Been Caught Stealing: History’s Six Great Musical Heists

Been Caught Stealing“It’s an honor to be put in the same sentence with the Postal Service,” James Young – better known as one-man Christian emo synthpop act Owl City – told Entertainment Weekly last month. If that’s the case, then Young must feel more exalted than the Dalai Lama these days; ever since his surprise smash hit “Fireflies” became 2009’s most unexpected chart-topper, outraged hipsters have ceaselessly mocked Owl City as a shameless, unsophisticated ripoff of the beloved Ben Gibbard side-project. (Can you blame them? Compare this to this; say what you will about either of these songs or bands, but at the end of the day one contains the nausea-inducing lines “And I’d get a thousand hugs/From ten thousand lightning bugs/As they tried to teach me how to dance” and the other one doesn’t.)

Of course, Young is hardly the first pop star to be accused of appropriating things from other artists – in fact, as we’ll learn today, he doesn’t even crack the top six.

Grandmaster Melle Mel, “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)”


Liquid Liquid, “Cavern”

Rap has always had a complicated relationship with other people’s music. Controversies over sample usage even predate the genre’s existence; the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s seminal 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” – generally acknowledged as the first rap record ever – was briefly held up when Nile Rodgers took legal action over the Gang’s uncredited use of his song “Good Times” (also to this day, crusty old-school rap heads accuse the Gang of bogarting lyrics from other long-forgotten early rappers for use in “Rapper’s Delight”). Two years later, Grandmaster Flash would release “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” a seven-minute recording of Flash juggling records by Blondie, Queen, Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, and others; despite containing zero original music, “The Adventures…” was quickly adopted as a founding document of hip-hop and remains venerated as such to this day.

And then there’s “White Lines,” quite possibly hip-hop’s Original Sin. After hearing Liquid Liquid’s earth-shakingly infectious “Cavern” at a party one night, Melle Mel “borrowed” both the rich, rolling bassline and a few memorable vocal phrases from the funk-punkers’ slippery anthem, slapped a few verses about the dangers of cocaine, and sent the whole package to stores as “White Lines” without giving the original artists so much as a shred of credit. When the impossibly addictive “White Lines” began making commercial waves (it peaked at #43 on the Billboard R&B charts domestically, but would soon hit #7 in England and spend 17 consecutive weeks in the top 40), an indignant Liquid Liquid sued Sugar Hill Records for their share of the profits and some sort of credit on the records – only to discover, to their horror, that Melle had used a recording of the Sugar Hill house band covering “Cavern” and changed juuuuuuuust enough of the lyrics (Liquid Liquid’s “Slipping in and out of phenomenon” became Melle’s “Something like a phenomenon”) to fight the charges in court. The ensuing legal battle would cost thousands of dollars and eventually lead to the dissolution of both Liquid Liquid and their label, 99 Records. Melle Mel’s career, of course, was completely unaffected as he spent the next decade landing acting gigs, campaigning for Jesse Jackson, and winning several Grammys upon returning to the music industry.

Another funny story about “White Lines”: the record was initially released by “Grandmaster + Melle Mel” in an effort to trick the record-buying public into thinking that Grandmaster Flash had played a part in its making (he had actually split acrimoniously with Melle Mel the previous year). Nothing about this record was on the up-and-up.

Shut Up and Dance, “Raving I’m Raving”


Marc Cohn, “Walking In Memphis”

Popularity can occasionally be a curse. Before releasing “Raving I’m Raving” in 1992, Shut Up And Dance was known as little more than a cheeky underground goof-off perpetrated out by two British kids whose first songs were little more than jokes; after titling their initial single “£10 To Get In”, they named the follow-up “£20 To Get In” and opened it with a spoken-word piece about how it costs more because “it’s ‘ad a remix”. Initially, “Raving I’m Raving” appeared to be more of the same; built around a shameless wholesale sample of Marc Cohn’s 1991 hit “Walking in Memphis” (and accompanied with eerily similar, all-consumingly stupid lyrics like “Put on my raving shoes and boarded the plane”), it felt decidedly like a scene-driven curiosity destined to stay subterranean.

Unfortunately for Shut Up And Dance, however, mainstream clubbers disagreed and made “Raving I’m Raving” the song of the party season before the record had been officially released – or the sample had ever been cleared with Cohn, who agreed not to sue if the record was immediately removed from production and all proceeds from copies sold so far would be given to charity. Worst of all, publicity surrounding the legal brouhaha only fueled mainstream interest in “Raving I’m Raving”, which would sell out across Britain on the day of its release and reach #2 on the charts. It would be the biggest hit of Shut Up and Dance’s short career – and thanks to a no-name Michael McDonald wannabe, they’d never see a penny for it.

John Fogerty, “The Old Man Down the Road”


Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle”

Is it possible to plagiarize yourself? Apparently yes, if you’re John Fogerty. The story starts in 1972, when Fogerty split with his former band Creedence Clearwater Revival and the band’s label Fantasy Records, not eager to see one of the most bankable acts of the day slip away so easily, reminded Fogerty that (a) his contract required him to deliver eight more albums before it expired and (b) even if he left, Fantasy would retain the publishing rights to CCR’s entire catalogue. Although the matter was eventually settled through a series of tortuous agreements, Fogerty would keep a mammoth chip on his shoulder regarding Fantasy Records, particularly his old boss Saul Zaentz, for years to come.

