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Crafting a hit song takes skill, dedication, effort, and a lot of hard work. That’s why so many people just steal someone else’s tune and hope nobody notices. Artists from George Harrison to Led Zeppelin have filched from older or less popular acts, and in some cases, gotten away with minimum fuss – save for the occasional multi-million dollar lawsuit. Here are ten of the worst offenders.
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METALLICA VS. EXCEL
“Enter Sandman” and “Tapping the Emotional Void”
The members of Californian punk-metal outfit Excel were always happy to support and collaborate with fellow LA bands, but after the release of Metallica’s sound-a-like smash hit “Enter Sandman” they were a little put out. The songs were so similar that the LA Times actually ran a story about it, interviewing Excel lead singer and long-time Metallica fan (he even stood in line for the midnight release of the Metallica album) to basically ask the question “Are you guys going to sue or what?” The band eventually decided a lawsuit would be long, painful, and not guaranteed to succeed, which turned out to be true after they unsuccessfully tried suing in 2003.
THE DOORS VS. THE KINKS
“Hello, I Love You” and “All Day, And All Of The Night”
Take the beginning of the Kinks’ number-two UK hit “All Day, And All Of The Night,” slow it down, fuzz it up, and you’ve got the Doors’ number-one US hit “Hello, I Love You.” At least, that’s what Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies says. According to Doors guitarist Robby Krieger the song was inspired by Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and the lyrics based on a crush Jim Morrison had on a black woman from Venice Beach. That at least explains the cringeworthy lyric “Do you hope to pluck this dusty jewel?” but it wasn’t enough for British copyright court, so UK royalties for the song go to Davies.
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COLDPLAY VS. JOE SATRIANI
“Viva la Vida” and “If I Could Fly”
Probably the most recent case of accused musical plagiarism, the dispute between official mall soundtrack artists, Coldplay and elite strum dumpster, Joe Satriani has pitted obnoxious tweens against aging guitar fetishists in some of the most annoying YouTube comment disputes of all time. Unfortunately for Satriani, the melodies were not just similar to each other, but similar enough for other musicians to claim the same thing-Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) argued that both songs were based on a bit from his 18-minute “Foreigner Suite.” The suit was eventually settled out of court, presumably because nobody was able to retain their sanity after listening to all three songs over and over again for days at a time.
RADIOHEAD VS. THE HOLLIES
“Creep” and “The Air That I Breathe”
It may be hard for laymen to hear the similarities between adult-contemporary seventies ballad “The Air That I Breathe” and Radiohead’s first radio hit, but that’s why the Hollies didn’t hire laymen to bring Radiohead to court. Musicologists and copyright lawyers found in favor of the Hollies based on the two songs’ chord progression and a melody in the bridge, and while it’s never been disclosed as to how much money Hollies’ songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood received, they did get credited for the song in all further releases of Pablo Honey. The court did not see fit to address the fact that while Thom Yorke is deliberately pretending to sound like a schmuck, the Hollies manage to sound pathetic entirely by accident.
RAY PARKER JR. VS. HUEY LEWIS
“Ghostbusters Theme” and “I Want A New Drug”
When Columbia Pictures approached Huey Lewis to write the theme for “Ghostbusters” he had to decline, as he was already busy with the soundtracks for “Back to the Future” and, unwittingly, “American Psycho.” That meant when famous session guitarist Ray Parker Jr. was asked to provide a theme song he only had a few days to come up with a fully-realized product that ended up featuring a riff and bassline very similar to Lewis’ hit single of the last year (which was itself oddly similar to M’s “Pop Muzik” from 1979). The ensuing lawsuit was settled out of court, and Huey Lewis went on to a career of not being that one guy from “Die Hard” even though everybody thought he was. Ironically, when Lewis mentioned that he settled the case for cash in a VH1 special, Parker Jr. and Columbia successfully countersued for breach of confidentiality.
