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8 “Unoriginal” Rock and Roll Hits. Or Were They?

Michael Leonard
|
11.06.2013

All these guitar artists got into legal trouble. Accused, shall we say, of “taking too much inspiration” from others. But did they?

George Harrison “My Sweet Lord vs The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”

Perhaps the most famous “writ” song. Gentle George Harrison surely struck no-one as a person who would rip-off others, but The Chiffons’ publishers Bright Tunes Music thought otherwise. In 1976, they sued Harrison because they argued “My Sweet Lord” sounded too much like the 1963 Chiffons hit “He’s So Fine.” A convoluted court case followed in which Harrison said that he started writing the song around the words “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna.” He claimed he got the idea for “My Sweet Lord” from The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day,” not “He’s So Fine.” So, George did admit to plagiarism… but not of the song of which he was accused.

Harrison offered to settle the case for $148,000 in January, 1976, but Bright Tunes Music rejected the offer and the case went to court.

The key to the case was the musical pattern of the two songs, which were both based on two musical motifs: G-E-D and G-A-C-A-C. “He's So Fine” repeated both motifs four times, “My Sweet Lord” repeated the first motif four times and the second motif three times. Harrison couldn't identify any other songs that used this exact pattern, and the court ruled that “the two songs are virtually identical.” So, had Harrison had written a too-similar song without even knowing it?

The sitting judge determined that “My Sweet Lord” represented 70% of the airplay of Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album – “My Sweet Lord” was the first #1 of any ex-Beatle - and awarded circa $1.6 million in compensation.

It then got stranger. In 1978, ABKCO – the company of Allen Klein, ex-Beatles and Harrison manager - purchased Bright Tunes for $587,000, which prompted Harrison to sue back!

Harrison remained philosophical. In 1979, he told Rolling Stone, “It’s difficult to just start writing again after you’ve been through that. Even now when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else.” The case dragged on until the ‘90s, when the financial issues of George Harrison’s best-known solo single were finally settled.

After Harrison died in 2001, “My Sweet Lord” was re-released in the U.K. and once again went to #1. Proceeds from the single went to the Material World Charitable Foundation, which Harrison started in 1973 to support charities that work with children and the poor. The irony of it all? The Chiffons covered “My Sweet Lord” themselves in the 1970s.

The Beatles “Come Together” vs Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”

Harrison wasn’t the only Beatle put through legal mire. “Come Together” was a Lennon song – yep, credited to Lennon/McCartney, but we know that’s nonsense – and Lennon was later sued for stealing the guitar riff and the lyric from Chuck Berry’s “You Can't Catch Me.” Lennon sang “Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly.” Berry had sung “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me.”

The lawsuit did not come from Berry, but from the Big Seven Music Corp, owned by Morris Levy, Berry’s publisher. Lennon delayed the trial – the post-split Beatles’ Apple Records had enough financial trouble to sort out in the early ‘70s – but he eventually settled out of court. Part of the deal was that Lennon agreed to record his Rock ‘N’ Roll album to include three songs Levy owned as publisher. Lennon always wanted to make a covers album, and said he was thrilled. Bizarrely, Lennon recorded the album in Levy’s own NYC studio. All friends in the end! Or were they?

A primitive version of “Ya Ya” with Lennon and his son Julian was released on the album Walls and Bridges in 1974. “You Can't Catch Me” and another version of “Ya Ya” were released on Lennon's 1975 album Rock ’N’' Roll, but the third, “Angel Baby,” remained unreleased until after Lennon's death. Levy again sued Lennon for breach of contract, and was eventually awarded $6,795. Lennon countersued after Levy released an album (Roots) of Lennon material using tapes that were in his possession and was eventually awarded $84,912.96. What a mess.

Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” is close to The Beatles’ “Come Together.” But is it close enough for a lawsuit?



Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” vs Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly”

A bizarre case from recent years. Satriani sued, because Coldplay’s 2008 “Viva La Vida” sounded, he said, too similar to his 2005’s “If I Could Fly.” They are similar tempos, similar melodies… but does Chris Martin really listen to Joe Satriani when he’s writing songs? Only Chris Martin knows. If you want a detailed music theory discussion, watch. Coldplay settled with Satriani in an out-of-court payment. Coldplay claimed it was pure coincidence.

Oasis’s “Step Out” vs Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”

The Noel Gallagher-sung “Step Out” was originally scheduled to feature on Oasis’s second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? I still have an advance CD with “Step Out” on it. But Stevie Wonder’s publishers obviously got their copy too, and threatened to sue Oasis and demanded a co-credit. Problem solved - “Step Out” was relegated to a b-side of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” so there were less royalties for Oasis to pay? It’s truly the only time you’ll ever see a Noel Gallagher/Stevie Wonder co-write.

The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” vs Andrew Loog Oldham/The Rolling Stones

Another bizarre case. The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was the song that made The Verve huge stars. But it sampled Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ song, “The Last Time.” You’d barely know it though. The Verve had agreed permission for a sample, apparently, but then they used “too much.”

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” is now credited wholly to Jagger/Richards, because Andrew Loog Oldham owned the Stones’ publishing. The Verve’s lyrics/playing earn nothing from this song.

Does this sound like a Jagger/Richards song to anyone apart from a music publisher?



Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” vs Jorge Ben Jor

“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” was hardly Rod Stewart’s finest solo single. But it was a hit. A copyright infringement lawsuit by Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor claimed the song had been derived from his song “Taj Mahal.” The case was “settled amicably” according to Jorge Ben Jor. Here’s Jorge Ben Jor’s “Taj Mahal.”



Men At Work “Down Under” vs Larrikin Music Publishing

Australian band Men At Work had a global hit with “Down Under” in the 1980s. But they got sued years later. In 2010, Larrikin Music Publishing won a case against the group arising from the uncredited appropriation of “Kookaburra,” originally written in 1934 by Marion Sinclair - the flute line in “Down Under” is the same. It got complicated, but Men At Work’s mainman Colin Hay claimed he wrote the song before the flute was added by another band member, flute player Greg Ham. 60% of the song’s income was initially demanded by Larrikin. The Australian judge deemed it should be 5% of past (since 2002) and future profits.

Greg Ham was found dead in his home in April 2012. Friends reported his earlier “disappointment” at the ruling and “suggesting that this particular case and the ruling completely destroyed his life.” That’s pretty bad, for simply playing a kindergarten melody.

John Fogerty vs “himself?”

The craziest copycat lawsuit ever. John Fogerty was the leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, we know that. And in 1970, as leader of CCR, he wrote “Run Through the Jungle.” But Fantasy Inc. eventually acquired the exclusive publishing rights to CCR’s songs. In 1985, Fogerty released “The Old Man Down the Road” on Warner Records and it was a hit. What next? Fantasy Inc sued Fogerty for copyright infringement, claiming that “The Old Man Down the Road” was “Run Through the Jungle” with new words. John Fogerty was basically being sued for “copying” himself.

Below, here’s John Fogerty soloing like a demon on “The Old Man Down the Road” at London’s Royal Albert Hall.



Fogerty even brought his guitar to the witness stand to play excerpts from both songs, demonstrating that many songwriters (himself included) have distinctive styles on different songs. Financial matters were settled.

Rule 1: If you write what you think is a hit song, make sure you’re not copying someone else.
Rule 2 : Don’t sign-away your publishing. You may get bitten!

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