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How The Rolling Stones inspired a classic Neil Young song


Most artists could be accused of some form of plagiarism, however, most of the time, this is accidental, and the influence begins to seep through subconsciously. On the other hand, Neil Young didn’t even attempt to hide the vast extent of just how much The Rolling Stones influenced one of his songs.

The debate surrounding plagiarism is one that never disappears for too long and, famously, returned last year when teenage sensation Olivia Rodrigo’s work was put under the microscope by fans. A promotional poster for her debut album, Sour, was criticised by Courtney Love for its likeness to her band Hole. The singer was also condemned for her record’s familiarity with the work of everyone from Paramore to Elvis Costello.

However, Costello’s considered remarks on the similarities to ‘Brutal’ and his song ‘Pump It Up’ show that it isn’t quite the deal that people like to make out. He said, “This is fine by me. It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did. #subterreaneanhomesickblues #toomuchmonkeybusiness”. Costello’s hashtag reference the Bob Dylan song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, which influenced ‘Pump It Up’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ which, in turn, helped Dylan mould his creation.

Neil Young wasn’t entirely as covert with his interpolation of The Rolling Stones song ‘Lady Jane’ on his appropriately named track ‘Borrowed Tune’, however, which is precisely what the name suggests.

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The ‘Godfather of Grunge’ sounds disorientated on the recording, blind drunk, and boasts about how he’s stolen the melody from the Stones. However, ‘Borrowed Tune’ does present an interesting look at the music industry as Young gets meta and sings, “I’m climbin’ this ladder, my head in the clouds”.

Interestingly, the song can be interpreted as the Canadian suggesting that the only way to make your way to the top is the lie, cheat, and steal up the greasy ladder. Or, perhaps, these were just the inebriated thoughts that Young projected during the recording, and there is no hidden more profound meaning. The latter idea is supported by Young elsewhere on the track when he hauntingly sings: “I’m singin’ this borrowed tune, I took from the Rolling Stones, Alone in this empty room, Too wasted to write my own”.

His honesty regarding plagiarism is refreshing, but it was also a powerful statement. At the time, Young was battling personal demons following the death of his close friends, Bruce Berry and guitarist Danny Whitten, which put everything else into perspective for the singer.

Young’s battle with grief made his music feel insignificant and with mortality running wild on his mind, which was demonstrated by him lazily stealing the melody of ‘Borrowed Tune’ from The Rolling Stones.

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