Plagiarism…Getting Mine From Thine
Plagiarism in music is nothing new…damn, I think I just made a very weak joke. But back to the subject, plagiarism is probably the strongest term available to define a phenomena that occurs almost every time a composer sets out to write a popular song. The vast majority of contemporary pop music is written within the framework of major and minor scales containing just seven notes. Pop songs must, by definition, be singable or at least digestable by a wide audience and it is no surprise to find that short sequences of recognizable melodic fragments can be common to songs which are otherwise unrelated. Unconsciously quoting melodic fragments and writing new melodies over standard chord sequences have been practiced throughout the history of music but the concept of intellectual property rights and the evolution of the human sub-species “Attornicus Bill-able Hour-icus” have made for some interesting noises being made in the name of ownership protection.
Joe Satriani’s recently filed lawsuit against Coldplay alleges that the main ingredient of Viva La Vida comes straight out of Satch’s If I Could Fly cookbook. If the two recordings were the only evidence offered in the case Joe’s day in court should be a short as one even my great-uncle Ludwig, born earless as an anvil, would recognize the recordings as two versions of the same basic material. Ah, but if the arbiter of justice were to scratch the surface he may find that Satriani had Frances Limon by Enanito Verdes playing in the other room while he was cooking up If I could Fly. If past cases are any indication this could go on for longer than it will remain interesting. For my money all three parties should holster their wieners, ditch the lawyers and unite in a world tour “Battle of the Bands.” Let the fans decide and in case of a tie they can arm wrestle.
Quoting, borrowing and outright theft are just a matter of degree and it would be interesting to apply the third degree in addition to paperwork when registering new songs. Lie detectors, rubber hoses and sleep deprivation…the works. I’ve always felt badly for George Harrison and the My Sweet Lord business. Sensitive gentleman that Sir George was, he was so intensely browbeaten with that He’s So Fine bullshit for so long that he might have actually believed he was capable of stealing from a song he didn’t give two shits about.
The Ghost Busters Theme was found to be cut a bit too closely from the same cloth as Huey Lewis’ I want A New Drug, but you could easily replace the vocal from either song with Van Morrison’s track from Gloria without too much bleeding. So again, the question arises, who took what from whom? Only the lawyers can arrive at legal answers but my twisted ear has made some interesting observations, some more plain than others. An obvious example is the way a Mexican folk song like La Bamba became a rock and roll classic for Ritchie Valens. The chord sequence was used by The Isley Brothers whose Twist and Shout became a Beatles hit which was re-borrowed by The Olympics for their 1965 song Good Lovin’ which became a hit for the Young Rascals in 1965. Who said recycling was a new idea?
How about the similarity between the rhythm tracks of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Billie Ocean’s Caribbean Queen? I can’t help but notice how you can interchange verse, chorus and bridge sections between Every Breath You Take by The Police and the Leo Sayers hit Love You More Than I Can Say without too much trouble. A medley of the two songs could leave you wondering which section belongs to which song. And whenever I hear Beck’s Loser I want to break out in the nah na na na-na-na-nah final chorus of Hey Jude. To get ridiculous for a moment, I wonder if Kurt Cobain was having a Partridge Family flashback when he wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit which sounds like a twist on the hook from I Think I Love You.
To get away from contemporary pop music for a moment, I wonder how many Americans are aware that Francis Scott Key’s lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner are actually set to the music of the Anacreontic Song (melody by John Stafford Smith, published by Longman & Broderip, London, 1778) which was supposedly used as a sort of field sobriety test in England because of the difficulty of its execution. Small wonder that the National Anthem is butchered with such regularity by otherwise competent singers.
As early as the fifteenth century composers were openly lifting popular melodies as themes in their major works. Heinrich Isaac’s Missa Carminum incorporated Innsbruck Ich Muss Dich Lassen and Bruder Conrad, both popular German folk songs, as major themes. There is speculation that this was done to increase attendance among local commoners but I wonder if the church ever thought to contact or compensate the original composers.
In addition to the five-fingered discount resulting from the limited note sequence variations inherent in our system of major/minor scale structure, there exist a few standard chord sequences that account for literally thousands of popular songs. There is the obvious 12 bar blues, or “Johnny B. Goode” changes, the minor blues sometimes referred to as “Summertime” changes and “Ice Cream” or “Doo-wop” changes. With slight variations these chord sequences are required reading for anyone studying Songwriting 101. Add the sequence from George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm commonly called “Rhythm changes” and any songwriter can start cranking out hits without too much fuss.
Biblically speaking, there is not much new under the sun neither is there much new in the pop charts. Plagiarism, or the art of causing thine to become mine, has been around since man learned to get his dinner by imitating duck noises. In the big picture it is a fairly recent development for ‘A’ to demand compensation from ‘B’ for something originally stolen by ‘C’ from a long dead ‘D’. It was inevitable that once we learned to bray on our hind legs displaying our shortcomings, law suits and the suits who file them wouldn’t be far behind.
There are completely original pop songs being written everyday but don’t hold your breath to hear them on the radio anytime soon. Program directors want to know two things. One, what are you going to put in the trunk of my car if I give your new song a spin? And two, who does this recording sound like? If the second question can’t be answered quickly, the first question won’t really matter much. As to the Satriani/Coldplay affair, the fatted calf will end up in the maw of Attornicus Bill-able Hour-icus, Satriani’s fans will show their support by buying a few tee-shirts and downloading more bootleg tracks and Coldplay will continue to spend their leisure time counting money.