Come together, right now. Don’t plagiarize!
Plagiarism in the Music World. Part I.
I am among the happy ones who can effortlessly indulge in the realm of sounds… Realizing how precious it is to hear, I still cannot understand how people manage to compose bad, tasteless music and how others can joyfully listen to those scarce imitations of genuinely decent songs.
As this article is about plagiarism in the music world, I decided to start with my reflections on the authenticity in music as an aesthetic phenomenon. Before delving into the exact examples of (possible) music rip-offs, scandalously mentioning even legends who had to remain allegedly inviolable, I would like to make a controversial statement: May geniuses plagiarize each other willingly, as if acknowledging the mastery of each other’s works, being sane competitors, meaningful influencers, and honorable followers of the common Art Path. Minor “plagiarism” cases will never belittle a person if not only their source of inspiration is a genius but also the inspiration taker is a prodigy. Meanwhile, those who exist like idle forgers will never be able to master true art, being enchained by imitation.
I remember when I was listening to “Black Star” by David Bowie and I could not help sensing that the pattern of the song, even its major beat, is so similar to the one I heard before. At first, I could not identify my association, but then “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead came to my mind. There was something about the melodic entwinements or the usage of akin notes in a row; the two songs are completely different but, at the same time, I could not wean off the sensation of some ghostly resemblance between two independent compositions made by great musicians. Could David Bowie be inspired by “Pyramid Song”? Such a possibility is always present. Can we call it even a partial plagiarism? On no account!
Objectively, there is often a thin verge between plagiarism and inspiration. Then how to define the difference? When you are inspired, you take an idea and bring it to life in a different setting. Even if your intention is to tell the same story, the means of its presentation should vary to avoid plagiarism. For instance, a painting can be inspired by a song and vice versa, even a prose can be inspired by a poem and sound like a unique piece.
What is interesting, the above-mentioned "Pyramid Song" has several particular sources of inspiration. Tom Yorke said that the melody was born owing to the already existent song “Freedom” by Charles Mingus. Its lyrics go more deeply, amalgamating Buddhist elements, Stephen Hawking's visions on cyclicles of time, and symbols from a mystic exhibition revealing images of the underworld of ancient Egypt. Despite the fact that the song mixed philosophies, science and art that existed before, the product turned out to be original.
Would You Dare to Accuse the Legendary Beatles of Plagiarism?
They were accused hundreds of times, and perhaps thousands of times we don’t know about. Anyway, critics did not directly refer to it as plagiarism. When drawing parallels between the Beatles and other artists, they often called those “coincidences” as “the exploitation of less famous prodigies”. You will be surprised to find out that there was also a widely distinguished inspirer of the Beatles. Guess who? Ludwig van Beethoven. Now listen to their song “Because”. When creating it, the whole melodic part was copied from “Moonlight Sonata” and then reversed, and, as a result, a wonderful transformation happened. While I wouldn’t put a “plagiarism” label on it, some classical music purists would give Beethoven all the authenticity accolades, blaming Beatles for the lack of their own ideas.
John Lennon was perfectly okay with his own muses, even if they were other musicians. His popular anti-plagiarism phrase is “It wasn’t a rip-off; it was a love-in.” Paul McCartney supported this thought, noting: “We pinch as much from other people as they pinch from us.” This give-and-take wheel is incessant. Moreover, Lennon confessed that there was always some great song playing in his head before he started to write his own oeuvres. Logically, an individual devoted to music is someone who is likely to be a melomaniac. You carry thousands of melodies within your mind, and when you begin creating your songs, already known tunes subconsciously arise and sometimes certain music phrases sound too similar. When your song is good enough and is accepted by people, you quickly forget about the main source of your inspiration, at least until someone too picky will draw those annoying parallels, calling you a plagiarist, or even suing you in court.
The Beatles did not even hide the fact that they borrowed some melodies from various musicians, distinguished and amateur ones. The general public perceived them as a remarkable resourceful phenomenon anyway. If you still want to spy on them, follow the breadcrumbs already widely mentioned.
