It is no secret that some of the most iconic songs of all time have allegedly been stolen. Taken from one artist and appropriated by another, in turn making the new version of the song legendary, often at the personal and monetary expense of the composer. The unjust thing about this practice is that the ‘thieves’ also gain all the plaudits for their musical counterfeit, leaving the creator out in the cold. However, this is a practice that has been around as long as popular music itself, and shows no sign of abating.
The way in which these songs instilled themselves in popular culture led to their origins being called into question. Furthermore, the way they became synonymous with the artists that popularised them also fans the flames of debate. No one questions the songs’ deserved place in the canon of popular music, but the question of who has parental rights is as just as it is intriguing, often diminishing respect for an artist that had otherwise feigned parency.
Sometimes, the melodies and songs find their way into the brain of the canoniser subconsciously, and other times the riffs are used as a respectful homage to the creator. More often than not, though, it is just stealing, and the creators have no choice but to involve the judiciary.
“What do they say? ‘A good artist borrows, a great artist steals’ – or something like that,” Paul McCartney told Guitar Player in 1990. “That makes the Beatles great artists, because we stole a lot of stuff.”
Such acceptance of truth, displayed by McCartney’s sardony, is not always the case. There exist theories, often perpetuated by the accused, that like oil, there is only a finite amount of music to go around and that there is no choice but to pinch from here and there. Although this theory has considerable weight, it doesn’t actually account for the numerous occasions where similarities between songs are so obvious that there can be no doubt a theft has occurred.
“There’s only one song in the world,” Keith Richards told the Independent in 2010, “And Adam and Eve wrote it.”
Nonetheless, we are not the judiciary, nor the musicians, and we, the humble listener, have been treated to the same songs in different formats on many occasions. So strap in as we list the ten best ‘stolen’ pop songs of all time.
The 10 best ‘stolen’ songs:
10. New Order – ‘Blue Monday’ (1983)
The influence New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ has had on music is massive. From electronic and dance to indie, it’s influence is everywhere. It famously became the most bought 12inch single of all time after its release in 1983. Typically, however, the Mancunians could not agree where the song originated. Peter Hook alleged that they “stole it off a Donna Summer B-side”, but it transpired that it was actually the A-side ‘Our Love’ and the similarities are certainly there to be heard.
Bernard Sumner, on the other hand, maintained that parts of the song had been plucked from Klein + MBO’s ‘Dirty Talk’, Sylvester’s disco classic ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and that the long, iconic intro had been sampled from Kraftwerk’s Uranium. Keyboardist Gillian Gilbert didn’t agree either: “Peter Hook’s bass line was nicked from an Ennio Morricone film soundtrack.” Interestingly, these very disparate influences all have substance when listening.
Allegedly, ‘Blue Monday’’s actual starting point actually lies with fellow Mancunians, Gerry and the Holograms’s eponymous, obscure slice of electronica, released on Absurd Records in 1979. The group consisted of satirist CP Lee and John Scott.
Suitably, New Order knew Lee and decided the joke was on him. This is possibly the reason they’ve never been sued, as this joke has had an unfettered cultural impact, in addition to the numerous progenitors the band’s members claim the song has.
9. Guns N’ Roses – ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (1987)
The crossover success of this 1987 hit is huge, plastered with Slash’s legendary guitar licks and Axl Rose’s powerful voice, the song still receives regular airplay over thirty years later. However, many have doubted the song’s originality, with the band members themselves conveying different feelings towards the song’s provenance. Threatened with a lawsuit in 2015, the discussion came to the fore.
In Q, Rose claimed that the writing of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ happened quickly. Slash was killing time playing “this stupid little riff”. The other members liked it and fashioned the rest of the song around it. Allegedly, the riff soon to become synonymous with Slash, wasn’t entirely original.
Rose claimed that its main influence comes from somewhere close to home: “I’m from Indiana, where Lynyrd Skynyrd are considered God to the point that you ended up saying, I hate this fucking band!” he said. “And yet for ‘Sweet Child’ … I went out and got some old Skynyrd tapes to make sure that we’d got that heartfelt feeling.”
Contrastingly, in the Daily Mail, Australian Crawl singer James Reyne, touched on the parallels between GNR’s’ only chart-topper and his band’s song ‘Unpublished Critics’. Adding that GNR enthused about listening to a lot of Aussie bands back then. However, GNR bassist Duff McKagan swears he’s never heard the very similar Australian track. Ironically, Reyne has declined to sue, saying he wasn’t about to “take on the might of the Guns N’ Roses lawyers”, a might that has no doubt been funded by that song.
