Within the vast, expansive world that is music and even further beyond in the world of art, we are subject to and recognise the repetition of themes, rhythms and concepts.
It is a simple concept really. Let us use the example of a jester playing his lute for a mid century King. Who is to say that this jester – let us call him Randy – one day whilst performing for the royal assembly, played the same notes, in the same timing and rhythm as John Deacon (Queen) did in 1980, when he wrote the bass line for ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’
There are, after all, only so many notes and orders those notes can be played in. Of course, that number is extremely high, but theoretically it is possible and somewhat likely that all melodies will be played within certain rhythms over time and then just repeated.
It is rather similar to the ‘Infinite Monkey Theorem’ coined by Émile Borel, a mathematician, and Sir Arthur Eddington an astronomer in 1913. Their idea being that if a monkey just hit keys on a typewriter at random for an infinite amount of time, eventually they would type the complete works of Shakespeare.
Mark Twain the American writer famously said in support of this concept, that there is no such thing as originality or authenticity as every idea and concept has been thought about poured over already.
He stated: “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discolouration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.”
With technology in the last 100 years leading the ability for music to be recorded, stored and listened back to, a musician and listener are now able to access millions of sounds and melodies from all over the world from different times in history.
This has led to an artist’s contextual makeup being far more vast than it has ever been. An up and coming rapper in Detroit can now hear music from a Moroccan guitar legend from 1962 and have that sound influence which they create.
The classification and the re-contextualisation of one sound to another is divided up into three key categories. Each with their own legal, social and moral obligations when it comes to the interpretation of sounds and rhythms from the past, in order to create further understanding.
First is perhaps the most commonly known – The Cover.
Most notably the cover began in the 1980’s and 1990’s at the turn from the modern to post-modern era. It is the simple idea of one artist playing a song written by another. It is the ultimate homage.
Music theorist Sheldon Schiffer stated the cover song ‘re-shapes ideology’ and when done through changing and shifting genres is significant in making political, cultural and social statements. The cover is pretty classic.
Every RSL club and coastal pub has a cover artist with their acoustic guitar sitting on a stool playing hits from legends of the past. The artist who re-records the song in a legal sense just needs to pay ‘royalties’ to the original writer of the song.
No matter who the writer of the song is whether it be Lady Gaga or a rapper from Ashfield – all royalty fees are the same with a cover song. It currently stands at around 10 cents per time you the cover is streamed or played. There is no fee for playing a cover song live. Some of my personal favourites and most known covers include:
Original: Leonard Cohen (1984)
Cover: Jeff Buckley (1994)
Jeff Buckley used his voice of an angel and considered musical timing and building of tension to perform the same song but open it up to an entire generation ten years later on this famous poem from Cohen.
‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’
Original: Marvin Gaye (1969)
Cover: The Slits (1979)
This classic from Gaye has been covered time and time again but for me the most poignant is the cover from post punk Brits – The Slits. They make it their own and in my opinion that is what a good cover must do: create some edge of innovation in the gem they are borrowing.
‘It’s My Life’
Original: Talk Talk (1984)
Cover: No Doubt (2003)
The original of this track from Britain’s Talk Talk is so ‘80s that all I can think of when I listen to it is an entire band who looks like Adam Sandler in the Wedding Singer.
With drawn out post punk vocals and bright synths it is a sound of a decade. The 2003 cover from the legend that is Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt takes the song into a far more angsty and ’90s influenced place that builds hard and really goes the distance.
‘Stop Children What’s that Sound’
Original: Buffalo Springfield (1966)
Cover: Invitation Orchestra “Disco”, Vocal group “Disco” or as it is known Приглашение
Оркестр “Диско”, Вокальная группа “Диско” (2005)
This cover from the Russian group is in my opinion as good as the original. My lack of knowledge of the Russian language allows for the vocals to feel like just another instrument without my brain thinking too much about the lyrics of the song becomes far more ubiquitous than the original, leading to some seriously easy listening.
There is also a wildly cheeky interpolation of ‘Smoke on the Water’ in the bridge.
The idea of Interpolation is a really interesting one. Also called a ‘Relayed Melody’, it is the idea of pulling a melody or a part of a melody from one song and using it in another.
This melody is recorded again and often times can be done on a completely new instrument. The artist is adapting and re-contextualising, not the whole idea from the original artist but just a part of the idea.
If I see someone wearing double denim with Doc Martens and a bucket hat and decide that I would like to begin wearing bucket hats but with all black, I am in sense ‘interpolating’ from that person.
