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THE TOP 10 AWESOMELY PLAGIARIZED SONGS

Now, don’t get me wrong—I understand that in rock, everything old is new again. Just listen to Panic! At the Disco bite The Beatles circa ’66 or ’67 on their latest release, or Seether rehash lost Nirvana tracks that, um… Nirvana never played. (Why, even our very own webmaster, Robert Berry, has been plagiarized by a British tabloid!) It’s all part of the great melting pot of creativity, right? Well, yes and no. Loving homages aside, there are those instances where artists go a little too far in, ahem, paying tribute to their influences. Often it’s an ironic case of a song becoming too successful, to the point where it draws undue attention, and questions, to itself. And that’s where we come in! Here, then, are some of the more famous cases of rock ‘n’ roll rip-offs from the past 50 years…

 

1.) The Beach Boys—“Surfin’ U.S.A.” (1963)
This is a sweet one if you’re like me and could never stomach these guys much. Yeah, yeah, I know, Brian Wilson’s a genius (if you say so…), but he’s also been estranged from his own band for most of its career. Plus, his major contribution seems to have been those cloying castrati harmonies—It sure as hell wasn’t the musical backing, as evidenced by several of their early hits such as this one. One of the most extreme examples on our list, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” lifted its guitar riffs and chord progressions practically note for note from Chuck Berry, his “Sweet Little Sixteen” to be exact. It even nicked his famous, should-be-trademarked “Johnny B. Goode” intro. In a touching display of fatherly devotion, Brian Wilson’s dad, the band’s manager at the time, handed the copyright over to Berry, who is now listed as co-composer on this track…a dubious distinction in his career akin to his classic “My Ding-a-Ling”.

2.) Led Zeppelin—“Whole Lotta Love”, etc. (1970)
This one, on the other hand, hurts. As high as the mighty Zep soars, even it’s not above accusations of cultural appropriation. Like many of their late ‘60s British brethren, Jimmy Page and company were avowed blues freaks—unlike contemporaries such as Cream and the Jeff Beck Group, however, Led Zep did not always properly acknowledge the bluesmen whose lyrics and song structures they used as jumping-off points for their jams. Led Zeppelin II contained no less than three such disputed items: Mega-hit “Whole Lotta Love” bore a striking resemblance to Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love”; “The Lemon Song” was based on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor”; and on the album’s closer, “Bring It on Home”, the acoustic intro is basically an uncredited cover of the Sonny Boy Williamson song of the same name. Dixon, er, “Wolf” (a.k.a. Chester Burnett”), and Williamson’s music publisher all brought action against Zep, resulting in out-of-court settlements and co-author credits for the blues icons…a fact you’d think would please an aficionado like Page. But he still insists no wrongdoing, maintaining in an interview with Guitar World: “Most of the comparisons rest on the lyrics. Robert was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn't always do that—which is what brought on most of the grief. They couldn't get us on the guitar parts of the music, but they nailed us on the lyrics.” Sorry, Jimmy, but these particular blues you’re singing just don’t sound too convincing.

3.) George Harrison—“My Sweet Lord” (1971)
Poor George. He always seemed like the nicest, mellowest Beatle, yet he had to endure so many hardships: His Concert for Bangladesh was criticized for mismanaging much of the funds it raised; his later solo work was often critically savaged; he was even knifed by a crazed stalker! And as if that weren’t enough, he had to endure a plagiarism suit over his biggest hit, “My Sweet Lord”. True, the chords, melody, even the vocal line, are all nearly identical to the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine”, a girl-group classic from 1963. But George was such a damned nice guy that no one could find evidence he ripped off the original song’s composers intentionally—instead, he was found guilty of subconscious plagiarism! The theory was that since “He’s So Fine” was a hit when George was still a teenager, he’d subconsciously soaked it up at a formative age, remembering it (without, like, remembering it) when he went to compose “My Sweet Lord”. Subconscious or not, he still had to pay the original song’s copyright holders over half a million bucks, as well as all future royalties on the disputed tune. Krishna and Rama may be great, but I guess karma’s still a bitch. Oh, well…George’s sublime slide guitar intro to “My Sweet Lord”—which is all his, thank you—is still one of my favorite moments in any ‘70s song, and no one can take that away from him, damnit.
 

