All Bands Steal.
All musicians poach ideas from one another, give them a slight twist, and then make them their own. The history of music is a towering sculpture of players standing on each other’s shoulders (whether they’re giants or not), being inspired, pushed, driven, warped, folded, inverted, and assimilated by what came before them. Riffs can’t be patented. Hooks and choruses are like mittens in the preschool free box. There are only twelve notes. People are going to repeat themselves: sometimes with inspiration, sometimes inadvertently, often through sheer laziness. In fact, you could make the case that really creative and inspired lifting, where the initial idea is buried and almost unrecognizable, is in some ways worse than appropriations that are clumsy and obvious.
But in some cases “inspiration” isn’t quite the right word, and it bleeds into “outright larceny.” It should be taken as a given that if a band adopts virtually the same lyrics, melody, and chords as another band, it may be a cover, but it’s not their song. However, not everyone agrees, and sheer theft is as much a part of rock and roll as Keith Richards’s dangling cigarette. Also, it shouldn’t be a massive surprise, given the history of racial politics in this country, that the worst examples tend to come from black musicians being ripped off by white ones. Royalties? Forget it. There are many, many thousands of these thefts, of all gradations–as bald and ridiculous as Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” being the exact same riff, rhythm, and attitude as Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” to ZZ Top’s “La Grange” merely drawing from the biblical foundation riff that anchors John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillin.’”
But here are three (3) of the most egregious examples:
1. The Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA” Vs. Chuck Berry “Sweet Little Sixteen”
This is an outright embarrassment. Listening to the two songs side-by-side should cause howling laughter, and then maybe that sickly after-feeling that comes from just having seen your sister naked. Chuck, reportedly beyond enraged, lawyered up hard and went to court. The Beach Boys were eventually forced to give Berry a writing credit and some royalties, (which he had to share with the entire band) even though they stole his riff and changes outright. Chuck was famously later arrested for installing hidden cameras in the bathrooms of his country club so that he could watch women defecate. After the way he was treated in the 50s, and how many times he was stolen from, it’s hard not to discern a certain sort of logic there.
2. Led Zeppelin “How Many More Times” Vs. Howlin’ Wolf “How Many More Years”
Led Zeppelin may be the single most blatant and unforgivable group of cynical plagiarists in the history of rock, including their un-credited devouring of the entire Willie Dixon songbook, not to mention numerous other tunes, riffs, and easily documentable thefts. It’s not just licks and snippets of lyrics, but entire instrumental pieces and whole lyric sheets, including major hits such as “The Lemon Song” (Howlin’ Wolf) “I Can’t Quit You Babe” (Otis Rush), “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (Blind Willie Johnson), “Dazed and Confused” (Jake Holmes—what a surprise, he opened for The Yardbirds back in the day), “Black Mountain Side” (down to the note from Burt Jansch’s arrangement), “Moby Dick” (Robert Parker), “Custard Pie” (Sleepy John Estes), “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (Moby Grape, also opened for Zeppelin), and “Whole Lotta Love (Small Faces). Just listen to “Bring it on Home” as played by Sonny Boy Williamson (the most blatant and unforgivable Willie Dixon example) next to the Zeppelin verision. They claimed to have written it! Even Zeppelin’s most iconic hit “Stairway to Heaven” is an OUTRAGEOUS note-for-note rip off of Spirit’s “Taurus” (what a surprise, Spirit also opened for Zeppelin). Most of these songs are credited to “Jimmy Page music/lyrics” although sometimes John Paul Jones or Robert Plant are credited as well. All this is damning enough, but here’s what makes Led Zeppelin so much worse than other thieves: when various musicians brought suit alleging plagiarism, instead of just fessing up and spreading a nominal amount of cash around, Zeppelin used the very same royalties they stole from those musicians to stomp them with teams of high powered lawyers in court!
I was a big Zeppelin fan in high school, and so were many of my friends. I had every album and knew all their songs backwards and forwards. And despite myself, I still dig them. But it wasn’t until college when I started listening to 30’s and 40’s blues that I kept hearing lines and lyrics from Zeppelin tunes popping up in other people’s work. Still, even their most ludicrous thefts would be relatively forgivable if they had simply shrugged when busted, credited the original sources, and sent a token amount of their massive royalties to the estates of the original players, instead of being intransigent and miserly dicks.
The blues, if we’re going to go down that road, has its own long history of both outright thefts and marginal innovations. But there was very little money to speak of back then between bluesmen. If Sonny Boy Williams lifted from Son House, it was a matter of pride, not cash. The Rolling Stones, as an example of a band with both balls and ethics, actually gave writing credit to Chuck Berry, who they stole from mercilessly, but also more obscure players like Slim Harpo, who they credited for “Shake Your Hips.” In any case, and despite the fact that I love the Stones, Slim Harpo’s version is approximately 19,000 percent better.
3. Oasis “Step Out” Vs. Stevie Wonder “Uptight”
It should come as no surprise that a band as monotonous and uninspired as Oasis is notorious for their “uncredited appropriations.” Their hit “Cigarettes and Alcohol” is a brutal and lazy robbery of the T. Rex classic “Get it On,” and the chorus of “Step Out” might as well have been cut-and-pasted from Stevie Wonder by a robot. Once again, a lawsuit was initiated and Oasis pulled the song from their first album, later re-releasing it with a credit going to Stevie. No one is likely to accuse Oasis of having a single original idea in any of their later material either, but at least they seem to have learned a lesson on future releases by heisting riffs with slightly more style and elan.
*Note: despite having noticed these similarities initially on my own, for confirmation I stole directly from at least four different websites and a Howard Stern broadcast. And then learned a whole ton of shit I didn’t know. I am now utilizing some of that information, and various opinions expressed, without attribution, credit, or footnotes. Because sourcing is for pussies.