It’s the musical foundation we are given in the western musical scale. Those notes can be shaped and formed into hundreds of chords – major, minor, augmented, diminished, perfect fifths, major sevenths. You can even use all of your fingers and play a Cm/maj9add6add11(b13)(+11)/E if the mood hits you just right.
So why are there so many songs that sound the same as other songs that have come before them?
In Keith Richards’ biography, “Life,” he tells the story of playing a track called “Anybody Seen My Baby” for his daughter Angela and a friend of hers at his Redlands mansion estate. It was 1997 and the Rolling Stones were about to release their “Bridges to Babylon” album. As the second verse to the song transitioned to the chorus, the two girls began to sing the lyrics instead to k.d. lang’s 1992 hit “Constant Craving.” . Richards immediately recognized the similarities and agreed (with Mick Jagger) to give a songwriting credit to Lang and co-writer Ben Mink “to avoid any lawsuits.” Richards claimed he never heard the track and that the striking similarity was completely coincidental.
It brings to light an interesting question, that of songwriting originality. There is a long list of charges, lawsuits and court settlements showing that artists borrow heavily, sometimes from themselves, when they sit down to pen lyrics or put together chord progressions for their “original” tunes.
If you love Johnny Cash’ “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can thank Gordon Jenkins for his 1953 track, “Crescent City Blues” with lead vocals by Beverly Mahr. Cash paid $75,000 in an out-of-court settlement after admitting he nicked the song for his famous 1955 release.
A court judge used the term “cryptomnesia,” or a memory bias to describe how George Harrison probably forgot that he borrowed the melody for his 1970 solo hit, “My Sweet Lord” from the 1963 Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine” written by Ronnie Mack. It was the first solo Beatles number one on the Billboard charts. In his biography “I Me Mine” Harrison said, “I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity between ‘He’s So Fine’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ when I wrote the song, as it was more improvised and not so fixed. It would have been very easy to change a note here or there and not affect the feeling of the record.” The case was litigated from February of 1971 until March of 1998. The final cost for Harrison was $587,000 plus 27 years of legal fees.
One of my favorite stories of apparent musical plagiarism refers to the accusation that John Fogerty stole from himself once he left Fantasy Records to sign a contract with Warner Brothers. Fantasy executives who owned the entirety of the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog claimed that Fogerty’s solo release “Old Man Down the Road” was a rip-off of CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle.” The judge did not agree and the case was dropped.
The band Radiohead was sued after their 1992 release “Creep” became a hit with comparisons to the 1973 Hollies single, “The Air That I Breathe.” Songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood filed suit, won, and are now listed as co-writers for “Creep” garnishing a portion of the song royalties.
Earlier this year, pop superstar Ed Sheeran was hit with a $20 million lawsuit for his song, “Photograph” which is absolutely similar to the song “Amazing” sung by X-Factor winner Matt Cardle. The case filed by the songwriters has been settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of cash and percentage of future royalties.
I could list Led Zeppelin plagiarism charges but it would require the rest of this newspaper.