 

4.) Bob Marley—“Buffalo Soldier”
Okay, so this particular controversy is a bit of a non-starter: No lawsuits or settlements have yet resulted from it…But it’s just so damned weird that I had to throw it in here. It seems musos with too much time on their hands have, almost from the first appearance of Marley’s instant classic, noticed a bizarre resemblance between its bridge and the main theme of—wait for it—The Banana Splits’ theme song! Now, before all you dreads blow this off like secondhand smoke, just sing along with I and I: “Wo-yo-yo, yo-yo-yo-yo, Wo-yo-yo, yo-yo-yo-yo!” Pretty mystical, huh? Yeah, well now try this one, suckers: “Tra-la-la, la-la-la-la, tra-la-la, la-la-la-la!” Hmm…Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it? The Marley estate can rest easy, though; The Splits have apparently decided not to pursue legal action, although rumor has it that Fleegle has retained an attorney.

5.) Ray Parker, Jr.—“Ghostbusters Theme” (1984)
This is an interesting one—the overall arrangement of Parker’s annoyingly ubiquitous hit is clearly, uh, inspired by Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”, but the main riffs of both tracks are only similar. Parker had two strikes against him, though: First, the song he was borrowing from was a recent one, on the charts not even a year prior; second, in an interesting twist, the Ghostbusters producers had actually approached Lewis first about writing and performing the movie’s theme. Okay, everyone, repeat after me: Uh…huh. That was pretty much Huey Lewis’ reaction, too, although at least he and Parker, Jr. were able to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum, allowing both of them to get back to the pressing business of headlining Indian casinos and peddling records on late night TV. The only loser, in fact, was anyone unfortunate enough to actually hear either song.

6.) Vanilla Ice—“Ice Ice Baby” (1990)
Yeah, yeah, I know—This one’s almost too easy. But it can’t be ignored, not only because the rip-off from “Under Pressure” is so obvious, but also because Ice was stupid enough to try to deny it. Remember his infamous “Theirs goes, ‘Ding ding ding dingy ding-ding'; ours goes, 'DING ding ding ding dingy ding-ding’ ” defense? Extra note aside, ‘Nilla had to settle out of court with Bowie and Queen, who thereafter got songwriting credit…probably the only way the poor guy could get mentioned in the same breath with such musical giants. Back to collaborating with the Ninja Turtles, I guess…Go ninja, go ninja, go!

7.) Michael Bolton—“Love Is a Wonderful Thing” (1991)
Contrary to first impressions, this case isn’t quite the “gotcha” we’d all like it to be. Soon after the rock ‘n’ roll Fabio’s “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” made the charts in ’91, The Isley Brothers sued him, claiming he’d stolen elements of their own song of the same name from 1966. But while the irony of black R ‘n’ B icons getting back at everyone’s favorite “no-talent ass clown” after years of him butchering their back catalogues is undeniable, the legal ruling itself is quite complex. The overall structure and vocal lines of both tracks are similar but hardly exact; plus, The Isley Bros’ song is actually pretty obscure, making it less likely that white suburban boy Bolton would have heard it growing up. But Bolton is also an avowed Isley fan, and was caught on tape—while recording his song’s demo, no less—wondering aloud whether the track sounded like an old R ‘n’ B standard, and if so, which one. (Note to Michael: Follow up on those gut instincts!) Similar to George Harrison, Bolton was finally found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and had to give a third of the single’s royalties, as well as those of its accompanying album, to the Isleys…a total of approximately five million dollars. Since then he’s appealed, fired his lawyer, and even tried to purchase The Isley Brothers’ back catalogue, but all to no avail. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the guy, however, as he had the gall to claim there was “a bit of racial inference” in the original ruling. That’s right, folks: The jerk-off who made a career out of white-ifying soul and R ‘n’ B classics had the nerve to cry reverse racism when it suited him. Jeez, maybe he should get O.J.’s lawyer for his next appeal.