8. The Bee Gees – ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ (1977)
The pop ballad hit number one in the US, and reached number three in the UK and Australia, whilst being included in the soundtrack for classic Travolta flick Saturday Night Fever. It also held the record for being in the top ten for the longest continuous run, before being broken by Boys II Men’s 1992 smash ‘End of the Road’.
The Bee Gees’ relationship with the song came into question in 1983, when Chicago based, part-time musician Ronald Selle, filed a lawsuit six years after the song had first topped the charts. Selle told the jury that the Gibb brothers had stolen the idea from his 1975 demo entitled ‘Let it End’.
Unfortunately, the judge ended the case as Selle could not prove the groups point of contact with the song, along with any actual songwriting similarities. Selle tried to appeal the verdict but lost again, as it was proved that his demos had similarities with other Bee Gees songs that predated his demos.
7. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams – ‘Blurred Lines’ (2013)
It is right we label this song a megahit, as for months it was everywhere, with the video making waves for reasons other than the music. However, the weight of this huge commercial success was questioned two years after its release when an LA court ruled the song was in fact plagiarised from Marvin Gayes’s ‘Got to Give it Up’, from 1974. This was a landmark case, as nobody had ever claimed ownership over a “groove” before. Not until Gaye’s daughter brought forward the suit.
In The New Statesman, Rhodri Marsden claimed: “The view that it plagiarises is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what songwriting is. Let’s be clear: these two songs are fundamentally different. They have different structures, different melodies, different chords. Were it not for the similarity of the sparse arrangement (an offbeat electric piano figure and a cowbell clanking away at 120bpm), the court case wouldn’t even have taken place.”
Regardless of Marsden’s statement, the case was closed in 2018. Thicke and Williams were ordered to pay $5 million in damages to the Gaye family.
6. Led Zeppelin – ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (1971)
The song that is synonymous with Led Zeppelin has also taken them to court on numerous occasions. It transpires that “the most popular rock song of all time”, the one that every novice guitarist tries and fails to learn, may not actually be Zeppelin’s at all. Regardless of the amazing musicianship, and crazy claims of “satanic backmasking”, contemporaries to Zeppelin, Spirit, claim the song is theirs.
Zeppelin were taken to court over the similarities between ‘Stairway’ and Spirit’s 1968’s instrumental ‘Taurus’. Spirit were a band who had toured with Zeppelin early on in their career.
However, Zeppelin ultimately prevailed in court, with the ruling stating that ‘Stairway’ does not constitute a copyright infringement because both songs were recorded before 1978 and that they were not under copyright protection to begin with.
Furthermore, due to the deaths of the Spirit members who brought forward the case, the plaintiff’s argument lost its original impetus and fell apart. Pretty inconclusive eh?
5. George Harrison – ‘My Sweet Lord’ (1970)
Delaney Bramlett claims George Harrison was backstage at one of his duo, Delaney & Bonnie’s shows in 1969. According to Bramlett, “I grabbed my guitar and started playing the Chiffons’s melody from ‘He’s So Fine’ and then sang, ‘My sweet lord, oh my lord, oh my lord.’”
Two years later, he heard Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ on the radio. Bramlett immediately called Harrison up to say he hadn’t meant for him to use his exact melody, and complained about receiving no credit – “I never saw any money from it.” Neither did George.
In 1971, Bright Tunes Music – the publisher of ‘He’s So Fine’ – filed suit. Then Beatles manager Allen Klein met with its president, in a bid to purchase the near-bankrupt company’s entire catalogue; on Harrison’s behalf. He was refused.
Subsequently, Harrison later offered the company $148,000, allegedly representing 40% of the US royalties from ‘My Sweet Lord’. Bright Tunes declined, and demanded 75% of worldwide royalties, and the surrender of the song’s copyright.
Harrison, who had since split with Klein, should have smelt a rat. Klein knew the future value of this copyright, and secretly bought Bright Tunes Music for himself. This was a clear breach of the financial duty he owed to his former client, and the judge in the case agreed. Rather than the $2m Klein confidently expected, the judge awarded him $587,000 in damages, repatriating the exact sum he had paid for the company.
John Lennon had little sympathy for his old friend Harrison, commenting: “He walked right into it. He knew what he was doing.” Nevertheless, this tale, with mist reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler pulp, still leaves us with questions regarding the origin of the former Beatle’s classic song.
