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Nick Cave Talks Originality and Musical Plagiarism in New Fan Letter

Nick Cave touched upon an old plagiarism claim while responding to a fan who asked whether “originality in music [is] sometimes hard to obtain”.

Press photo of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

"We musicians all stand on the shoulders of each other, our pirate pockets rattling with booty, our heads exploding with repurposed ideas," Nick Cave explained in a letter to a fan.

Sam Barker/Nasty Little Man PR

Nick Cave has opened up about plagiarism, appropriation, and musical originality in the latest edition of his Red Hand Files fan letters.

Taking to the site recently, Cave responded to a fan who had queried whether or not Cave’s Grinderman project had stolen their 2010 track “Palaces of Montezuma” from Irish band Rising Signs’ 2005 track “Grey Man”, and whether or not “originality in music [is] sometimes hard to obtain”.

While Cave admitted that the two songs  sound “pretty fucking similar”, a request for clarification from bandmate Warren Ellis reportedly the guitarist claim he “stole it from The Laughing Clowns” and their song “Theme From Mad Flies, Mad Flies”.

“The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time” Cave began. “Its a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era. 

“Plagiarism is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary — even admirable — tendency, and that is to steal. Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way.

“To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.

“But a word of caution, if you steal an idea and demean or diminish it, you are committing a dire crime for which you will pay a terrible price — whatever talents you may have will, in time, abandon you. If you steal, you must honour the action, further the idea, or be damned.”

This isn’t the first time that Cave had been asked about “Palaces of Montezuma” though, with Rising Signs member Frankie Duffy accusing Cave of plagiarism back in 2010, conceding however that the two songs do share a very simple chord progression.

“I can’t help thinking that Nick Cave was sitting in his house one night and decided to surf some unsigned bands and saw our site, saw we were split up and thought, ‘I’ll have that track, nobody will ever know,'” Duffy explained at the time.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that track. It stood out a mile: it’s exactly the same chords and the same hook as the intro to ‘Grey Man’.”

As Cave continued his letter on the Red Hand Files, he opened up about other tracks in his discography that had been influenced by other artists’ songs.

“‘Deanna is based on Oh Happy Day, and the solo in the middle of Red Right Hand’ may well have been stolen from ‘Bedazzled’, and Tupelo’ leans heavily on John Lee Hookers song by the same name,” he began.

“The theme from The Road’ sounds like the arpeggio work of Arvo Pärt, and the guitar riff in ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’ probably came straight out of a Van Morrison tune and, well, ‘Palaces of Montezuma’, it turns out, is based on a song by The Laughing Clowns, and so it goes — ideas, beautiful ideas, in full flow.

“Even though the influences may seem obvious, each of these songs, I think, has its own ingenuity, its own value and its own meaning. We musicians all stand on the shoulders of each other, our pirate pockets rattling with booty, our heads exploding with repurposed ideas.”