Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition)
The song remains the same
Led Zeppelin’s latest plagiarism case highlights the legal and artistic pitfalls songwriters face
Led Zeppelin’s recordings. Even Whole Lotta Love led to an out-ofcourt settlement with Willie Dixon’s daughter over another of his songs You Need Love, while Boogie With Stu led to a settlement with the publishers of Ritchie Valens’s Ooh! My Head. The irony is that Valens’s rock’n’roll song is totally derivative of Little Richard’s Ooh! My Soul.
When I commented to Dr John on some similarity in his repertoire, he told me, “You can’t copyright the blues and you can’t copyright a title.” That is true – and it could be argued that Led Zeppelin were unlucky. Their music is blues-based and many blues songs are similar. Turning to titles, you, me or anyone else can call a song Strawberry Fields Forever or Green Green Grass of Home and no one can do anything about it. Led Zep were on safe ground when they recorded Stairway to Heaven, even though it was the title of a 1960 Neil Sedaka hit. If you do nick a title, don’t nick the rest of the song as well – as Michael Bolton found to his cost when he reworked The Isley Brothers’ Love Is a Wonderful Thing.
A songwriter will never admit to nicking something. Even if he was caught red-handed, he will claim coincidence. He can’t do anything else as it may invalidate the rest of his work. In a candid and perhaps unguarded moment, Paul McCartney told Guitar Player in 1990, “What do they say? ‘A good artist borrows, a great artist steals’ – or something like that. That makes The Beatles great artists because we stole a lot of stuff.”
McCartney wasn’t admitting to theft. He was saying that The Beatles didn’t operate in a vacuum and they assimilated what was happening around them to create original music. Their “yeah, yeah, yeahs” had previously been used by Elvis Presley and The Isley Brothers and their introduction to Feel Fine mimics Bobby Parker’s Watch Your Step.
When McCartney woke up one morning with a beautiful melody in his head, he was sure he had nicked it. After friends told him it was original, he recorded it as Yesterday. I would speculate that McCartney had heard Nat “King” Cole’s Answer Me, My Love. The mood and the tempo are similar and Nat even sings, “You were mine yesterday, I believed that love was here to stay.”
Written in 1963, All My Loving was McCartney’s first attempt at writing an MOR standard, but play Kathy’s Waltz from the Dave Brubeck Quartet. You might think that a modern jazz group was improvising around All My Loving, but Kathy’s Waltz was recorded in 1959.
In 1969, John Lennon inserted a phrase from Chuck Berry in Come Together, almost certainly as a tribute, but Berry’s publisher was a Rottweiler and demanded
Irecompense. If Lennon had used Here Come Old Flattop as his title, he might have been safe. For settlement, Lennon agreed to record some Chuck Berry songs on his album Rock’n’Roll, so it was no great hardship.
George Harrison had a worldwide hit with My Sweet Lord in 1971. It is odd that its producer, Phil Spector, never pointed out the similarity with He’s So Fine by the New York girl group The Chiffons. After Allen Klein fell out with The Beatles, he bought the publishing rights to He’s So Fine and sued Harrison in revenge. He won and over £1 million changed hands. After the case, the judge remarked, “I actually like both songs”, to which Harrison replied, “What do you mean ‘both’? You’ve just ruled they’re one and the same.”
George Harrison had been sued for “unintentional plagiarism”, but surely the way the bass line from hisTaxman was copied by the Jam on their No 1 single Start was intentional plagiarism. George never sued, perhaps because he saw it as a compliment and perhaps because he thought he had been unfairly treated over My Sweet Lord.
With both The Jam and as a solo artist, Paul Weller’s borrowings from 1960s records can be regarded as homage. It’s more difficult to tell with Oasis as it often seemed that Noel Gallagher was deliberately provoking listeners. There are echoes of The Beatles throughout their work without any one song being direct plagiarism. Shakermaker (1994) was sued successfully by the writers of the Coca-Cola ad, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing. Gallagher cited “irony” as his defence and after losing, concluded, “We all drink Pepsi.”
Oasis were also successfully sued by the satirist Neil Innes for using his melody from How Sweet to Be an Idiot onWhatever in 1994. This was ironic as Innes is famed for his parodies of The Beatles in The Rutles, and has had to share songwriting royalties with them.
What goes around comes around. Oasis could surely have sued the writers of Hear’Say’s Pure and Simple for borrowing from All Around the World, but Gallagher laughed at the thought, realising the hypocrisy of doing so.
Far safer, perhaps, to plagiarise the classics as so much is out of copyright – and look at the success of A Whiter Shade of Pale (Bach), Should Be So Lucky (Pachelbel) and You Spin Me Round (Wagner). – The Independent