JOHNNY CASH VS. GORDON JENKINS
“Folsom Prison Blues” and “Crescent City Blues”
Gordon Jenkins was a popular composer for dozens of pop singers and the musical director for Decca Records, which might be why he was given the chance to release an odd concept album of seven short musical-style radio plays titled Seven Dreams. The record was a surprise hit, particularly the bluesy torch song “Crescent City Blues” sung by Jenkins’ wife Beverly Mahr. USAF Staff Sgt. Johnny Cash liked “Crescent City Blues” so much that he played a faster, riffier version around Germany with his airbase band the Landsberg Barbarians. When Cash signed on with Sun Records and expressed concerns about crediting Jenkins and Mahr for “Folsom Prison Blues,” label founder Sam Philips assured him that there would be no trouble, legal or otherwise. Fifteen years later, Cash ended up paying off a $75,000 lawsuit.
MICHAEL BOLTON VS. THE ISLEY BROTHERS
“Love is a Wonderful Thing” and “Love is a Wonderful Thing”
If you wanted to listen to some classic soul in 1991, but didn’t want to experience any emotion or sensation other than mild drowsiness, you probably owned Michael Bolton’s megahit album Time, Love & Tenderness. Despite critical revulsion, the album produced four Top 40 singles, including the syrupy diet-gospel track “Love is a Wonderful Thing,” which happened to share a title with a much snappier song by legendary R&B group The Isley Brothers. Subsequent investigation and litigation concluded that his hit single also “shared” enough similarities to the earlier song that the Bros. Isley were entitled to all the profits from the single and a whopping 28% of the album profits. Despite Bolton’s insistence that he had never heard that particular Isley Brothers song, he and Sony Music had to cut them a check for some $5.4 million, just short of what Michael Bolton spent on hair care every month.
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VANILLA ICE VS. QUEEN AND DAVID BOWIE
“Ice Ice Baby” and “Under Pressure”
“Ice Ice Baby” was the first hip hop single to top the Billboard charts, a very good reason not to trust Billboard to evaluate hip hop. It was also the first time the rest of the music world had to deal with the legal issues around sampling, since instead of just looping some obscure Kraftwerk or Detroit techno, Vanilla “My Real Name, Robert Van Winkle, Is Actually More Embarrassing” Ice used the opening riff from the hugely famous Queen/Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure.” Ice initially claimed that the addition of a single extra beat made his sample different from Queen’s bassline, but folded quickly under (legal) pressure, paying off and crediting the original musicians. A later version of the song appeared on Winkle’s 1998 rap-metal album Hard to Swallow, but since nobody in the world would ever want to take credit for Vanilla Ice’s rap-metal career it encountered no legal difficulties.
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LED ZEPPELIN VS. JAKE HOLMES
“Dazed and Confused” and “Dazed and Confused”
Listing every single instance of accused or substantiated plagiarism by Led Zeppelin (and Jimmy Page in particular) would take a dozen articles and get me written out of my dad’s will, so let’s focus on one particularly grievous offense. Obscure folk-rocker Jake Holmes was critically well-regarded but chronically short of hits, but his raw, emotional “Dazed and Confused” was getting him work on the Greenwich Village club circuit back in the summer of ’67. Also on the circuit was a young Jimmy Page, lead guitarist for the Yardbirds (after they had kicked those losers Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton to the curb) who played many of the same venues and at one point apparently opened for Holmes or vice versa. Less than a year later the Yardbirds were playing the same song on French television, credited as “by Jake Holmes arr. Yardbirds.” And after Page left the Yardbirds, it showed up on Zep’s debut album with sole credit to Jimmy Page. Holmes eventually left folk rock for jingle writing (he’s responsible for the Army’s “Be All You Can Be” campaign, among other things), but decided to sue in 2010 to at least try and get his contribution recognized.
GEORGE HARRISON VS. THE CHIFFONS
“My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine”
Bronx-based girl group the Chiffons were best-known for hits like “One Fine Day” and “Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow,” but it was their first single “He’s So Fine” that brought them to national attention. It also apparently brought them to the attention of Beatles guitarist George Harrison, who apparently liked the song so much that his new-age spiritual “My Sweet Lord” ended up sharing the refrain and melody. After Harrison’s single smashed international charts, “He’s So Fine” owners Bright Tunes Music came down on George like a ton of bricks, leading to the most expensive and hard-fought infringement battle in music history. Harrison insisted that if anything he had been inspired by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day,” but after country musician Jody Miller covered “He’s So Fine” with Harrison-style slide guitars, the judge found Harrison guilty of “unconscious plagiarism” and ordered him to cut a check for $587,000.