Not even a tempest in a teacup – more like a small fart in a wind tunnel – is this now somewhat-aged controversy over whether Spoon plagiarized parts of its song “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” from relatively unknown Nashville act How I Became the Bomb’s song “Killing Machine.” (From that link you can download both tracks: I’ll wait up for a bit until you go ahead and listen to them. I’d suggest listening to How I Became the Bomb’s track first. And an aside: stop using complete sentences as band names, okay?)
You’re back? Good. First, as many comments on the Nashville Cream site point out, the introductory chord sequence used in both tracks is an exceedingly common one (Am, D, G, Em – or ii, V, I, vi if you’re into that way). I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to find other tracks that have the same or close variations on that chord sequence. At any rate, you can’t copyright a mere chord sequence.
The reason I suggested listening to “Killing Machine” first is that it pretty much locks into that chord sequence and never lets go. Although the Spoon track does begin with the same chord sequence, it very quickly moves away from its most simple statement (4 bars, 1 chord per bar) into a demonstration of what a clever, resourceful band can do with only four or five chords.
Spoon uses several little musical tricks to lend variety to the song’s limited harmonic means. The intro consists of two bars before the drum kit comes in, then four bars after that. The verse then begins on the G chord…which retrospectively throws into question whether the opening sequence should be written as I noted above, or whether the intro begins in the middle of a phrase that should be written G, Em, Am, D. In fact, in a not-unusual but still effective trick, the intro chords turn out to those of the instrumental bridge halfway through the song – not of the verses or chorus. The verse instead is basically two bars of G and two bars of C…at least, in outline. Here we discover Trick #2. The second bar of each chord changes the voicing, including an almost jazzy second (uh-oh…does this mean Britt Daniels is a Steely Dan fan?). Or at least that’s what it does in the first phrase of each verse: when the phrase repeats, that fourth bar finds the bass descending to a B instead of holding on the C, which (along with that added D) effectively changes the chord to an inversion of G.
And here we find Trick #3: just as the intro chopped the typical four-bar phrase in half, making it ambiguous whether we were hearing the final two bars of one phrase or the first two of another, the last two bars of this phrase are, arguably, the first two bars of a transitional phrase into the chorus, which follows a descending bass from C, to G/B, to Am, and down to G, before moving into the chorus proper, beginning on D. If two bars seemed cut out of the intro, here we have an “extra” two bars symmetrically deployed at the other end of the verse. The chorus itself echoes both the chord structure of the second phrase of the verse (one chord for two bars, then a chord change at each bar) and the descending bassline gambit of the prechorus (the second bar of that D chord has a C in the bass, while the fourth bar is our old friend the G/B chord).
There’s more – such as the way Am sometimes appears where you might expect C, or the way the verse chords are used as a brief instrumental interlude – and that’s not even addressing the arrangement, which plays some clever changes on typical Motown arranging tricks (for example, that xylophone, which is heavily reverbed, but with the reverb itself mixed higher than the dry signal).
In other words, what probably sounds to most listeners at first like a simple retro-soul track turns out to be a lot more complex than it seems. (In fact a lot of classic Motown tracks turn out to be rather intricate upon examination.) I’m imagining rehearsals for this track were interesting: the phrasing is fluid and intuitive, but as I’ve illustrated it doesn’t fall into typical four-bar patterns. I imagine the first several runthroughs featured a lot of early or missed entrances, particularly for the bass player!
Back to the plagiarism controversy: the fact that the two songs’ introductions have the same chords (but not the same bass parts, as some have asserted) means very little given how different the rest of the songs are. And particularly, how much more creativity Spoon exhibits in putting together a very complex recording and arrangement that sounds perfectly effortless and straightforward.
Amusingly, though, there are two other curious similarities between the two tracks. Both feature somewhat unexpected codas, and of course both feature the word “bomb.” But that’s hardly enough to build a case on.
To my knowledge, though, no one’s mentioned the real Spoon scandal: the sweetheart deal the band apparently has with Merge Records honchos concerning the catalog numbers of Spoon’s releases.
Here’s a list of the four full-length Spoon CDs on Merge and their catalog numbers:
Girls Can Tell MRG195
Kill the Moonlight MRG215
Gimme Fiction MRG265
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga MRG295
They all end in 5! Coincidence…or CONSPIRACY!?!