Did Muse steal my band’s song for their new single?

Muse - who apparently have the best bass line ever...The blurred lines between inspiration and plagiarism – should I sue Muse? asks former Cable member and Muse fan Peter Darrington.

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.

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14 comments on “Did Muse steal my band’s song for their new single?”

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  1. An interesting article and given the recent court verdict, I’m sure bands up and down the country are now considering their legal options. In this case you probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on however as Muse have used the riff from Psycho in their live act for about a decade. They’d probably be more likely to have a successful case against Hudson Super Six than the other way around, as I believe it has featured on some of their live albums.

  2. Dude, your band rocks! The muse riff is a live thing theyve been playing for 16 years, theyve finally made a song out of it, suprised you didnt know!

  3. Yeah, I see what you mean, but they have been using this riff since 1999 – there are lots of YouTube videos with it in (e.g. towards the end of stockholme syndrome at Glastonbury 2004).

  4. Peter Darrington

    Yeah, I’m hearing this from quite a few sources today – that the riff has been used in their live show for many years. I don’t know, to be honest – I know the editorial says I’m a fan, but I’m only a casual listener. The title I gave the piece was “The Blurred Lines Between Inspiration and Plagiarism – Should I sue Muse?” NOT “Did Muse steal my song” – I think that’s an editor hoping to court a little bit of controversy! Really, all I wanted to do was point out that the Blurred Lines verdict could be a game changer for plagiarism claims, that the whole thing is very spikey, controversial, subjective area and that when you feel it has happened to you, it’s gutting, just like it must be equally gutting if you feel you’ve put your all into writing a great song only to have someone make a claim against you. The Blurred Lines verdict has just set a bar. You can potentially lose millions of dollars of your earnings because your song ‘feels’ like someone else’s song. I also wanted people to listen to our record!!!

    • not bitter he said

      Maybe now you can finally tell those people (who claim that the riff is similar), that the Psycho riff was Muse’s first? Surely you can at least correct them right?

  5. Everybody arsing about on guitar writes a riff like that at some point. Nirvana/Killing Joke was mocked when in fact it is identical, Blurred Lines was dissected to make a contentious defence then the article goes on to compare two riffs you will hear walking through rehearsal blocks time and again. Its not even close. And judging by the comments, maybe you should’ve kept schtum, less you get a counter suit from Muse ;-)

  6. I hear to completely different riffs but I’m so musician so who knows.
    But, the riff you claim to be the same, has been used by muse for over 16 years now, they’ve just finally put it on a record!

  7. Charles Stevenson

    Firstly, Heartbreakin’ is a great song, nice one! I can certainly hear a few similarities too, but as it has been stated Muse have been playing the ‘Psycho’ riff in their live shows for a good part of 16 years, including on some very publicly broadcast performances.

    While I think you could have a point if they had not performed it before, unfortunately it just seems to be a co-incidence this time around.

  8. There’s quite a simple explanation to why you hear similarities between these riffs and it’s not just limited to these two songs your riff will sound alike to thousands of songs.

    It’s not necessarily an intentional thing, it’s the DNA of rock. Both riffs are based off the 12 bar blues, it’s almost a gut thing for every guitarist to fall onto the riffs E chord a bend on 3rd fret E string and variants around that at some point, it feels natural.

    To illustrate the point, I’m a self taught guitarist with limited knowledge of musical theory but I was able to instantly identify that riff. I just grabbed my strat and with barely limited knowledge of the mechanics of either songs played along note for note, Muse have down-tuned to drop D but it’s the same progression 0—3p0–5po–3 sorta thing, I always find with such riffs I fall into playing a medley of songs and licks, from Led Zeppelins Whole lotta Love to John Lee Hookers Boom boom boom, they vary somewhat but share the same root or element.

    The E chord and blues progressions are unavoidable in rock, unless your going chromatic scale for a bit of hair metal or Iron Maiden.

  9. So, here is my input. I used to love cable and didn’t know you were making new music( I love this just as much though). So when I saw this I was shocked and went into research and music screening mode.
    Here is my verdict based on my relationship with Warner, Muse and lawyers.
    1. Don’t mess with lawyers.
    2. You have a good point but that riff in psycho has been around since Matt Bellamy started playing guitar. It was literally one of the first riffs that he ever wrote.
    3. Warner screens everything that comes out of their label so that they won’t get law suites. However, lots of times they do overlook things.
    4. It’s not the same song at all really, just the same feel. Like with he four chords that make up almost every pop song or fall out boy or green day’s progressions that are similar. It’s nothing like under pressure and ice ice baby that was exactly the same.
    5.be careful where you go with this. If you or anyone else did act on it the entire music industry would collapse into a sueing mess.

    I support you and your music my friend. But saying that these 2 songs are the same or at least very very similar is like saying that a chiwawa is the same as a bull dog. Yes they are both dogs but they look a bit different. Therefore a similarity isn’t plagiarism. Only a direct copy.
    However I admire your musical awareness.

  10. Ever wondered why they call themselves “Muse”? So many of their songs remind me of other tracks, I’m starting to feel that their taking “inspiration” from them could actually be deliberate…

  11. all american rock has been the same for 15 years, who cares?

  12. Tamar Elmensdorp-Lijzenga

    The thing is that they’ve been playing that riff since 1999 or something though … I do hope you can works this out.

  13. couldnt hear any resemblance personally, Pyscho lends an ear to many other Muse hits IMHO, yours is a great song but I’m not hearing anything that links the two except that you’ve both written songs around a repeat riff.

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