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The time that Nirvana was accused of plagiarism

Nirvana was a trailblazing force of nature, one that came out of the traps at 100mph providing their own unique sounds to the masses—but even Kurt Cobain’s band of merry men found themselves on the receiving end of a plagiarism claim once upon a time.

The topic of plagiarism in music is a convoluted one, even the great George Harrison found himself on the receiving end of an appropriation claim. However, for Nirvana, some accusations arose around the band’s debut album, a time when listeners spotted alleged plagiarism on their 1989 song ‘Negative Creep’. The track, which featured a chorus in which Cobain sang the lyrics ‘daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more’, led to many of Nirvana’s early listeners reference similarities to Mudhoney track ‘Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More’. That said, the Seattle trio got away with this one oversight but, two years later, it would be a slightly different story.

While that track would not go on to cause the band any legal headaches, it did, however, make the lead singer Cobain more careful on future releases. In truth, the situation likely only had a lucky escape because the band shared a label with Mudhoney at the time. For their next record, Nirvana had moved to a major label and, if they played any other tricks as they did on ‘Negative Creep’, then that goodwill would be replaced with hostility, something that Cobain was only too wary of.

When it came to the release of Nevermind two years later in 1991, Cobain tried his best to persuade the band’s co-manager Danny Goldberg to avoid releasing ‘Come As You Are’, the single chosen to follow the previously released effort ‘Smells Like Teenage Spirit’. The reason why Cobain didn’t want the track to be their next release wasn’t that he hated the song, or didn’t think it was an appropriate single, instead he was nervous about receiving a backlash from the band Killing Joke.

In truth, Cobain had every right to be worried about Killing Joke because ‘Come as You Are’ is built around a slowed-down version of the guitar riff from the 1985 song ‘Eighties’. At the time, Killing Joke opted not to file a copyright infringement lawsuit, a decision which was dictated by personal and financial implications of taking one of the biggest bands on the planet to court.

Nirvana’s then-manager, Danny Goldberg, later admitted to the similarity between the two songs and claimed that the greatness of the song made it too good to not release as a single—even if that did mean a lawsuit from Killing Joke then that was a risk he was willing to take.

In his 2000 book, Eyewitness Nirvana: The Day-By-Day Chronicle, Goldberg said, “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.”

However, fortunately for Nirvana, Killing Joke did only opt for a complaint. Avoiding legal issues, they decided against taking it any further. Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven spoke to Rolling Stone about the whole so-called controversy and there was no bad blood on his side about it all. “Yeah, Dave (Grohl) and I had a few laughs about that over the past year or so,” Raven said. “He mentioned it to me when I met him backstage at Pantera a couple of years back,” he added.

Not filing a lawsuit would be a blessing in disguise for Killing Joke as the nicest man in rock ‘n’ roll, Dave Grohl, would go out of his way to thank them for not potentially sabotaging Nirvana’s career when they easily could have. Another potential reason as to why the band avoided a legal battle is because their song ‘Eighties’ itself has a striking resemblance to The Damned’s 1982 track ‘Life Goes On’.

Grohl would later play the drums on the entirety of Killing Joke’s self-titled eleventh album in 2003, a collaboration which saw him pay back the Killing Joke for the hand they played in shaping his career. The veteran British band were more than happy to have the former Nirvana man on the record, with the whole ‘Come As You Are’ saga firmly behind them both.