Fame and fortune may come and go, but for musicians, artistic integrity cannot. Fans and snobs alike have a fickle relationship with their heroes and once credibility wavers, being dubbed a sellout should be a walk in the park compared to the PR nightmare of being dubbed a music thief.
But plagiarism is more common than you’d think in the music industry and the guilt is multi-generational. By the end of this article, you may never look at the posters on your wall the same way again.
Grammy-winning, stadium-packing, Paltrow-marrying (and divorcing) juggernaut Coldplay have a long, complex relationship with fans and critics alike. Their debut Parachutes won them a Mercury Prize and skyrocketed them to a level of fame they’ve yet to come down from.
So when the ridiculous controversy surrounding their 2008 single “Viva la Vida” came to light, you’d have thought that would have been the end of Coldplay: pop colossus. But it wasn’t.
Viva La Vida carries the distinction of being called out as a carbon copy of not just one artist’s work – but three. Guitar deity Joe Satriani, indie folk-folk the Creaky Boards, and the former Cat Stevens Yusuf Islam all directly accused Chris Martin and co. of lifting their hit from their various bodies of work.
The Creaky Boards went so far as to claim Coldplay had actually seen them perform “The Songs I Didn’t Write” in 2007 and then released a comparison video to show the similarities. As it turned out, the demo of “Viva la Vida” had been recorded long before the show had ever occurred. The band retracted their accusation later on.
BUT THEN. Joe Satriani actually filed a copyright suit in 2008, claiming Coldplay’s song incorporated portions of 2004’s song “If I Could Fly.” The suit was dismissed in 2009, although an out-of-court settlement was allegedly reached.
And finally, in 2009, Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) called the same song out for ripping off “Foreigner Suite” after his son brought it to his attention. As with previous accusers, Coldplay flatly denied the accusation. Later that year, Islam said “They did copy my song, but I don’t think they did it on purpose. I don’t want them to think I’m angry with them. I’d love to sit down and have a cup of tea with them and let them know it’s okay.”
Coldplay are worth a literal ton of money; the controversy over “Viva La Vida” has failed to impede them.
The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was the Flaming Lips’ big breakthrough. Critics fell over themselves to praise the album both at its release, and at the end of the decade when it was immortalized in almost every critic’s top 10s.
And in the thick of all that praise, Yusuf Islam sued the Lips, alleging that their song “Fight Test” (also released on an eponymous bonus EP) was too close in structure and melody to his classic “Father and Son.”
It’s staggeringly similar. And a judge in the 2003 case of Sony/ATV Music (representing Islam) and EMI (representing the Flaming Lips) thought so too. The two parties agreed to a settlement, where Islam would receive royalties from “Fight Test.”
To his credit, Coyne hasn’t ever denied the similarities between the songs, stating in a 2003 Guardian interview: “I want to go on record for the first time and say that I really apologize for the whole thing. I really love Cat Stevens. I truly respect him as a great singer-songwriter. And now he wants his money. There was a time during the recording when we said, this has a similarity to ‘Father And Son.’ Then we purposefully changed those bits. But I do regret not contacting his record company and asking their opinion. Maybe we could have gone 50-50.”
As it is, Cat Stevens is now getting 75 percent of royalties from ‘Fight Test’: “We could easily have changed the melody but we didn’t. I am really sorry that Cat Stevens thinks I’m purposefully plagiarizing his work. I am ashamed.”
The Man in Black has iron-clad cred that spans every music fan; so what if you were to find out that Cash has actually admitted that one of his most iconic songs was (in large part) lifted from someone else’s? “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash’s 1955 career-maker, was accused of borrowing heavily from Gordon Jenkins 1953 tune “Crescent City Blues.”
And while you’d expect the man who sang about more murders than the entire Death Row Records roster combined to simply shrug off such an accusation and continue along with his general badassery, Cash did not. Cash admitted to hearing Jenkins’ original while in the army and crafting his own version. Not knowing he’d rise to country superstardom, Cash would eventually perform his own version for Sun Records. Owner Sam Phillips encouraged Cash to put his own name down as songwriter. Cash never denied Jenkins’ claims, paying the full $75,000 settlement Jenkins had been seeking in 1971.
Bonus: Jenkins himself may or may not have actually stolen HIS version of “Crescent City Blues” from a 1930’s song OF THE SAME NAME by pianist Little Brother Montgommery.
