Pop Culture

It’s a Rip-Off!

The Don Henley/Frank Ocean/Okkervil River beef (re)raises questions about our specious understanding of intellectual property, specifically with regards to music. I’ve always thought there’s something morally smelly about being able to make a bucket of money off of writing one song, good or bad, even if labor theory of value doesn’t hold much water. Either way, one thing’s for sure: folks love to point fingers at musical thieves. I googled “song rip offs” and found a wealth of listicles (ugh, that word) pitting this song versus that song in a grudge match of artistic license. Naturally, there was no talk of how or why this song stole from that one—just allegations. So I compiled some of the interesting cases in a Spotify playlist (100 groups, 222 songs in total), added some of my own favorites, and I categorized them by every applicable combination of five basic musical elements:

  • Melody—similar linear aspects of foreground material only
  • Harmony—similar chord progression, harmonic form and phrasing
  • Idiomatic Performance—similar riffs, beats, orchestration, generic cliché
  • Tempo—generally within 5 BPM (can I dance to it the same way?)
  • Key—same tonal center and modality

Lyrics were not a priority, but many examples appear nevertheless under the Melody umbrella. The lists begin with one, then two, and so on until all five musical elements are shared within a group of songs. Most groups contain two or three songs, but I saved some groups with five or more for the end. Interestingly, it is sometimes the case that a single shared musical element can sound more like egregious theft than a group that shares multiple elements. It should also be noted that very few of these groups contain exactly the same compositional material. The indignant ear that hates a new song that appropriated an old song they love can imagine things are exactly the same when, in fact, they’re not. Listen carefully and, most importantly, enjoy!

 

Melody

Melodic rips are easy to spot, but they’re also easy to condemn too strongly. Western tonal harmony (the system from which at least all this article’s examples are derived) gives us only so many possibilities to make a singable tune. A note about strong, memorable melodic germs: if you’ve ever sung it or heard anybody sing it well, it has probably been recorded and made money a thousand times over. Remember that melodic rips are not limited to singing—any linear foregrounded material is considered here.

1. “In the Hospital”- Friendly Fires / “Crosseyed and Painless”- Talking Heads

2. “Shakermaker”- Oasis / “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”- The New Seekers

3. “Born Free”- Kid Rock / “As Ugly as I Seem”- The White Stripes

4. “Hello, I Love You”- The Doors / “All Day and All of the Night”- The Kinks

5. “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”- Rod Stewart / “Taj Mahal”- Jorge Ben

6. “Let’s Live for Today”- The Grass Roots / “I Count the Tears”- The Drifters

7. “Come Together”- The Beatles / “You Can’t Catch Me”- Chuck Berry

8. “Anybody Seen My Baby?”- The Rolling Stones / “Constant Craving”- k.d. lang

9. “How Many More Times”- Led Zeppelin / “How Many More Years”- Howlin’ Wolf

10. “The Man”- Aloe Blacc / “Your Song”- Elton John

 

Harmony

There are way fewer harmonic possibilities than melodic ones—if you could copyright G-C-D, we’d all be broke. That said, Don Henley had a point: while Don Felder’s chord progression for “Hotel California” is a 90% rip of Jethro Tull’s from almost ten years prior, it’s not like Eagles simply took a whole master and sang over it like Frank Ocean did. I’m not taking sides because I like Mr. Ocean’s music almost as much as each of the following quartet of artists.

11. “Hotel California”- Eagles / “We Used to Know”- Jethro Tull

12. “Creep”- Radiohead / “The Air that I Breathe”- The Hollies

 

Idiomatic Performance

This one’s a mixed bag. A guitar lick here, a drum beat there, a studio technique every now and then. As a student/sucker for actual music composition, I get perturbed when people get too hard on a borrowed trick. On the other hand, these are probably more specific, more premeditated rips than any of the previous ones. Get your own damned guitar tone!

