Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cold Plagiarism, or Your Grammie's Calling

The parrot was looking around for an opening to reclaim his spot in the cultural jungle, when what does he espy from his new lamppost in Bay Ridge but a New Yorker blog regarding the alleged filching of a certain guitar intro to the usual top contender for Greatest Rock and Roll Song of All Time. That would be... think carefully... Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator"? Warm... Blue Oyster Cult's "Stairway to the Stars"? Warmer... Traffic, "Heaven is in Your Mind"? It seems to be on the tip of your tongue. Give up? Okay, think of Led Zeppelin's 10 best songs and you will probably, towards the bottom of the list, recall a tune called "Stairway to Heaven".

Now, think of Zep's 10 most plagiarized songs, and you will probably, towards the bottom of the list... (you can finish that one).

So I read this piece by Alex Ross and I can't help feeling that he misses the whole point. What he wants to do is give us a $2 music lesson on why the guitar intro of STH is not actually plagiarized from Spirit's "Taurus", and a list of other songs and classical sources that use the same chromatically descending bass line. Whereas my take on this and every other musical plagiarism case is basically, if it sounds like one is a substitute for the other with a few musically insignificant changes, and there is a history that demonstrates the later composer had access to the earlier composition, then it is plagiarized, and if either of those are not true, then it's not. The second condition is certainly met, in the STH case; the first is certainly not. You would not notice more than the vaguest similarity between the two intros if someone had not filed a suit hoping to win something slightly better than the lottery.

This is clearly a case of bandwagon litigation: Zep's generous borrowings are legendary by now, and they have in some cases been forced to give credit where credit is definitely due. The only thing due to Spirit or Michael Skidmore is a historical glance over the shoulder for being among the numerous users of a common bit of counterpoint. Compare Page's "Black Mountain Side" with Bert Jansch's considerably earlier performance of "Black Waterside" and you can hear what sounds like note for note copying of the arrangement for extended passages. (I heard Jansch play it in Brooklyn a few years before he died and it was cleaner than he was on this YouTube video, which brought out the similarity even more.) Page said somewhere that the tune was "going around the clubs" at the time. Regardless, he copied Jansch's arrangement without giving credit. Jansch never sued, though. Skidmore's attempt to spirit away part of the fortune Page & Plant made on Stairway is just crass golddigging.

Now, I could stop there, but I won't, and here's why. As I was thinking about contributing a few words to this glittering debate I went through my earlier posts to see if I had written anything on plagiarism in rock before - mainly to make sure I didn't grossly contradict myself (though parrots tend to be forgiven for such things). But all I found was this unpublished draft, which I found so funny at points that I figured let me just go ahead and publish it.Timely it's not - seems to have been written in 2009 or not long after - but then again, in light of the present plagiarism shindig, it almost is. Ross also mentions the similar spat between the Marvin Gaye family and Robin Thicke-Pharrell Williams' over "Blurred Lines". I don't get much out of that comparison either. Not like Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy", which a YouTube poster called out as sharing a melody with 4 Non Blondes' "What's Going On?" No lawsuit there yet, as far as I know. There seems to be a pattern here.

Well, if you like this sort of f stuff, read on. Here, more or less unexpurgated except for a few comments [in brackets] is what I wrote on this general subject a few years ago.

[Begin earlier draft] 
Let me start with a trivia question: In what year did Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Metallica, Robert Plant, B.B. King, George Strait, Randy Brecker, The Eagles, Bela Fleck, Al Green, Mickey Hart, They Might Be Giants, Peter Gabriel, John Williams, BeauSoleil, Burning Spear, George Carlin, Bernard Haitink and Peter Bogdanovitch all win Grammy awards? 1979 you say? A little too early for Metallica. 1989? Come on, be brave. Try 2009. Um, deep catalogue, anyone? Or, as the judicious Ben Sisario put it for the Times, "the awards followed a familiar Grammy pattern, in which soft, reverent material beats out more aggressive and youthful music". [Metallica?] Read: the music your Grandma listens to beats the music you listen to. Isn't that why they call them the "Grammies"? [I guess this formula would not apply so well to Kendrick Lamar!]

So what could be more soft and reverent than Chris Martin and his band of Christmas carollers? Or is that snow angels? Well, as it turns out, the sandman is softer than the snowman. So Raising Sand, the odd, willowy, unclassifiable collection of soporific songs by the former Zep frontman and the country music's femme fiddle Alison Krauss got a whole lotta love from the Recording Academy, at the expense of Coldplay's Viva la Vida, which had to settle for Best Rock Album (which it certainly isn't), Song of the Year (which it probably is) and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group (which is so impossible to define that it could have gone to any n-some under the sun, where n > 1). At least Coldplay, though they've been around for a decade, is only on their 4th album, and at least it is probably their best, though you may infer that I don't think that says very much. Radiohead, who allegedly played their first gig in 1986, and recorded their one solid album (The Bends) in 1995 [yes, I know Kid A has its fans - I'm not one of them], walked off with the Alternative award, their third nomination and second award in that category. If there are any Academy members listening, please note for future reference that this category is supposed to identify tasteful alternative music, not music that is an alternative to taste. Perhaps selling out Madison Square Garden is now a quid pro quo for acceptable "alternative" offerings. OK, The Mars Volta got some yellow metallic object for Hard Rock Performance, as did the Kings of Leon (a safer bet) for Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. At least it wasn't the Killers, whose trite little pop number about humans and "dancer" has "we wants a Grammy" written all over it (you're welcome for the missing "s").

