The riff repeats

The opening riff of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” bears a strong resemblance to the 1984 song “Eighties”… which in turn bears a strong resemblance to the 1982 song “Life Goes On.”

Kurt Cobain
Julie Kramer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nirvana’s 1991 song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the breakout hit both for the band and for grunge rock in general. The band’s follow-up single, “Come as You Are,” has one of the most distinctive opening riffs in music history:

Nirvana – Come as You Are

Nirvana was very hesitant to use this song as their second single. It did have more commercial appeal than their other choice (“In Bloom”). But it had one big problem, too. That distinctive opening riff sounded very very similar to a 1984 post-punk song from Killing Joke called “Eighties.” You can hear the similarity for yourself:

Killing Joke – Eighties

Nirvana went ahead and put out “Come as You Are” anyway. It was a big success. The band members of Killing Joke did apparently complain, and there were talks of a lawsuit… but as far as I can tell it never went to court. It would not have been without precedent, though. Many musicians have sued other musicians over plagiarism, including Johnny Cash, Shakira, Madonna, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and George Harrison.

Here’s the funny thing, though. Two years before Killing Joke put out “Eighties,” a punk rock band called The Damned released an album called Strawberries. And on that album, there was a song called “Life Goes On.” It begins like this:

The Damned – Life Goes On

Artists from Killing Joke claimed to have never heard of this song; I strongly doubt that Kurt Cobain or the rest of Nirvana knew about it either. So, is this a case of musical plagiarism, a chain of homages, a complete coincidence, or some combination of all three? I’ll be damned if I know.

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