8.) Negativland—“U2” (1991)
My personal favorite on this list, not only because I used to love these guys back in the day (They were one of the few ‘90s American alt-rock acts not in thrall to Kurt or Eddie.), but also because they’re the only artists on here intentionally—That’s right, their material was all about elaborate public pranks to take the piss out of pompous media figures and challenge established notions of intellectual property and the whole concept of “truth” in the Information Age. For this, their most celebrated sonic collage, they incorporated snippets of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, as well as several hilarious “America’s Top 40” outtakes, featuring profane Casey Kasem rants, that the group lifted from well-circulated bootlegs. During one memorable moment, Kasem flubs a U2 introduction (“That’s right—the letter ‘U’…and the numeral ‘2’.”) and explodes, “This is bulls***! Nobody cares! These guys are from England, and who gives a s***?!” At another point, Kasem rails at his engineer about having to come out of a “f***ing uptempo record” and into a dedication for a dead dog named…Snuggles. Wow, truth really is stranger than fiction. U2’s record company sued Negativland’s label, SST, for unauthorized sampling, causing SST to drop the band from its roster. The band members responded by ambushing an obviously embarrassed The Edge in an interview for cyberpunk mag Mondo 2000 (whose publisher just happened to be friends with Negativland), and by writing a book detailing their legal travails, entitled…The Letter U and the Numeral 2. Though the original single was pulled due to the legal controversy, “bootlegs” are still widely available—Hell, you can buy ‘em on Amazon! Which just goes to show that not only did The Edge and company turn out to be pretty cool, after all, but also that Negativland are still out there somewhere, fighting the good fight. Now, if only we could do something about Casey Kasem…

9.) The Verve—“Bittersweet Symphony” (1997)
Out of everyone on this list, I think Richard Ashcroft and his band The Verve got screwed the most. Unlike any of our other defendants, Ashcroft actually got permission from the Stones’ music publisher to use a sample from an old, out-of-print orchestral rendition of the Stones’ “The Last Time”. Ashcroft and company built a whole song out of the sampled snippet, and the result ended up an international hit. Enter Jagger and Richards, who now claimed that The Verve had overstepped the bounds of the original agreement by looping the sample and using it as their entire backing track. Ashcroft countered that the Glimmer Twins were only reneging on the deal now that “Bittersweet Symphony” was such a massive—and lucrative—hit. Unfortunately, the courts sided with Goliath on this one, awarding Jagger and Richards composer credit and 100% of the song’s royalties. I’m surprised the duo wasn’t waiting in the wings at Live 8 to shake down Ashcroft as he came offstage from performing the song with Coldplay. The beleagured Ashcroft did, however, score points with one of the better verbal bitch-slaps of recent years when he described “Bittersweet Symphony” as “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years." Keith Richards may have the last word on this one, though, as it’s hard to argue with his rather pragmatic statement, "If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.” Ah, Keef—Have another fix, mate.

10.) Red Hot Chili Peppers—“Dani California” (2006)
Those of us who think the Chili Peppers are one of the most overrated bands of the past 20 years were heartened by this one—Radio station WGMD in Delaware compared the recent Peppers hit to Tom Petty’s perennial crowd-pleaser “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and found, in the words of the station’s producer Jared Morris, “The chord progression, the melody, the tempo, the key, the lyrical theme…They’re identical.” Well, the chords and melody aren’t exactly identical, but damned close—and the rest? On the money. The bad news for Peppers haters is that judging from recent interviews, Tom Petty apparently won’t sue. While he has taken swipes at former next-big-things The Strokes for pinching from “American Girl” for “Last Nite”, Petty has also stated, quite graciously, that “I don't believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs." And in today’s litigation-crazed society, maybe that’s just the right note on which to end this list.

ADDENDUM: It doesn’t really fall under the category of “rock”, but still, this may be the ultimate example of plagiarism litigation. A contemporary classical composer named Mike Batt included a conceptual piece called "A One Minute Silence" on a recent album. The track consists of…you guessed it, a minute of silence. He was then threatened with a lawsuit by the estate of the famed avant garde composer John Cage, whose groundbreaking 1952 work “4’ 33” ” consisted of…that’s right, four-and-a-half minutes of silence. Batt settled out of court, paying a six-figure sum to Cage’s estate for borrowing his…well, lack of music. That’s right he paid for the idea of…nothing. Talk about intellectual property! Batty Mr. Batts’ priceless comment on the whole controversy: "Mine is a much better silent piece. I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and 33 seconds." ‘Nuff said.

NOTE: Lest I be accused of plagiarism, I gathered research material for this list from the following sources: AOL Music, Blender Magazine, CNN.com, Gelf Magazine, Guitar World Magazine, SamplingLaw.com, and the UCLA Law School Copyright Infringement Project. (*Whew!*)

-Miles Miniaci
milesminiaci@gmail.com

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