In the mid-80s, before their breakthrough in 1989, Manchester band The Stone Roses followed the well-worn path of playing pubs and small venues around Britain and Europe. One such gig saw them play a pub in Dublin, before a crowd used to – and expecting – heavy metal rather than the punk/goth crossover rock the Roses were playing at that point.
Glasses and punches were thrown as the band started their set, and the atmosphere didn’t get better when guitarist John Squire started playing the unmistakable riff to Smoke on the Water, one of the heavy rock crowd’s Holy Grail texts. Assuming these English upstarts – with their paisley shirts – were taking the piss, things got heavy.
Now, Squire may have been taking the piss, or just trying to placate the locals – either seems likely. But what is certain is that the Roses – who have not, to date, recorded a cover version in their career (Elizabeth My Dear notwithstanding) – weren’t about to launch into the Deep Purple classic.
My point is that a riff, while a recognisable hook, can also be a diving-off point towards something else (in the Roses’ case, a near-riot); something new, within the context of which the original riff – if properly enmeshed in the new work – can sound totally different, to the extent that it no longer triggers memories of the source material.
Books can be riffs on other works. China Mieville’s Railsea has at its core an obsessive search for a white leviathan and is a riff on, among other things, Melville’s Moby Dick. What’s clear is that riffing on a source is not the same as “copying” or “updating” a text; nor is it the same as a mashup. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not a riff: it doesn’t – it can’t – obscure the source material. At other times, riffs appear almost by happenstance when the author spots connections between her work-in-progress and an existing text.
Riffing on a story can be a useful starting-off point if you’re short of inspiration. In my own experience, though, this doesn’t make for a successful story. The source material is used as a prop, and the new work is unable to stand independently. I wrote a story called Surfacing in 2004 or so, parts of which I still rate, but whose debt to the swimming motif in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film Three Colours: Blue drowned it at birth (pun intended).
A later story, The Other Field, was my attempt at a timeslip/timeloop story. Only midway through, when I realised it included an East Anglian landscape and English Electric Lightning aircraft, did I make a few (hopefully subtle) nods towards a favourite book from my childhood. When I was 10, I must have read Jan Mark’s Thunder and Lightnings a dozen times or more, and I still have my well-worn Puffin copy.
My story may have existed in some form if I’d never read Mark’s book: impossible to say. But spotting the link, and weaving in acknowledgements to Thunder and Lightnings gave it – for me – an extra dimension. I’m not claiming this for The Other Field, but such riffing can create a relationship between two works; a dialogue, even, if we assume that a work, however old, is created anew with each reading. Going (back) to the original after reading a work that riffs on it can add nuance to one’s experience of the original.
I doubt the crowd in Dublin listened to Deep Purple in a new light after John Squire’s improvisation. But who knows?
photo credit: John Squire (1990) by Ian T Tilton