Kids ain’t got no culture.

Borepatch’s posting of the famous “Pachelbel Rant” got me to thinking of ways the musical wool was pulled over my eyes so repeatedly when I was a kid. Fact is, a lot of pop songs either base their melodies on classical music, or completely rip them off. Kids, uneducated in such things as I was, don’t always know this.

There’s a classic example of this, but I can’t remember the title or the Bach piece it’s based on so we’ll move right to the one that made me mad way back when.

See, there was this Doors tune:

And when I heard it I liked it a lot. In fact it blew my mind, because the guitar track was so far beyond anything I expected to hear in pop music – and especially beyond anything to be expected from the Doors, a band not really notable for much besides the vast number of entertaining things that could come out of Jim Morrison’s mouth when he was drunk and/or stoned, which was usually.

Except – and I’m embarrassed that this surprised me – nobody in the Doors wrote that guitar track. In fact if I’d had an ounce of knowledge I’d have immediately recognized that it’s an extremely famous piece of music, maybe the most famous piece ever written for guitar.

There are a million variations, I’ve never heard it played the same way twice, but here’s a pretty basic one:

And I’d way rather listen to that than to the Doors.

Probably still goes on in current pop music, I don’t know. And I confess I don’t understand how they get away with it. If I wrote a novel and it just happened to come out in print word-for-word the same as some other novel written 50 or a hundred years ago, readers could be justified in assuming they had some basis for criticism. There’s a word for that: It’s called plagiarism, and it’s still plagiarism even if the copyright is expired, and it’s mightily frowned upon for what I consider excellent reason.

Yet somehow that doesn’t apply in music. Never understood that.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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6 Responses to Kids ain’t got no culture.

  1. Boy, there’s a big topic there. I may come out of hibernation at Craftygrass just to treat it properly.

    In short: music does seem to be a bit different in some ways (for endearing reasons), and what I hear in the Doors tune isn’t so much simple plagiarism as a deliberate homage to several Spanish composers. (I’ve got no idea how credit was claimed, or not–in fact I’m ignoring that)

    Until later: the distinctive theme that your ears first focus on with that Doors tune is most likely a reference to Isaac Albeniz’ famous tune “Leyenda” aka “Asturias”:

  2. Ken HaglerK says:

    Different cultures. Musicians have always copied bits and pieces from each other (this isn’t new to modern pop music), while writers seem to be influenced by academic culture.

    Software developers also routinely copy from each other. In fact, writing your own code to solve some common problem instead of copying it from the web is a sign of an incompetent developer.

  3. You poor fellers, you so behind the times ( as of yesterday I think.) But it appears that due to the success of the “shades of grey trilogy” ( basically high class porn, er no make that erotica for the ladies) Some bright light has decided that they are going to redo the classics and ram it full of steamy sex scenes. ( basically porn, er high class erotica for the ladies.)

    Because ya know that Scrooge really did the ghost of Christmas past right and that was real reason for his conversion..right?

    Oh dear da dear dear moi.

  4. I usually go pretty easy on the reuse of musical elements, unless someone is doing a lot of chest-thumping credit-claiming. I realize, Joel, that your point may well be “looks like I missed all this when I was a kid”, but hell, if there’s anything I love as much as freedom, it’s gotta be music. 🙂

    As a purely practical matter, it’s almost impossible in music not to recycle and reuse bits and phrases from others that influenced you. As with writing (hell, probably any art form), those bits can be large or small, and there is an infinite continuum of what constitutes an “obvious” ripoff: while it may seem ridiculous that using a single two-chord sequence could constitute a ripoff, if you play a suspended-fourth chord and follow it with the major triad it naturally resolves to–using a variety of rhythms–a legion of listeners are immediately going to hear “Pinball Wizard” in their heads. Hell, I actually use that reference to teach people what the “sound” of a sus4 chord is, precisely because the association is so strong. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to practice playing the pentatonic major scale without hearing the opening notes of “My Girl”, which simply walks up that scale repeatedly–and again, I use “My Girl” as a helpful hear-it-in-your-head example to help people internalize what the pentatonic major scale sounds like. These are hardly arcane examples, either: you might say that the sus4-to-triad sequence is rather like the phrase “like a hot knife through butter”, and the pentatonic-scale is analogous to the complete sentence “It was a dark and stormy night.” Some people use ’em seriously, some use ’em ironically, and some use ’em without realizing where it comes from. And of course both those conventions were around for many years (hundreds in the first case and thousands in the second) before The Who and the Temptations got hold of them.

    Is any of this unethical? Oh hell, you already know the real answer to that: it depends, and a lot of what it depends on is the character of the reuser. I’ve seen Bela Fleck, in the middle of a solo in a complicated (7/4 time signature) song, throw in the entire melody from John Lennon’s “Imagine”…how he managed to do that I do not know, and nobody said a thing about it: hell, quite possibly only 5% of the audience recognized it for what it was. With Bela, I can guarantee that was a deliberate homage, which probably occurred to him to play about three seconds before he did it.

    One of the things that I find so endearing about really phenomenal improvising musicians is that they literally use these references for fun–for sport, if you will. It’s not only tolerated but almost expected, at some level. In most cases they are nodding deliberately to their own heroes, or to each other–although some, like Frank Zappa or Al Yankovic, take the art form in a slightly more ironic direction.

    In the case of Robbie Krieger (guitarist for the Doors), I understand he does have some flamenco in his background, which should certainly have introduced him to the Phrygian mode of the major scale, and all that beautiful Iberian music upon which it is based. The reference to Leyenda, given the stature which that piece holds in the “classical guitar” canon, would be rather like throwing “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…” in a freedom-themed song.

    One might reasonably argue that The Doors, here, are reaching into a world where they have no business, but I find that sort of elitism to be tiresome and counterproductive. Music doesn’t really grow within genres; it deepens, sure, but it only really grows as a whole when people break rules at the margins and do things that are different. When I look at the music that really moves me, almost all of it is between two or more genres, and it features people who deliberately put them together in ways that you’re not supposed to do. In the rock idiom (I’ll limit myself to that), the top of the heap is King Crimson and Frank Zappa, on which alone I could go on for hours, but really almost all of that work is deliberately at the margins of what people know.

    And this is not to say that there’s not plenty of shite out there that follows on the work of giants. Holy cow, yes. But the giants–they make it all worth it. And you never know where the next giant is going to come from. I freakin’ love that.

    I missed all of that as a kid, too. Came to music very late. But man, what a world!

  5. j.r. guerra in s. tx. says:

    Roy Clark played a mean ‘Malagueno’ version, I highly recommend you listen to his version as well.

  6. Rachel Ailin says:

    It does happen with novels. Now you have things like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters”, not to mention whole series of books that take classics and respin them, usually marketed at kids. “Peter and the Starcatchers” comes to mind.

To the stake with the heretic!