After years of relative obscurity stateside, the Verve finally broke through with 1997’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” This song, with its sweeping, pounding intro, horrifyingly sad lyrics, and catchy chorus, was the Verve’s ticket to awards and movie trailers and ads and gobs of cash.
Well, about that.
In recording the song, the Verve received clearance from Decca Records to use a sampling of Rolling Stones producer Andrew Oldham’s strings from the song “The Last Time.” When the song was released, the sample was greater than what was discussed. This was the basis for the Stones’ lawsuit against the Verve. The details of the proceedings are tedious and complicated, but the end result was Richard Ashcroft and co. being called out for going well beyond a sample and into all-out ripoff territory. At least by the court’s standards.
Ashcroft lost all credit for “Bittersweet Symphony” to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. So while the Verve vaulted to worldwide fame, they ultimately lined Jagger and Richards’ already velveteen pockets.
Even alt-rock’s knights in shining armour weren’t free of the great ganking cardinal sin. Depending on who you ask, Nirvana were able to do away with the hair rock and the poseurs and the boy bands with just one song. They were the reigning champeens of keeping it real, and Nevermind was their untouchable masterpiece.
“Come as You Are,” the album’s second single, continued to propel Nirvana to the stratosphere, but for for some, its intro bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the Killing Joke’s “Eighties.” In the 2000 book, Eyewitness Nirvana, former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg admitted to the band being aware of the similarity even while recording. “We met to discuss what [Nevermind‘s] second single would be. We couldn’t decide between ‘Come as You Are’ and ‘In Bloom.’ Kurt was nervous about ‘Come as You Are’ because it was too similar to a Killing Joke song [‘Eighties’], but we all thought it was still the better song to go with. And, he was right, Killing Joke later did complain about it.”
There are conflicting reports about the Killing Joke’s actions during that time. Publications like Rolling Stone claim that there was no lawsuit filed, while others like Kerrang! claimed a lawsuit was filed, but was withdrawn after Cobain’s death.
Either way, the surviving members of Nirvana admitted to the harsh similarities between the two songs and found their own, unique form of payback. A little over a decade after the whole fiasco, the Killing Joke reunited to record The Death and Ressurection Show, their first new album since 1996. On the drums? Dave Grohl.
Get a paper bag. Breathe deeply into it. It’s not that bad.
Radiohead’s 1992 album Pablo Honey featured Radiohead’s breakthrough single “Creep”—a song Radiohead would subsequently stop playing live because it was too commercial, man.
But that’s not the only reason. Thom Yorke has stated that while writing “Creep,” he was inspired by “The Air that I Breathe,” a 1973 song by the Hollies. Maybe too inspired.
While casual fans didn’t notice, the Hollies sure did. Band members Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood took Radiohead to court, with a swift decision being made in their favour. As a result, Hammond and Hazlewood are now co-credited as songwriters in Pablo Honey‘s liner notes.
The motherload. Of course the band whose riffs, fills, and shrieks have influenced generations of musicians are also without peer in being legendary ripoff artists. So fucked over are a swath of blues artists by Led Zeppelin, that there should be a whole new sub-genre of blues albums strictly about being totally fucked over by Led Zeppelin.
Let’s try it this way: what are your favourite Zep songs?
How about “Bring it on Home”? Awesome jam, right? Well, Zeppelin snatched that one directly from a song written by Willie Dixon and performed by Sonny Boy Williamson. The song’s title? “Bring it on Home.”
“The Lemon Song”? Aside from being in a long lineup of songs about Robert Plant’s penis, it incorporated more than just a few sections of Howlin Wolf’s “The Killing Floor.” Interestingly enough, Zeppelin performed Wolf’s version on their first American tour, and simply repackaged it as “The Lemon Song” for Zeppelin II – giving credit only to Page & Plant.
How much of a ripoff was it? Check out a side-by-side lyrical comparison.
How about “Whole Lotta Love”? Amazing, right? Well screw you, Willie Dixon! Dixon wrote “You Need Love” to be performed by Muddy Waters in 1963. “Whole Lotta Love,” while a spectacular insight to Robert Plant’s coital process, shamelessly lifted parts of Dixon’s work without so much as a wink in his direction. Dixon would eventually catch on, suing them in 1985 and getting co-writer credit on Zeppelin II.