7 Famous Musicians Who Stole Some of Their Biggest Hits
A lot of people accuse hip-hop artists of stealing their best music. You can't get through a rap song nowadays without hearing bits and snippets of other popular songs that have been "sampled" in. On one hand, it sucks, because now your favorite song is ruined. But on the other hand, at least you have something to complain about now.
What most people don't understand, however, is that those original artists probably "sampled" their songs from someone else who had also sampled in their music, and on and on in an eternal circle of "legitimate" theft. Artists like ...
(Cracked is all original, which is why we made a Star Wars: Adventures in Jedi School mini-series.)
Depending on who you ask, Green Day is either one of the last great punk bands to walk the earth or a total slap in the face to everything punk music stands for. Either way, there's one fact about this polarizing band that nobody can dispute -- they love to steal. In fact, their last three proper studio albums have all prominently featured songs that sound suspiciously similar to other musicians' work.
Many of you will remember (and potentially resent) the song "American Idiot" as being the catalyst for the great Green Day comeback of the early 2000s. As a band, Green Day was nearly dead before that record was released. But then the title track hit the airwaves and a whole new generation of fans fell in love. We're guessing not a lot of those new fans were familiar with a relatively unknown punk band called Dillinger Four, because if they were, they would have been irate. Take a listen to the opening riff of Dillinger Four's awesomely titled "Doublewhiskeycokenoice":
And now, check out the opening (and pretty much only) riff of "American Idiot":
Right, pretty goddamn similar. And the shenanigans (hello, obscure Green Day reference!) don't end there. On Warning, the far less beloved album that preceded the American Idiot triumph, the band basically added different lyrics to an old Kinks song and released it as the title track and first single:
Not wanting to break their streak of albums featuring hit singles stolen from other bands, Green Day's most recent album, 21st Century Breakdown, included one of their biggest singles ever, the super-duper depressing "21 Guns." Several attentive listeners noted that the song bore a striking resemblance to an ELO song called "Telephone Line." Check it out:
And that wasn't the first time they scored massive success with a "borrowed" tune. You may remember the single "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" as being that song you heard every day on the radio for like six months back in 2004. Either that, or you'll remember it as an Oasis song you also heard on the radio every day about 10 years earlier. But if there's any band that has no right to complain about other bands stealing their shit, it's definitely Oasis. Allow us to explain ...
You remember Oasis, right? For a year or two in the mid-'90s, they were one of the biggest bands in the world. After that, they had to settle for just being the biggest band in England, selling out Wembley Stadium on consecutive nights at a time when most Americans assumed the notoriously surly Gallagher brothers had dropped out of music to pursue a career of snatching old ladies' purses and beating up kids for their lunch money. Honestly, Oasis kind of deserved their massive fall from grace with the stateside audience, because they're quite possibly the most prolific song stealers of all time.
The band literally came out of the gate stealing, as evidenced by the similarities between their breakthrough hit "Cigarettes and Alcohol" and the T. Rex classic "Get It On (Bang a Gong)":
In their defense, Prince totally copied the same T. Rex song for his massive hit single "Cream." We'd love to show you video evidence of that, but even if we could find the video, Prince would sue us into oblivion for posting it (and probably you for watching it).
But we digress, let's get back to Oasis. Not only is the band prolific in their thievery, but they're incredibly diverse as well, not content to just steal from bands similar to them. That's not to say they don't steal from bands similar to them. They're basically a less talented version of the Beatles, after all. We're just saying they like to branch out a bit when it comes to who they steal from. For example, Stevie Wonder apparently noticed that the track "Step Out" sounded suspiciously like a classic song of his called "Uptight":
We don't know what action Wonder took, but we know "Step Out" was included on early promotional copies of the album, but was mysteriously pulled at the last minute, and when the song finally surfaced, they were sure to list Stevie Wonder as one of the songwriters. Seriously, how did they think they'd get that by him? Stevie Wonder is blind, so he undoubtedly has superhuman hearing.
But if stealing from Stevie Wonder seems like a stretch, give a listen to the melody of this Oasis song and see if it sounds like something you might have heard before:
Does that sound familiar to you at all? If not, it probably just means you were born sometime after the 1970s. Most everyone else will recognize that melody as one belonging to a massively popular Coke commercial:
So, you know, give Oasis credit for stealing in a think-outside-the-box sort of way, at least.