Flash forward to 1985. Unencumbered by legal wrangling, Fogerty releases Centerfield; it shoots to number one (eventually goes double-platinum) and single-handedly rejuvenates Fogerty’s ailing career. The album also features a couple of not-too-subtle jabs at Zaentz, most notably a song called “Zanz Kant Danz” about a pig who’ll “take your money”. A breathtakingly butthurt Zentz fired back with a lawsuit alleging that Fogerty’s “The Old Man Down the Road”, a top-ten single, shared its chorus with the Creedence song “Run Through the Jungle” – a song Fogerty had written for his old band fifteen years earlier, but had relinquished the rights to as part of his settlement with Fantasy. The suit and subsequent counter-suit would be argued for the next decade before eventually reaching the Supreme Court in 1995, but the bad blood remains to this day; Fogerty still refuses to play with his old bandmates (memorably snubbing them at CCR’s 1995 Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony) and pounces on every opportunity to take shots at Zaentz, most recently by re-signing with Fantasy in 2005 almost immediately after Zaentz sold his interest in the label to the Concord Music Group. The whole saga only served to prove one thing: there’s nothing old white guys love more than to sue each other.

Nelly Furtado, “Do It”


Tempest, “Acidjazzed Evening”

It may be difficult to believe now that he’s working with Chad Kroeger and making impossibly retarded videos about vampires, but Timbaland used to be one of the most dynamic and creative forces working in pop music; songs he produced ten years ago for Aaliyah, Jay-Z, Ginuwine, and a host of others still sound ahead of their time today. When Nelly Furtado’s Timbo-produced 2006 album Loose caught on with the at-large public (eventually becoming the year’s biggest-selling album), his longtime fans were quick to trumpet their boy’s success and look forward to the future.

And then he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

In early 2007, a video was uploaded to YouTube which pointed out suspicious similarities between “Do It”, the fifth single from Loose and a song produced entirely by Timbaland, and a version of “Acidjazzed Evening,” a composition by an independent electronic artist from Finland named Tempest which appeared nowhere on the credits for Loose. A close spectral analysis of the two songs revealed that the only difference between “Do It” and “Acidjazzed Evening” was that the former had muted one bass track – all other elements were identical. Timbo’s response to the allegations was similarly disheartening as he referred to Tempest as an “idiot” and a “freakin’ jerk,” adding “I don’t know him from a can of paint. I’m 15 years deep. That’s how you attack a king? You attack moi? Come on, man. You got to come correct. You the laughing stock. People are like, ‘You can’t be serious.'” Remarkably, despite the appalling similarities between the two songs, Helsinki courts have thrown out two separate cases against Universal Music Group over the use of the sample in “Do It”, though one decision is currently being appealed and a new suit alleging infringement has recently was filed in Florida over the summer. At this stage, only one thing is clear: regardless of what the courts decide, Timbo’s reputation as a creative force is (ahem) Finnished.

Nirvana, “Come As You Are”


Killing Joke, “Eighties”

Nirvana might have been less shy about giving musical credit where it was due than any other group in history – QED Kurt Cobain’s nigh-incessant references to how the Pixies and the Melvins shaped his group’s sound. “Come As You Are,” however, is one of the rare exceptions to the rule; record company execs had initially selected it to be released as the second single from Nevermind, but the band pushed back claiming that Killing Joke (another band beloved by all three Nirvana members) would be justifiably pissed off at its similarity to their song “Eighties”. The suits won out and released “Come As You Are” as planned and, as the band had predicted, Killing Joke went ballistic, enlisting musicologists to verify the song’s uncanny similarity and threatening legal action against both the band and the label. As if the alleged infringement wasn’t infuriating enough in its own right, though, Killing Joke were never able to file a proper lawsuit due to lack of funds; it must really suck to be too broke to sue someone for millions of dollars. Fortunately, things seem to have cooled off in the years since Cobain decided to eat a gun one morning; Dave Grohl even made friends with the band, eventually producing their 2003 album The Death and Resurrection Show in Nirvana’s old studio. It’s nice that at least one of these stories has a happy ending.

The Tornados, “Telstar”


Jean Ledrut, “La Marche d’Austerlitz”

(Unfortunately, Ledrut’s version of “La Marche” is unavailable anywhere on the ‘tubes; instead, please enjoy this footage of Antichristo.)

And we conclude with a story with a profoundly unhappy ending; at least the other incidents compiled in this article never ended in a murder.

“Telstar” was released in 1962 at the apogee of the space race and instantly won over audiences on both sides of the Atlantic (becoming the first song by a British group to top the Billboard charts in the process) thanks in large part to a number of studio flourishes dreamed up by producer Joe Meek, a precocious electronics genius who allegedly built one of the first televisions in England in his parents’ shed. Meek was a true pop visionary who produced three UK #1 hits in four years (he would have had a fourth if production of Michael Cox’ “Angela Jones” had been able to meet customer demand) and constructed the legendary 304 Holloway Road, one of the first (and still among the most revered) home studios in music history. Meek was also nuttier than a Snickers bar, claiming that Buddy Holly would visit him from beyond the grave and accusing rival record labels of hiding microphones in his walls to steal his ideas.

Though “Telstar” would be Meek’s crowning success, it would also prove to be his undoing. One day, Meek got word that he was being sued for plagiarism by a French composer named Jean Ledrut, who claimed that Meek had stolen shamelessly from a score he had written for a 1960 film called Austerlitz – a film which, incidentally, would have been an exceedingly unlikely candidate for Meek to plagiarize since to that point it had only been released in France. As part of his suit, Ledrut was able to convince British judges to prevent any royalties for “Telstar” from being paid to Meek until the matter was resolved, a decision which certainly contributed to Meek’s deepening depression. On February 3rd, 1967 – the eighth anniversary of Meek’s undead pen-pal Buddy Holly’s tragic demise –Meek finally cracked during an argument with his landlady, killing her with a shotgun before turning the weapon on himself.

And the cruelest part: three weeks after Meek’s murder-suicide, the court ruled in his favor and awarded him full royalties for “Telstar”. Good timing, Joe!

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