Similar Much? Mogwai's 'Sine Wave,' Nine Inch Nail's 'A Warm Place,' David Bowie's 'Crystal Japan'
How We Can Respect Similar Tunes Without Always Crying 'Rip off!'
A tune is rarely 100 percent original, for better or worse. For example, Mogwai's tune "Sine Wave" is very similar to "A Warm Place" by Nine Inch Nails (NIN), which is itself similar to "Crystal Japan" by David Bowie. The question is, is this kosher? I don't mean to be the "music police" and tell artists what they can and cannot do. For the most part, I am not offended by something being a bit derivative. What matters most, in my books, is simply that the "homage" is successfully done.
"Sine Wave, " from Mogwai's Rock Action album has different elements from the other tracks. However, I get the sense that they are aware of rock history. Given that they're mostly an instrumental post-rock band, there's a chance that they're aware of other instrumental songs. Also, both Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie are huge musical entities, so there's no question that they likely influenced Mogwai.
What Mogwai does with this theme is interesting. In some ways, they make it sound almost darker than the aforementioned Nine Inch Nails tune. In a way, this may have been a way of paying tribute to The Downward Spiral, the 1994 NIN album containing "A Warm Place." While that album is mostly dark and depressing, "A Warm Place" is actually a pretty gentle piece, and almost uplifting. It's a sort of counter-balance to the more menacing and self-destructive themes. However, Mogwai sort of wraps all the album's elements together, so you have subtly dark feelings blended with a little bit of light. It's a potentially endearing tribute, as opposed to some trite rip-off to belittle and bemoan.
Nine Inch Nails
A lot more could be said of "A Warm Place," which helped solidify The Downward Spiral as a more complex album. While most of Spiral's tracks beat you over the head, this one shows Trent Reznor's more ambient influences, which David Bowie was part of. It's also well known that Reznor is a David Bowie fan. In fact, the two collaborated for a little while. Not only that, but Trent has said Bowie helped him become sober, similar to what Bowie did for a young, out-of-control Iggy Pop.
This strongly suggests that, not only was David Bowie an influence on Reznor, but the two must have related as people. Obviously, anyone who can coach someone into sobriety is making an impact. There's no doubt, then, that Reznor's homage is heartfelt, and not intended in any insulting manner. It also explains why, in a way, "A Warm Place" offers a noticeable glimmer of hope on the album. While Trent made the unusual decision to not end the album with it, it still hints that things can get better.
Even the famously bleak track "Hurt," which finishes the album, takes on greater meaning based on "A Warm Place." Rather than saying, "It's over, I'm dead," functions equally as an explanation for depression. It's a cry for help, sure, but it's not necessarily the final cry.
Oddly enough, Bowie's instrumental,"Crystal Japan," is undeniably the most commercial piece of the three. The instrumental was written by David Bowie as a single in Japan in 1980. Originally titled "Fuji Moto San," the tune was going to end Bowie's Scary Monsters album. Instead, for whatever reason, it was used in a commercial for Crystal Jun Rock brand saki, hence the title, "Crystal Japan."
As stated above, there's every reason to think Trent Reznor had heard this track, being a Bowie fan. What's most interesting, though, is that there was apparently never a controversy here. Upon investigating the tune, I haven't encountered any suggestion of a lawsuit, or anything like that. It's almost as if this track's unbridled influence was meant to be. In fact, it could function as a model of how musical influence ought to work.
Rather than badmouth musicians who "copy" or "rip off" others, maybe we should see it as a respectful nod. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Still, whether flattered or not, some things people can just let go. Just sit back and enjoy the music. In this case, all three, similar tunes are actually pretty sweet.