Musicians who stole their biggest hits

When you're a musician, inspiration can strike at any moment. You can be brushing your teeth, sitting on the john, eating a burrito, or doing all those things at once somehow, when suddenly, BAM! Inspiration jumps out and punches you in the face, forcing you to cut your awesome display of multitasking short to go sit at the keyboard and squeeze out a song. It can come from a half-forgotten dream, an incident on the bus the day before, or even the fact that you're a thieving thief of the type that thieves.

Depending upon whom you ask, this isn't even necessarily bad — it's been said that virtually all musicians indulge in a little light plagiarism from time to time, as the world's supply of truly original melodies and lyrics are swiftly dwindling. But these are particularly egregious cases, with strangely different outcomes; some of the original artists were awarded songwriting credit, some settled out of court, and yet others sarcastically remarked "nice tune you've got there" while flipping the bird, unable to do much else.

Snap!

The story of how worldwide dance smash "The Power" came to be is as convoluted as it gets,  but here are the main beats. In 1989, a pair of German dance music producers known as Snap! put out a "Mega Mix" (a common practice at the time) consisting of the rhythm track from "King of the Beats" by Mantronix, a vocal hook from "Love's Gonna Get You" by Jocelyn Brown, and two elements (a killer saxophone riff and the entire acapella vocal track) from the single "Let the Words Flow" by Queens rapper Chill Rob G. When Rob and his producer expressed irritation over this, Snap! pulled the vocal and recruited soundalike rapper Durron Butler (Turbo B) to record new verses, and this new version became an international smash hit.

Figuring that turnabout was fair play, Rob proceeded to swipe the entire instrumental track and release his own version of the song on tiny label Wild Pitch. Unfortunately, Snap! had signed a U.S. distribution deal with Arista, so their Frankenstein monster of a track effectively buried Rob's version. So, just how hard did Rob get screwed? Setting aside the fact that you've never heard of him before now, consider that he reaped none of that sweet "The Power" cash, and also this: that instantly recognizable "it's gettin' kinda hectic" sample? That's Rob's voice, from his original song. Remember also that the Snap! version contains the line, "copywritten lyrics so they can't be stolen," which must trigger tiny nuclear explosions inside Rob's head every time he hears it.

Radiohead

Although "Creep" was Radiohead's breakout hit, the band has never been particularly fond of the song, even refusing to play it live for years on end. Perhaps it's because it doesn't fit very well thematically with the rest of the band's catalog, or because it's been covered an insane number of times in agonizingly earnest fashion by the likes of Moby and Korn. Lead singer Thom Yorke has famously referred to the song by the alternate title "Crap," but perhaps that's just the shame talking because the song's composition is a blatant ripoff of an old song by the Hollies, "The Air That I Breathe." 

According to NME, it took Hollies songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood a while to catch on — but once they did, they were quick to haul the band into court for copyright infringement. It presumably wasn't a lengthy hearing because the two songs' chord progressions are obviously identical. Hammond and Hazelwood were awarded a cut of the Radiohead song's royalties, and future pressings of Pablo Honey — the album on which "Creep" appears — credit them as co-songwriters. It was a cut-and-dried case until just recently, when British crooner Sam Smith decided to muddy the waters by ripping off "Creep" for his song "Midnight Train," presumably in an attempt to get the Hollies' and Radiohead's lawyers to fight to the death.

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is a legend, and it's impossible to overstate his contributions to country music. He famously played one of his signature tunes, "Folsom Prison Blues," for an audience of inmates at the actual Folsom Prison, because he was just that badass. As immortalized in the biopic Walk the Line, "Folsom Prison Blues" is the tune that saw Cash turning away from traditional, gospel-tinged country, taking the genre into totally new territory with bleak lyrics about the hopelessness of prison life — but the flick conveniently left out the part where he ripped off the bulk of the song from an earlier recording.

That recording was Gordon Jenkins' "Crescent City Blues," which was released in 1953. The Los Angeles Times reported that Cash once explained to an interviewer that he wrote the song at a time when he "had no idea I would be a professional recording artist," and that he "wasn't trying to rip anybody off." But even though the compositions are quite different, many of the lyrics — including the opening lines of each verse, among others — are identical. Cash went on to say that he eventually worked it out with Jenkins, and "everything was right" — but the reported $100,000 settlement Cash forked over probably helped a lot.

