Tag Archives: chord sequences

This week in spurious lawsuits: Radiohead sue Lana Del Rey

At the risk of making myself unpopular…

The Radiohead/Lana Del Rey lawsuit is super depressing for anyone who thought Radiohead were good guys. And, I admit, I did.

The similarities first. Creep is built on a continuously repeating four-chord pattern: G, B minor, C, C minor (or in musicological terms, I-iii-IV-iv). Get Free has the same progression in its elongated verse/bridge section. Its chorus is a different progression. The vocal melodies are quite different, but in places the phrasing of Get Free is somewhat similar to Creep – where the vocal starts and ends in relation to the bar lines.

I suspect this latter detail is what their case will hinge on because the idea of Radiohead suing anyone for writing something harmonically similar to Creep when they themselves were sued by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood for Creep’s harmonic similarity to The Air That I Breathe (made famous by the Hollies) doesn’t pass the laugh test. Or, rather, it shouldn’t if the judge has any musical literacy at all.*

For what it’s worth, I think the idea of a songwriter suing another over shared chord sequences is inherently bullshit, and analogous to suing over similarity of drum pattern. Chord sequences have been used and reused thousands of times by thousands of songwriters. At what point do you say a chord pattern is well known enough to not constitute one writer’s intellectual property? The very common sequences ii-V-I and I-V-vi-IV seem to be safe. I-IV-V (the basis of the vast majority of blues songs) is definitely safe. So why is I-iii-IV-iv so (fucking) special that Thom Yorke thinks he owns it (or rather co-owns it with Hammond and Hazlewood)?

As for the melody, there’s a bit of a resemblance, but it’s not so marked that you’d be able to pick out the similarity if someone sang you the two tunes a capella, one after the other.

Comments in the press have been predictably depressing, with loads of people taking Radiohead’s side just because they’re Radiohead and Lana Del Rey is a pop singer. Which is no less depressing just for being predictable. Accidental resemblances to other people’s work are bound to happen within pop songwriting when tens of thousands of new songs get written every year. There are two responses possible – everyone can sue everyone for everything all the time. Or, everyone can acknowledge that they themselves have at some time written something that’s a bit like something else without realising, and therefore choose not to be obnoxious about enforcing copyright. Take the high road. Be a grown-up.

A curse on Radiohead’s house if they don’t call off their lawyers. Or perhaps David Byrne can teach them a lesson by suing them for 100% of all past and future earnings for ripping off the name of one of his songs for their band name.

*Judging by the history of copyright-infringement suits, few judges do have any musical literacy. Expect Radiohead to win.

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Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing wide-open fifths (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.