13. “Last Nite”- The Strokes / “American Girl”- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

14. “Jerk It Out”- Caesars / “Mary, Mary”- The Monkees

15. “Hitchin’ a Ride”- Green Day / “Counting the Beat”- The Swingers / “Come See Me” The Pretty Things (for Green Day and Swingers, add Key; for Swingers and Things, add Harmony and Tempo)

16. “Paper Tiger”- Beck / “Ballade de Melody Nelson”- Serge Gainsbourg

17. “Cigarettes & Alcohol”- Oasis / “Cream”- Prince / “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”- T. Rex (for Oasis and Prince, add Tempo; for Oasis and Rex, add Melody and Key; for Prince and Rex, add Harmony)

18. “La Grange”- ZZ Top / “Boogie Chillen”- John Lee Hooker

 

Melody & Harmony

Hmmm, okay, now I’m getting a little suspicious. These songs sound a little same-y, especially George Harrison and The Chiffons, and “Crescent City” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Melody and harmony together make a powerful ripoff team. Don’t pee on me and tell me it’s rainin’ babies, Wayne Coyne.

19. “Fight Test”- Flaming Lips / “Father and Son”- Cat Stevens

20. “What I Got”- Sublime / “Lady Madonna”- Beatles

21. “Born this Way”- Lady Gaga / “Express Yourself”- Madonna

22. “The Songs I Didn’t Write”- Creaky Boards / “Viva la Vida”- Coldplay / “If I Could Fly”- Joe Satriani / “Foreigner Suite”- Cat Stevens (14:32) (for Boards and Satriani, add Key & Tempo)

23. “My Sweet Lord”- George Harrison / “He’s So Fine”- The Chiffons

24. “Razorblade”- The Strokes / “Mandy”- Barry Manilow

25. “Crescent City Blues”- Gordon Jenkins / “Folsom Prison Blues”- Johnny Cash

 

Melody & Idiomatic Performance

Here’s a controversial statement: Elastica was WAY better than Wire. If you wanna be, like, serious in music, then don’t waste your time on rock n roll—quit looking in the mirror and write something that’s actually substantial. Rock n roll is about being cool and dumb, and Elastica is one of the coolest and dumbest bands of the 1990’s.

26. “Connection”- Elastica / “Three Girl Rhumba”- Wire

27. “Eighties”- Killing Joke / “Come as You Are”- Nirvana

28. “Girlfriend”- Avril Lavigne / “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”- The Rubinoos

29. “Wild, Wild West”- The Escape Club / “Pump It Up”- Elvis Costello

30. “Fragments of Time”- Daft Punk, Todd Edwards / “What a Fool Believes”- The Doobie Brothers

31. “A Legal Matter”- The Who / “The Last Time”- The Rolling Stones (melodic contour/rhythm is similar while its harmonic function is not)

32. “Moby Dick”- Led Zeppelin / “I Feel Fine”- The Beatles / “Watch Your Step”-Bobby Parker (for Zeppelin and Beatles, add Tempo; for Zeppelin and Parker, add Harmony)

 

Melody & Tempo

Oasis loves to steal great hooks. That’s probably why they were such a great band.

33. “Step Out”- Oasis / “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”- Stevie Wonder

 

Melody & Key

These are perfunctory rips, and they just happen to be in the same key.

34. “Never Forget You”- Noisettes / “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”- The Walker Brothers

35. “Smoke on the Water”- Deep Purple / “Maria Quiet”- Astrud Gilberto

 

Harmony & Key

36. “Finding You”- The Go-Betweens / “Getting Away with It (All Messed Up)”- James

37. “Love at First Sight”- Kylie Minogue / “Love Come Down”- Evelyn “Champagne” King

 

Idiomatic Performance & Tempo

When you steal a riff, you should probably play it around the same time. This is a rhythm section combination of musical elements—lots of shared bass lines and drum beats here.