It is used frequently in maths but let’s not go into that right now. It gives credit to the original artist however in a legal sense does not have to pay rights to the artists who recorded the original as it is re-recorded.
Let’s look at some shall we?
A common feature here is that the songs don’t have the same name and are usually quite genre spanning. It is a cunning way to pull from the past and in some cases to me personally can feel a bit deceiving.
In the legal realm here, the artist is required to pay a publishing fee, however saves a lot of money on paying the original musicians. In thinking about the use of interpolation I couldn’t help but consider the Television horror that was 2019’s mini-series Chenobyl.
Despite the melting bodies and watching children dance in the snow ash that would lead to their death, it was a pretty compelling show. One thing however is the extremely odd fact that it was a show about Russians, starring English actors, written by Americans. There is no way that the original concept is being conveyed but rather interpolated to create a new understanding of one idea.
Original: Tag Mahal by Jorge Ben Jor (1972)
Brazilian Samba group Jorge Ben Jor were masters or hip swinging beats and melodies that cast spells over ones body and allowed for complete and utter ego dropping boogies. ‘Taj Mahal’ is a serious standout from their 1972 album.
Interpolation: Do You Think I’m Sexy by Rod Stewart (1978)
Roddy Roddy Rod Rod, you cheeky bastard. This one is quite interesting as Jorge Ben actually sued Rod Stewart for stealing the melody from his original however the case was deemed ‘accidental’ as Stewart ‘had no idea’ – the original existed.
Which, if true, is a classic example of the idea of no melody is safe and will eventually be repeated. Whether you trust Rod and his mullet full of lies or not, both tracks are pretty great in their own right.
Original: Mothership Connection (Star Child) – (1976)
Interpolation: Let me Ride by Dr. Dre (1993)
This Dr Dre take on the chorus of ‘Mothership Connection’ also uses a sample from James Brown and Bill Withers in the one track.
Finally, there is the sample. The most commonly used idea of interpretation in modern music.
The idea of pulling a part of an original recording and writing your song around it. It first started in the hip hop world with Grandmaster Flash and the Famous Five, pulling their favourite parts of disco records and rapping over it.
It became the backbone of hip hop.
The key thing here is the fact that the original recording is used, meaning that the artist who wrote the original receives a serious amount of royalties every time the new track is played. There are millions of examples of this that you would know about and perhaps not realise you know.
Kanye is the king of sample. He was able to take Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Moving on Up’ and create ‘Touch the Sky’. Jazz and soul are commonly sampled in modern music to create genre bending music that can hit and miss the mark.
Original: Can You Get To That – Funkadelic (1971)
Sample: Rill Rill – Sleigh Bells (2010)
I am a big fan of Rill Rill’s ability to sample the classic funk guitar line and create an indie rock song that could only have come from 2010. That is what it is about after all – making it your own.
Original: Spanda Ballet – True (1982)
Sample: PM Dawn – Set Adrift on Memory Bliss (1991)
Both songs are all about the feels here. Emotional connections, love and escapism at its best. PM Dawn is able to create a modern take on the ’80s banger.
Original: Pastime Paradise – Stevie Wonder (1975)
Sample: Gangsta Paradise – Coolio (1995)
Original: Everybody Loves the Sunshine – Roy Ayers Ubiquity (1976)
Sample: One Mean Stain feat. Reddog – Shawty Pimp & Reddog (2014)
Same level of chill, however Shawty Pimp and Reddog want you to know how many hoes they’ve been with whilst Roy just wants you to know you aren’t alone in loving the sun.
Then there is the remix which is the idea of an artist taking a part of a song (similar to a sample) and turning it into another. These are countless and innovative, but that’s a topic for another time.
We are only a product of our environment and how art is made is a direct derivative of that
In music, whether an artists likes it or not, they are drawing from somewhere, either consciously or subconsciously. For me it is about their openness to acknowledging if they are sampling, interpolating or covering.
There are of course grey areas and over the whole concept is a Venn diagram. For example, you could say that some of the best covers become interpolations in their own right. It just depends on if the artist wants to innovate or pay homage.
One thing that is really quite lovely for the integrity of music is that with the access we all have as listeners, it is harder for people to blatantly rip others off. We are all music researches and students of sound.
Try if you like but someone will pull you up. One can not truly progress without first understanding where they came from.
I wrote that line just then thinking I had just nailed a pretty profound summary to this piece. Then thought to myself, ‘That seems pretty legit but who was the first to think it?’
So I Googled it and found out that someone named George Santayana said essentially the same thing in 1863. I wonder if I have ever had an original thought before or if my brain is just interpolating all I have seen.