“It’s not a rip-off, it’s a love-in” — John Lennon
It can be tough in today’s music industry to lay your hands on original thought. Such is the effort and perseverance artists have put into making music over the last 100 years that a lot of the ideas the structure of music had hidden beneath the surface has already been mined, polished and put in the shop window as a sparkling song. However, those diamonds can often create a chain of events that leads to more veins of jukebox gems being discovered.
Though it may be difficult to claim a song as completely original these days, the idea that taking inspiration from another giant of music is, in some way, unpure is supremely ridiculous. As John Lennon once said: “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal.” Considering the bespectacled Beatle has been a part of such pop-culture heists before means he’s in a good position to clarify the nature of such inspiration hoarding.
The artist within us all, the special snowflake who refuses to give over their individualism, would have us recoil at the idea of openly admitting that inspiration for a song came from another. To do so would feel, at the very best, a little vulgar. But the truth is, such information sharing has seen the human race prosper and was likely a contributor to the same emergence of rock and roll.
Taking inspiration from those who have gone before you isn’t only a natural thing but also an advised course of action. Why not learn the mistakes, and successes, that had already laid such potent foundational stones. Below, we’ve got ten times that artists looked back and to the side and produce classic songs inspired by others.
10 songs inspired by other songs:
‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ – Bob Dylan inspired by The Beatles
There’s absolutely no question that Bob Dylan and The Beatles inspired one another. The freewheelin’ troubadour was enamoured by the vastly commercial group and how they managed to toe the line between critical acclaim and bank account riches. He also helped to inspire both John Lennon and Paul McCartney to put their own lives into their pop songs. But one of Dylan’s most famous tracks was directly inspired by one of the Fab Four’s.
The impact was rather more direct on some occasions though, and that is very much the case with Dylan’s classic ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. The classic throat strained refrain of “no, no, no, it ain’t me babe,” was Dylan’s take on the classic line of “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” for the track ‘She Loves You’.
It might be a simple little nod to his contemporaries, but its full-throttle delivery imbues the song with even more sincerity and the songsmith forces out each “no” with evermore denial.
‘Come Together’ – The Beatles inspired by Chuck Berry
There are probably thousands of songs inspired by Chuck Berry. The granddaddy of rock and roll is one of the most influential figures in music history. He not only made the genre of rock and roll more acceptable for audiences across the world but his knack for establishing a tune would resonate with countless inspirational bands of the sixties. One such band was The Beatles.
Paul McCartney once admitted “lifting” the notes from Berry’s song ‘I’m Talking About You’ for ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ but it is John Lennon’s more notorious ‘Come Together’ that is more resolutely remembered. That’s because Lennon was an honest lover of Berry, once saying, “If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Speaking to David Sheff of the track he once said, “It’s one of my favourite Beatle tracks, or, one of my favourite Lennon tracks, let’s say that. It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well. I like the sound of the record. You can dance to it. I’ll buy it!”. The track was originally conceived by Lennon as a politically charged song aimed at rallying the counter-culture movement around the psychologist, writer and pro-drugs activist Timothy Leary. The song was composed for Leary’s campaign to stand against Ronald Reagan as the governor of California.
The lyrics may have been “gobbledygook”, but the song’s musical structure leant heavily on Chuck Berry’s 1956 song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ with both songs containing the lyric “here comes old flat-top…” It was enough to send Berry’s team running after Lennon with an empty chequebook. Later seen as an admission of guilt, Lennon settled out of court with Berry’s publishers Morriss Levy with John even agreeing to record more songs owned by Levy and saw Lennon pick up a few for his album Rock ‘N’ Roll.
“‘Come Together’ is me—writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line ‘Here comes old flat-top.’ It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on earth.”
‘The Circle Game’ – Joni Mitchell inspired by Neil Young
In Toronto back in 1964, a young Joni Mitchell was a minimal but growing folk scene. Another member of that scene was Neil Young; the two performers met in 1964 at the Fourth Dimension folk club at the University of Manitoba and reencountered him in the Yorkville district of Toronto in 1965. At the time, the aspiring musicians were desperate for club experience, but both struggled to make an impact.