OK, hipsters, we'll give the fact that Radiohead is on this list a second to sink in. We know you're probably already putting on your best commenting shoes so you can call us ignorant jackasses. But please, let us state our case. In keeping with a recurring theme so far on this list, Radiohead kicked off their career by making their breakthrough single a gigantic theft of another band. In this case, the victim was the Hollies. Check out Radiohead's "Creep" compared to the Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe":
Before you cry foul and claim that you don't hear the similarities, understand this -- the Hollies sued Radiohead and won. Take a look at the "writers" section in the sidebar of the Wikipedia page for the song "Creep." Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood are listed. That's because they wrote "The Air That I Breathe." Radiohead was forced to share writing credit with the duo after the lawsuit came to its inevitable conclusion.
"Yeah, but that was early Radiohead, man. Everyone knows that first album was garbage." Fine, music scholar, that's a great point. Unfortunately, that point is completely negated when you consider that "Karma Police," a song that's been hailed as "one of the cornerstones of one of the greatest albums of the '90s," was also a rip-off. And this time, the musicians they stole from had a little bit higher of a profile. Take a listen to "Karma Police" side by side with the Beatles' "Sexy Sadie":
Did you notice how seamlessly the two songs blend into each other? There's a pretty clear reason for that. Radiohead just slightly sped up the same piano riff from "Sexy Sadie" and added some Debbie Downer lyrics to it.
But, much like Oasis before them, the Beatles don't have a whole lot of room to complain, and not just because most of them are dead now (sigh).
If you're in the mood for a comprehensive list, you can find a rundown of everything the Beatles are accused of stealing right here. If you'd just like us to give you a few examples instead, first let us commend you on your unyielding laziness. You're a reader after our own hearts. As for those examples, check out the striking similarities between the main riff of Bobby Parker's "Watch Your Step" and the Beatles' "I Feel Fine":
The Beatles were a special breed of song thieves, though, in that they'd go out of their way to admit to their wrongdoing. George Harrison confessed in an interview that he stole that guitar riff from Bobby Parker. Sorry, "was influenced by" is the term he actually used. The band also fessed up to ripping off the Isley Brothers for "From Me to You."
Perhaps the most unabashed song thievery belongs to John Lennon, on the popular baby boomer anthem "Come Together" he supposedly wrote. You know it from dozens of commercials and movies that have used it since. However, if you watch the below clip, you'll see Chuck Berry singing not only a familiar tune, but the same seemingly nonsensical lyrics about someone named "flattop" that Lennon would "write" decades later.
Again, there's nothing unintentional here. When they were sued by the people who owned the rights to Berry's recording, Lennon pointed out that he and McCartney had intentionally slowed down the rhythm and made the bass riff heavier to make the song sound "more original," which is known as "trying to disguise your blatant thievery" when it's done by people who aren't the Beatles. They eventually settled out of court.
The borrowing didn't stop when the Beatles broke up, either. "My Sweet Lord," the standout single from George Harrison's ridiculously epic solo debut All Things Must Pass, was pretty much a note for note copy of "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons:
That video is basically both songs being played at the same time. Harrison was sued and found to have "subconsciously" plagiarized the Chiffons song. Years later, Harrison bought the company that sued him and, by extension, the copyright for "He's So Fine." Problem solved!
This spunky New York City band reinvented rock music much the same way Green Day did in the '90s. Translation: They played the same music that people before them had been playing for decades, but somehow convinced the public that what they were doing was fresh and new. Some people refer to it as "The Nirvana Effect," a term coined by us just now in this sentence.
Much like Oasis before them, they kicked off their career by pilfering a stone cold classic. This time, the victim was Tom Petty. Check out the Strokes' hit single "Last Night":
And now, have a listen to Tom Petty's "American Girl":
If you hated listening to that Strokes song, you'll really hate us for not mentioning that you only needed to listen to the first 30 seconds or so. That's where most of the thievery takes place. That instantly recognizable opening riff from "American Girl" was pretty much copied note for note by the Strokes.
