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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

03/11/2015

So I’ve had this idea for a few weeks, guys. It came about when I was listening to the Stray Cats. I heard The Stray Cat Strut’s descending bass line and remembered a news item on the TV station MuchMusic from almost 20 years ago.

OK, that will take some context. In 1997, Green Day released the song Hitchin’ a Ride, the first single off their fifth album, Nimrod. This was in those heady days before website tie-ins, when music news came once an hour from George Stroumboulopoulos, the channel ran a bit like an open access cable show, and they actually played music videos. And in these halcyon days when we couldn’t look up lyrics on the Internet or play new songs at will on Youtube, Hitchin’ a Ride was generally well-received, if not now well-remembered.

I think if it had been released now, it might have gone a bit differently, and that thought goes back to that news item I remember surprisingly clearly, considering it must have been at least 18 years ago that I saw it. There were a few intrepid music journalists kicking around who listened to the first 30 seconds or so, and thought, “wait a minute . . .”

You see, the beginning is almost an exact replica of The Stray Cat Strut, from the drum beat at the start to the descending bass line that goes through the better part of both songs. Back in 1997 or 1998, this intrepid Canadian music journalist asked Green Day about this fact, and they put it off with something about how it did sound like The Stray Cats, but . . . whatever. Or something to that effect, anyway. At the time I was 12, didn’t know who The Stray Cats were, and wasn’t much interested in Green Day, either.

Now, if Hitchin’ a Ride were released eight years ago or so, there’d probably be half a dozen videos on Youtube noting the similarities, and music nerds the Internet over would be decrying Green Day as thieves or plagiarists or both. If it was released now, I’m not sure how much anyone would mind that it was nearly the same song as The Stray Cat Strut. It’s an age of remixes, sampling, and a pop soundscape with less and less diversity by the year. And it’s not the last time someone decided to write a song around that descending bass line, anyway. In 2004, Canadian rapper k-os came out with Crabbuckit, the hook of which sounded uncannily like Hitchin’ a Ride and The Stray Cat Strut.

But then, Crabbuckit sampled neither Hitchin’ a Ride nor The Stray Cat Strut, but Hit the Road Jack as done by Ray Charles, which came out in 1960. I’m not sure how our intrepid journalist missed that; I’m pretty sure that song is more famous than either Hitchin’ a Ride or The Stray Cat Strut. Or, perhaps the intrepid journalist knew that, but didn’t think it made him sound as cool because it is more well-known.

What would have made our intrepid journalist sound the weirdest, but also the most accurate, would have been if he had name-checked not The Stray Cats nor Ray Charles, but Harry S. Miller.

Because Miller, a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, wrote The Cat Came Back. And that one predates all the other descending bass lines in this growing list, as it was written in 1893.

And at this point, everyone’s wondering why we should care about all of this. And you know, maybe we shouldn’t. Before the advent of recording, popular music was about rewriting existing folk songs and singing them however we felt like it. Music was an ever-changing, always-evolving thing that was less about artistry or auteurs, and much more about listening and enjoying and singing along. We have sometimes hundreds of versions of folk songs that are all slightly different, depending on where it came from and how people changed the words. So maybe all these songs are somewhere in the folk tradition, spiritually if not literally: different versions of the same song that mean different things to different people. And perhaps that’s where the Internet has brought us: right back around to folk culture, where things are remixed, rewritten and reimagined.

So this is the idea I had a few weeks ago: instead of calling out . . . well, whomever . . . for this supposed stolen bass line, someone should just make a mega mix of all the songs, and sing each one back to back in a concert that would be repetitive at the least, boring at worst, and hilarious at best. Because, you know . . . why not?

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings