Inspiration is an unavoidable part of music. Occasionally, this can lead to contentious legal disputes that see artistry play out in a courtroom. Luckily, Tom Petty couldn’t have been more relaxed after discovering that he helped give The Strokes their biggest hit.
When The Strokes made their arrival, the New Yorkers swiftly changed the trajectory of rock ‘n’ roll music by injecting a heavy dosage of raucous spirit back into the public vernacular. From the moment word began to spread about their boundary-pushing new sound, The Strokes became the talk of the town, and their debut single ‘Last Nite’ got the Millennium off to a golden start.
That single alone made The Strokes the most talked about band in Britain. Together, they answered a prayer for a revolutionary group with the ability to speak for the next generation — a youth that felt disconnected by the banality of music at the moment. Then ‘Last Nite’ came along, a track reminiscent of vintage rock ‘n’ roll while never feeling like an impression. However, by their own admission, The Strokes did steal a section of it from Tom Petty.
Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of the band, later admitted: “People would say, ‘You know that song ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty?’ ‘Don’t you think it sounds a little like that?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we ripped it off. Where you been?'”
Casablancas’ brutal honesty about taking influence from others is a breath of fresh air, although it could have had severe repercussions on his bank balance if Petty wasn’t such a good sport. Furthermore, the singer wasn’t done there and went on to add: “There are some bass lines on our first album that were 100% ripped off from The Cure. We were worried about putting out the album, because we thought we’d get busted.”
Fortunately, Petty didn’t mind that they’d re-hashed ‘American Girl’, and in fact, he found their frank comments on the whole incident entertaining. “The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for ‘Last Nite’], there was an interview that took place with them where they actually admitted it,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 2006. “That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.”
In the same interview, Petty faced an inquisition around the similarity between Red Hot Chili Peppers track ‘Dani California’ and his song, ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’. He commented: “The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there, a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike…I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”
While Petty’s comments about lawsuits are noble, they also couldn’t be more hypocritical. In 2015, Petty successfully sued Sam Smith over the similarities between the latter’s hit ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘I Won’t Back Down’. Proceedings ended up being settled outside the courtroom, with Petty and ELO’s Jeff Lynne receiving writing credits on Smith’s track rather than a lengthy, drawn-out procedure.
Smith pleaded innocence and claimed he’d never heard Petty’s song, which may have been true. However, if only he followed the Julian Casablancas route of admittance, then perhaps Petty would have let him off the hook.