead single of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me was titled Sea Of Love. To the Principal’s office! The parentage of a rock song is a nebulous thing. Pete Townshend, one of our founding fathers, once said he’d never really written anything original. Rather, he just took songs he liked, reworked them until he had something new, and that was that. I think there’s a lot of wisdom there. The paternal song in this equation—INXS’—is as pop-perfect as it gets, with the driving guitar line and the warp-speed keys. When you listen to The National’s Bloodbuzz, those same ethereal elements are there—just as they are in song after song we end up loving. The pedigree of a rock song is always going to spring from opaque origins. The similarities shouldn’t surprise us: the originality of turning an old phrase into a new one should, and usually does. Which is why, if you are a proper student of rock and roll, you’ve got more favorite songs and albums than makes sense.
Professor of rockology Tom Petty has the final say on plagiarism in rock, in response to the accusation that The Red Hot Chili Peppers ripped off Mary Jane’s Last Dance when they recorded Dani California : “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for their song ‘Last Nite’], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you’ … If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I’d sue]. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous law suits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”