THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME

DiscA cartoon in the current issue of ‘Private Eye’ shows a musician poised to unveil a new number for an appreciative audience. ‘I wrote this next song,’ he says, ‘in the hope that someone will rip it off so I can sue them.’ Satirical, yes, but to the point where the business of music is currently concerned. In the aftermath of the era when pop promised riches that speedily elevated its practitioners several social places via a string of hit singles, the descendants of deceased musicians who evidently didn’t have a problem with their little-known numbers bearing a passing resemblance to very well-known ones are launching suits left right and centre in order to grab a little cash from the only songs that still make a million, old ones.

Just a few months ago, a case of copyright infringement against Led Zeppelin claimed their magnum opus ‘Stairway to Heaven’ ripped off a track by an obscure 60s/70s band called Spirit. The judge ruled the similarities between ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Taurus’ were not similar enough to warrant infringement and Led Zep were not forced to surrender any of the astronomical royalties the song has accumulated for them over the last 45 years. This case followed the more famous one involving ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give it Up’; the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams hit of 2013 – remembered chiefly for its rather crass promo video – was compared unfavourably to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 US chart-topper in a case last year. This time round, the plagiarism charge held up and Gaye’s children were awarded in the region of $7.4 million as a consequence.

An insipid peddler of trite, vapid dirges he may well be, but is Ed Sheeran a plagiarist? The heirs of Ed Townsend, the late co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s erotic ode to Percy Filth, ‘Let’s Get it On’, reckon so. They’ve instigated a lawsuit against the guitar-playing ginger crooner that claims his track ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is a little too close to Gaye’s 1973 Billboard No.1 to not be considered a rip-off. I took a deep breath and gave the Sheeran track a listen to see if I could discern comparisons with Marvin’s sensual masterpiece. Yes, Gaye’s song was clearly an influence on Sheeran’s, but you could say that about hundreds of bloody songs recorded in the last half-century. After all, what is the 12-bar Blues but the same song over and over again?

The first time a plagiarism lawsuit caught the public’s attention was in the mid-70s, when George Harrison’s worldwide 1971 solo chart-topper ‘My Sweet Lord’ was successfully sued by the composers of the 1963 Chiffons hit, ‘He’s So Fine’. The judge found in favour of the latter and Harrison admitted he was probably subconsciously influenced by ‘He’s So Fine’ when composing the song that acted as the launch-pad for his post-Beatles career. There are identical chord changes in some places, though Harrison’s claim that he was more inspired by ‘Oh, Happy Day’, a 1969 hit for The Edwin Hawkins Singers, also rings true when it comes to the spiritual mood of ‘My Sweet Lord’.

Funnily enough, Harrison himself failed to sue Paul Weller, despite the obvious similarities between his own 1966 Beatles song, ‘Taxman’, and The Jam’s 1980 UK chart-topper, ‘Start’. Perhaps he was shrewd enough to recognise an affectionate homage to his track of fourteen years previously; but those were still the days when so much money was in pop music that people didn’t necessarily have to sue to survive.

The collapse of the old-school music industry and the multi-million dollar record sales that enabled performers and writers to join the jet-set on the back of them has hit the songwriter hard. Up-and-coming artists forced to relentlessly tour in order to make a living certainly have a case should they feel someone else has ripped off their tune and is making more money from their version of it than their original managed; but when it comes to the children of dead writers attempting to make a mint from something they themselves had no hand in, I’m not so sure. Andrew Lloyd-Webber owes his most successful songs to the eighteenth and nineteenth century composers he…er…’borrowed’ melodies from, so where are their descendants, desperately seeking some golden eggs that they had nothing to do with the laying of? The way things are going, don’t rule it out.

There are only so many chords and there are only so many ways of putting those chords in a different running order; equally, each new artist that appears carries his or her influences in every song they write, which is an unavoidable state of affairs. And with genuine originality being at such a premium today, it’s inevitable we’re going to get even more soundalikes due to the fact that twenty-first century musicians have almost a hundred years of standards behind them that they have to compete with and outdo. It’s a tall order, though the prospect of each new hit being accused of ripping off another from thirty or forty years ago by people who’ve never so much as written a shopping-list is utterly farcical. And it’s setting a dangerous precedent.

© The Editor

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7 thoughts on “THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME

  1. Maybe the safest approach is to adopt Eric Morecambe’s strategy with ‘Andre Preview’ – “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”.

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  2. Spirit rock! They have some great songs and even when they reunified (again) they were still great – here’s proof from 1984!

    Transparent guitars, a line-up which seemed to include every journeyman who’d passed through the ranks, great dancing & the World’s Biggest Snare Drum – what’s not to like?!?

    I think Led Zep were guilty on this occasion regardless of the judge’s opinion, and if Randy California had bothered to complain at the time (or at least whilst still living!) then they’d have paid up. I don’t blame them for defending themselves though as the thought of ‘the estate’ of a man dead nineteen long years receiving the benefit of his efforts probably didn’t appeal. ‘Tis a shame in a way, as he’s more deserving than a load of other ‘classic’ acts.

    I’m off to hook my thumbs through the belt loops of my jeans & have another listen now.

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    1. I think Randy California didn’t bother to sue Led Zeppelin, because he knew that the phrases and chord progressions in Taurus which also appeared in Stairway To Heaven had been used many times before by different composers from Bach onwards.

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      1. I know what you mean, Andy, but the difference with Bach is that he didn’t record a definitive version (or any version!) and a recording is more than a collection of chord progressions.
        Just watched a couple of videos on the subject (before & after verdict) from a guy demonstrating the differences & similarities between the two, and he kind of changed his mind when he had the sheet-music of both songs side by side as they were less similar visually that audibly. (He’d originally been unable to locate that of ‘Taurus’.)

        The jury were apparently forbidden from comparing the two recordings (‘though it’s difficult to imagine they didn’t have a listen at home!) and had to make their judgement on expert opinion based on the sheet-music only. Again, a recording is more than notes on a scale, and the ‘feel’ of both is incredibly similar – a medievel feel admittedly! – and they may sound more similar than the sheet-music would suggest. But who cares about the sheet-music?!? It’s the recording which matters, to me at least.

        I wasn’t very convinced by Led Zep’s claim that they ‘might’ have been exposed to the song either. They played several concerts on the same bill & while Spirit may never have become a massive band they were respected by other musicians (Hendrix, etc.) and I’d be amazed if Page & Plant had never listened to the work of the ‘child prodigy’ Randy California – only sixteen when Taurus appeared.

        Mind you, the same YouTuber made the point that accepting claims of plaigirism based on ‘feel’ is a dangerous move liable to open the floodgates for greedy rights-holders; he thinks the case settled in Marvin Gaye’s favour against Robin Thicke & pals is one such case where the tracks sound more similar than they really are (according to sheet-music). I see his point but imagine most people are not visualizing the crochets & quavers as they listen.

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      2. Another factor I think worth mentioning is that different eras of pop music have a shared sound – think of the Porter-type songs from the 30s & 40s and how they were interpreted by the likes of Sinatra or Nat King Cole in the 50s; they all bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. Ditto the Merseybeat era of 63/64, and also the late 60s-early 70s, where the ‘Stairway to Heaven’/’Taurus’ claim stems from. Each era has its defining ‘sound’, and similarities are unavoidable.

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    1. That’s pretty tight for a ‘circular firing-squad’ – even makes the Labour Party look more creative in their mutual destruction approach.

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