38. “All I Ever Wanted”- Kelly Clarkson / “I Turn My Camera On”- Spoon

39. “Start!”- The Jam / “Taxman”- The Beatles

40. “The Wire”- Haim / “Heartache Tonight”- Eagles

41. “Young Volcanoes”- Fall Out Boy / “Hey, Soul Sister”- Train

42. “Justify My Love”- Madonna / “Security of the First World”- Public Enemy

43. “Rocks”- Primal Scream / “Live with Me”- The Rolling Stones / “Dance to the Music”- Sly & the Family Stone (for Primal Scream and Stones, add Key)

44. “Baby Britain”- Elliott Smith / “Getting Better”- The Beatles

45. “Funkytown”- Lipps Inc. / “The Changeling”- The Doors

46. “Blurred Lines”- Robin Thicke / “Got to Give It Up”- Marvin Gaye

47. “Union of the Snake”- Duran Duran / “Let’s Dance” David Bowie

48. “Someday”- Nickelback / “How You Remind Me”- Nickelback

49. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”- Nirvana / “More Than a Feeling”- Boston

 

Melody & Harmony & Idiomatic Performance

Here Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page) rear their ugly heads as the most egregious thieves in rock history. Trust me, it gets worse.

50. “Dani California”- Red Hot Chili Peppers / “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

51. “I Knew I Loved You”- Savage Garden / “Sometimes”- Britney Spears

52. “Lemon Song”- Led Zeppelin / “Killing Floor”- Howlin’ Wolf

53. “In My Time of Dying”- Led Zeppelin / “Jesus Make up My Dying Bed”- Blind Willie Johnson

 

Melody & Harmony & Key

Some folks remember national tragedies. When I was a kid I remember thinking “Given to Fly” was the biggest piece of shit I’d ever heard—an utter rip of Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” Zeppelin deserved it for sure, but at least they stole material and made something rad out of it.

54. “M. O. R.”- Blur / “Boys Keep Swinging”- David Bowie

55. “Given to Fly”- Pearl Jam / “Going to California”- Led Zeppelin

 

Melody & Harmony & Tempo

Like Oasis, Green Day was a great band because they steal from great sources.

56. “Warning”- Green Day / “Picture Book”- Kinks

 

Melody & Idiomatic Performance & Tempo

It’s a testament to John Fogerty’s power that he can steal from himself and hit twice.

57. “The Old Man Down the Road”- John Fogerty / “Run Through the Jungle”- Creedence Clearwater Revival

58. “Treasure”- Bruno Mars / “Baby I’m Yours”- Breakbot feat. Irfane

 

Harmony & Idiomatic Performance & Tempo

To me, this is an interesting combination. It’s as if the artists intentionally stole from the source while at the same time intentionally writing a novel melody. Clever theft.

59. “Conduit for Sale!”- Pavement / “New Face in Hell”-The Fall

60. “Keep the Car Running”- Arcade Fire / “On the Dark Side”- Beaver Brown

61. “Ghostbusters”- Ray Parker Jr. / “I Want a New Drug”- Huey Lewis and the News

62. “Yeah 3x”- Chris Brown / “Eyes Wide Shut”- JLS / “I’m Not Alone”- Calvin Harris

63. “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”- The Offspring / “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”- The Beatles

64. “Surfin’ U.S.A.”- Beach Boys / “Sweet Little Sixteen”- Chuck Berry

65. “Best Song Ever”- One Direction / “Baba O’Riley”- The Who

66. “Lit Up”- Buckcherry / “Shock Me”- KISS

 

Harmony & Idiomatic Performance & Key

67. “Already Gone”- Kelly Clarkson / “Halo”- Beyonce

68. “Be My Lover”- Alice Cooper / “Sweet Jane”- The Velvet Underground

 

Harmony & Tempo & Key

69. “North American Scum”- LCD Soundsystem / “Homosapien” Pete Shelley

 

Idiomatic Performance & Tempo & Key

70. “O Yeah”- End of Fashion / “Where is My Mind?”- Pixies

71. “Vertigo”- U2 / “Dirty Boots”- Sonic Youth

 

Melody & Harmony & Idiomatic Performance & Key

72. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”- Wilco / “Exploding Head Movie”- Stereolab / “Hallogallo”-Neu!

73. “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary”- Rihanna / “Message in a Bottle”- The Police

74. “Candy Girl”- New Edition / “ABC”- Jackson 5

 

Melody & Harmony & Idiomatic Performance & Tempo

I could’ve included Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part Two” here, but it seemed sacrilegious to utter their name in the same bullet with Finger Eleven. Led Zeppelin have already proven themselves to be a big part of this list, so they get no such protection.

