The Beatles And Plagiarism

Chuck BerryI 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?

18 thoughts on “The Beatles And Plagiarism

    • “Bard of Armagh” has another byblow, Dragin, via an intermediate 18th Century version popular as “The Unfortunate Rake” aka The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime (on the streets of Ireland, before it got to Laredo), about a soldier who spends like a sailor on prostitutes, and then dies of a venereal disease. As well as becoming the saddest cowboy song this side of “Old Shep” (which may be the saddest song ever), it morphed into “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

      A song that is arguably the first ever Soul piece – a fusion of R&B, Gospel and Jazz – was Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman”. (Personally, I thought Elvis was never up to a lot of his material: this one in particular – so sue me.) Like a reverse Turkey-in-the-Straw which started out rude, crude and way ungodly, “I Got a Woman” was a super-secular version of an old gospel hymn called “My Jesus Is All the World to Me.”

      And some songs just sail right by questions of plagiarism. The 1895 story of “Stack” Lee Shelton murdering Billy Lyons has over 400 published and recorded versions, and 18 different ways to spell the name. It was finally copyrighted (TRO? – hard to track down, I think in 1959), but the current “owners” might be hard put to get a penny from an enterprising songwriter with an altered tune and up-dated lyrics. Turns out that just one aspect of the story has yet to be told: Stack (Democrat) and Billy (Republican) were organizers for their respective parties during a tense St. Louis campaign: their argument got out of hand, Billy grabbed the Stetson off the dapper Dem’s head, and Staggerlee/Stackerlee/Stack O’Lee shot him dead ! He was not an ethical fellow.

        • You’re right. They must have been Democrats — he got a hung jury on that one, and was pardoned for another murder later on. As the Ma Rainey (backed by a young Satchmo) lyrics go: Stack O’Lee was a baaad man.

  1. Sorry, but you can’t ruin the Beatles for me — a cultural phenomenon and musical genius that remains popular two generations after they broke up. Two examples out of the entire Beatles repertoire is awful… but why don’t you look at who stole melodies/topics/partial lyrics from them? Sorry, I get your point here, but I am a forever Beatles fan, and enjoyed McCartney’s 1994 tour as much as my 10-year-old son did. (It was a multi-generational audience… really amazing).

    I will admit to taking a pass on “Give Peace a Chance,” however, if that lends any credibility. Probably is a fave of Pope Francis tho…

  2. That is a conundrum for a musician. Ask any guitarist, bassist, drummer, etc., who their respective influences are you will find that they borrowed heavily from them. The Beatles always cited Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly as their musical sources (Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, as stated the same). Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page borrowed heavily from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley), and those influences are all over their recordings. Alex Lifeson (Rush) has acknowledged Jimmy Page as a major influence and it is obvious in Rush’s early recordings. In fact, Rush settled with Estate of Raymond Scott for using part of Scott’s song “Powerhouse” in their instrumental “La Villa Strangiato”, even though a court ruled in Rush’s favor. Mike Portnoy cites John Bonham as an influence and you hear specific phrasings in his early work. This is not isolated to popf music. Classical and jazz musicians do it as well. Ask Carlos Santana who his influences are he will cite Coltrain.

    At what point does influence become outright copying? Where is the line between plagiarism and fair use under copyright law? Queen sued Vanilla Ice for copyright infringement when Ice comped Queen’s main riff from “Under Pressure” and Ice won because he altered the beat just enough for a court to rule that it was an independent work of music. Other artists have borrowed or referenced other musicians’ work in their won songs/music (a lyric, a theme, etc.). So, I am not surprised that the Beatles used a Chuck Berry riff in one of their songs (by the way, I have always hated “Come Together” – the refrain seemed idiotic and self-contradictory, and the song itself is boring. “I am the Walrus” was more inventive). I am not advocating copyright infringement; rather, I am trying to figure out where that line is. Is it always infringement? Could be an homage? I am not sure.


    • A cousin of Theseus’ ship paradox…

      At what point, given an original boat, can you continue to change our old parts for new parts, is the boat considered a different boat from the original?

  3. This is a great opening for discussion on Intellectual Property Rights… I don’t think in history, we’ve had quite the proliferation of artists as we have had in the wake of Western material abundance. Because of the relative dearth of artists/creators/inventors, we’ve never had to fully determine a formula for how “Intellectual Property” should be handled and have relied on a system that sort of reflects physical property rights. But of course, the two concepts ARE not the same.

  4. Well, I don’t know whether the Beatles gave Chuck Berry credit for “Roll Over Beethoven” (I personally like his version much better) but I expect they did. The Beatles liked Berry’s music a lot although I don’t know if he ever played with them. As far as “My Sweet Lord”, George Harrison probably was guilty of unconscious plagiarism as his song has a spiritual emphasis rather than personal one. This happens often with musicians who don’t realize their inspiration comes from another source.

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