The best musicians steal, even David Bowie knew this to be true. “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from,” he told Playboy in 1976. “I do think that my plagiarism is effective… The more I get ripped off, the more flattered I get”. The myth of creativity is that all great material is entirely original. The truth is, of course, that nothing is original, and the artists who end up being successful are usually the ones who embrace the art of tasteful thievery. Dave Grohl, former drummer of Nirvana and frontman of Foo Fighters was one of the best thieves of all.
Not long ago, Grohl sat down with singer, songwriter, and producer Pharell Williams to discuss one another’s work. As the conversation progressed, Grohl explained how he’d always wanted to be in his school’s marching band. “I wanted to be a drumline kid. I wanted to be in drumline, but I can’t read music. I couldn’t then; I still cant now. All I wanted was to be in a line of drummers all playing drums.”
With this, Pharell began heaping praise on Grohl. The ex-Nirvana drummer’s brow crumpled into a frown. “Dude stop saying that I’m a good drummer because I’m the most basic fucking drummer there is,” he replied. Taken aback, Pharell listened on as Grohl revealed the surprising influence behind Nirvana’s seminal 1991 album Nevermind.
“If you listen to Nevermind, the Nirvana record,” Grohl began. “I pulled so much of that stuff from The Gap band, Cameo and Tony Thompson on every one of those records. It’s all disco; that’s all it is.” Mind-blowing as it is, Grohl’s revelation makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Take that opening fill for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, which is pulled directly from Gap Band’s 1980 track ‘Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)’.
“Nobody made the connection,” Grohl continued. “I told Tony Thompson when he came to my house for a barbecue with somebody, and I was like: ‘Look man, I just wanna thank you because, you know, I owe you so much – I’ve been ripping you off my whole life. He goes: ‘I know.’ A big disco fill, it works every time.”
Crazy as it sounds, those fills were the bread and butter of Nirvana’s angst-driven, moshable sound. So, the next time you pull out Nevermind, remember that it owes a huge debt to one of disco’s greatest drummers, Tony Thompson.