I knew that Brian Wilson had ripped off Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” to write “Surfin’ USA,” resulting in Berry owning the copyright to the Beach Boys hit. I knew that George Harrison had stolen the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” for his first solo hit “My Sweet Lord,” ultimately resulting in Harrison being found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” (suuuuuure) and paying $1,599,987 of the earnings from “My Sweet Lord” to Bright Tunes, since songwriter Ronnie Mack had died in 1963, shortly after “He’s So Fine” was released. ( George did not cover himself in glory, telling an interviewer, “As far as I’m concerned, the effect the song has had far exceeds any bitching between copyright people and their greed and jealousy.” You stole the song, George.)
I did not know until this morning, when I had a chance to listen closely to Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” on my car radio, that The Beatles had plagiarized it for the opening cut on “Abbey Road,” “Come Together (Over Me.)”
First it was the lyrics that got my attention. I heard Chuck sing..
“I was rollin’ slowly ’cause of drizzlin’ showers
Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me..”
Sounds familiar…where have I heard that before? Oh yeah!
“Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly…”
Then there was the melody, which was essentially identical, just differently arranged. Compare:
I checked online when I got home, and sure enough, Chuck Berry’s music publisher sued The Beatles for copyright infringement. Apparently the out of court settlement was all on John, who had written the song even though, as usual, McCartney shared the writing credit. Like the Beach Boys and Harrison cases, the theft was pretty obvious. A lot of alleged music plagiarism is accidental, but Lennon and McCartney were such Berry fans that I find this instance pretty damning.
I wonder how many other pop songs were quietly stolen from more obscure sources? The rent is due, a musician needs a hit desperately…if the Beatles and Beach Boys did it, how much more likely is it that lesser artists did the same, and their plagiarized creations never were big enough hits to attract a lawsuit?