The Origins of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”
After the massive success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nirvana faced a tough decision: Should they release “Come As You Are” or “In Bloom” as their next single from 1991’s Nevermind? While record label folks felt “Come As You Are” had the greater potential to be a hit, the group’s late lead singer Kurt Cobain had some reservations about the song.
“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,” Nirvana’s manager Danny Goldberg explained in the book Eyewitness Nirvana: The Day-By-Day Chronicle. “And, he was right, Killing Joke later did complain about it.”
Accounts of Killing Joke’s response differ, but it appears they at least took initial legal action in consulting musicologists and sending legal paperwork to Nirvana. The disagreement, however, never went further than that. In fact, both bands now seem to be on good terms, as Dave Grohl provided drums for Killing Joke’s 2003 reunion album The Death and Resurrection Show. Bassist Paul Raven even told Rolling Stone that the band was able to laugh about the once terse situation with Grohl. “Yeah, Dave and I had a few laughs about that over the past year or so,” he said. “He mentioned it to me when I met him backstage at Pantera a couple of years back.”
“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.”- Danny Goldberg
While the burried hatchet between Grohl and Killing Joke makes for a storybook ending, the origins of the borrowed riff are once again muddied when you dig a bit deeper.
It would appear Killing Joke, whether intentionally or not, interpolated The Damned’s “Life Goes On” for “Eighties”. While “Eighties” is the obvious predecessor to “Come As You Are”, “Life Goes On” came out a full two years before Killing Joke’s tune. During an interview with music journalist Alex Smith, Joke’s former drummer and founder Big Paul Ferguson was asked about the similarity between the records. Ferguson said he had never heard “Life Goes On”.
As if this weren’t enough, yet another lesser known song also makes use of the same riff. Give a listen to Garden of Delight’s “22 Faces”. Pretty similar, no? In the evolving timeline of this riff, it appears “22 Faces” was recorded in October of 1984, several months after the release of “Eighties”.
OK, so now we’re at the bottom of this endless rabbit hole, right? Wrong. To reach the very bottom, we need to go all the way back to 1966 and listen to The Equals’ “Baby Come Back”. According to the earlier cited Alex Smith, Killing Joke admitted to interpolating the riff from The Equals, though they seemed unaware of The Damned song when asked about it in multiple interviews.
The lineage of this riff is a fascinating case study in how difficult it is to trace musical origins. Multiple artists sometimes draw on the same influence at the same time without even realizing it. The release of three very similar songs by The Damned, Garden of Delight, and Killing Joke within a two year span makes it seem like there was some form of musical collective consciousness taking place. And according to all available information, none of the musicians listed above were aware of it.