Top Ten Famous Songs That Were Ripped Off
Published on 23 April 2020
Déjà vu is a funny feeling.
You ever get that strange sense of familiarity when you first hear a song that’s entirely new to you? Like you’ve heard part of it before, somewhere in the past?
You aren’t the only one!
Sometimes, through things like genre and ‘referencing’ of certain pieces of music, you get that twinge of recognition: for example, fans of 12-bar Blues will often hear a great many licks and phrases repeated by various artists, and this is pretty much accepted.
So, too, are little nods to songs within the context of an entirely different tune. Tiny phrases like Clapton’s ‘Blue Moon’ solo in Sunshine of Your Love, or Mike McCready’s ‘quoting’ of the Doors’ ‘5 To 1’ in his immortal solo at the end of Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive’ spring to mind. We accept these in the spirit in which they are made, like a tribute.
However, some artists just overstep the mark. Whether it’s a riff, a rhythm or a melody, sometimes the resemblance is just too close for comfort. Often, the rip-off artists get away with it, but today we’ve drawn up a shortlist of ten songs that have gone too far in the direction of plagiarism for us to be able to excuse it.
To be honest, we’re just being a bit cheeky: most of these songs are pretty amazing, but we defy you not to at least inwardly smile when you are offered the direct association between inspiration and facsimile. We suppose there are only 12 musical notes, after all, right? Of the millions of songs out there, this type of thing has to happen eventually!
Well....maybe. Maybe not! Either way, check out this list of sneaky sneaks in the world of music and decide for yourself.
Nirvana - Come as You Are / Killing Joke – Eighties
Let’s start with a good one! Just listen to Kurt’s riff and try saying that it isn’t an almost direct rip of Geordie Walker’s stomping riff from a few years earlier! Killing Joke were rightfully annoyed at this and had begun legal proceedings back in the day, before Cobain’s sad, self-inflicted ending rendered the squabbling somewhat irrelevant. Both songs are great, both are pretty different, but that riff is most definitely ‘bumped’!
Pearl Jam - Given To Fly / Led Zeppelin - Going To California
It’s somewhat rich for Led Zeppelin, great as they are, to complain of anyone nicking their riffs, given how much they plundered from the back catalogue of poor American Blues musicians (certain tunes of theirs are little more than covers), but we do have to chin Pearl Jam for this unabashed ‘borrowing’ of Zep’s acoustic ditty from Led Zep IV. To be fair to them, Robert Plant happily brushed the similarity aside, no doubt understanding that much of his career has been based on similar magpie-eyed behaviour! Still: two great songs are better than one, right?
Rocket From The Crypt – On a Rope / Zero the Hero – Black Sabbath
Whilst it may be difficult to find any riff-based band who hasn’t at least touched on Sabbath’s monolithic legacy, this is an occasion where the pilferers have essentially photocopied the entire riff (the main riff of the song) and, like Nirvana before them, slowed it down a bit. The disguise doesn’t work, boys! We can see it as bright as day! Sabbath add insult to original injury by having two cast-iron riffs in their song AND a key change!
Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines / Marvin Gaye – Got to Give it Up
Well, at least this one got caught. Robin Thicke’s cheeky tune (more famous for the spicy video than the song itself) caught the attention of the late, great Marvin Gaye’s family, not to mention lawyers, due to the almost wholesale nicking of the backbeat and instrumentation Thicke used. He and cowriter Pharrell Williams were duly whisked to court and relieved of a reported 7.3 million dollars. Ouch! ‘Got to Give it Up’ indeed! Listen to both songs now: do you think they were harshly dealt with?
Blur - M.O.R / David Bowie – Boys Keep Swinging
This is an example of a band not only nicking a riff or melody, but practically the entire tune and arrangement! It’s a bad state of affairs when you steal every element of a song and somehow make it worse, but that’s what happened here. The chords are the same, the call and response chorus, the verse melodies...it’s beyond obvious! This was on Blur’s huge 1997 album ‘Blur’ which hosted other hits like Song 2 and Beetlebum.
Also, when thieving songs, it’s perhaps not a great idea to steal from one of the most famous artists in history...Bowie rightfully smelled a rat and sued for a songwriting credit. Bowie’s original is on ‘Lodger’, the last of his Berlin Trilogy, and yes, that is none other than Adrian Belew on guitar duties! Pop songs just don’t have that level of noise any more, do they?
