Some seventeen Saturdays ago I was snuggling soundlessly on a sexy sectional with the girl who likes grellow, watching a bit of a chick flick. And it wasn’t half bad. Michael Scott from The Office starred in it, and he’s always good. Anyway, toward the end of the thing, “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies came on. I had heard the chorus to that song dozens of times, but I had never listened to the whole thing, soup to nuts, until right then. And my God…the melody during the verses….the word that first came to mind was “haunting.” The lyrics were beautiful, perfectly suited to the song. “That is exactly the sort of song,” I thought, “that I’ve been trying to write for 35 years.” The second word that come to my mind as I was listening enviously to this song was “familiar.” Hauntingly familiar. I knew I hadn’t heard this song before, because I would remember it, but, impossibly, simultaneously, I knew I’d heard it before.
Later that night, I found “The Air That I Breathe” online and listened to the shit out of it.
Loudly. Over and over. It sounded like something that John Lennon and Phil Spector came up with around 1979. Which made me feel better about not being the one who had written it. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d heard it before. So I looked the thing up online and found very quickly that I had, in fact, heard it before, though it was being performed by Radiohead and being called “Creep.” Of course Radiohead were loathe to admit that, and The Hollies ended up suing the hell out of them and winning. And that got me thinking. Exactly what is the line between what is considered an original composition and plagiarism? In writing, that line is pretty obvious and easy to define. But in music, things seem exponentially more complicated…at least sometimes. So I started doing some looking at other songs that sounded to me as if the artists who recorded them owed somebody else a lot of money.
I always just assumed that everybody understood that Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” was just a slightly altered cover version of Sly Stone’s “Thankufalettinmebmyself.” Nope. Apparently Wild Cherry never paid a dime to Sly, which surprised me. And that instance was not nearly as egregious as some other rip-offs that come to mind. That worst was Ray Parker, Jr’s “Ghostbusters,” which patently ripped off Huey Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug.” Absolutely shameful.
It is possible to use someone else’s song as your own in a completely honorable and honest way. When Sammy Hagar wrote one of my favorite drinking anthems, “Mas Tequila,” he knew he was just putting different words over Gary Glitter’s “Rock n’ Roll Pt. 2,” and he gave Gary writing credit on that song. Perfectly acceptable and rather classy.
If I’m honest, I think I thought that there was some sort of enforcement arm of ASCAP that listened intently to every radio station in the world all the time and when they heard something that sounded a little too similar to something else, litigated viciously on behalf of the original artist. But apparently no such body exists. Which makes the fact that John Fogerty somehow got sued for plagiarizing himself very strange. I can’t figure out the weird details of how it came about, but I guess the guys in Credence Clearwater Revival (Fogerty’s original band) sued him because his single, “The Old Man Down the Road” was basically CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” with different words. The problem is that Fogerty is credited as the composer of both songs, so any back-royalties he would have to pay would be to himself. Just bizarre.
Prince has “stolen” from himself plenty of times. The first instance I notices was when I heard “Manic Monday,” the song he gave to the Bangles. Its melody is that of “1999.” I’ve heard a great deal of other people’s music in some of his songs though. “Erotic City,” to my ears, always sounded a great deal like Laid Back’s “White Horse,” And Prince’s “Guitar” is U2’s “I Will Follow.”
I gave up listening to the radio about 10 years ago, but started again recently when I moved back to California and drank the Kool-Aid and decided I had a duty to confront this shitty culture head-on instead of hiding from it until it destroys itself. The news on the music front is not good. Not good at all. The vast majority of what I hear currently is unlistenable dreck. And a lot of what I hear that doesn’t induce immediate vomiting sounds awfully familiar. There seem to be a lot of Police cover bands doing rather well on the charts. Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” is, to these jaded ears, “Message in a Bottle.” And whatever a Gotye is, his song “Somebody That I Used to Know” seems to be rather similar to “Walking on the Moon.”
And Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is inescapably just an updated version of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”
Artists steal from each other. It happens all the time. I’ve done it…I have both stolen and been stolen from. Sometimes they do it openly, and it is then an “homage.” Other times, they must be litigated against to pay royalties to the person who actually first wrote the song, and even then many will fight and refuse to admit similarities, intended or otherwise. I guess what I wish is that we, the listening audience, were more attentive and demanded more from the people we put on musical pedestals. Or at least kept them on their toes a bit more.