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Copy Borrow Steal: Beatles edition

September 4th, 2009 10 comments

In this series, of which this is the second instalment, I am to a large extent guided by Tim English’ fine book Sounds Like Teen Spirit (website and buy), which inspired it in the first place. It must be stressed that I am not necessarily imputing unethical behaviour on part of those who created music that sounds like somebody else’s. A reader calling himself Fudge, in his comment to the first post, explained the legal case for plagiarism: “In terms of songwriting, lawmakers decided that melody and chord structure are the basis of the song (in terms of pop music anyway) and therefore those parts are the most protected. I think the term is ‘interpolate’. That’s why The Jam can ‘borrow’ “Taxman” for “Start!” and not get sued, or Steely Dan can nip Horace Silver’s cool bass line.”

I will also include a few songs where similarity has been suggested, but I can’t see it. You shall be the judge. Let me know what you think.

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Nat ‘King’ Cole – Answer Me My Love (1961).mp3
Ray Charles – Georgia On My Mind (1960).mp3
The Beatles – Yesterday (live in Blackpool) (1965).mp3
nat_king_coleIn my introduction to the first instalment, I cited Paul McCartney’s concern that he unconsciously plagiarised (the technical term for that is cryptomnesia) Yesterday as an example of a songwriter’s scruples. In his comment to the post, Mick alerted me to a suggestion in 2003 by British musicologists that Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Answer Me My Love from 1953 — available here in a 1961 re-recording — inspired McCartney on a sub-conscious level (and kindly uploaded the song as well).

The case here rests on a line in Cole’s song which does bear some resemblance lyrically and in its phrasing. Cole sings: “Yesterday, I believed that love was here to stay, won’t you tell me where I’ve gone astray” (0:38). McCartney’s line goes: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now I need a place to hide away.” The musicologists suggested that McCartney must have been aware of the Cole song but kindly allowed that the influence was subliminal.

Paul and John in Blackpool, 1965

Paul and John in Blackpool, 1965

To my mind, this is hardly a case of Byron stealing from Shelley. It is not the most unlikely coincidence when two lyricist 12 years apart arrive at similar rhymes to the word “yesterday”. The phrasing charge doesn’t stick either. Yesterday was floating around with nonsense lyrics (“Scambled eggs, oh my darling you have lovely legs”) until McCartney eventually wrote the lyrics while in Portugal. He could not really phrase the lyrics in many other ways over the existing melody. Others have suggested that he borrowed the structure and chord progression from Ray Charles’ version of Georgia On My Mind. I don’t quite see that. So in more than 40 years, the best theories to support the notion that the most famous pop song of all time was influenced by other songs concern a generic rhyme and a song that sounds nothing like Yesterday. Members of the jury, there is no case.

Instead, enjoy this live performance of Yesterday, recorded at the Blackpool Night Out, with George Harrison’s introduction, “For Paul McCartney of Liverpool, opportunity knocks”, and Lennon’s attribution of the performance to Ringo at the end.

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Freddie Lennon – That’s My Life (My Love And My Home) (1965).mp3
Freddie Lennon – The Next Time You Feel Important.mp3
John Lennon – Imagine (1971).mp3

freddie_lennonIn early 1940 Alfred Lennon impregnated Julia and soon left her with little John Winston who’d barely hear of his seafaring father again. Alfred predictably turned up when the Beatles became successful. A reunion with his son was icy — funny enough, John was not impressed with the old man’s sudden paternal interest. Still, John later bought the old man a cottage. In the interim, Alfred tried to cash in by recording a self-justifying single, a precursor for My Way in many ways (in a “I’m a good bloke, ain’t I? I just like the sea more than my offspring” fashion). To John, the single was a running joke; he’d play it as a gag for his friends.

Tim English in his book suggests that John might have been unconsciously influenced by his father’s novelty record when he wrote Imagine. English refers to the stately tone of both songs, which in itself is no smoking gun. More crucially, he points to the similarity in the chord progression in the verses. These are not terribly complex or unusual, but the similarity is recognisable. Still, even if John was not in any way influenced, it is a delicious irony that John Lennon’s hypocritical hymn to idealism bears a resemblance to his father’s ridiculous novelty record. As a bonus, I’m including the b-side to Freddie’s single as well (it’s pretty awful).

