In Defense of Musical Ripoffs

Friday A/V Club: Think of it as evolution in action.


Radiohead is reportedly suing Lana Del Rey because her song "Get Free" sounds a lot like Radiohead's old hit "Creep." As Reason's Ed Krayewski noted earlier this week, Radiohead itself was successfully sued a while back because "Creep" sounds a lot like the Hollies' "The Air I Breathe." I don't think anyone has ever sued the Hollies for "The Air I Breathe," though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there's a Roy Orbison song somewhere that sounds almost exactly like it.

The courts have been getting more strict about this kind of thing recently, with Marvin Gaye's estate winning a case against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke over a song that copied the "feel" but not the actual notes of Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." In a better world, the law would be growing more tolerant of this sort of imitation, not more restrictive. Much of the evolution of music is driven by people making tiny tweaks as they slavishly copy each other. A pop world without any plagiarism would be barren indeed.

This is most obvious when it comes to musical patterns that have been around too long for anyone to hold a copyright on them. (If someone actually owned the I-IV-V blues progression, he could buy Bill Gates with enough left over to make a down payment on the Moon.) When Jay Miller wrote and Kitty Wells recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," for example, they didn't hide the fact that they were using the exact same melody as Hank Thompson's hit "The Wild Side of Life"; their song, after all, was a direct response to and comment on Thompson's record. But the tune was a lot older than "The Wild Side of Life"—that same series of notes had also been used in "Great Speckled Bird," "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," and other old country songs. Indeed, the melody goes back to England. A lawsuit would have disappeared into a never-ending search for the original composer.

But not every pilfered melody comes from the public domain. Listen to "Express Yourself," a top 5 R&B hit for Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band in 1970. Then listen to Jean Knight singing "Mr. Big Stuff," the #1 soul single of 1971. Seriously: Click the links and listen. They're the same goddamn song. "Mr. Big Stuff" came out less than a year after "Express Yourself," with a completely different set of songwriters credited; and yet nobody sued. Who knows: Maybe there's some older ur-funk record that Knight and Wright were both swiping. If so, Knight kept on swiping it: She recorded several barely-masked rewrites of "Mr. Big Stuff," because why mess with success?

Song-clones like that aren't especially unusual, and a good DJ can spend hours seguing from one of them to another. But I'll give you just one more example—probably my favorite one. Here's Lyn Collins, a protégé of James Brown, singing a song called "Me and My Baby":

You know that old South Park joke that if you want to write a Christian pop song, you should just take a love song and change every "baby" to "Jesus"? Here's country star Tom T. Hall seeming to prove the point:

He doesn't quite prove the point, because I think he wrote his song first. Both records came out in 1972, but "Me and Jesus" grazed the bottom of the Billboard charts in May; "Me and My Baby" didn't show up in Billboard til the fall. So this is probably a case of someone changing "Jesus" to "baby," not the other way around. The intro to Collins' record certainly sounds like she had church on her mind.

But I'm not going to complain about Collins ripping off Hall. You know why? Because Collins' song is better. Tom T. Hall is one of my favorite songwriters, but "Me and Jesus" isn't one of his better efforts. The lyrics are kind of rote, and the melody is gospel-by-numbers. (An exercise for the reader: Extend the chain of ripoffs backward by finding some older gospel records that sound like Hall's tune.) If Collins stole his song, she made it sharper and funkier in the process.

Maybe Collins and company should've given Hall a songwriting credit. Maybe not. I'm just glad they had the freedom to borrow it and improve it. I hate the thought that a fear of Grammy-chasing attorneys might dissuade today's pop artisans from doing the same.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. ""You know that old South Park joke that if you want to write a Christian pop song, you should just take a love song and change every "baby" to "Jesus"? ""

    Does that make Barry White the greatest Christmas song writer ever?

  2. The Friday A/V Club is slowly morphing into thinly viewed Jesse Walker rants.

    1. The Friday A/V Club is slowly morphing into thinly viewed Jesse Walker rants.

      They were always Jesse Walker rants; they just used to get more views.