Guns N' Roses

Former Australian Crawl lead singer James Reyne really doesn't want to make a big deal about this, but fans have long been of the opinion that the Aussie band's 1981 track "Unpublished Critics" was—how to put this most delicately—pilfered, plundered and thieved by Guns N' Roses for their signature tune, "Sweet Child O Mine." Reyne has claimed to have not been aware of the controversy until recently — "it just didn't cross my radar because I was listening to other things," he reportedly said — and Australian Crawl has never so much as threatened any legal action, which is odd. When you compare the tracks side by side, it sure seems like the similarities would be enough to make any lawyer worth their salt drown in a puddle of anticipatory drool.

As reported by VH-1 News, Reyne told an Australian blog that these similarities include "the same chugging chord progression, a similarly sweeping lead break, the verse melody, and the elongated one-syllable vocal in the chorus," which is exactly right, but he later expressed a disinclination to take on the Guns' presumed army of lawyers, and that was that. At least there's now a partial answer to the repeated query of "where do we go now?" which closes the Guns N' Roses tune, and that answer is "not to court, thankfully."

Michael Jackson

Everyone's heard Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and everyone's heard Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," but unless you're a musician, it may have escaped you that the two songs' rhythm sections are … quite similar. Upon the King of Pop's death and subsequent ascension to Pop Heaven, a gaggle of celebrities told their MJ stories to Rolling Stone, and among the more interesting recollections was one from Daryl Hall, describing an interaction that took place during the recording of the star-studded benefit track "We Are the World."

"He sort of clung to Diana Ross pretty much," Hall recalled, "but at one point I was off to the side and he came over to me and said, 'I hope you don't mind, but I stole "Billie Jean" from you.'" Hall has told this story more than once, and in every version he defers to King, sometimes adding the detail that he played it off by saying he didn't see the similarity. Like many artists, Hall seems to subscribe to the idea that a certain amount of theft is normal — but at the very least, he's got to be quietly smug about the fact that a little bass groove he came up with while screwing around in the studio formed the basis for not one, but two monster smash hit songs.

Ray Parker Jr.

If the name Ray Parker Jr. doesn't immediately ring a bell, then we just have one question for you: Who ya gonna call? That's right, you're gonna call the Ghostbusters because Parker told you to in his signature hit from the original 1984 film. But it almost wasn't to be; according to Rolling Stone, the movie's producers had originally wanted Huey Lewis and the News to provide the soundtrack's lead single, but Huey and the boys were already at work on the soundtrack to Back to the Future and had to decline. Fortunately, Parker was on hand to fill the big Huey Lewis-shaped hole in the soundtrack by writing a perfectly catchy tune ripped off nearly wholesale from "I Want a New Drug" by Huey Lewis.

It took Lewis about 10 seconds to file a lawsuit upon hearing Parker's song, but it took fully 10 years for the case to be resolved. The parties settled out of court in 1995, with a non-disclosure agreement preventing either of them from talking about the case, which Lewis totally ignored. In an episode of Behind the Music, he blabbed, "The offensive part was not so much that Ray Parker Jr. had ripped this song off, it was kind of symbolic of an industry that wants something — they wanted our wave, and they wanted to buy it. … I suppose it was for sale, because, basically, they bought it." Parker sued, and Lewis probably thought it was totally worth it.

Katy Perry

In May 2013, pop songstress Katy Perry tweeted a supportive message to fellow singer Sara Bareilles: "I heart you," it read (nice!) above a post of Bareilles new video "Brave" (super-nice for a megastar like Perry to give free publicity to a regular star of the non-mega variety). A few months passed, and in August of that year, Perry released the lead single from her new album Prism. You may have heard it — "Roar" ended up being the sixth-highest-selling single of 2013, and it sounds a whole hell of a lot like "Brave" (not so nice).

