13 May 2015

Did Guns N' Roses beg, borrow or steal from Australian Crawl?

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses, 20 years after the 1987 hit.

No one official is saying it directly but maybe, just maybe, a lawyer or two is looking at Guns N' Roses and Australian Crawl and seeing not a totally weird double bill but a totally awesome massive bill.

After several years of chatter among fans this week has seen suddenly feverish public discussion about chord progressions, guitar sounds and something something something about a beach (that's the lyric isn't it?).

At issue is whether the Los Angeles band who were the last gasp of decadent rock before the austerity of grunge washed through, may have taken some ideas for one of their biggest hits from the Australian group who brought some upper middle class decadence to Countdown and pubs across the country almost a decade earlier.

James Reyne says he isn't about to take on the might of Guns N' Roses' lawyers.

To some ears Guns N' Roses' song Sweet Child O' Mine, a ballad even their guitarist and top hat-wearer Slash thought a bit wet for a dirty little rock band, sounds a lot like Australian Crawl's Unpublished Critics. We couldn't possibly comment, not least because their lawyers are bigger than our lawyers, something which Australian Crawl's James Reyne, who co-wrote Unpublished Critics, might understand, having told one online newspaper: "I'm not about to take on the might of the Guns N' Roses lawyers."

One song came out in 1987 and sold many millions on the Gunners number one-cresting, debut album Appetite For Destruction. It has been covered numerous times and can still be found in karaoke bars, Triple M playlists and wherever bandannas are sold without irony. The other was on the 1981 album Sirocco, the second from Oz Crawl, which did rather well in topping the Australian charts and by going four times platinum (which is not quite millions, rather in excess of 280,000). It is a song not likely to be played on Triple M, where they would be more inclined to play Errol or Things Don't Seem, from the same album.

It is being argued that the two songs share a chord progression, a verse melody, a similar guitar solo and maybe one or two elements in the chorus. (Though not any of the lyrics, which may not be a surprise to fans of Reyne whose idiosyncratic singing style was famous/notorious for not always being wholly intelligible.)

All of which may be considered substantial. But also all of which may be purely coincidental. After all, as pointed out by writers such as Tom Petty – who recently settled on a shared writing credit with Brit soul singer Sam Smith after the Englishman's hit song Stay With Me was found to be very similar to an earlier Petty song – there's only so many ways with limited chords and mistakes can happen.

People who believe in karma, those who have a low opinion of Axl Rose or those critics skewered by Reyne in the acerbic original song, might look at the lyrics and wonder if the Australian was tempting fate in lines such as "The singer in the band, he sweats on a pose/And he's really such a jerk/Thinks he can call me stupid/Because he gets a lot of work" and "I've got a death-wish that I can't explain/I've been working on the petulance/And the urchin took my name".

There's an added twist in that both bands were, at different times, on the same label, Geffen, and Guns N' Roses have acknowledged the influence of at least two Australian bands, AC/DC and Rose Tattoo, and presumably had the chance to hear more from the antipodes than your average American rock group.

So while Australian Crawl weren't exactly being smashed on American radio in 1981, it's possible the gentlemen of Guns N' Roses then or later came across the song. And it's possible they, without even knowing it, had some of those ideas at the back of their minds when writing Sweet Child O' Mine. (Though it is possible to say fairly confidently that Australian Crawl did not have the same fetish for apostrophes as the Americans. That's one idea they presumably had all on their own.)

What's going to happen next? With Reyne saying he isn't taking it further it may be up to his publishing company to pursue any action. If action were to be taken. Meanwhile, Sweet Child O' Mine is no doubt playing somewhere in the world right now. Maybe find a lawyer, raise a glass of Australian beer to it and sing along using James Reyne's words: "I'm standing in the background, got my arms on the fold/And every dog's gonna have its day."