Friday, December 12, 2008

Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay

“And the Oscar for best dramatic performance goes to… JOE SATRIANI!”

Okay, so maybe we won’t be hearing that anytime soon, but when the guitar shredder who was previously best known for his 1987 instrumental opus “Surfing with the Alien” was quoted on [Dec. 7] as saying “a dagger went right through my heart” when he first heard Coldplay’s title track to their new album Viva La Vida, you have to commend his flair for the melodramatic. That dagger led to court charges, but not for assault with a deadly weapon.

On Dec. 4, Satriani's legal team filed suit against Coldplay in Los Angeles, alleging that the band copied "substantial original portions" of the guitarists "If I Could Fly" in "Viva La Vida." Forget the old credo that imitation is the best form of flattery, because theft is theft, no matter how you cut it. But did Coldplay truly steal from Satriani when they wrote the title track to their new album? This is one case where I’m willing to give the accused the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think they intentionally stole the song, but you can’t deny the similarities. Maybe they heard it in passing, and it stuck… Only to later resurface in a work of their own.

Coldplay have cleared samples and licensing before. They borrowed from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” for the song “Talk,” off X & Y in 2005, and don’t hide the fact that “Speed of Sound,” from the same album, was inspired by the drums on Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill.” Given their forthcoming track record, we’re left with little reason to believe they’d intentionally set out to rip anyone off. That said, if I start my great American novel with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I don’t think it’s fair to counter critics with, “Charles Dickens is a great writer, but any similarities between my work and his are purely coincidental…”

Did you read Coldplay’s response to the allegations, posted on their website Tuesday? Their statement is so absurd, music fans should be awarded damages for having had to read it: “If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music, they are entirely coincidental and just as surprising to us as to him. Joe Satriani is a great musician but he did not write or have any influence on the song ‘Viva La Vida.’ We respectfully ask him to accept our assurances of this and wish him well with all future endeavors."

Um, okay. Are we serious? It’s the same damn song! Literally. No joke. I’d include a link to the YouTube address where they play the two songs independently, then again atop each other – in perfect symmetry – but there is now a message where the video used to be: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by EMI Music.” Yes, the same EMI music that is the parent company of Coldplay’s label, Capitol Records. So now, it appears, it’s up to the lawyers. How much money are they going to spend on this case? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of money to spare, the music industry is doing almost as well as the national economy right about now. Talk about pork barrel spending. If the bills get too high, they’ll just lay a few more people off. If that doesn’t work, they can always ask for a bailout. Seems to work for everyone else.

In the same aforementioned interview, Satriani claims to have already tried to settle the issue with Coldplay, without a trial in front of a jury of their peers, but they responded that they weren’t willing to entertain his request. “I did everything I could to avoid a court case with this situation. But Coldplay didn't want to talk about it,” he said. “They just wanted this whole thing to go away. Maybe they figured this little guitar player guy will leave them alone after a while, I don't know.”

I bet you they’d have thought twice had they suspected that this story would get more mileage than Billy Joel's cheap pair of sneakers. Feel free to tug at our heartstrings all you want, Joe, you know the jury will slobber all over the fact that you wrote the song about your wife, and spent half your career laboring over your masterpiece. The track was released on the 2004 album Is There Love In Space, but Satriani claims to have started writing it back in 1990… That 14 years of labor must explain why he feels he deserves damages, in addition to “any and all profits.” Unless Coldplay hire O.J.’s defense attorneys, this case is a done deal already… And, yes, I’m referring to Simpson’s first team of attorneys, not the latest ones. Kharma’s a bitch, huh?

But Joe Satriani is already the big winner in this, and that's without the windfall. Before the lawsuit, nobody but guitar geeks knew his stuff. Hell, I’m a rock guy to the bone, and I stopped listening to him in the early ‘90s. No disrespect intended, he's an amazing player and his legend is nothing to sneeze at, but more people have heard his song in the past week then have heard his music in the past 20 years. Coldplay’s album came out June 17, but Satriani waited nearly six months to file his claim on Dec. 4, the day after Coldplay received seven Grammy nominations. Strategic timing, or just coincidence?

I guess we should be thanking the unlikely duo for the distraction they’re providing in these most unfortunate of economic times. Or maybe we should remind them that in a world where the middle class is getting pinched more and more with every passing day, the last thing any of us really need to be privy to is a bunch of filthy rich musicians fighting over table scraps because they can’t settle the most obvious of cases behind closed doors, like real adults.

Do we really need a court to decide this? Coldplay, you may not be guilty of intentional plagiarism, but the songs are the same, and his came first. It's that simple. Do the right thing. It’s no less than you’d expect were the tables turned. And Joe Satriani? You’re not guilty of any crime, and I really feel for you. But is this the way you wanted to make the pages of People magazine?

One last question… Is Satriani going to go after New York indie rockers Creaky Boards next? Earlier this year, they claimed that “Viva La Vida” was dangerously close to their song, “The Songs I Didn’t Write.” Yeah, we know you guys didn't write the song. But who did? And while we're at it, who's on first?

The real kicker will be the "jury of their peers" that decides the fate of the case: Yolanda, the receptionist from Inglewood; Jose, the gardener from Gardena; Steve, the aspiring actor who parks cars in Hollywood; Tony, the mechanic from Los Angeles; Mary, the assistant from Culver City...

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