Sunday, April 18, 2010

LCD Soundsystem, 1983, 1987, and all that

Dance yrself clean, the first track on LCD Soundsystem's forthcoming cd is fantastic: a song/record of the year candidate. Somewhat disappointingly, however, the core of that song is lifted wholesale - though reverse engineered rather than literally sampled - from an obscure 1983 B-side, The Pool's Jamaica running and (alt. version) Jamaica resting. Here are the two tracks for comparison [Update May 14, 2010: 'running' has disappeared from youtube just as LCD's opus is being released - interesting! I therefore link to the less-identical 'resting' version]:

Of course, we've been here before. For example, Radiohead's Creep builds directly on the Hollies classic Air that I breathe. Here are those two tracks for comparison:

A closer comparison, because it's in the artsy-dance genre: Madonna's Justify my love was built around a direct sample of Public Enemy's instrumental track, drum-loop, Security of the first world (on whose provenance, more below!). Here are those tracks:

And, as a final self-test case, which 1987 smash wholesale lifted from/reverse engineered this song by Colonel Abrams from 1985?

In all these cases, rather like when we find out that a beloved song we thought was original is in fact a cover (Madness didn't originate, let alone write 'It must be Love'? Inconceivable!), we end up with an objectively clearer view of who contributed what to the beloved item. On one level, we are only too happy to re-apportion credit accordingly. On another level, however, this is painful. Re-apportioning credit means exactly undermining at least some of the basis for your original enthusiasm and affection, and fans and (later) artists alike hate that. Thus, the Hollies' gain is Thom Yorke's loss. Creep's still a great song, and what Yorke and Jonny Greenwood added is magic, but overall the credit has to be shared. Similarly then, LCD's song may end up being the song of 2010, and LCD will deserve most of the credit if that happens, but a kid in Austin, TX in 1983 will also deserve some.

Of course, a large part of what most of us like about LCD is how deftly they channel what was great about early New Order, mid-period Talking Heads, The Passage in their pomp, and so on. So LCD's general debt to 1979-1984 pop has always been clear (just as Daft Punk's has been). But in the case of Dance yrself clean, LCD channels directly and specifically. A specific debt is thereby incurred, and a specific credit is therefore due.

So much for the moral/appreciation side of things, what of the legal/monetary side? I think LCD should 'man up' and give The Pool a writing credit (hence a share of any royalties). That's what Thom Yorke ended up doing with the Hollies for Creep. At any rate, some reasonable, formal deal should be made. If a writing credit is thought to be beyond the pale, then perhaps something like a sample clearance fee could be negotiated. (Note however that Daft Punk gave George Duke a writing credit, not just a one-off payment, for the use of his crucial sample on Digital love. Note too that LCD will in any case be negotiating from a position of relative strength: The Pool, which was never on a major label is very unlikely to have anything like The Rolling Stones' Verve-spanking, lawyer demons at its disposal!).

Despite being mad as hell about not getting paid, Public Enemy(PE) didn't get a writing credit or, as far as anyone knows, any other form of payment for having their work be the backbone of Justify my love. The reason for PE's frustration in this regard seems to have been that Madonna and her collaborators knew that PE's beats in large part reverse engineered a section of James Brown's Funky drummer, and that, more generally, M. & co. guessed correctly that PE were living in too much of a legal glass house to throw any real stones.

Colonel Abram's strip-miners, Stock-Aitken-Waterman (SAW), just brazened out the charge that they stole most of someone else's record. Indeed they took being hated by the cognoscenti to the bank for the next few years of pop! Assuming that The Pool aren't in a PE-like glass house (i.e., that they were in fact the way we wish LCD were: just deeply influenced and impressed by things like I Zimbra) then the SAW/Colonel Abrams case like Radiohead/Hollies seems like a good model for LCD/The Pool.

In sum, LCD's basic legal/monetary choice is whether to be honorable like Radiohead (or did the Hollies have to threaten to have the Stones' lawyers drag Yorke to hell?) or brazen like SAW. If LCD takes the latter path then this case may end up famously testing the proposition that 1987-style brazening it out is still possible in our youtube/feet-of-clay-finding era? I suspect that it isn't, hence my advice to LCD remains: your song's great, don't screw around with it, make a deal.


Calvin M said...

"Somewhat disappointingly, however, the core of that song is lifted wholesale"

Who the hell cares if it was borrowed material?

plague said...

@calvin. Maybe few people actually care. Ultimately it's up to orginators of material that gets strip-mined to assert both their authorship and financial interest. But there are questions of honor too, and the literally passing off someone else's ideas as ones own strikes me as dishonorable. Beyond that, I like to know just what the hell is going on with music that I like. How impressed should I be with someone turns on how much of their stuff is really them, really theirs, etc.. I want to give credit where it's due and to withhold credit where it's not due. That's not just a point about sampling, e.g., I used to think that Karen Carpenter was a great drummer based on her records (and I've often heard her cited as an inspirational figure by other women drummers), but I now know that almost all of that's misguided, that all important Carpenters' drums were played by members of The Wrecking Crew (esp. Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer). A lot of people don't care about that level of detail (or about truth more generally), but some do.