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Poor Ed Sheeran. You’d think that after seeing his bezzy mate Sam Smith wrangle with Tom Petty over the similarities between "I Won’t Back Down" and "Stay With Me", he might be more inclined to ensure his own musical integrity. Yet here he is, now dealing with his own lawsuit after being taken for a cool $20 million by the songwriters of Matt Cardle’s 2011 hit "Amazing", who claim Ed’s chorus for his 2014 number 1 hit, "Photograph", is a “note-by-note copy.”
But plagiarism allegations stretch back as far as popular mainstream rock and pop has existed, so too have the unhappy rumblings of disgruntled songsmiths determined to protect their art. And this is by no means confined to contemporary artists — I’m guessing a fair few classical composers would turn in their graves if they clapped ears on some of the riffs that have been churned out in the last few decades, with no mention of the sources from whence they came.
So where does it start? Well maybe things aren’t quite as cut and dried as “you’ve nicked my riff”, simply due to the fact that every form of modern music is derived from a previous form in some way or other. But, due to the confines of the word count for this particular article, I’ll start in the late 40s.
Rock music as we know it today, although consistently morphing, is largely derived from the black rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel and folk/country music of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. In the 40s, white artists such as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams took elements of traditional black styles and turned them into new sounds appealing to the white mass market.
As we head into the 50s, artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry took things a step further. Capitalising on the introduction of the amp, they brought us hard-hitting piano and electric guitar riffs to notch things up a significant number of gears. Not forgetting also, that ever-changing social attitudes and the gradual liberation of the teen generation also had a huge bearing on what the population craved at that time.
Enter Buddy Holly and Elvis — the white icons of the day. Both tipping a nod to the black blues roots that preceded them, whilst hurtling towards us with a raging new energy that was to influence the modern face of rock and pop as we now know it. Most music fans know the score. Buddy + Elvis + Skiffle = The Beatles, and thus, the bar is set.
But music, by its very nature, offers only a finite number of possibilities. So how long before we start to hear repetition?
If we were to sit and list all the famous tracks that remind us of something else, we’d be here indefinitely. Suffice it to say, the likes of George Harrison, Lep Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, Oasis, Bieber, Gaga, The Strokes, The Jets, The Chili Peppers, and a gazillion others, have fallen foul to allegations — some more blindingly obvious than others.
But when should we forgive? And when is it fair to expect the accused to fess up?
Lennon and McCartney always openly acknowledged their influences and paid respect to their musical foundations, citing Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Lonnie Donegan as being responsible for making them take that first, world-changing shopping trip to Hessy’s. Influences are allowed. Influences are crucial to development, and without influences, music and most other progressive art forms, not to mention science, technology, and just about everything else, would stand still.
But this raises a very important point. The way music developed in the 50s through to the 90s is very different to how music develops now. A large proportion of musicians from that period were exactly that…musicians. They had worked up through the ranks, playing for five, ten, 12 years before the world ever even found out they existed, slogging out their art at every possible opportunity, for the love and passion of it, getting better with every grueling gig, developing a steadfast work ethic and eventually gaining the respect of their peers and the public notoriety they deserved.
The fact they had respect for what went before them, is key in the plagiarism debate.
As an example…Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran were recently quoted as saying they had never heard of Radiohead. Casually shrugging off one of the 90s most iconic bands is not cool and serves only to confirm a level of ignorance that couldn’t make them any less appealing. The trick is to have some nobility.
I’ve ranted in the past about the fact that young songwriters no longer seem to know much about what went before them…and frankly, if I hear the old chestnut “but that’s before my time” once more, I swear I’m gonna….
I was born in 1971 and I’m just a simple music fan. I’m not a musician and I don’t make a living out of it. Yet, I still know about Jim Reeves, Perry Como, Vera Lynn, The Big Bopper, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn — stars of my grandparents’ generation. If you truly love popular music you know about these people because your natural curiosity and craving for knowledge will lead you to them. As serious listeners, we are influenced by our musical heroes and they make us want to investigate. Who did they listen to when they were kids? Why does he sing like that? Where does that guitar style come from? So we dig, and we find stuff that’s new to us and start listening to that too…it’s how music works! At age 12, I heard my fave 80s band do a cover of Blue Mink’s "Melting Pot." I immediately found out who sang the original and went and bought it — it shaped my love of 60s and 70s music.