4. The Beach Boys – ‘Surfin’ USA’ (1963)
There is no song more synonymous with The Beach Boys earlier work. Brian Wilson says that this very obvious pinch of 1958’s ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ was definitely intended as a tribute to Chuck Berry.
However, this homage to one of his heroes was not reciprocated, and Berry’s legal team saw it another way. What ensued became one of the first major plagiarism cases, a landmark in the history of rock’s relationship with copyright issues and the courts of law.
The Beach Boys had to settle on giving away the rights and Berry’s name began appearing on the single a few years later. Wilson commented: “I was going with a girl called Judy Bowles, and her brother Jimmy was a surfer. He knew all the surfing spots. 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.”
Regardless of the Brian Wilson’s intentions, and the subsequent giving away of the rights, I think we all know who we really associate this hit with.
3. Elvis Presley – ‘Hound Dog’ (1956)
This song we closely associate with Elvis Presley, and his is one of the best selling singles of all time. This is high praise for a version of a song that has been recorded over 250 times, and one who’s creators barely saw any profits.
The song was first written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952. In a story that is so stereotypical of the music industry, they were subject to a ruthless display of power from the world of music publishing. Almost immediately after writing, their song was copyrighted to Don Robey, owner of Peacock Records, and Big Mama Thornton, who’s recording initially popularised the song. The miscarriage of justice meted out to the duo was down to producer Johnny Otis, who Leiber and Stoller had contracted their songs, hoping to break into the industry.
Later, Stoller would say: “The reality of the cold-blooded music business was something else. Later, we learned that Johnny Otis [had] put his name on the song as a composer and indicated to Don Robey, the label owner, that he, Johnny, had power of attorney to sign for us as well.”
Up to his death in 2012, Otis maintained that he completely rewrote the lyrics, which originally “had lyrics about knives and scars, all negative stereotypes”. He even took the pair to court when Elvis released his cover, having previously signed a release renouncing all claims to the song, in exchange for a measly $750.
His claim was popularly dismissed and the New York federal judge branded him “unworthy of belief”. This story only serves as another warning not to deal with the Devil, or somebody else will take your work and make millions from it.
2. The Beatles – ‘Come Together’ (1969)
The huge scale of the impact Chuck Berry had on rock’s development is unrivalled. His music influenced the majority of the rock ‘n’ roll stars of the 1960’s, who in turn, would influence the next crop of rockstars, Kurt Cobain included. Considering Berry was one man, and the severity of the way his disciples changed music’s trajectory, this really cements his godfather-like status in the world of popular music.
It is no wonder then, that some of his music was directly appropriated by his adherents. Again, Chuck Berry’s army of lawyers jumped into action. This time turning their attention to the Beatles, and ‘Come Together’. The song opens with the phrase – “Here come ol’ flattop,” a line lifted directly from Berry’s 1956 hit, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’.
‘Come Together’ shot to the top of the charts on release, and Berry’s influence was plain for all to see. Lennon settled, with the stipulation he recorded other songs owned by Berry’s publisher Morris Levy, – including ‘Ya Ya’ and, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’.
It’s nice to see that this particular story ended somewhat amicably for both parties.
1. John Barry -The James Bond Theme Tune (1962)
This is possibly the most iconic film theme tune of all time, accompanying a character just as iconic. The theme has featured in every Bond blockbuster since the first, Dr. No, in 1962. The origins of the character of James Bond are well known, originating in author Ian Fleming’s famed exploits as a spy. However, the uber stylish theme tune is not as original.
This came out in 2001 when John Barry, the credited writer, was forced to defend a libel suit brought against him by Monty Norman. Norman had for years suggested it was he who had written the theme and not Barry, as listed on every bond film credit. In 1998, The Sunday Times asked Barry if Norman was in fact the real author, and he replied: “Absolutely not.”
Unfortunately for Barry, he was required under oath to explain just how exactly he managed to compose a theme Norman had written five years earlier, under the name ‘Bad Sign, Good Sign’. Barry begrudgingly admitted he had actually used ‘Bad Sign, Good Sign’s riff.
Regardless, he maintained the rest of the tune was his – until an expert witness explained how almost all the theme stemmed from Norman’s original. Barry claimed ignorance, and that he had never intended to claim royalties on the song. Continuing, the prosecution swiftly produced letters from Barry’s solicitors threatening Norman; unless he withdrew his libel action.
Barry lost the case, and the Times also faced a substantial bill for costs. Justly, Norman was awarded £30,000, although the fee seems minuscule in comparison to the revenue the theme tune has accrued over the years.