Nirvana will go down in history as one of the defining bands of a generation. Although no one could see it back then, the irony of the band parodying The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in the “In Bloom” video is not lost to the sands of time. Not since The Beatles has a rock group held such sway over popular culture at large.
Part of what made Nirvana so special was their willingness to wear their influences on their sleeve. They covered everyone from avant-garde giants The Velvet Underground, acid punk kings The Wipers, to blues legend Lead Belly. The members of Nirvana were music lovers and musical encyclopedias.
Sometimes there’s a thin line between influence and imitation, and this turned out to be a real problem for Nirvana more than once. In 1980 they were accused of stealing the “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more” chorus in ‘Negative Creep’ from Mudhoney’s ‘Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More.’ Given the two bands’ proximity to each other, it’s a move that is chalked up as an ode more than a blatant ripoff.
Given their previous issue with Mudhoney, the band was wary of releasing ‘Come As You Are’ as a single. The problem at hand was the fact that the main riff in ‘Come As You Are’ bore a striking similarity to ‘Eighties,’ the lead single from Killing Joke’s Night Tide and one of their more popular songs.
As stated in former manager Danny Goldberg’s autobiography, Eyewitness Nirvana: The Day-By-Day Chronicle:
“We met to discuss what [Nevermind‘s] second single would be. We couldn’t decide between ‘Come as You Are’ and ‘In Bloom.’ Kurt was nervous about ‘Come as You Are’ because it was too similar to a Killing Joke song [‘Eighties’], but we all thought it was still the better song to go with. And, he was right, Killing Joke later did complain about it.”
Killing Joke did indeed consider legal action and even filed paperwork, but ultimately the band decided to let the issue slide. Dave Grohl would even go on to play drums in Killing Joke on their 2003 self-titled album. When asked by Rolling Stone about the situation, Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven said “Yeah, Dave (Grohl) and I had a few laughs about that over the past year or so.
Here’s the thing: As it would turn out, the riff in question from ‘Eighties’ also closely resembles ‘Life Goes On’ by punk compatriots The Damned. As it would turn out, the first appearance of that riff dates back to The Equals’ 1966 song ‘Baby Come Back!’ Killing Joke freely admits to borrowing the riff from The Equals but denies any knowledge of The Damned track.
Just goes to show how far a catchy riff will travel, intentionally or not.