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Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter II February 7, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, Education, fiction, history, how to, lifehack, Music, Other, postmodernism, Rock, writing.
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La propriété intellectuelle, c’est le vol!***

The above itself encapsulates a wealth of wisdom about the creative process.  I have stolen the famous words of anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and added a word.  Now they are my words–see how easy writing is?  Proudhon said “property is theft,” in French, cause he was French.  I have modified this to “intellectual property is theft,” which is the topic of today’s lesson.  Essentially what I mean is if you write (not just music) you steal, whether you realize it or not.  Intellectual property is based on theft of the ideas of others.

Some of the people who write music are more conscious of theft in the creative process than others.  I grew up near Sacramento, California, where in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was (and for all I know there still is) a local band, Steel Breeze, which had one nation-wide hit song.  In an interview with a local radio station the band described one of the ways in which they wrote music, which was basically this:

  1. They set up their instruments and got ready to play. 
  2. They put on an album made by some other band and played one of the songs.
  3. They turned on a tape recorder and attempted, more or less, to play the song that they had just heard.
  4. They spent a few hours attempting to make the song work.
  5. Then, eventually, they listened to original song again, the one that had sparked their horrible copy, to make sure that their song didn’t sound enough like it to be accused of stealing.
  6. If the new song was recognizably based on the old, they worked on it, making small changes, until it sounded new.

Some writers are not as candid about the creative process.  Kurt Cobain, I believe, was quite conscious of his own creative process.  I think that this is one of the reasons that he was paranoid about others catching on, so paranoid that he hid in a closet in his own home to write music.  I am not the only person to notice the similarities between Boston’s “More than a Feeling and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”** Both were hits.  The hooks are almost exactly the same.  Cobain had heard “More than a Feeling” dozens of times.  Was his copying conscious?  I think so, but I don’t think that this is a bad thing.  Indeed, I think that when this sort of thing is unconscious it can mislead people into all sorts of weird assumptions about human thought. 

So Steel Breeze was pretty conscious of their creative process.  And they never became millionaire superstars with platinum albums, but they did better than the majority of other bands in the world.  While outright, conscious theft is one way of being creative, there is another, which is the topic of the next part of Chapter II: happy accidents.

 To be continued . . .

*A proper discussion of anarchism will have to wait until the chapter, if there is one, on the Punk movement.  What I mean by “intellectual property is theft” is akin to Lucretius’s dictum “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Any time you think you are having an original thought, an inspired epiphany of some sort, what you are probably experiencing is more like this: two old thoughts which you have added together in a way similar to the ways in which you have seen many other ideas added together, but have forgotten that you saw these ideas somewhere else, and that adding them together is a pretty simple thing, after all.  

**See Malcolm Gladwell’s “Something Borrowed” in the November 22, 2004 issue of The New Yorker if you really need proof of this, or a lot of other examples.

***I have not yet read Jonathan Lethem’s article in this month’s Harpers.  Since it is basically a bunch of ideas stolen from others, like this post, what would be the point?  But I hear that it is interesting, so I link to it here.  Christopher Lydon’s Open Source is taping a show on this idea tonight, which has a comment thread running here.  So you could check that out, too. 

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Comments»

1. silverneurotic - February 7, 2007

Nowadays I think there are too many throwaway artists who do the same thing (Jet, being one). There’s no shame in borrowing from other musicians on occassion, but when most of your work is just reworked classics it gets old.

I never did notice “More than a Feeling” and “Smells like Teen Spirt”…then again, I mainly listen to Nirvana’s In Utero or Unplugged album when I listen to Nirvana…and I don’t particularly care for Boston. Usually turn off the radio when they come on.

On a random note though, if you listen to “Give it Away” by RHCP, if you notice at the end, there’s a very familar guitar riff from a Black Sabbath song (NIB perhaps?), I noticed it a few years ago…come to find out that the guitar riff was intentional and the guitarist threw it in there as a tribute to Black Sabbath.

2. Stiletto Girl - February 7, 2007

Oh no, don’t ruin Smells Like Teen Spirit like that!

3. anxiousmofo - February 7, 2007

The Malcom Gladwell article mentioned in the footnote can be found here.

Hip hop musicians are most explicit about their borrowings, building songs out of samples of other songs. Sometimes they sample other samplings indirectly, by sampling the same songs hip hop musicians have sampled since time immemorial. They also drop in phrases from other songs: the phrase “I stop to think, and then I sink, into the paper like I was ink” has shown up in tracks by Eric B and Rakim (who I believe wrote that line), Mos Def and Jurassic 5, and probably others.

Rock musicians don’t generally drop in phrases musical or lyrical from other people’s songs, but one wonders why not. Legally, there is a difference between Stone Temple Pilot’s duplication of elements of Pearl Jam’s sound and Dr. Dre sampling a Fatback song, but artistically, I don’t see a difference in the two practices. Why not go a step farther and steal bass lines and riffs outright?

4. silverneurotic - February 7, 2007

There’s a different mentality in the rap and rock world I think. In rap music, it’s not always so much the music it’s the whole package…the clothing, the image, culture, etc. So, it seems that the music just doesn’t seem first and foremost the most important thing…so if it’s borrowed from another place it’s not a big deal, in fact, it can be seen as a compliment.

With rock music on the other hand…music and musicianship is usually the most important thing (with the exception of KISS), so musicians tend to shy away from copying other people’s music and try to be as original as they can be with their lyrics.

As far as the “sound” goes, such as STP with Pearl Jam…it’s a bit tricky. Its almost as if a sound is duplicated with the sole purpose of actually getting attention…at least when a band is first starting out and wants to get attention. They try to imitate their favorite band so that people who also like that band will start listening to a new band, people like musicians that they can put into boxes…so a band that sounds like say Pearl Jam is going to get more attention then a band that doesn’t sound like anyone. Occassionally a band will move on and develop a unique sound but if they have the fan base and the record deal and whatever, well, often times they won’t see a point in changing their sound. It would be a huge risk for them.