In my recent radio tribute, I highlighted a number of bands who had been openly influenced by David Bowie, with artists like Placebo, Blur, and Suede, pinning it down to one specific album: Low. And yes, in some cases, the similarities between some of their material, and "Berlin Bowie" is perfectly obvious…but they’ve cited him as their inspiration and they applied some creative adaptation to his ideas in order to produce their own.
The likes of Smith and Sheeran seem to scoff at the idea of classic artists, reluctant to attach any relevance to them, and rendering it "uncool" to have heard of anyone pre-1990s. Do your homework, lads. Without them, there would be no you.
So the question is...has this apparent lack of historic music knowledge resulted in a trend of songwriters who are blissfully unaware that most of their tracks sound like something else…simply because they have never listened to older stuff? If they had any clue about their "ancestry" surely some of their etchings would at least ring a bell?!
Of course music plagiarism is an age-old phenomena, but never before have I turned on the radio so often to find myself saying, “God, what does that remind me of?”
This musical apathy, coupled with a desire for fast-tracked fame and wealth, has naturally led to songs being written to a certain format, designed purely with money in mind. They’ve spotted a commercial meal-ticket and by God are they sticking to it! A banal conveyor belt of similar melodies, predictable hooks and money-making formulae, dull enough to drive us all screaming for mercy, back to 1972.
In a recent experiment, I had intended to mash-up a few of these tracks just to make a point, but I lost the will to live listening to them repeatedly in the editing software. On the list were: Ed Sheeran, "Photograph"; Charlie Puth, "One Call Away"; James Bay, "Hold Back the River"; John Legend, "All of Me"; Sam Smith, "Lay Me Down"; Lukas Graham, "7 Years" and Jamie Lawson, "Wasn’t Expecting That" (winning the award for most ironic song title of the year).
If you can be bothered to listen, you’ll find a collection of infuriatingly "nice" little formulaic melodies all following the same template.
But my argument would be one-sided if I failed to drag in a few old pros.
In April, Led Zeppelin made headlines with the allegation that they lifted the intro to "Stairway" from a track called "Taurus" by Spirit — not the first time they’d got themselves into trouble, as "Whole Lotta Love" was also dragged through the courts in 1985. George Harrison famously lost his wrangle with "My Sweet Lord" against The Chiffons’ "He’s So Fine" in 1976 and "Shakermaker" from Oasis is virtually a complete lift of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” by The New Seekers.
But whilst plagiarism is not exclusive to the latest batch of chart-fodder, neither is it exclusive to rock music. In fact, my favourite of all the plagiarists is Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose portfolio of musical theatre hits would appear to be far from original. Having heard the "evidence" it’s hard to deny. There’s everything here, from Ravel’s "Bolero" (1928), Puccini (1907) and Mendelsohn (1845), right through to 70s Floyd. It’s all had the Lloyd Webber treatment.
On hearing Bowie’s "Wild is the Wind" from the 1976 album Station to Station, I was thrown into a frenzy trying to find out which came first…this, or the very similar "Garden of Gethsemane" from Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Super Star. I was gutted…Jesus had pipped Bowie by three years.
Given Lloyd Webber’s history I refused to be silenced and dug deeper, only to discover the Bowie track is a cover of an original written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington in….drum roll please….1957. Yes, Sir Andrew had been at it again. Nothing is safe, yet the man is hailed a genius. How about rich and clever? Yes, can’t deny that, despite the very nasty taste it leaves in my mouth.
And finally, to fill in the gap between “influenced by” and “ripped-off” we have the pastiche. The one that has fans divided and arguments raging. Are they ripping someone off? Or just paying tribute?
I’ll say it again — NOBILITY. It’s all about the overt respect that one artist shows to another — after all, imitation is the highest form of flattery, but there is such a thing as taking the piss and your moral compass should tell you where to draw the line.
"Sowing the Seeds of Love" from Tears for Fears was a brilliantly skillful, full-on Beatles pastiche. Yet, because of the talent we all knew TFF had, because of the openness they displayed in explaining the roots of the song and because we knew they didn’t NEED to rip anyone off in order to have a hit, we all took it in the manner in which it was intended.
So therein lies my point. Music is there for us all to enjoy and once it’s out there in the ether, every song is liable to imitation. But show us what YOU can do first, prove yourself, admit to being influenced, acknowledge those who laid the foundations, and gain our respect.
Until you start doing that, I’ll stick with the originals.