The Beatles Muse I: Chuck Berry
It’s difficult to find a person who has not heard “Come Together”. It was initially presented to the rest of the band by John Lennon. Paul McCartney instantly noticed that Lennon’s composition resembled “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry. Lennon said that he was probably subconsciously inspired by it, and then Paul advised him to alter the song a bit more. So what did they do? They only made it slightly slower, also making a different bass line, which sounded more “swampy”, as they said. Anyway, if you pay attention to the lyrics, you will discern one more suspicious similarity. It is easy to compare the Beatles’ “Here come old flat-top/He come groovin’ up slowly,” with Berry’s “Here come a flat-top/He was movin’ up with me.” Though John Lennon was pretty calm about the source he used and even mentioned it in an interview, which was heard by Morris Levy, the founder of the Birdland jazz club. He sued John in 1973, as it happened that he was the publisher of “You Can’t Catch Me”. The ensuing legal battles were tiresome, but in the end, Lennon made a deal with Levy to cover three chosen songs, including “You Can’t Catch Me”. By the way, the imitation of Chuck Berry was also visible in “I Saw Her Standing There”. Listen and compare the bass line with that of Berry’s in “I’m Talking About You”.
The Beatles Muse II: Humphrey Lyttelton
Now “Lady Madonna” is under review. It is quite strange that Paul McCartney stated so often that their “Lady Madonna” had to be a tribute to the pioneering rock’n’roll musician Fats Domino. Anyway, the genuine precursor of the song was “Bad Penny Blues”, particularly its piano part, originally by English jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. Despite the direct lift, Paul got away with it and evaded real plagiarism trouble. George Harrison was not so lucky, and it was not his best decision to create “My Sweet Lord” on the basis of “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Of course, the charges against Harrison sounded almost like something mythical: “unconscious plagiarism”. All in all, the refund of $587,000 he had to pay was not mythical at all. Lennon also did not hasten to support Harrison’s innocence, saying, “George could have changed a few bars in that song and nobody could have ever touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price.”
The Beatles Muse III: Pee Wee Crayton
I wonder, if the fab-four’s song “Revolution” is your favorite, have you ever heard that it was plagiarized? Perhaps, you still would not like to hear about it, but the truth is that the introducing part of “Revolution” sounds almost analogous to “Do Unto Others” by Californian bluesman Pee Wee Crayton. One more inspiration that went a bit too far.
The Beatles Muse IV: Bobby Parker
As you might have already understood, John Lennon never hid his inspirations. For instance, he freely called a song “Watch Your Step” by Bobby Parker as his ultimate blues muse. Obviously, he liked the composition immensely, which made him amalgamate its major guitar part into a single “Day Tripper.” It was quite a risky step, as Bobby Parker was distinguished in the charts with this song. Before inserting the part into their own song, they covered the bluesman’s version, performing it live for numerous times in 1961 and 1962. Led Zeppelin was also one of those who were boldly inspired by Bobby Parker. And if you are interested in plagiarism cases Led Zeppelin was involved in, you are welcome to read our article: https://plagiarismsearch.com/blog/led-zeppelin-plagiarism-cases.html
From time to time, I hear some people say Originality does not exist. Well, it does. lt’s like painting: you use the existent colors and hues, they are the same, and it only matters what you paint: if you look at a canvas not knowing what your imagination will create and you suddenly start creating (not looking at other paintings, not even thinking about them) like some cosmic energy gently moves your hand: that’s when Originality emerges. That’s a no-brainer: you tend to plagiarize when you struggle to find your own ideas and directly search for the sources to look at in the process of your feigned creativity. Be sincere with yourself: read books, go to art galleries, watch intellectual movies, listen to creative music, and seek inspiration for the sake of those inner insights that open up your eyes and make you see even those shades that others deem non-existent. Having gotten rid of all the unproductive "ghosts" in your mind, do your best to find the authentic Muse that will whisper into your ear: See Your Own Path.