The Guardian reported that it took fans no time at all to begin mashing up the two songs, which was presumably about as easy as mashing up some mashed potatoes with more mashed potatoes. To add more thievery to the existing thievery, DJ Dillion Francis took to Twitter to complain loudly about the fact that one of the two videos for "Roar" — in which Perry texts the song's lyrics throughout the day from a sped-up, first person point of view — took its concept from an earlier clip for one of his songs, "Messages." Perry never addressed either complaint, but Bareilles was insanely diplomatic when discussing the controversy with CBS News, saying, "I can't say that I think that they don't sound similar. … I've known Katy a really long time and we're friends. And at the end of the day, it was really only good for my song."

George Harrison

Even artists of the highest stature aren't immune to the thievery bug, and few statures are higher than "ex-Beatle." A prolific songwriter who was famously allowed only two songs per Beatles album, Harrison poured his backlog into the massive, three-album release All Things Must Pass after the band's breakup. In November 1970, his single "My Sweet Lord" became the first solo release from a former Beatle to top the Billboard charts, which — in light of that stupid two-song rule — must have been pretty gratifying for Harrison. That is, until people began pointing out how very, obviously similar the song's vocal line was to the Chiffons' hit 1963 single "He's So Fine."

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, that tune's publisher successfully sued Harrison in 1971. Harrison admitted that he was familiar with the song, but stated that any plagiarism was unintentional and was done "subconsciously" — and the judge agreed that this was probably true, while still stating flatly that "it is clear that 'My Sweet Lord' is the very same song as 'He's So Fine' with different words." Despite the clear-cut nature of the case, haggling over damages dragged on for an incredibly stupid 27 years, until 1998 — meaning Harrison's heartfelt plea for a closer relationship with God instead had the effect of earning him a much, much closer relationship with his lawyers. 

Coldplay

Coldplay's breakthrough 2008 single "Viva La Vida" had only been out for a few months when sharp-eared fans began posting videos to YouTube, noting similarities between its melody and that of "If I Could Fly," a 2004 instrumental by guitar god Joe Satriani. Satriani, who apparently surfs the hell out of YouTube between bouts of massive shredding, quickly took notice and filed suit. Coldplay employed the "Gee whiz, beats me" defense, as reported by MTV News. "If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music," said the band's official statement to the press, "they are entirely coincidental, and just as surprising to us as to him."

Strange, then, that the case was promptly settled out of court with an undisclosed, sealed "stipulation," which means that money changed hands between the two parties to settle the matter, and it probably wasn't Satriani doing the paying, according to The Guardian. We'll probably never know the details unless Satriani pulls a Huey Lewis and blabs about it to somebody, but it appears he might not have gotten that much. In a strange footnote, Yusuf Islam — formerly known as Cat Stevens — had made some noise prior to Satriani's suit about similarities between "Viva La Vida" and his song "Foreigner Suite." When asked by Rolling Stone if he was considering a lawsuit of his own, he deadpanned, "It depends on how well Satriani does." Said lawsuit never materialized, so … apparently not that well.

Rod Stewart

There was a shameful time in our nation's history when Rod Stewart strutting around in spandex to a disco beat, asking us all if we thought he was sexy, was considered to be an acceptable form of entertainment. Longtime fans of Stewart's more rocking work with the band Faces and as a solo artist collectively projectile-vomited as "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" roared to #1 in late 1979 — a development which was quickly noted by Brazilian singer Jorge Ben Jor, whose answer to the question was "No, but I think I have a pretty solid lawsuit."

Indeed, the chorus — which, drummer Carmine Appice told Songfacts, is the only part of the song Stewart actually wrote, with his band handling the rest — contains the exact same melody as Jor's Spanish-language tune "Taj Mahal," and it wasn't long until the lesser-known artist got all sue-y about it. Stewart quickly settled, agreeing to give proceeds from the song to children's charity UNICEF, and claimed the George Harrison defense in his autobiography, saying, "Clearly the melody had lodged itself in my memory and then resurfaced. Unconscious plagiarism, plain and simple. I handed over the royalties … wondering whether 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' was partly cursed." At least all that sexiness helped to feed needy children, which is a sentence you will almost certainly never read again.