75. “Back to Love”- Evelyn “Champagne” King / “Rock with You”- Michael Jackson / “I Want Your Love”- Chic

76. “Paralyzer”- Finger Eleven / “Take Me Out”- Franz Ferdinand / “Trampled Under Foot”- Led Zeppelin (for Finger and Franz, add Key)

 

Melody & Harmony & Tempo & Key

These are simply the same fucking songs.

77. “Talk”- Coldplay / “Computer Love”- Kraftwerk

78. “You Need Love”- Muddy Waters / “Whole Lotta Love”- Led Zeppelin

79. “Around the World”- Aqua / “The Winner Takes It All”- Abba

80. “Under the Westway”- Blur / “A Whiter Shade of Pale”- Procol Harum

 

Melody & Idiomatic Performance & Tempo & Key

81. “Roar”- Katy Perry / “Brave”- Sara Bareilles

82. “Fergalicious”- Fergie, will.i.am / “Supersonic”- J.J. Fad

 

Harmony & Idiomatic Performance & Tempo & Key

Quick note on Richard Thompson: he’s the greatest songwriter I can think of whenever someone mentions anything about a greatest songwriter. He’s also the greatest guitar player. Quick note on Hesiod James: he loves Richard Thompson.

83. “Ice Ice Baby”- Vanilla Ice / “Under Pressure”- Queen and David Bowie

84. “We Used To”- Dolly Parton / “Stairway to Heaven”- Led Zeppelin / “Taurus”- Spirit

85. “Marley Purt Drive”- Bee Gees / “Crazy Love”- Van Morrison / “The Weight”- The Band (Bee Gees use 1 5 4 1, the other two use 1 3- 4 1)

86. “Molly’s Chambers”- Kings of Leon / “Dress”- PJ Harvey

87. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”- John Mellencamp / “What I Like About You”- The Romantics

88. “Shoot Out the Lights”- Richard and Linda Thompson / “Rumble”- Link Wray (different meters, same BPMs)

89. “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”- Lenny Kravitz / “That’s the Way of the World”- Earth, Wind & Fire

90. “All Summer Long”- Kid Rock / “Werewolves of London”- Warren Zevon

 

Melody & Harmony & Idiomatic Performance & Tempo & Key

When so many musical elements line up as this, it’s usually clear that the artist is paying homage to the source. This is especially apparent with Jarvis Cocker and Divine. Good thing they never made much money.

91. “Black Magic”- Jarvis Cocker / “Crimson and Clover”- Tommy James and the Shondells

92. “Bitter Sweet Symphony”- The Verve / “The Last Time”- Andrew Oldham Orchestra (Rolling Stones arrangement)

93. “Love Reaction”- Divine / “Blue Monday”- New Order

94. “American Idiot”- Green Day / “Doublewhiskeycokenoice”- Dillinger Four

95. “Time Bomb”- Godsmack / “Last”- Nine Inch Nails

96. “Dazed and Confused”- Led Zeppelin / “Dazed and Confused”- Jake Holmes

97. “Bring It on Home”- Led Zeppelin / “Bring It on Home”- Sonny Boy Williamson II

 

(Various Combinations of) Melody & Harmony & Idiomatic Performance & Tempo & Key, or Mash-Ups Worthy of JS Bach

Each of the following thefts could have been categorized more meticulously. But, I think it’s important to show how easy it is to identify similar germs in all music. Shared musical elements are like insects: for every single one you see, there are a million more that you don’t. Listen to these tunes and hear for yourself how easy it is to rewrite what’s already been written. Nor is it a bad thing, necessarily.

98. “Heaven”- Depeche Mode / “Brain Stew”- Green Day / “Pissing in a River”- Patti Smith Group / “25 or 6 to 4”- Chicago / “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”- The Beatles

99. “Look What You’ve Done”- Jet / “Karma Police”- Radiohead / “Don’t Look Back in Anger”- Oasis / “Imagine”- John Lennon / “Sexy Sadie”- The Beatles

100. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”- Jet / “Town Called Malice”- The Jam / “Hitsville U.K.”- The Clash / “Lust for Life”- Iggy Pop / “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”- Jackie Wilson / “You Can’t Hurry Love”- The Supremes

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.