Okay, Grammie is stuck in a ditch, and where does that leave Coldplay? Helping to dig her out? But they have some digging of their own to do. With shovel number one they will have to try to convince the judge that they did not swipe the tune from "Viva la Vida" from Joe Satriani's wordless guitar piece "If I Could Fly". Shovel number two may be just a playground scoop, enough to bury the claim by the Brooklyn band Creaky Boards that Coldplay's hit tune borrowed some ideas from their song "The Songs I Didn't Write"(!). Shovel number three is a mere teaspoon, all they'll need to deal with my suggestion that their song "Clocks" bears more than a passing resemblance to Dylan's well-known "You Ain't Going Nowhere" (on his Greatest Hits Vol.2, at least one Dylan tribute album, The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and also on The Basement Tapes, though that version is more chanted than sung). Of course there is the obvious nod in U2's direction with some of Coldplay's recent rhythm tracks, and the fact that they frequently sound like a poor man's Moody Blues. Influence, you know...

What is very striking here is that while the RIAA is out filing suits against 12-year-olds for copyright violation, their friends in the Recording Academy are perfectly happy to hand out awards for material whose originality has been challenged - very publicly in the case of the Satriani tune.

Is there a smoking gun here? Is there anything to worry about here? You can state the case for a negative answer very simply. If every case of obvious similarity in popular music resulted in a plagiarism charge and maybe a copyright infringement lawsuit, there wouldn't be many artists left standing. Not every ripoff is as famous as George Harrison's rather blatant adaptation of "She's So Fine" for the Indian mysticism market, or Zep's numerous assaults on the blues and folk repertory, or Dylan's liberal use of standards from below the Mason Dixon line, or Johnny Cash's hommage to Dylan's "Don't Think Twice..." in "Understand Your Man"... There was, for example, 10CC's pretty shameless copying of Jacques Brel's "Sons of..." in "The Film of My Love", an obscure tune at the end of The Original Soundtrack. There's a ton of this stuff going on. And you can extend that to literature, going all the way back to St. Augustine, apparently, or Anthony Trollope if you prefer. This is a way of writing off plagiarism as a moral issue in general, and in pop music in particular. You just look at the volume of it, and say it's common practice, and that's that. Kind of the way, when I was teaching, some students from old Soviet-bloc countries used to tell me about plagiarizing their papers: it's normal, everybody does it, why do you have a problem with it?

The other way of looking at it is this: there's a hell of a lot of room left for creativity in popular music, even if it sometimes doesn't seem that way due to the endlessly repetitive nature of major label releases and the volume of imitations ("Is that the All American Rejects on the radio or is that some new release from Green Day?" "Did he say this song is by the Stone Temple Pilots? Gee, it sounds just like Pearl Jam!" etc.) There is really no good reason even for copying riffs and tunes in a way that doesn't meet the cutoff for copyright infringement; it may not be illegal, but it's unethical and embarrassing. No author has to copy existing texts to say something, and allusion is of questionable value to the masses who don't get it, so why not stick with originality all the way through?

Well, there you have the two poles, what to do, what to do? To me, the first and most important step is simple, honest and more or less painless: credit your sources. "So I was listening to this Satriani album right after I dropped in on a gig by the Creaky Boards and suddenly I started putting together in my head what I heard and it came out as this song. Thanks to Joe and Creaky." Second, if there is any doubt whatsoever about how close you are to what came before, pay the mechanical rights. It costs very little to pay the rights to a couple of songs on an album; it's good for the artist you (may have) borrowed from, and it keeps you honest. Third, make sure you are really adding value to the material you started with, otherwise just call it a cover, or get your own music.

The first two of these are simple. It's the third that creates all the ruckus. When an artist thinks he has added enough value to some existing material, the tendency is to call it his own, reduce the appropriated source to "influence", and forget the niceties. But when is that the case? It can be a very tough judgment to make. For example, I don't think Billy Bragg adds much to Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" in his song "Ideology"; it's a ripoff, to my ears, same tune with lyrics that repeat the idea if not the exact content of Dylan's song. So, should Bragg have credited Dylan? Probably, but... then there is the possibility (actually just presented as fact in the Wikipedia entry on "Chimes of Freedom") that Dylan got the basis of the song from Dave Van Ronk... who got it from his Mom... who got it from who knows where... To my knowledge, Dylan has never sued anyone for copyright infringement.

[End original post]

And to that I only have to add: how many artists have ripped off Led Zeppelin and not given them credit? That list goes on and on. My point, finally, is that these petty, vague, ultimately very subjective claims of copyright infringement are morally and aesthetically contemptible. I once knew a photographer who sued an artist who had taken one of his photographs, painted the scene, and sold that painting. That is pretty obnoxious, but even photographs of other photographs have been upheld as original works of art. You've got to do better than that to demonstrate mere copying. I am not convinced that most cases of alleged musical plagiarism amount to much.

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