So, if you ever listened to Sam Smith’s über-ballad ‘Stay With Me’ and thought that it sounded kind of familiar, you were right. The male Adele just quietly settled a charge of copyright infringement by Tom Petty, whose people said that ‘Stay With Me’ sounded too much like the 1989 track ‘Won’t Back Down’. When I first read the news I kept singing both choruses over trying to find the link, and they definitely do sound alike. But the tune is kind of generic in that it’s melodically logical (for easy-on-the-ears listening) so it’s kind of a forgivable mistake to make.
Tom Petty actually acknowledged that this sort of unintended imitation happens all the time, and usually, any noticeable links between songs are caught before a track leaves the studio. I admire his coolness about the situation, because what is modern music if not a bunch of borrowings and inspiration? (It’s still a little shitty for Sam Smith as the little guy who has to split his mega-earnings and songwriting credit with legends who probably need the credit and cash a lot less, though.)
This mash-up highlights the undeniable similarities (and sounds pretty sweet):
‘Won’t Back Down’ vs. ‘Stay With Me’ made me think of some of my favourite copyright infringement suits, and by favourite I mean cases that I always think of and get riled up about when this sort of thing comes up. Pretty much everyone knows ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ by The Verve and the ubiquitous string part that starts off that 90s alt anthem. The song is the best part about the movie Cruel Intentions (who am I kidding, the movie Cruel Intentions is the best part of that movie), and the music video of lead singer Richard Ashcroft walking down the street not giving a shit makes it that much more important. The thing is, credit for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ (and all the cash that it makes as a pop cultural landmark) goes to the Rolling Stones, because of that string part, which Mick and them used in one of their songs called ‘The Last Time.’
The story goes that The Verve had asked The Stones to use a couple of bars of that famous beginning, but a manager argued that the younger band had used more music than was negotiated for, and his record company sued. To avoid the drama, The Verve gave up all royalties (to one of the greatest songs of that decade), and songwriting credit now goes to Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Richard Ashcroft. The best part about it though, is that the leathery Stones admit that their song ‘The Last Time’ was a ‘re-adapted’ version of a traditional gospel song that was originally recorded by The Staple Singers. In short, the Stones sued because someone sampled a sample that they had sampled themselves – AKA, A Short History of Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Borrowing’ from African American Music. It’s rather hypocritical and pretty sad that The Verve ended up losing out on the song that they are most famous for.
On the other side of the law, is the case of Vanilla Ice versus two legends: Queen and David Bowie. I always remember this Buzzfeed-y type tv-show where C- to D-list celebrities counted down Top 25 Epic Celebrity Somethings on E!, and Vanilla Ice is trying to explain how different his intro to ‘Ice Ice Baby’ is to that of Queen and Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’. And every freakin’ single time I hear ‘Ice Ice Baby’, I think, ‘Oh cool, Queen,’ and then it’s not. Ice first said that his version of the badass bassline was totally different because of one note, and then much later admitted that it was actually a total rip off of the original:
The 80s legends later got paid and were also officially named as songwriters. Yes, sampling happens a lot in hip-hop – that’s part of the genre’s story – but there is a difference between using a single drum beat and using an entire bassline without acknowledgment or credit.
I think the moral of the story is that borrowing happens, certain melodies can be inspiring and that music is something fluid and kind of formulaic. The video below shows exactly just how similar many popular songs are at their root, and that there’s obviously a certain combination of chords that hit a sweet spot that interact with our brains. Just give credit where credit is due, and don’t be a dick when someone acknowledges their lending. (I’m talking to you the Stones).