Riff robbers and tune takers

Famous songs that borrowed from others. Intentionally or otherwise.

Don’t mind this tune, but it sounds familiar…that’s because it probably is. More and more, artists are being sued by other artists for ripping off, oops unintentionally sampling part of their original songs.

Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious, sometimes it takes 50 listens to hear anything remotely familiar.

Whatever you may think of Bono, he had a point when he claimed that we’ve almost run out of original riffs and tunes. There are after all, a limited number of riffs and melodies that haven’t already been used.

But no mistake, any song with the slightest hint of an earlier tune will be subjected to frenzied law suits and breach of copyright hysteria.

A teenage death metal band in Bulgaria may never have heard of Simply Red and that’s their good fortune. However if they record a C/G/C/A riff that they quite like and it has an uncanny resemblance to a musical turd recorded in 1985 then you can be sure the Simply Red lawyers will be banging down the door.

In the successful lawsuits, the artists alleged to have copied are ordered to hand over all of their profits to the original artist.

Wince.

Here’s a sample of riff rip offs. You be the judge.

“Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr.  SOUNDED LIKE: “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis

The monster hit from the monster movie. In the mid-80s you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters”. Clubs, shopping centres, weddings and especially in Pakistan’s Pashtun hill tribes.

Mr Parker was rolling around on his bed, covered in royalty cheques.

And then came the fateful call from the lawyers representing rock band Huey Lewis & the News. Seems Huey and the boys had listened to Ghostbusters and decided it was a little too similar to their own hit “I Want a New Drug”.

What the!?
And yet…eerily similar.

Gulp.

They settled out of court for what we can assume was a tidy sum.

Who you gonna call? My copyright lawyer, that’s who.

“Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke.  SOUNDED LIKE: “Got To Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye.

“Blurred Lines” was a toe-tapping favorite in 2013. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams combined for a funky chart topper.

If only Thicke hadn’t shot his mouth off about how his idol was Marvin Gaye and how he was so heavily influenced by Marvin Gaye. How he just really adored Marvin Gaye.

The people looking after Gaye’s estate took note and realized Thicke really did idolize Marvin. The legal eagles decided imitation was not the sincerest form of flattery but it was going to be the most expensive.

The resulting lawsuit saw all profits from sales of “Blurred Lines” go straight to Marvin Gaye’s estate.

Pharrell Williams moved on with hit after hit. Thicke is presumably delivering pizzas or living under a bridge.

“Hello I Love You” by The Doors.  SOUNDED LIKE: “All Day And All Of The Night” by The Kinks

You can understand an artist today unintentionally coming up with a chord sequence recorded 60 years ago. They could at least argue it was a subconscious steal.

However The Doors “Hello I Love You” was written in 1968, just four years after The Kinks hit “All Day And All Of The Night”.

The Kinks singer/writer Ray Davies presumably heard the opening riffs to “Hello I Love You” on the radio and choked on his corn flakes.

Both were fine songs and big hits but a judge ruled in favor of The Kinks.

The Doors were ordered to pay royalties, although they were probably too whacked out of their minds to realise or care.

“Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice.  SOUNDED LIKE: “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie

In 1990, rapper Vanilla Ice topped the Billboard charts with “Ice Ice Baby”. He’d changed his name from Robert Van Winkle and that was one of his few smart decisions.

“Ice Ice Baby” took the world by storm. If only he hadn’t blatantly pinched the bassline from Queen and David Bowie’s similarly big hit “Under Pressure”.

Neither Queen or Bowie were credited on “Ice Ice Baby” so the lawyers came a’knockin. Vanilla claimed that he’d added an extra beat to the riff which therefore made it his original tune.

When the lawyers finished laughing, they handed him the papers to sign.

Vanilla Ice agreed to an out of court settlement that effectively left the lovable palooka broke. However once Queen and Bowie were added to the song’s credits, Van Winkle was cleared to start collecting royalty payments.

It’s estimated today he pulls in a lazy $800,000 a year from “Ice Ice Baby” royalties.

We’re not sure what the moral of this story is.

“Stay With Me” by Sam Smith.  SOUNDED LIKE: “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty

In what was most likely a case of unfortunately sampling a riff unintentionally, Sam Smith was ordered to cough up by disgruntled old rocker Tom Petty. The singers styles and genres couldn’t be more different, but the similarity was there. To be fair, Smith probably had no idea who Petty was, but them’s the breaks.

Smith’s 2014 song “Stay With Me” was a gospel-inspired ballad. People liked it and it reached Number 1 and 2 in the UK and States.

The song was obviously being played everywhere and eventually it caught the attention of folk rocker Tom Petty. Petty decided that the melody was a little too close to his own “I Won’t Back Down” and saw red. Or green, millions of it.

Smith had to pay Petty 12% of the royalties, which Tom presumably spends on Metamucil and adult nappies.

“I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy.  SOUNDED LIKE: “Every Breath You Take” by The Police

You’d think some people would learn. Surely Puff Daddy looked at fellow rapper Vanilla Ice being sent bankrupt and thought, “Nasty – best to ask permission obviously…”

Not our Puff. Either too ignorant or too arrogant to bother, he simply pinched a guitar riff from The Police and he was in business. For a while.

His 1997 smash “I’ll Be Missing You” cleaned up at the Grammys and sold 7 million copies. Puff was lighting his cigars with $100 bills and driving sports cars into his pool for fun.

And then the laughter ended.

Tantric-sex advocating, environmentally-aware preaching Sting decided he still needed more cash. And lots of it.

Sting successfully sued P Daddy for failing to credit him on the record. As a result, Sting earns a tidy $730,000 a year for the royalties. That’s about $2000 a day, which is more than enough money to tell people how to live their lives.

If Puff had simply asked Sting for permission he’d only have had to pay Sting 25%.

Chortle.

“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by Rod Stewart  SOUNDED LIKE: “Taj Mahal” by Jorge Ben

The 70s were a blur for rockin’ Rod and he cheerfully admitted that he “may have” pinched the melody for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”. Stewart was refreshingly honest in his confession. In 1978 he went on a week bender with the (at the time) equally fun-loving pal Elton John. “Taj Mahal” was a massive hit and you could hear the samba toe-tapper all throughout South America.

Rod definitely heard it, definitely liked it and definitely pinched it.

He put his hand up and the two reached an out of court settlement, with most of the profits going to charity.

Go to around 1:00!

It’s not always clear though. Katy Perry’s lawyers made a convincing case when Christian crooner Flame claimed her megahit “Dark Horse” had plagiarized his “Joyful Noise”.

Perry was initially ordered to pay almost $3 million, however when she pointed out that she’d fortunately never heard his music, an appeal judge agreed.

Flame threw his toys out of the cot and appealed the appeal. Sigh…

Other artists have incredibly dodged the lawsuit bullet but it’s most likely only a matter of time.

“Warning” by Green Day  SOUNDS EXACTLY LIKE: “Picture Book” by The Kinks

Australia’s Jet were all the rage in the early 2000s but one thinks a certain Iggy Pop was either too busy or too out of it to care when they released…

“Are You Gonna Be My Girl”.  IT SOUNDED JUST LIKE: “Lust For Life” by Iggy Pop.

At the end of the day, all good songs are just that – good songs. As are crap songs. Whether borrowed subconsciously or clearly stolen, the main thing is that they got people up and moving, singing loud in their cars or the shower.

And what’s wrong with that?

2 Comments

  1. I guess it’s hard on the writers & performers whose songs were blatantly copied or stolen but as you say if “they got people up and moving, singing loud in their cars or the shower” don’t think many of us will lose any sleep over it.

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