Mitchell would take her talents towards songwriting and began penning some of the decade’s anthemic folk music. She composed songs for Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins as well as a bunch of other hits, including a track about her then-21year-old-friend Neil Young. The track pictured a man scared of growing old—a recurring theme in Young’s own work.
‘The Circle Game’ was written in response to Young’s own track, ‘Sugar Mountain’, a song written when he was just 19 years of age and lamented the loss of his teenage years. Introducing the song in 1968, she said: “This is a song that’s been recorded by a couple of friends of mine, so maybe you know it a little better than the other ones. And if you do – if you know the chorus, wow – just sing along, cause it’s a chorus about people and growing old and growing young and carousels and painted ponies and the weather and the Buffalo Springfield.”
‘Last Nite’ – The Strokes inspired by Tom Petty
One of the most iconic songs from the ’00s indie explosion, The Strokes track ‘Last Nite’ arrived as a timeless classic, instantly confirming the band as heroes and providing a new anthem for the youth. However, perhaps the reason for its anthemic qualities was the fact the song feels keenly inspired by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ song ‘American Girl’.
When Rolling Stone caught up with Petty, they asked about both this song and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ track ‘Dani California’, to which the late star replied: “The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for their song ‘Last Nite’], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ — It doesn’t bother me.”
Thankfully, Petty was never interested in pursuing the songs legally: “If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – Nirvana inspired by Pixies
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was endlessly inspired by the pop charts. The singer was a keen listener of music and absorbed influence like a sponge, ensuring the band’s seminal album Nevermind from 1991 was blissful in its brutish pop sensibilities. But perhaps the most famous song off the record, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ was inspired by the Pixies.
Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993, “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” While the song at hand is often thought of as the band’s landmark single ‘Debaser’ the Nirvana track had plenty of other inspirations too.
“It was such a cliched riff,” said Cobain. “It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, Krist [Novoselic] looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous.’ I made the band play it for an hour and a half.” Nirvana would pay tribute to the “Boston riff” from ‘More Than Feeling’ at their landmark Reading Festival set in 1992.
‘Pretty Vacant’ – Sex Pistols inspired by ABBA
It may seem a bit odd to hear the two bands ABBA and the Sex Pistols in the same breath but their connection is stronger than you think. Original bassist, and one-time principal songwriter of the Pistols, Glen Matlock, was a huge fan of the pop royalty. He was such a fan, in fact, that he lifted a bass line straight from one of ABBA’s most recognisable songs, ‘SOS’ and placed it in one of the Sex Pistols ultimate punk anthems. It’s a little known fact that may make your punk friend want to pull out his safety pins.
‘Pretty Vacant’ may well be one of punk’s finest anthems but the song’s classic riff is taken straight from ABBA’s chest of pop smashes. Matlock is said to have been a fan of the band from Sweden who, at the time, were one of the biggest pop artists around, churning out chart-topping hits and generally operating as the antithesis of punk—before punk was even punk. “I had the set of chord changes and the lyric but I was short of a riff,” recalls Matlock.
“I knew it needed a melodic thing, and I heard something on a record by a band called ABBA and it inspired the riff I needed, and I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got it.’” The riff he heard was taken from the band’s song ‘SOS’, which featured on ABBA’s musical film Mamma Mia with Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep providing the vocals in that performance. Not quite the punk image you’d expect and far away from Johnny Rotten’s razor vocal.
It’s likely not something Matlock is ever too happy to talk about in great depth but he has on occasion shown his love for the band, sometimes trying to incriminate his bandmates too. “I always got quite a bit of stick for liking ABBA,” Matlock told The Mouth, “but I think as pop songwriters they’re fantastic. I mean, if you listen to the drums on ‘Waterloo’ it could be Paul [Cook] playing it… I think perhaps he’d picked up a bit, subconsciously, on that.”
‘Whole Lotta Love’ – Led Zeppelin inspired by Muddy Waters
When anyone thinks of rock behemoths Led Zeppelin quite often the first song that will come to their mind is the 1969 smash ‘Whole Lotta Love’. But while Jimmy Page and the rest of the group are routinely celebrated for the track, it is a song inspired directly by both Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters song ‘You Need Love’.
