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Copy Borrow Steal Vol. 3

November 13th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Did the Beatles borrow from a 1956 jazz hit before their song was shamelessly copied by a 1990s alternative group? How did Rod Stewart get around a plagiarism lawsuit? Does Seal’s mega-hit Kiss From A Rose borrow from Natalie Cole? Did Keith Richards and Mick Jagger really never hear k.d. lang’s Constant Craving? Why am I writing the intro in question format? Could it be because the Copy Borrow Steal posts are not intended to directly accuse songwriters of plagiarism (except when they do)? Shall we proceed to the meat of the post?

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Jorge Ben – Taj Mahal (1976).mp3
Bob Dylan – One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) (1966).mp3
Rod Stewart – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy (1978).mp3
Steve Dahl – Do You Think I’m Disco
(1979).mp3
jorge benIt didn’t go down well when Rod the Mod donned the leopard-print spandex tights and satin shirt to cash in on the disco boom. His fans were appalled, the disco purists even more so, and the disco haters went into overdrive. Radio jock Steve Dahl was prompted to organise the despicable record burning at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in part because of Rod’s single (for my views on Comiskey, go here). Dahl later released the non-genius spoof Do You Think I’m Disco. In the outrage, few noticed that the chorus of Rod’s song (and, for that matter, Dahl’s) was lifted almost wholesale from Brazilian jazz maestro Jorge Ben’s samba-funk workout Taj Mahal, which he has recorded at least three times since its first appearance in 1972 (featured here is the 1976 version).

rodDo Ya Think I’m Sexy was written by Stewart with his drummer, Carmine Appice. But clearly, it was largely plagiarised, so Jorge Ben threatened to sue. Rod deftly outmanoeuvred him, and Ben (who also wrote the bossa nova standard Mais Que Nada) saw no profit from it. Stewart grandly announced that future royalties of his ripped-off track would go to UNICEF, at whose proto-Live Aid show he sang “his” song. Ben — now known as Jorge Ben Jor, after somehow royalties due to him were paid to George Benson — later complained that UNICEF never even contacted him about the agreement. He was not happy about having been ripped off, but would have been fine with his melody being lifted if only Stewart and Appice had asked him.

Da Ya Think also lifts that synth hook from Bobby Womack’s 1975 track (If You Want My Love) Put Something Down On It. The Can-Smashing Robot blog, however, believes to have spotted another subtle rip-off: Al Kooper’s organ hook at 2:59 in Bob Dylan’s One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later). You decide. But as you do, think about this: Dylan’s track appeared on Blonde On Blonde; Stewart’s on Blondes Have More Fun. Coincidence?

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Humphrey Lyttleton – Bad Penny Blues (1956).mp3
The Beatles – Lady Madonna (1967).mp3
Sublime – What I Got (1996).mp3

lytteltonThe piano riff of Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues, played by Johnny Parker, allegedly inspired Paul McCartney ivory-tinkling on Lady Madonna. Engineered by the legendary Joe Meek (who should have received the producer credit), it was the first British jazz number to reach the UK Top 20. Lyttleton, a jazz traditionalist, did not like the song on account of Meek’s innovations.

The aristocratic Lyttleton, who died in April last year, was a colourful character. Apart from playing jazz, he was also a cartoonist for the Daily Mail (which at the time evidently still employed left-leaning characters). At school, he played in a band with the journalist Ludovic Kennedy, who died last month. The trumpet was his constant companion, it seems. During the war, he reportedly landed on Salerno beach during Operation Avalanche with gun in one hand and trumpet in the other. On VE Day, the BBC filmed him celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany sitting in a wheelbarrow playing his trumpet. For 40 years he presented a jazz programme on BBC radio, retiring the month before his death. He also appeared on the BBC radio comedy quiz show I’m Sorry, I Haven’t Got A Clue; one of his replacement after his death was the magnificent Stephen Fry. And in 2001, he contributed to Radiohead’s Life In A Glasshouse.

To spoil a good story, McCartney says that the piano on Lady Madonna was in fact inspired by Fats Domino, whose vocal style he also tried to replicate. And, in fairness, I can’t hear much similarity between Lyttleton’s and McCartney’s songs.

There is, however, more than just a little similarity between Lady Madonna and alternative rock outfit Sublime’s 1997 hit What You Got. The latter’s first verse melody is almost identical to that of the Beatles’ song. Apparently the Sublime song, released after lead singer Bradley Nowell’s death, was based on a song by called Loving by Jamaican dancehall singer Half Pint. He gets a writer’s credit; McCartney doesn’t.

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Natalie Cole – Our Love (1978).mp3
Seal – Kiss From A Rose (1995).mp3

natalie_coleYou’ll have to make your own mind up about this: to me, the piano intro of Natalie Cole’s 1978 song Our Love sounds suspiciously like the scatted intro of Seal’s 1995 hit Kiss From A Rose (a song I can’t say I’m particularly partial to, though I’ll allow that Seal’s vocal performance is pretty good).

