Come As You Are Original
How Many Come As You Are Originals?
The bass riff from American grunge band Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” is one of the most iconic sounds of the 90s. But where did it come from? Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain wrote “Come As You Are”. Many claim Nirvana slowed down the riff from English band Killing Joke’s 1984 song, “Eighties”. Anyone who listens to both songs will certainly hear the similarities. But is it just a coincidence? And what other songs feature a similar riff? A few in fact. There’s Garden of Delight’s “22 Faces” from 1984, the Damned’s “Life Goes On” from 1982 and the earliest version I could find, Bauhaus’ “Hollow Hills” from 1981. Which one is the “Come As You Are” original?
Pre-Eighties 80s Songs
All the songs I mentioned have a very similar riff. But I think “Eighties” bears the closest resemblance to “Come As You Are”. Although it’s a different song with different lyrics this article explores if “Eighties” can be considered the “Come As You Are” original. First, though, let’s look at the earlier songs.
“Hollow Hills” appears on Bauhaus’ second studio album, 1981’s Mask, and on their 1982 live album Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape. The bass riff is recognisable, albeit slowed down.
The Damned’s “Life Goes On” appears on their fifth studio album, 1982’s Strawberries. The riff is very similar to “Eighties” and “Come As You Are”. Yet the song itself has a quite different sound. This is an English post-punk song, not an American alt rock tune. To me, “Life Goes On” has a sort of happy Smiths vibe.
Founded in 1982, Garden of Delight were one of Norway’s first goth rock bands, possibly the first. The almost all-female band, unusual in a time of male hegemony in the Norwegian music scene, sounded a little like early Cure. Garden of Delight (not to be confused with German darkwave band The Garden of Delight) released the 7” single “22 Faces” in 1984. There’s that riff again, but it’s a clearly different song.
All these songs, including “Eighties”, have both common and unique elements. But does that make any of them the “Come As You Are” original? Time to look at “Eighties”, the song with the most similarities.
Killing Joke’s Eighties
“Eighties” appears as the first single on Killing Joke’s fifth studio album, Night Time. Chris Kimsey, the English record producer who co-produced Rolling Stones albums, Undercover and Steel Wheels, produced Night Time. EG Records released the album in February 1985 but “Eighties” came out in April 1984. The 12″ single A-side featured the track “Eighties (Serious Dance Mix)” with “Eighties” and “Eighties (The Coming Mix)” as B-sides. The 7″ single with “Eighties” on the A-side featured a bonus 7″ single, “Let’s All Go (To the Fire Dances)”.
Iconic Music Video
The “Eighties” music video is cool too. It’s just the sort of thing from the 80s alternative music scene that I loved. Directed by Anthony Van Den Ende, the video shows the band playing their instruments with frontman Jaz Coleman in front of a microphone stand with the US flag draped over it and the USSR flag in the background. This is intercut with famous 80s footage: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev, Anwar Sadat, Pope John Paul II, Ruhollah Khomeini, Konstantin Chernenko, a rocket being launched, a female bodybuilding contest, a group of punks at a concert in Hammersmith, book burnings, Beatles album burnings and a dog wedding.
“Eighties” peaked at number 60 in the UK singles chart. It’s a fantastic song that should have done better. Then again, this was the era before mainstream and alternative became indistinguishable.
While ‘Eighties’ unflinchingly displays the band’s aggressive punk rock roots — cold and hard to mirror the socio-political message — it also embraces dance-music grooves and a certain sort of melodic sensibility. One main, perhaps, crucial difference between the bands is that while Kurt Cobain practiced whisper-to-a-scream vocal dynamics, Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman was almost always full-on in his approach, with a terrifying growl of a voice that is similar to that of Motörhead’s Lemmy.”Bill Janovitz, AllMusic review
Short-lived early-2000s sitcom That ’80s Show used a snippet of “Eighties” as their opening theme. The song was also used in a scene in the 1985 movie Weird Science and as the theme song for investigation discovery series, The 1980s: The Deadliest Decade.