The opening track for the band’s second album, Led Zeppelin II, flies out of the traps like a greyhound with a riff-fuzzing bottle rocket in the wrong end. Jimmy Page’s guitar sound would go on to define a generation—raucous, unrestrained and unflinching; it drives the whole song and much of the decade that followed. But the song was inspired by Waters lyrical phrasing.
Plant remembers: “Page’s riff was Page’s riff. It was there before anything else. I just thought, ‘well, what am I going to sing?’ That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that … well, you only get caught when you’re successful. That’s the game.”
‘Borrowed Tune’ – Neil Young inspired by The Rolling Stones
Neil Young is a songwriter that has never been one to struggle for his own inspiration. Across an impressive career, Young has always displayed a sense of originality that set him out from the rest of the pack. While often that resides in his angelic vocal and devilish lyrics, he was also happy to borrow from other performers. The main difference between him and the others on this list was that he noted the burglary right there in the tune.
Inspired by The Rolling Stones ode to marijuana ‘Lady Jane’, Young’s ‘Borrowed Tune’ is explicit: “I’m singin’ this borrowed tune/ I took from the Rolling Stones/ Alone in this empty room/ Too wasted to write my own” While we’re not sure Young has ever been too wasted to write a tune, it’s nice to see the openness from the singer.
It may not be Young’s greatest song but it is a great display of honesty.
‘Sun King’ – The Beatles inspired by Fleetwood Mac
Here come The Beatles again. One thing that is often left unsaid about the Fab Four is that the group was pilferers of the highest order, especially in the early days. Whether it was using covers to gain column inches or just lifting other artists’ styles and performances like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and The Beach Boys. But the group also took inspiration from artists n their later years too.
For 1969’s ‘Sun King’, the band leaned heavily on the stylings of Fleetwood Mac legendary instrumental ‘Albatross’. While in 1980, Lennon may have eloquently referred to the song as “a piece of garbage I had around,” it has become a cult-favourite. The song may well have been a creation from the brain of Lennon, but in 1987, George Harrison confirmed that the song’s inspiration had a completely different jump-off point: “At the time, ‘Albatross’ (by Fleetwood Mac) was out, with all the reverb on guitar.”
Far from the pulsating R&B of old, now Mac had changed the game and added a welcomed haze to their sound. It had clearly made an impression on The Beatles. “So we said, ‘Let’s be Fleetwood Mac doing Albatross, just to get going.’ It never really sounded like Fleetwood Mac… but that was the point of origin,” confirmed Harrison.
‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ – The Beach Boys inspired by Chuck Berry
The Beach Boys were, in today’s standards, a ‘boy band’, mostly all related to one another, where they unabashedly took what Chuck Berry was doing and revolutionised it into the Californian surf sound. This isn’t such a crazy concept; after all, Chuck Berry took what T-Bone Walker was doing and made that kind of music his own. Such is the nature of rock ‘n’ roll and music at large; it is a chain reaction all fueled by inspiration and imitation.
Brian Wilson decided to take the framework of Chuck Berry’s number ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Californianize‘ it. It would be the white man’s and west coast’s answer to Chuck Berry’s commercialised blues brand – just like the Rolling Stones took a hint from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and brought their music to England. Perhaps Brian Wilson’s approach may have been a little too on the nose, however.
Brian Wilson recalled his feelings when he heard the number: “I was going with a girl called Judy Bowles, and her brother Jimmy was a surfer. He knew all the surfing spots,” he said. “I started humming the melody to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and I got fascinated with the fact of doing it, and I thought to myself, ‘God! What about trying to put surf lyrics to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’s melody? The concept was about, ‘They are doing this in this city, and they’re doing that in that city’ So I said to Jimmy, ‘Hey Jimmy, I want to do a song mentioning all the surf spots.’ So he gave me a list.”
When listening to ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Little Sweet Sixteen’ back to back, it’s not a question of ‘if’ or ‘maybe’; The Beach Boys’ number is a blatant rip off of Chuck Berry’s song.