Borrowing, Plagiarism, Coincidence, Cryptomnesia?

The Foo Fighters have released a new song, and according to the story on “Metal Injection“, the riff that comes in at 1:29 into the song sounds just like Dio’s “Holy Diver”. Frontman Dave Grohl makes it no secret that he’s a fan of heavy metal, and with “Holy Diver” being one of the best recognized songs by one of metals best recognized artists, one must suspect the move to incorporate the riff was deliberate. A tribute to the late great Ronnie James Dio perhaps? It’s unlikely that it is just a coincidence.

From polite borrowing to downright plagiarism, the act of copying another artist’s work in music is so old that in some circles it’s called a tradition. In the folk music world, there are so many classic and cliche lyrics often with anonymous or obscure authors and the practice of borrowing is just a part of sharing the joy and tradition of folk music. This is in part true for the blues, too. In the article on Wikipedia, Robert Palmer is quoted as saying that it is customary to borrow material from contemporary artists and use that material in one’s own work.

Led Zeppelin are often considered the kings of this style of free borrowing (pirating?), and that their music is largely rooted in the blues and folk it shouldn’t be a surprise that they adhered to the customs and traditions of those two genres so well. However, their album “Led Zeppelin II” actually had so many obvious cases of borrowing that it resulted in lawsuits ¬†for “Whole Lotta Love”, “Bring It On Home”, and “The Lemon Song”. The Wikipedia article lists several law suit cases that were settled successfully.

Not everyone is caught and taken to court. This video compilation on YouTube points out a number of instances in Deep Purple’s music that would appear to have been blatantly copied with Ritchie Blackmore often claiming that he wrote much of Deep Purple’s music himself.

Coincidence or tribute? I can recall hearing part of Deep Purple’s “Into the Fire” on a song by a Christian metal band called “Bride” and another band, Tourniquet, concluded one of their songs with a reference to a song from Black Sabbath’s “Vol. Four”. Glass Hammer’s “If the Stars” from their “If” album finishes with a few notes from Yes’ “The Revealing Science of God”. These cases are nothing more than tributes to influences, I believe. But I had to question why a song from Christian rock band Petra used the same riff as in the chorus of Rainbow’s “Lady Starstruck” in their song “Bema Seat“. Or perhaps even more shocking is their use of the KISS guitar riff on “Heaven’s on Fire” (!) for their song “Seen and Not Heard“.

Coincidences can happen. Y&T’s “Unearthed Vol. 2” includes a song “Crazy Make Love” which they had believed would be a hit until Whitesnake release “Slow and Easy” before they did. Same riff. Very similar style.

Then there’s the case of Rush deciding to put some of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” into their instrumental “La Villa Strangiato”. Anyone who watched the old Looney Tunes cartoons would likely recognize the “Powerhouse” music and surely the Alex Lifeson intentionally put it in as a reference to those old Saturday morning classics. Scott’s publishers failed to claim copyright infringement until the statute of limitations had run out; however, feeling it was the right thing to do, Rush’s management offered some compensation money to Mr. and Mrs. Scott (Wikipedia). More recently, Lifeson and bassist Geddy Lee were working on a song for Rush’s “Clockwork Angels” album when during the beginning of the song “Headlong Flight” it occurred to them that it sounded very much like their old classic “Bastille Day” from 1975. Did they plagiarize themselves or just reference their previous work?

One puzzling little bit of recycled music that seems to have gone by largely unnoticed is the song “Disturbing the Priest” recorded by Black Sabbath on their “Born Again” album with Ian Gillan. When I first heard the Ian Gillan Band’s “Scarabus”, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity. Listen to the vocal melody in “Disturbing the Priest” from 0:14 and compare with that of “Scarabus” from 0:34.

Rick Wakeman was in for a little surprise when Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” theme became a hit, sounding suspiciously like his “Judas Iscariot”. Listen at around 1:29 in the video here.

The internet has plenty of articles about cases of plagiarism, such as Men at work purposely working an Australian children’s classic about the kookaburra in one of their songs and being called on it, or the Flaming Lips knowingly using a Cat Stevens tune “Father & Son” in their song “Fight Test”. Frontman Wayne Coyne comments on that here.

Perhaps the most peculiar case would be cryptomnesia, where an artist recreates a melody or lyric that he or she heard once before but forgot about. At the time of discovering the melody or lyric, the person is unaware of having heard it before and believes it to be his or her original creation. In music, a famous case is that of George Harrison‘s song “My Sweet Lord” which uses the melody of the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine”. Beyond that, sometimes an accusation of plagiarism receives a rebuttal of “I have never heard that song in my life!”

For further reading, just search for “music plagiarism” and you’ll see how many hits you can get.