“Eighties” is a really impressive song. Being a child of the Cold War era, I love its commentary on 80s society. The riff is totally similar to the one in “Come As You Are”. It’s faster, but anyone could recognise it. And like “Come As You Are”, the riff is a key part of the song. So is “Eighties” the “Come As You Are” original? Yeah, I know I keep asking that question, but it’s a tricky one.
Recording Come As You Are
“Come As You Are” appeared as the second single on Nirvana’s second studio album Nevermind, released in March 1992. Cobain used an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone guitar chorus pedal to give his guitar that “watery” tone we hear during the verses and pre-chorus. He recorded his guitar solo in two takes and his vocals in three, the first of which was used. During the harmony overdub session, Cobain accidentally sang the phrase, “And I don’t have a gun,” too early. It appeared the fourth time he sings “memoria” after the guitar solo. Producer Butch Vig sampled Cobain’s “memoria” and placed it in the background near the end of the song.
Cobain said the “Come as You Are” lyrics were contradictory. The song was about “people and what they’re expected to act like”.
Nirvana and their management debated whether “Come as You Are” or “In Bloom” should be the next single released after “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Cobain was wary about releasing “Come as You Are” because of its similarity to “Eighties”. Nirvana’s management wanted to release “Come as You Are” because of its commercial potential. In fact, they thought the song would be the first Nirvana single to cross over to mainstream audiences. However, they underestimated the popularity of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
At the end of the day, “Come as You Are” was Nevermind‘s second single. It became Nirvana’s second (and final) American top 40 hit and their second UK top 10 hit. It ranked well on various greatest songs list, including a number 42 ranking on Blender magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born”. And, according to Nielsen Music’s end of year report for 2019, “Come As You Are” was the third most-played song of the 2010s on mainstream rock radio. Whether the band wanted to or not, Nirvana had well and truly crossed over.
Killing Joke Reaction
As Cobain anticipated, Killing Joke were upset about “Come as You Are”. Killing Joke’s guitarist, Geordie Walker, said that band was “pissed off” and that the main guitar riff from “Come as You Are” plagiarised the “Eighties” riff.
It’s obvious to everyone. We had two separate musicologists’ reports saying it was. Our publisher sent their publisher a letter saying it was and they went ‘Boo, never heard of ya!’, but the hysterical thing about Nirvana saying they’d never heard of us was that they’d already sent us a Christmas card!”Geordie Walker
There were rumours that Killing Joke filed a copyright infringement lawsuit, although it never materialised. Rolling Stone magazine claimed this was due to “personal and financial reasons”. Reports were conflicting. Either a lawsuit was never filed, it was thrown out of court or dropped following Cobain’s death in 1994. At any rate, any animosity between the two bands appears to have resolved.
In 2003, Nirvana’s drummer Dave Grohl took a leave of absence from the Foo Fighters to play drums for Killing Joke’s second self-titled album. Furthermore, the Foo Fighters previously recorded a cover of another Killing Joke song, “Requiem”, as a B-side to their 1997 single “Everlong”.
So what, if anything, is the “Come As You Are” original? I think it’s very difficult to work out the exact origin of a famous guitar riff as bands can write the same riff without realising.
Both ‘Eighties’ and ‘Come As You Are’ use this riff, but I consider it as kind of generic. It comes easy when you mess around with a guitar.”Peter Zen, commenter on Discogs
To me, the “Come As You Are” riff sounds almost identical to the one from “Eighties”, only slowed down. While Cobain and the rest of Nirvana were clearly aware of the similarities between the two songs, I think Peter Zen is closer to the truth. Ideas, like songs and stories, float around in the collective consciousness and may end up being created by several people around the same time. And also, you can be unconsciously influenced by something you heard or read in your past that comes out in your new creation.
I’m going to conclude by saying that while “Eighties” is a cracking-good tune. However, “Come As You Are” is the “Come As You Are” original.
In a final but lovely touch, Cobain’s home town Aberdeen, Washington, put up a sign. It reads “Welcome to Aberdeen: Come As You Are”.
Check out more 90s tunes and their unknown originals here.