Stealing versus paying homage


text: Michael Raine

Borrowing, stealing, ripping-off, plagiarism, whatever euphemism or disparaging term you want to give it, there’s a long history of it in popular music.

Those well-versed in the folk and blues traditions know that using songs of the past as inspiration and building blocks for your own songs is a very old and often condoned practice. After all, even the greatest artists in music history, ones who went on to influence countless others, were at one time still finding their own voice and mining their idols’ songs for inspiration.

Unfortunately, sometimes the songs they created bore a little too much resemblance to the source material and they were sued, or at least called out publicly. There has been a lot of debate, and I don’t intend to rehash it all, about the difference between stealing and simply using old a song to create something new and exciting. What about the difference between stealing and paying homage? Is there any difference at all?

Over the last few weeks a feud of sorts has been going on between singer/rapper Frank Ocean and drummer/songwriter Don Henley of ‘70s stadium rock kings The Eagles, which revolves around Ocean’s song “American Wedding”. The song re-purposes the melody and much of the instrumentation of The Eagles’ mega-hit “Hotel California” but changes all of the lyrics. The always-litigious Eagles – particularly Henley who has a co-songwriting credit on “Hotel California” – apparently didn’t see it has a tribute but as thievery, threatening a lawsuit and allegedly demanding that Ocean stop performing the song.

“They also asked that I release a statement expressing my admiration for Mr. Henley, along with my assistance pulling it off the web as much as possible,” Ocean wrote on his Tumblr page adding, “Shit’s weird. Ain’t this guy rich as fuck? Why sue the new guy? I didn’t make a dime off that song. I released it for free. If anything I’m paying homage.”

Maybe Ocean did use more of The Eagles’ song, the entire melody and instrumentation, than is normal but his reaction is fairly typical, fully admitting that he’s used it. Henley’s reaction, however, it at odds with many of his contemporaries who have also seen their work appear in the songs of young bands.

Throughout the 1990s, few bands achieved as much popularity and were accused as often of stealing as Oasis and the band’s chief songwriter Noel Gallagher. You could make a long list of similarities between Oasis songs and those of Gallagher’s heroes. Just compare the guitar riffs in Oasis’ “Cigarettes and Alcohol” and T. Rex’s glam rock anthem “Bang a Gong (Get it On).”

However, Gallagher has never denied this and freely jokes about how he blatantly he’s stolen from his favorite bands. I can remember (but can’t seem to find anymore) an old interview with Gallagher in which the interviewer notes how the piano intro to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” sounds a lot like the piano intro to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Gallagher responded with laugh, saying something along the lines of, “it doesn’t sound like ‘Imagine,’ it is ‘Imagine.’”

Interestingly, many of the people Gallagher has stolen from the most often and blatantly, such as Paul McCartney and The Who’s Pete Townshend, didn’t sue the songwriter but instead praised him. As Townshend said in the VH1 “Behind the Music” episode on Oasis, “They’re not pretending not to be stealing something. They’re making obvious that they’re borrowing so then it becomes homage.”

Likewise, guitarist and songwriter Derek Miller of the indie rock duo Sleigh Bells told about meeting Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen, saying, “The first thing I said to [Collen] was, ‘Are you angry or are you flattered?’ I’ve stolen so much from Def Leppard, shamelessly and unironically. He laughed his ass off and said, ‘We all do it. It all goes in a circle.’”

One more example. Tom Petty, whose guitar part in the classic song “American Girl” bears a striking to The Strokes’ debut single “Last Night,” told Rolling Stone magazine, “The Strokes took ‘American Girl,’ and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.”

So have the songwriters behind Oasis, Sleigh Bells, and The Strokes knowingly written songs that sound, at least it part, strikingly similar to song that have come before? Absolutely. But the difference between these songwriters and say, Coldplay – who were accused of plagiarism by no less than three different songwriters for their 2008 single “Viva La Vida” – is that former don’t deny anything. Gallagher and The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas have said it countless interviews that they use their favorite songs as the foundation of many of their own tunes. And Ocean, on his Tumblr page, even referred to “American Wedding” as “my rendition of ‘Hotel California.’”

As Townshend explained, that complete honesty about where the original inspiration for a song comes from appears to be the difference between stealing and paying homage.

Because if plagiarism is “taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own,” how can it be plagiarism if the songwriter is admitting in an internationally broadcast/published interview that a certain idea or sound came from someone else? Isn’t that the complete opposite of passing someone else’s work off as your own? Now, clearly telling a judge “but I told Rolling Stone it wasn’t my idea” won’t win you a lawsuit if some 65-year-old millionaire wants to sue you for a song writing credit and royalties.

But that’s why the Don Henleys of the world need to calm themselves occasionally and ask, “Is this person stealing from me or paying homage to me?” There’s no doubt that the music industry if full of thievery and that is why copyrights need to be protected. But when one songwriter takes legal action against or publicly threatens a younger songwriter, it may be in their best interest to spend more time thinking about whether they are suing a thief or a fan. Because a thief deserves to pay but a fan could turn an entire new generation of music fans onto the music of a band like The Eagles.

By failing to understand the difference between stealing and paying homage, Henley threatens lose out on a new market of young fans because he is overly concerned about one famous fan potentially infringing on his copyright. He might be well advised to remember that imitation is the finest form of flattery, as some writer better than me once said.

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