The Origins of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”

An attempt to uncover the very first use of the band's memorable riff.


Nirvana faced a tough decision after the massive success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: should they release “Come As You Are” or “In Bloom” as the next single from Nevermind?

Record label folks believed “Come As You Are” was more likely to be a hit, but 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 the influential rock band’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 ShowLate bassist Paul Raven even said they were able to laugh about the once terse situation. “Yeah, Dave and I had a few laughs about that over the past year or so,” he told Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview. “He mentioned it to me when I met him backstage at Pantera a couple of years back.”

The burried hatchet between Grohl and Killing Joke may make for a storybook ending, but 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 British punk pioneers The Damned’s “Life Goes On.” 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 on the 1982 album Strawberries.

Killing Joke’s former drummer and founder Big Paul Ferguson was asked about the similarity between the records during a 2004 interview with music journalist Alex Smith. Ferguson said he had never heard “Life Goes On.”

As if a similarity between three separate records weren’t enough, yet another lesser-known song also makes use of the same riff. Give a listen to Norwegian gothic rock band Garden of Delight’s “22 Faces.” Pretty similar, no?

In this evolving timeline, it appears “22 Faces” was recorded in October of 1984—several months after the release of “Eighties.”

OK, now we’re finally 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’ single “Baby Come Back” from their debut Unequalled Equals. The riff here isn’t identical to the songs mentioned above, but you can definitely hear some similarities.

According to a message board discussion with the previously cited Alex Smith, Killing Joke admitted to interpolating the riff from The Equals—though they seemed completely unaware of The Damned song when asked about it in multiple interviews.

The lineage of this particular 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 in those bands were aware of it.

(This article is a modified and updated version of a story that was originally published on Micro-Chop.)


Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!