It’s happened throughout the history of pop music. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines” vs Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” recent courtroom drama is nothing new. Although it has made front page news this week with the latest ruling in favour of Gaye’s estate, the spat has been on-going since Blurred Line’s original 2013 press release contained a reference to the seventies funk classic as its inspiration.
But I digress. Sampling aside, allegations of plagiarism in pop music have been around, since, well, pop music began. Some classic examples are: Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Sixteen” vs Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA”, The Kinks “All Day and All of the Night” vs The Doors’ “Hello, I Love you” or the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” vs George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”.
You want more recent examples? How about Killing Joke suing Nirvana (to which Kurt famously responded , “Well, there’s only twelve notes to choose from”) or The Hollies taking Radiohead to court, or Bryan Pringle serving Black Eyed Peas with a writ over their 2009 hit “I Got a Feeling” which very closely resembled his hit song “Take A Dive.”
But there’s a difference between all these and the ironically titled “Blurred Lines” case. All the cases listed here are easy peasy, even to the untrained ear. The riffs, the chords and even the vocal melodies are easily identifiable as being the same and fortunately, for the parties involved, the appropriate verdicts were reached.
But “Blurred Lines” does what it says on the tin. It blurs the lines. This ruling is very different to those of the past and arguably, as Pharrell Williams was quoted as saying upon hearing the verdict “This ruling is a sad day for future music”. Why?
Because “Blurred Lines” is not the same. Sure, the bassline is played on the same 70s keyboard, the drums have the same feel and the cowbell is reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” but, on paper, if you score it (I mean musical score, not marks out of ten), they’re in fact, nowhere near. If you want a technical explanation (it’s called forensic musicology apparently) then read this article.
In this case, the argument lies with the ‘vibe’. That the song ‘evokes’ the same sound and feel of the original ‘inspirational’ track. All the aforementioned elements ‘feel’ the same and to the average listener they ‘sound’ the same, but musically, they’re not. And that is what makes this ruling significant – because that was the backbone of the suit in this case – that although it didn’t steal the notes or the chords per se, “Blurred Lines” took the very “Funk DNA” that gave “Got to Give it Up” it’s character.
Is that even a thing? A vibe? A ‘feel’ the ‘character of a song’? Surely it’s just simply being inspired by something? Or is it even pastiche? “Why do you even care, Pete?” I pretend to hear you cry. Well, because it’s just happened to me.
It started with an almost casual reference in conversation with a friend, but quickly progressed to texts and then Facebook messages. “Have you heard the new Muse single? It sounds a lot like your new band’s last release.” My current band, The Hudson Super Six released our first full length album in September 2013 (It’s on Spotify, iTunes and Amazon, plug plug). The ‘single’ from the album was a track called “Heartbreakin”. Fast forward to now, March 2015 and Muse release a new single, called “Psycho”. I love the record. It’s a cracking single, quite a departure from their usual stuff, the only problem is, everyone is telling me it sounds exactly like our track. I listened to it and my first reaction was a terrible sinking feeling.
The main guitar hook, the verse riff and the drums all sound remarkably similar. The vocal melodies are entirely different. I immediately contacted the rest of my band and we listened and discussed via WhatsApp. Of course, being musicians (I use the term loosely) we could all easily identify the differences – each guitar part is subtly different to our record and just like the “Blurred Lines” case, on paper, I suspect the two tracks look significantly different. But the whole song together bears a striking resemblance to ours.
You can compare for yourself, here’s Hudson Super Six’s Heartbreakin’ …
…and Muse’s Psycho …
After discussing with the band, I wanted to dismiss it. But the texts and Facebook comments kept coming. I kept telling myself these are people with ‘ordinary ears’. Not musicians – they’re not as analytical as we are, the subtle differences are going to pass them by. They’re hearing the thing as a whole. But then, that’s really the whole crux of the “Blurred Lines” case. To a casual listener, these songs sound the same. I needed a second opinion, so I contacted a friend who is a big wig in the business. I’m not going to say who. I just said ‘Have a listen to this and tell me what you think?’ “Bloody Hell, mate. I need to run this past a publishing lawyer friend of mine.” was his response. Lawyer. I hate the word. I’ve had dealings with music lawyers in the past. It didn’t go well.
Between 1995 and 1999 I was in a band called Cable. We didn’t sell an awful lot of records. Just enough to make a living, skirt the top 40 and not get dropped for 3 albums. We broke up in 1999, over, you’ve guessed it, a lawsuit, but not before our label, Mushroom/Infectious signed a fledgling band called ‘Muse’. They signed to the label because they were massive fans of Cable. When label supremo Korda Marshall went to head up Warner Music in Europe, his rising stars Muse went with him and the rest, they say, is history.
Though Cable is/was a very different animal to the Hudson Super Six, the type of music that influences my writing and playing style is the same as what influenced me in that band. Chances are, those influences are the same for Muse, my old band included. Have members of Muse listened to my new band and drawn inspiration from that too? Perhaps just a little too much? I can’t answer that. They’re Muse, they probably don’t really pay attention to piddly little indie bands that barely sell enough records to pay for the next one. But then, that’s what I used to do, and so did they 20 years ago – because they liked my old band.
Or is it that because we probably have similar influences and likely listen to the same contemporary artists too. Add to that a combination of the current musical zeitgeist and the distillation of all the music we’ve liked up to now means we have both accidentally arrived at the same musical conclusion? Impossible to tell. That’s the kind of thing lawyers argue over. And their lawyer would be a damn site bigger and better at arguing than ours.
So where does that leave me and my bandmates? Marvin Gaye’s family most likely already had a significant slush fund from 50 years’ worth of Marvin Gaye back catalogue income to facilitate bringing a 7 million dollar writ to a successful conclusion. I’m a bit worried about affording my car’s service. We could probably scrape together the fees to get a solicitor to send an initial letter of contest, but then what? When the Muse camp say ‘OK, see you in court’ we’re most likely up excrement creek without a paddle. So far I’m yet to see a TV commercial for a no-win no-fee copyright infringement specialist.
But hey, every cloud has a silver lining. At least Muse can’t sue the living daylights out of us. Our record came out first. And when people say to me, “Hey, you guys sound like Muse, with empty smugness I’ll reply ‘No no no, they sound like us!’ I’m not bitter. I’ve never wanted to play Wembley Stadium anyway.