If you want to accuse Coldplay of musical plagiarism over its 2008 hit song “Viva La Vida,” get in line, writes the San Diego Union Tribune. Coldplay, who perform on Thursday at Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre, was sued late last year by veteran San Francisco guitarist Joe Satriani, who alleged that “Viva La Vida” brazenly took from his 2004 song, “If I Could Fly,” Why they decide to focus on a plagiarism case rather than the forthcoming show is probably due to Satriani's roots in CA. Wonder if he got a ticket to one of Coldplay's West Coast shows. Hmm. Anyway, here is the rest of the article...
Coldplay was also accused last year of copying parts of “Viva La Vida” from an obscure 2008 number by Brooklyn's Creaky Boards, called – fittingly – “The Songs I Didn't Write.”
Coldplay, Satriani and the Creaky Boards' songs all bear, in varying degrees, similarities with 2002's “Frances Limon” by top Argentinian rock band Los Enanitos Verdes. In turn, “Frances Limon” owes a debt to the instrumental section from Toto's 1982 song, “I Won't Hold You Back,” although no one from Toto appears to have taken any legal action, at least not yet.
More recently, Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens) said in May that the same Coldplay hit also bears a striking similarity to his 1973 song, “Foreigner Suite.”
But sound-alike songs are nothing new in rock, a style in which imitation has long been a way of life and, on occasion, very high-priced lawsuits. The electronic sampling that is de rigueur in hip-hop aside, rock's reliance on instrumental structures often derived from basic 12-bar blues is the source of both the music's visceral impact and its stylistic limitations.
With a finite number of chords, time signatures and topics to write about, achieving originality in rock has become increasingly challenging. Even the most acclaimed artists, from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to Prince and current buzz band Dirty Projectors, borrowed from others as they learned to create and develop their own styles.
“You have to separate between bands that are accidentally sounding like someone and bands that are ripping someone off,” said White Stripes' leader Jack White, who performs here in late August at Street Scene with his latest band, The Dead Weather. White has frequently been criticized for borrowing – vocally and guitarwise – from Led Zeppelin in particular, but he dismisses such comments as “a lazy reference” by journalists.
What separates the greats from the pretenders and wannabe's in music is the ability to absorb various influences and use them as building blocks to make something distinctly your own. “You can absolutely steal ideas from anybody, as long as you twist them into something original,” said acclaimed English singer-songwriter Richard Thompson. “If I regurgitated Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Hank Williams, I'd have to throw it away. But if I added something as interesting of my own, then fair enough.”
Adding something of his own is exactly what David Bowie did when he wrote songs for Iggy Pop's 1977 album, “Lust for Life,” which he also produced. “(Bowie) was tired of me, tired of rock 'n' roll and wanted to get the (album) production contract over,” Pop recently told the English music magazine Uncut. “He said, 'Right, we're going to rewrite any damn song.' I won't say which songs by other people but I think it's a hilarious attitude. He was like, 'I could do that (song), and I could do that better!' He reeled off about five of those (in) about five hours.”
Depending on how conspicuous the musical “rewriting” is – and how commercially successful the result – legal action may follow, as artists as varied as Janet Jackson, Rod Stewart, Steely Dan and the late George Harrison discovered.
In 1976, Harrison's 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord” was ruled to have “unintentionally copied” “He's So Fine,” a 1962 song by the American R&B vocal quartet The Chiffons. Harrison had to pay $587,000. In a strange twist, The Chiffons subsequently recorded their own version of “My Sweet Lord,” while the music publishing company that won the judgment against Harrison was later taken over by ex-Beatles' manager Allen Klein (who died last Sunday).
Coldplay's embattled “Viva La Vida” is being featured nightly on the band's current tour, which is named after the song. The group, not surprisingly, is seeking to downplay the controversy. In late May, Coldplay singer Chris Martin wrote on his band's Web site: “Yeah, some people are suing us at the moment and although it was initially a bit depressing, now it's become really inspiring. You think, 'Right, if everyone's trying to take away our best song, then we'd better write 25 better ones.' ... Now we've got more to prove than ever before.”
Coldplay drummer Will Champion sounded more defensive in a May interview with the English newspaper the Guardian. “For some reason, God only knows why, it's the successful songs that seem to be the ones that are accused of being stolen,” Champion said. “There are elements of our music that I've heard in other people's music, but it's kind of ... I don't know. It's interesting, but a very difficult thing to define.”
The difficulty may lie in the numbers, a point Champion made in the same interview. “There are only eight notes in an octave and no one owns them,” the mathematically challenged drummer said. “And there are probably about 12,000 songs that feature the exact same chord progression. I think it lies on an intent to steal, which we certainly have never done and never would.”
Intent, or lack thereof, may have played a role in Islam (the former Cat Stevens) backing off his previously announced intention to file a suit of his own against Coldplay, which he said would have been determined by “how well Satriani does.”
“They did copy my song, but I don't think they did it on purpose,” Islam told the London-based Daily Express last month. Islam was less forgiving in 2003, when he successfully brought legal action against Flaming Lips for using the melody of his 1970 song “Father and Son” for its 2002 song “Fight Test.” (Creaky Boards, meanwhile, retracted its plagiarism charge against Coldplay, without explaining why.)
Of course, intent can be hard to prove. Ditto the sometimes fine line between flattery and thievery, as evidenced by the dozens of songs based on rock pioneer Bo Diddley's 1957 anthem, “Hey! Bo Diddley.”
Last month, two members of Men at Work became embroiled in a suit in their native Australia. The imbroglio stems from charges that the band's biggest hit, “Down Under,” reproduces the melody of the opening verse to the popular children's song “Kookaburra.”
Then, there's the signature guitar riff to the Rolling Stones' 1971 classic “Brown Sugar.” It has appeared, almost note for note, at the start of the Dandy Warhols' “Bohemian Like You,” The Specials' “Little Bitch” and “The Loser” by Chicken Shack. But each of those songs have their own added twists. That may be why there were no suits filed by the often litigious Stones, who more than a decade ago shared songwriting credits with k.d. lang and Ben Mink after the legendary English band learned that its song “Anybody Seen My Baby?” bore an uncanny resemblance to lang and Mink's Grammy Award-winning “Constant Craving.”
Then there are such performers as Lenny Kravitz and the Black Crowes, whose songs sometimes appear to be a composite of several songs by several different artists. The Strokes' 2001 breakthrough hit, “Last Nite,” achieved a trifecta of sorts by combining elements of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' “American Girl,” Iggy Pop's “Lust for Life” and The Jam's “Town Called Malice.”
Sometimes, though, candor makes all the difference. Neil Young memorably demonstrated this in 1974 with “Borrowed Tune,” which featured a melody he “borrowed” from the Rolling Stones' 1966 chestnut “Lady Jane.” Tellingly, Young's song includes the climactic verse: I'm singin' this borrowed tune I took from the Rolling Stones / Alone in this empty room, too wasted to write my own.
You can discuss Joe Satriani's latest comments at the Coldplay forum here onwards.
Pictures of Coldplay at Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA (13th July 2009):
Source: Live Daily