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The Hollies – Stewball (1966).mp3
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Merry X-Mas (War Is Over) (1971).mp3

holliesWe might acquit John from nicking chords from his Dad, but his Christmas standard will have the jury wanting exonerating evidence before it can acquit. Stewball, an American folk song adapted from a British ballad about an 18th century racehorse, had been recorded many times before Lennon wrote Merry X-Mas. The folk-influenced Lennon might have been familiar with the versions by Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Peter Paul & Mary or Joan Baez. It is likely too that he knew the Hollies’ version, which appeared on their 1966 album Would You Believe?. Their version sounds close to Lennon’s song in arrangement, apart from the distinct melodic similarity.

Did John directly plagiarise? Well, Stewball came from a folk tradition in which melodies were routinely recycled and adapted with new lyrics. Bob Dylan did that with Blowin’ In The Wind (see here) sounding more than just suspiciously like No More Auction Block. If we want to get Lennon off the charge on a technicality, at least we have recourse to a defence based on precedent.

merry_xmasEnglish refers to another inspiration, acknowledged by Lennon: the arrangement, by Phil Spector, was lifted from a song Spector and George Harrison had produced for Ronnie Spector, titled Try Some Buy Some (later recorded by Harrison). Apparently the song was so bad, Ronnie thought her husband and George were joking when presenting her with it. Harrison later put another arrangement from the Ronnie sessions (which she did not record) to his hit song You.

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The Beatles – Norwegian Wood (Take 1) (1965).mp3
Bob Dylan – 4th Time Around (1966).mp3

rubber_soulIn his book, English writes that John Lennon almost had a fit when he heard 4th Time Around on Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album: it ripped off Norwegian Wood, which the Beatles had released a little earlier on Rubber Soul. One can understand Lennon’s point: listen to 4th Time Around a few times, and latest by the third time around the similarities become glaring, especially two-thirds of the way through, and not only in subject matter.

Of course, Dylan had influenced Lennon profoundly. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away is John’s musical homage to acoustic Dylan. It’s fair to say that without the Dylan influence, John would not have written something like Norwegian Wood. Posted here is the first take of Norwegian Wood, recorded nine days before the version which made it on to the album. Some people prefer this take.

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The Byrds – Bells Of Rhymney (1965).mp3
The Beatles – If I Needed Someone (1965).mp3

byrdsAnd if Dylan ripped off Norwegian Wood, the Beatles borrowed and adapted the jangling guitar intro of the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s Bells Of Rhymney for If I Needed Someone. Still with Dylan in mind, it is of interest to note that he was influenced to go electric by the Byrds and the Beatles. And just to add to the mix, the Byrds’ Gene Clark was moved by She Loves You to abandon the straight folk of the New Christy Minstrels, and instead co-found the Byrds, who borrowed further from the Beatles to get their guitar- and harmony-based sound (Tim English notes that Roger McGuinn bought his essential 12-string Rickenbacker after seeing Harrison use one in A Hard Day’s Night).

Harrison cheerfully admitted, in public and to the Byrds, that he had copied the intro to If I Needed Someone from the Byrds’ song, which had just been released when the Beatles recorded Rubber Soul.

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The Beatles – Taxman (alternative take) (1966).mp3
The Jam – Start! (1980).mp3

taxmanThis is the rip-off every fan of English music immediately thinks off. As Fudge said, copying a riff does not constitute legal plagiarism. Here The Jam lifted the guitar and bass riff from Harrison’s rather mean-spirited complaint about having to pay taxes (which, admittedly, were punitive in Britain). The guitar and bass parts in Taxman, incidentally, were played by McCartney. Harrison took over Lennon’s rhythm guitar, and John (who contributed the bipartisan falsetto “Ah ha Mr Wilson; Ah ha Mr Heath”, replaced in the take featured here with the line “Anybody got a bit of money”) did tambourine and backing vocals duty. Start! Was The Jam’s second UK #1 hit after Going Underground.

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Ringo Starr – Back Off Boogaloo (1972).mp3
Franz Ferdinand – Take Me Out (2004).mp3

boogalooRingo Starr wrote his hit after having a dinner with T. Rex’s Marc Bolan who repeatedly used the word “boogaloo” (I am happy to dismiss the story that Boogaloo was Ringo’s nickname for Paul McCartney, who was engaged in legal action with the other Beatles at the time). The song was produced by George Harrison and was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Glaswegians Franz Ferdinand appeared on the scene in 2004 with Take Me Out, supported by a superb video. Take Me Out sounded a bit like a mash of several unfinished songs. It was Libertines singer and celebrity junkie Pete Doherty who, in an unfamiliar moment of lucidity, accused Franz Ferdinand of copying the riff and song structure of Ringo’s song. Apart from Boogaloo’s riff, the “I know I won’t be leaving here” bridge certainly bears a close resemblance. Theft or not? What do you think?

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