Natalie Cole’s song was written by Chuck Jackson & Marvin Yancy, and covered in 1997 by Mary J Blige, though I don’t remember her version at all. Cole’s version was a US #10 hit; Seal’s, written for the Batman Forever soundtrack by Seal and Trevor Horn, topped the US charts.

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k.d. lang – Constant Craving (1992).mp3
Rolling Stones – Anybody Seen My Baby (1997).mp3

kdlangOne of my favourite passages in Timothy English’s fascinating book on songs that have copied, borrowed or stolen, Sounds Like Teen Spirit (website and buy) concerns the Rolling Stones’ Anybody Seen My Baby from the mostly mediocre Bridges To Babylon album. It’s 1997 and Keef is playing the soon-to-be-release album to his daughter and her friends. As the chorus of Anybody Seen My Baby begins, the girls launch into the chorus of k.d. lang’s Constant Craving. Richards and Jagger denied having consciously heard lang’s mammoth hit of 1992 (nor, as English pointedly notes, did the producer, engineer, session musicians or record company honchos, it seems).

However, by the time Ms Richards and pals had alerted Keef to the potential plagiarism, the marketing machine for Bridges To Babylon was already in overdrive, and the track could not be pulled. The pragmatic, and honourable, solution was to add Lang and her co-writer, Ben Mink, to the writing credit. As for Richards, he later told CNN: “If you’re a songwriter, it can happen. You know, it’s what goes in may well come out.”

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  1. November 13th, 2009 at 07:31 | #1

    Nice stuff. I’m fascinated by the way certain tunes make their way through different songs. We call it borrowing or stealing or ripping off, but melodies have passed across different songs forever. Old folk tunes will come from different sides of the world and share a tune. It’s a natural development I think, it’s only copyright laws that changed it.

    Of course if the person being ‘inspired’ doesn’t let us know where that inspiration comes from then it’s a bit bad…

  2. November 13th, 2009 at 08:37 | #2

    Absolutely. Rod and Sublime can’t claim ignorance about copying from other songs, but it can happen unconsciously, as Keith Richards suggested might have happened with Constant Craving (though I’ll feature an instance where the Stones did a brazen lifting job). I don’t think that Seal stole from Cole’s song, but the similarity is striking, I think.

    Some of the best have copied and borrowed, if not stolen. Even Dylan did a bit of that (Blowin’ In The Wind, to start with).

  3. November 13th, 2009 at 16:52 | #3

    There’s a thin line there, undoubtedly. There are only so many chord progressions and notes, and there will be some borrowing, overlap, etc.

    That being said, Sublime, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones: Guilty, guilty, guilty.

  4. jb
    November 13th, 2009 at 17:20 | #4

    Thanks for the interesting post and the tunes. We all need another reason to hate on “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” after 30 years of doing so on the merits of the song. And that idiotic “Da Ya.”

  5. Lisa
    November 14th, 2009 at 01:53 | #5

    Here is one I have always thought was lifted from another song (and if I have already posted this here, I apologize in advance) … and I am using YouTube links because it’s only way I know how to link the music, and now I am feeling terrible that I HATED “Life On Mars” and stopped watching after the first episode …

    The original (IMHO): Lindisfarne’s “Meet Me On the Corner” from the LP Fog on the Tyne:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfGp7So-W10

    And Queen’s song “39” from Night at the Opera, several years later …

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q1yyoe377k

    Would LOVE to know what Amd Whah and company think …

  6. Lisa
    November 14th, 2009 at 01:54 | #6

    Oh grrrr, indeed I did mention this in an earlier BBS post BUT this time I added links!!! Does that help???

  7. November 14th, 2009 at 18:33 | #7

    Hmm, yeah, there’s a bit of similarity. Not enough to sue Queen, I suppose, but Brian May could be asked a few questions…

  8. November 16th, 2009 at 04:15 | #8

    Have you heard Fats Domino’s version of “Lady Madonna”? It does sound like it was written for him.

  9. November 16th, 2009 at 07:17 | #9

    Somebody sent it to me; indeed, as if he wrote it.

  10. November 16th, 2009 at 20:30 | #10

    What about Led Zeppelin copying Spirit’s Taurus for Stairway to Heaven? I believe they also at some point lifted part of Ritchie Valens Ooo My Head for one of their other songs too.

  11. November 16th, 2009 at 21:55 | #11

    Oh, those thieves merit a three-part instalment. If only I could bring myself to listen to that awful band.

  12. lee
    January 9th, 2010 at 23:35 | #12

    how about “slip sliding away” somehow was turned into “every breath you take”-i waited for the lawsuit which was never announced

  13. January 10th, 2010 at 00:36 | #13

    Good call, I reckon. Never thought of that.

  14. March 19th, 2012 at 19:12 | #14

    Just saw this post…I had written something about Rod Stewart’s ripoff track as well. Bobby Womack should have punched him out aftre this song came out. Here’s why: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_XBXtkd76k

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