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How Oasis ripped off Stevie Wonder for a Britpop classic

The American filmmaker, composer and all-around music fanatic, Jim Jarmusch once told Movie Maker Magazine, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”

In the past, Oasis, the Mancunian Britpop legends, have taken a liberal view of this and embraced it wholeheartedly. As Noel Gallagher once said, “You could probably take the most original band of all time, and they’re only playing what’s in their record collection. They might have a more eclectic record collection than you have, but my record collection consisted of The Beatles, The Stones, T. Rex, David Bowie and lots of greatest hits.”

This influence clearly seeped into Oasis albums in a very direct sense: ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ just about shares the exact same riff as T. Rex’s ‘Get it On’ and the solo in ‘Supersonic’ is a simple transposing of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’. These examples are plain as day, and you can bury the word plagiarism under the rather more favourable term of homage. 

As Noel Gallagher later goes on to say, “If my sole job in the band was to come up with guitar riffs, I wouldn’t be in the band. There’s too much gone, my thing is writing a song, and once you’ve written a song, nobody can argue with you, no matter what you put on it. […] These riffs fit my songs, I don’t sit there and think I’m gonna have ‘My Sweet Lord’, that just came to me. Alright, it sounds a bit like ‘My Sweet Lord’, piss off [George Harrison], you’ve got enough money, and you stole it anyway!”

The issue arises when the direct influence comes from a song that the masses can’t ascribe an honorary co-writing credit to. And it gets even more nettlesome when the obscure source material is nicked almost verbatim. More often than not, when this occurs, the originator of the material doesn’t have enough money to their name to waive it off either. 

By the time that (What’s The Story) Morning Glory came around, Oasis had already had to settle a major plagiarism case from their debut record. The track ‘Shakermaker’ lent a little too heavily on the lyrics and melody of the little-know sixties singalong pop ditty ‘I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing’ by The New Seekers, and it ended up costing Oasis $500,000.

When their follow-up was in its test pressing stage Stevie Wonder somehow got wind of the fact that there was a proposed track on the record, ‘Step Out’, that was “highly influenced” by ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’.

From a musicological standpoint, the link is undeniable. Oasis may have dressed the Motown motif up in a parka jacket and bowl cut of raw effects peddles, but the influence was self-evident enough for Wonder to be able to request 10% of the royalties for it. In the end, this was granted and when ‘Step Out’ later surfaced as the B-side to the group’s eponymous anthem ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ and Stevie Wonder, Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy rejoiced as the sales rolled in. 

The ethics of such a liberal invocation of source material are complicated and difficult, but Nick Cave is always a reliable voice to turn to in such instances and he wrote on his Red Hand Files forum: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”

Vitally, however, he goes on to add, “Plagiarism is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary — even admirable — tendency, and that is to steal. Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.

But a word of caution, if you steal an idea and demean or diminish it, you are committing a dire crime for which you will pay a terrible price — whatever talents you may have will, in time, abandon you.”

Following the lawsuits that Noel Gallagher faced in his early songwriting stage, his back catalogue is now strewn with co-writing credits attributed to obscure artists from yesteryear. Meaning his influences can now get a slice of the cake, and fans get a brief education in what makes Noel Gallagher such a potent songwriter.