If for some reason you think ripping off Tom Petty is something only your dad would consider doing, wait until you hear who else the Strokes have turned to for "inspiration." Many critics noticed that the Strokes' "Razorblade" bears a striking resemblance to "Mandy" by freaking Barry Manilow. Also, we sincerely apologize for the wall of text in that link, let "Ctrl+F" be your guide if you're the fact-checking type. Or if reading isn't your thing, listen to the nearly identical choruses of each song right here.
Ripping off Barry Manilow makes Oasis ripping off a Coke commercial seem like a total gangster move. Their hipster cred isn't helped by the fact that they also robbed Henry Mancini:
That said, we'd be downright floored if "The Peter Gunn Theme" isn't the coolest Henry Mancini song of all time, so at least they have that working in their favor.
Right off the bat, if any casual fans are reading this and wondering who in the hell John Williams is, there's only one thing you need to know. He composed the ridiculously iconic Star Wars theme. And you know what? When you're working in a medium like classical music, borrowing from other artists isn't all that unheard of. Hans Zimmer, the man behind several recent scores for Hollywood blockbusters, does it all the time. He even admitted to sampling a Gustav Holst piece on his score for Gladiator.
But the thing about John Williams is that he wins tons of awards for his thievery. To add a nice twist of irony, those awards often come in the "Best Original Score" category. Take the Jaws theme, for example. He took home the Best Original Score Oscar for that famous "Dun dun, dun dun" sound that we've all come to associate with impending danger (specifically, the danger of being eaten by a cartoonishly large shark). Meanwhile, the classical musician who came up with it first is spinning in his grave. Check out John Williams' theme back to back with Dvorak's Symphony No. 9:
That's what's often referred to as "damning evidence" on the episodes of Matlock that currently occupy every inch of space on our office DVR.
But what about that Star Wars theme? Surely he must have come up with that on his own, right? The guy took home an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA award, a Grammy award and a Saturn award for that score. We're pretty sure he would've won an ESPY, too, if they were around back then. There's no way such universal praise would be heaped on something that was clearly "borrowed" from someone else. Well, in a perfect world, that would probably be the case. But the world isn't perfect, and the Star Wars theme was a straight-up jack move. Those iconic sounds first appeared way back in the black and white days on the theme from Kings Row. Behold the evidence:
The prosecution rests. And yes, we learned that phrase from watching Matlock also.
Something funny happened on Madonna's way to being hailed as a music innovator. That funny thing being, of course, that the people who have bestowed that title upon her like to conveniently ignore the fact that she steals songs like a crackhead supporting her drug habit by recording hit songs. We'd love to give you a rundown of each and every song she's been accused of jacking, but as you can see from this list, it would take us a minimum of three full articles to do that.
The most obvious rip-off of Madonna's career also doubles as one of the most obvious rip-offs of all time. Check out the similarities between Madonna's "Justify My Love" and Public Enemy's "Security of the First World":
Stealing from Public Enemy back during their badass heyday was a pretty bold move. Almost as bold as, well, suing Madonna. That's exactly what Public Enemy did, taking the pop legend for everything that massive hit earned her, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of "an undisclosed sum."
And that's all the excuse we need to post a picture of Flavor Flav.
To make matters worse, that wasn't the only lawsuit that stemmed from this one song. A poet named Ingrid Chavez, after hearing "Justify My Love," couldn't help but notice something strange. Specifically, she noticed that she wrote the damn lyrics. So, we stand corrected, Public Enemy didn't get everything that Madonna earned for that song. Chavez sued also and was awarded a writing credit and (we're assuming) a massive amount of royalties.
Madonna didn't limit her plagiarism to just songs, either. She's been accused of ripping off music videos from a crap load of people. In fact, anywhere you look, whether it be album covers or even her eccentric style, Madonna seems to be continuously in some kind of plagiarism scandal, with a ridiculous 15 plagiarism lawsuits to her credit so far.
Who knew being one of the biggest pop stars ever could be so easy?
And who knew Cracked could make the best live-action Star Wars series since...whenever the last GOOD Star Wars movie came out.
Mohammed Shariff is a freelance writer and can be followed here and added here.
For more unoriginal creations that you cherish, check out 7 Classic Movies You Didn't Know Were Rip-Offs and 5 Famous Inventors (Who Stole Their Big Idea).
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