      1. Help me out, were you the one who wrote the line "Hey, if you weren't writing critical theory in the 90s, you weren't really there..." (paraphrased).

        If that was you, you deserve to be in the Reason Hall of Fame.

          1. It's weird for me as a new poster to go back and see a time when MJGreen was still labelable.

  3. The courts have been getting more strict about this kind of thing recently

    I'm wondering if the new reality of sampling has anything to do with this. Not that Radiohead or Lana Del Rey have anything to do with "sampling" per se, but that the reality of sampling as a mainstream tool in the music industry have simply made everyone, including lawyers more... I dunno, jumpy?

  4. Everyone just steals from Pachelbel.

    And plays the same for chords.

  5. "Fame", David Bowie (July 1975)

    "Hot", James Brown (December 1975)

    1. We Used to Know, Jethro Tull 1969

      Hotel California, The Eagles 1976

      Yes, this is actually a thing.

  6. I believe Mr Hartford sums it up perfectly here:

  7. Sorry, but Express Yourself and Mr. Big Stuff sound similar, but are not the same song. Listen to the bass lines. Not the same. Listen to the drum beat. Similar but not the same. Guitar riffs? Yep, not the same.

    And with the other Jean Knight songs, they have basically the same rhythm and sound very similar, but there are enough differences to say they are not the same song. Maybe you can say they are all based on the same musical theme, but they simply aren't the same songs.

    It's like listening to a bunch of different reggae songs. A lot of them sound very similar, but they just aren't the same song.

    1. Yes, I know there are subtle differences between "Express Yourself" and "Mr. Big Stuff" (not to mention different lyrics); they still manage to have more in common musically than, say, the Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin versions of "Respect," which theoretically are the same song.

      I agree that Knight's other recordings aren't the same song. I called them "barely-masked rewrites"?sort of like how The Force Awakens is a barely-masked rewrite of A New Hope.

      1. Ok, but in the case of Express Yourself and Mr. Big Stuff, the rhythm is what makes them sound so similar. The bass lines are actually quite different. The drum beats are similar, but that's because they're keeping basically the same rhythm, but how many basic drum beats can you have? Anyway, the drums in Express Yourself goes heavier on the snare. The beat in Mr. Big Stuff is a bit simpler, just a boop-bap..boopboop-bap sort of thing. That's the basic beat in Express Yourself too, except it's more embellished. Actually, that's the basic beat in many many many songs.The guitar riff on Mr. Big Stuff is basically just a simple rhythm keeper like in reggae, but in Express Yourself its much more complex than that. So I don't think it's accurate to say "They're the same goddamn song."

  8. CBC radio 2 has a thing during the afternoon drive where they play "distant" cousins" - user submitted songs that sound similar. I enjoy the comparisons, the same way I enjoy songs that use a riff to reference another. I enjoyed the heck out of this article. I like listening for this kind of thing and I definitely agree it's worrisome that things that sound similar get thrown into the courts. I have a Monty Python songbook that states "some of these notes have been used before". That there is so much you can do with them is kind of amazing, but you are going to run into a lot of similar sounding things.

    I do still think that stuff like Led Zeppelin ripping off and not crediting their influences is a shame, but that has more to do with how I think their influences needed the attention, not them.

  9. Think the Bo Diddley beat originated with Bo? Think again.

    There's been a lot of discussion of riffs, including drumming, and bass lines sounding similar. Traditionally, it has been the melody being copied that got songwriters in trouble. So much music nowadays is devoid of melody, that accusations of copying have to concentrate on the backing arrangement. It's been well-established that more than minimal samples require payment. Early blues, folk and country performers often copyrighted tunes that were in the public domain, and not just a particular arrangement. Robert Zimmerman "homesteaded" on any number of melodies. Consider how "Roddy McCorley" morphed into "Ramblin Gamblin' Willie." Nothing wrong with writing a ballad and suggesting a tune it be sung to. That was the standard MO of ballad-sellers, and of the "folk process" before cheap printing. You can't put your name on a tune you didn't write, though.

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