5. anxiousmofo - February 7, 2007

There’s a different mentality in the rap and rock world I think. In rap music, it’s not always so much the music it’s the whole package…the clothing, the image, culture, etc. So, it seems that the music just doesn’t seem first and foremost the most important thing…

Those statements would apply reasonably well to both commercial rock and commercial hip hop, with the difference being that hip hop artists generally put more effort into fashion, image, etc. In terms of the quality of the music, commercial rock is not any better than commercial hip hop. Actually, I’d argue that it’s even worse.

Great music has been created out of samples, with or without manipulation on the turntable. The tracks on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet are created out of layers and layers of samples, and as good as their sources are, the songs are much more than the sum of their parts.

The band Breakestra doesn’t sample; they play hooks from other people’s (soul and R&B) songs and make new songs out of them. When their music is good, it’s very very good. Sampling (or, as Breakestra does, stealing) is not an indication of laziness or of not caring about the music.

6. caveblogem - February 8, 2007

Silverneurotic,

I’m glad you made an exception of KISS. I was at the right age to get interested in them, but didn’t have money to go to their concerts. I had to settle for a play-by-play account of each one from the saxaphonist in my jazz band: “And then Ace Freehley held up his bass and the rockets, like, launched off it, and, Oh, Man!” I don’t recall any songs of their ever being on the radio, except for “Rock and Roll all Night” and “Beth,” which were, obviously, not enough to inspire fan loyalty in an of themselves.

7. caveblogem - February 8, 2007

Silverneurotic and anxiousmofo,

I tend to side with the anxious one on this one. I have no particular interest in rap, partially I think because I’ve never really been around people who can force me to listen to it with them (like friends or family members). Rap has always seemed to me to be two-dimensional. Without melodic elements in the vocals and such, I just find it a little flat.

But rock and roll is, even in the Indie Rock scene, at least as much about the look and the attitude as it is about the music. I suspect that it always has been. But I’ll try to expand on these thoughts in a separate chapter.

8. caveblogem - February 8, 2007

SG,

How could anyone not like Boston? I listen to Nirvana a great deal more, and haven’t even had a copy of Boston’s first album since my brother’s became a hapless party casualty in the late 1970s, but not liking them at all?

I particularly like listening to Nirvana while thinking about the Boston song at the same time, trying to keep them straight. Adds to the experience, for me.

9. anxiousmofo - February 8, 2007

I don’t like Boston at all – even with their flying saucer album covers.

10. caveblogem - February 9, 2007

anxiousmofo,

You don’t like Boston, but you do like Nirvana. Is style more important than substance to you then (for Kurt Cobain had no problem taking what he liked from them)? Geography (Aberdeen vs. Bean Town)? The 1990s rather than the 1970s (well, I’ll take the 1990s, too, come to that)?

I’ll conceded that they look really cheesy in retrospect, and that they really only had one album that rocked, and that “van art” was a brief, fleeting, and yet somehow depressing trend in album covers (as were space themes). But not at all? My social sciences teacher in the 7th grade played this album for us every Friday as a treat, the entire year. I submit that you were not properly indoctrinated and may have to repeat a grade.

11. anxiousmofo - February 9, 2007

Lots of songs which I don’t like have good riffs, or good bass parts, or whatever. “Ice Ice Baby” sampled the best part of “Under Pressure”, but even with that sample it is not a very good song.

“More Than a Feeling” has at least one reasonably good element (the aforementioned riff which “Smells Like Teen Spirit” borrows), but I just don’t like the song.

12. caveblogem - February 10, 2007

Anxiousmofo, peoples’ tastes differ, I suppose.

The sampling thing has always puzzled me. Some rappers make such a show of not being at fault, like Vanilla Ice. When accused of stealing from David Bowie and Freddie Mercury he claimed that his bass part was totally different, had an extra note or started in a different place, or something. Perhaps he was embarrassed because he had stolen from Bowie (not 1970s and early 1980s Bowie, but the sad, late1980s one). But I have heard some rappers brag about sampling (Kid Rock, which with Rage Against the Machine constitutes most of my rap knowledge).

Is there some sort of consensus in the rap world on this stuff? Or does it depend on whether or not they get caught?

13. anxiousmofo - February 10, 2007

“Caught”? Most would say that it isn’t ‘zactly stealing. In the Public Enemy song “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” Chuck D compares sampling to finding a mineral and Flavor Flav says “You can’t copyright no beats” (which isn’t quite true from a legal standpoint). Putting multiple samples together into a song produces a different sound than live musicians. Snippets of songs are decontextualized and reassembled into something very different from its components. The aforementioned Public Enemy song uses a sample from the Bar-Kays’ “Son of Shaft”, but no one would mistake the former song for the latter.

I think when people who aren’t familiar with hip hop think of sampling they think of something like “Ice Ice Baby” or “U Can’t Touch This”, in which a well-known sample from a hit of days past is played over and over again with rapping on top of it. There’s not much talent required to do that. But musicians with a wee bit more talent, like Public Enemy, X-Ecutioners, Madlib, and Steinski, build tracks out of layer after layer of samples, which generally don’t sound much like anything you could do with live musicians at all.

14. sean - May 27, 2007

nirvania didnt borrow more than a feeling they stole it end of story songs sucks anyways they got alot better songs than that piece of crap

15. kivurobagugecn - July 28, 2007

kivurobagugecn

nice post

16. pijaviguwicn - July 30, 2007

pijaviguwicn

nice post


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