5 songs for Plagiarism and Cryptonesia

Craig Angus

Listening to Kanye West’s masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it occurred to me that West has built his empire not only on talent, and hard work, but the ability to recycle the material of others, transforming it into something new and refreshing.  From Curtis Mayfield to Bon Iver, Kanye has played with samples and melodies, and his back catalogue is full of collaborations which enhance his work.  The line between borrowing and stealing is a fine one though, and while Kanye – for once – has been a good boy, asking permission from his friends, there are a few artists out there whose biggest hits have been plagued with accusations of plagiarism.  With musical theft comes great financial punishment, bands can lose all their royalties – and in modern times accusations get thrown about by every Tom, Dick and Harry who can be arsed.  Sometimes it’s fun to just pretend people have stolen something.  Stuff like humming the theme tune to ‘A Question of Sport’ over ‘This song is about you’ by The Enemy; did they really mean that…?

Flaming Lips – Fight Test

“What kind of weapons have they got? / The softest bullet ever shot” cooed Wayne Coyne on ‘The Spark that Bled’, a great moment on The Soft Bulletin, an album packed full of gorgeous metaphor, a psychedelic labyrinth compared – by many – to Pet Sounds. Following up a career highlight often sucks the life out of the artist – but with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Flaming Lips did a stellar job. It all kicks off with ‘Fight Test’, one of the most accessible tracks the Lips ever wrote. It also sounds exactly like ‘Father & Son’, by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens.

Coyne, unsurprisingly, heard from Yusuf Islam’s lawyers. One non-contentious settlement later, 75% of future royalties for ‘Fight Test’ song go to Stevens, who originally wrote ‘Father and Son’ back in 1970. It’s a cracking tune though, and while the conceptual Yoshimi never reached the formidable heights of The Soft Bulletin – ‘Fight Test’ was well received by the public, who probably assumed Wayne’s brain was way too addled for him to even comprehend what was going on. Hey, that melody sounds kinda familiar…

“If anyone wanted to borrow part of a Flaming Lips song, I don’t think I’d bother pursuing it. I’ve got better things to do. Anyway, Cat Stevens is never going to make much money out of us.” Wayne Coyne

Nirvana – Come As You Are

‘Welcome to Aberdeen – Come as you are’, a sign reads at the road entrance to the town in Washington state, USA.  It’s a fitting tribute to the late Kurt Cobain, who along with bassist Krist Novoselic, called Aberdeen his hometown.  The song was initially intended to be Nirvana’s crossover hit, a song that could take the band from their underground roots to a bigger audience.  ‘Smells like teen spirit’ changed all that though – 5 minutes that altered rock music forever, and completely transformed Nirvana, turning them into superstars – it was played all over mainstream radio, and the band did a fantastic ‘performance’ of the song on Top of the Pops, with Cobain in jovial form.

Post global super-hit, Nirvana and their management had a decision to make, should the second single from Nevermind be ‘Come as you are’ or ‘In Bloom’?  At the core of the dilemma was the similarity between the former, and a song called ‘Eighties’ by Killing Joke, a similarity that Cobain had admitted and acknowledged to his nearest and dearest – the main difference seemed to be Cobain’s trademark ‘Small-clone’ chorus pedal at least personalised his plagiarism, ‘Come as you are’ floated where ‘Eighties’ buzzed.

Despite the obvious similarities, the case never came to the courts – Killing Joke citing ‘personal and financial reasons’.  Cobain’s death in 1994 pretty much signalled the end of the dispute, and these days Killing Joke get on swimmingly with the remaining members of Nirvana.  Jaz Coleman from the band appeared on stage with Foo Fighters back in January, singing ‘Requiem’ from Killing Joke’s self-titled debut.  Honestly, could Dave Grohl just quit music and just spend his free time stopping wars?

“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song [Teen Spirit].  I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies” – Kurt Cobain

Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues

Ah, Folsom Prison Blues, an open-mic staple and one of the most iconic songs performed by the man in black.  Cash was big on his prison songs, and wrote this particular one after watching a 1951 drama Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.  Cash’s knack for hitting the nail on the head is prevalent here, the protagonists matter of fact confession “I killed a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” is pure evil, but also villainy born out of hopelessness and disconnection from humanity in general.  Cash himself stated that the inspiration was found after thinking of ‘the worst reason to kill somebody’.