Machinehead – Beyond the Pale / Strapping Young Lad – Love?
A more recent example of riff-based pickpocketing occurred between two Metal icons. Fans were very quick to notice an inarguable similarity between Machinehead’s Beyond the Pale when it was released, and Strapping Young Lad’s Love?. The Metal militia came out in their masses, accusing Rob Flynn of stealing the iconic opening riff.
So how did this one play out? Interestingly, in a very compassionate and sensible way. Ex-SYL frontman and writer Devin Townsend said this: "People asking me about riff similarities: I don't have an opinion really. I've written riffs my whole career that sound like something else. I've used whole themes from other albums, movies or soundtracks. Art is a collage of your experiences, you taking clippings and reassemble."
Flynn, in response, said this: "Shout out to Devin Townsend for being so cool. The Riff Police pulled me over, I got a $300 infraction for that one!! Like Dimebag always used to tell me 'we’re all just sharing riffs man.' And while I would proudly admit that I stole a Riff from you... Was just a happy accident. Riff on brother!!"
Happy endings can be had, in Metal at least!
Audioslave – Cochise / Audioslave – Your Time Has Come
Whilst some bands, as we’ve duly noted here, do pinch riffs from other bands and artists to make new songs, some other bands steal a little closer to home...like themselves.
Now, we are the first to admit that lots of great bands (AC/DC, ZZ Top, Rolling Stones etc) often turn out song after song that sound very similar. However, it’s another situation entirely when the opening song of your second album sounds almost exactly like the opening song on your first album! Deja vu double takes are entirely understandable!
Coshise (great video) already had a bit of a second-hand, generic riff to begin with, so it’s a puzzling surprise to hear it regurgitated almost exactly on the follow up record. We might have been more lenient if this were a by-the-numbers group of 2nd tier musicians, but this is Tom Morello, one of the most distinctive and unique guitarists ever! And the rest of Audioslave were previously Rage Against the Machine AND Soundgarden! No excuses!
Right Said Fred – I’m Too Sexy / Jimi Hendrix Experience – Third Stone From the Sun
This is a pretty bizarre one. We all remember this camp disco classic from the early 90s, but did the instrumental break ever feel overtly familiar to you? That’s because it’s a note-for-note keyboard plundering of Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic instrumental from debut record Are You Experienced! Those cheeky boys! In the Right Said Fred video, the part is question starts at around 1m13 in. For some reason, It’s actually difficult to find a link in the UK to a Hendrix performance of this song, studio or live, but we did come across Stevie Ray Vaughan going for it, so we’ll happily use this as a reference instead. Jump to 1m44 to hear the very same melody. Too sexy to write their own tunes? Looks like it.
Elastica – Waking Up / The Stranglers – No More Heroes
Blur’s Damon Albarn pops up again, this time supplying keyboards to a tune that sounded so much like The Stranglers’ hit No More Heroes that they were obliged to take Elastica to court for it. The similarities are pretty obvious to the ear, and the judge agreed: the matter was settled outside of court, with the Stranglers receiving songwriting credit alongside Elastica. Tut tut!
Radiohead – Creep / Air That I Breathe - Albert Hammond
Our final choice today brings into focus a case of wanton note-nicking by Oxford’s celebrated experimental Rockers Radiohead and Albert ‘Dad of one of the Strokes’ Hammond. The problem here is that the chords in the verse of each song are so similar (and certain vocal melodies, to be honest) that there can really be no excuses of coincidence. Speaking frankly, we think Radiohead may also owe Bowie a few quid for stealing one of the guitar parts on Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, but since he never openly objected, we’ll keep our peace also...
So, that was quite a mixed bunch of music! From terrifying Metal to sleazy R’n’B, it seems that no genre is safe from the flinty fingers of the musical ‘tea leaf’. In some instances, there has been a hefty price to pay, whilst in others, a more ‘live and let live’ attitude prevailed. How would you react if a major artist liberally borrowed from your work? We’d like to know!
Also, we selected ten pretty variable examples here today to get you thinking, but there are tons more! Get busy in the comments section below and let us know of more examples of songs that’ve been shamelessly robbed!
Thanks for reading.