Inspiration lay further afield though, and it ended up costing Cash $75 000. Back in 1953, little-known songwriter Gordon Jenkins, from Missouri, wrote a song called ‘Crescent City Blues’ – a song about cabin fever, about escaping from a small town.  The lyrics went something like this:  “I hear the train a’ comin/It’s rollin round the bend/And I ain’t been kissed lord since/I don’t know when.”  In the pre-internet age, no-one noticed that Cash’s latest hit had stolen a melody and a lyrical framework from a small-fry composer.  After Cash performed the song live on television in 1969, things changed.  Jenkins called his lawyer, who laid-down the copyright law to team Cash.  The case was settled out of court, for a sum that was quite remarkable back in the early 70s.  Cash carried on, his reputation pretty much unharmed, continuing to record music right up until his last days.

“Shortly before the trial was beginning, Cash’s manager asked if we could meet.  He wondered if I had any ‘material’ that could substantiate our claim.  They were acting like they didn’t know what we were talking about.  So I had Gordon make a tape of his song, and right behind that, Cash’s song.  And I played it for the guy.  Dead Silence.  He never said another word except ‘We’ll call you back'” – Harold Planet, lawyer for Gordon Jenkins.

Black Eyed Peas – My Humps

It took about 15 years to get Johnny Cash to settle, but the Black Eyed Peas haven’t been so lucky.  At one point, 3 separate lawsuits had been filed against them, accusing them of infringing copyright law for their songs ‘Boom Boom Pow’, ‘I Gotta Feeling’, and of course – the classic – ‘My Humps’.

DJ Lynn Tolliver claimed to have written a song called ‘I need a Freak’ back in 1983 – for a ‘concept group’ called “Sexual Harassment’ – lovely stuff.  Tolliver laid down the beats with James McCant of Heat Records, registered it as his own creation – and agreed in principle to take 75% of future royalties from use of the song, presumably not thinking that 20 years down the line, it would inexplicably become a super-hit.   He then went back to being a radio DJ in Cleveland, being all eccentric and asking his readers to bring in giant cockroaches in exchange for prizes.  It’s a far cry from Clyde FM, I tell you.

When he heard ‘My Humps’, Tolliver was so pissed off that he pulled out his gun and got trigger happy with all haters. He took McCant to court, civil gentleman that he is, and after McCant offered the Jury a concoction of contradictory evidence – they told him where to go.  Tolliver was paid an initial $1.2 million for being the genius behind ‘My Humps’, and to this day he’s STILL entitled to 75% of all royalties.  Lynn, come spend all yo money on me…

“I’m extremely happy.  This case took 10 years.  God was on my side” – DJ Lynn Tolliver

“My hump, my hump my hump my hump, my hump my hump, my lovely little lumps.  Check it out” – Black Eyed Peas

Band of Horses – Laredo

Band of Horses used to have a real purpose. 2006 debut Everything all the Time was a record full of passion – ‘The Funeral’ is a truly stunning track, and the future looked promising for these hairy chaps from Seattle. Cease to Begin spawned a couple of mega-hits (remember Cee-Lo Green covering ‘No one’s gonna love you’? ), and when my Dad invited me to see the band play at the Academy in January 2011, I went along willingly, with the promise of some quality ‘father and son’ bonding (thanks, Cat), even though I’d heard nothing from 3rd album Infinite Arms.

After a promising, tight opening (and some spectacular visuals from South Carolina) the band started playing Laredo, which to my horror, borrowed the melody, chord-structure, tempo and rhythm from another song. A song called ‘Weed Party’, which can be found on a record called Everything all the Time by Band of Horses. It’s a completely average song as well, humming and hawing about being ‘at a crossroads with myself’; frontman Ben Bridwell at one point delivers the line ‘I don’t got no-one else’, and he sounds a wee bit inbred, which is fitting for a song that was caught fucking its handsome, charming and more interesting older brother.  Band of Horses settled out of court, after a brief conversation with Band of Horses.

“With its midtempo stroll, crunchy Southern guitar, and Ben Bridwell’s silky vocals, ‘Laredo’ sounds like a younger cousin of ‘Weed Party” – SPIN Magazine

“Laredo” is practically more ‘Weed Party’ than ‘Weed Party'” – Pitchfork