Pop Ethics: The Drifters And Musical Self-Plagiarism

Does the song “Sand in My Shoes” sound familiar? It should: it’s an embarrassing 1964 rip-off by the Drifters of the Drifters, written and recorded immediately after their previous song, 1963’s “Under the Boardwalk,” was a big hit. Here, notice the resemblance?

Of course you do; that was the idea.

I’ve always regarded such blatant self-parody by artists to be the sign of desperation, greed and creative cowardice. This time of year you may be forced to hear lousy Christmas record by the Royal Guardsmen called “Christmas Bells.” The group had one lame hit, a song the debuted during one of the periodic “Peanuts” crazes, called “Snoopy and the Red Baron.” For those of you who aren’t collecting social security, Snoopy’s fantasies about being a World War I flying ace from the top of his doghouse increasingly dominated the strip during the Seventies, when cartoonist Charles Schultz found that he couldn’t be funny and decided to be cute. The band recorded not one but two near identical clones, the Christmas version being, mercifully, the last, and then vanished into the obscurity it richly deserved. Okay, I can understand that strategy when you’re a hack band and you know it: see how much you can squeeze out of your one lucky pay day.

It’s less excusable with better artists. Petula Clark’s follow-up to her iconic “Downtown” was a nearly identical ditty with the same theme called “I Know a Place,”

and it was a hit too, but then all of Petula’s records sounded a lot alike. That was the only outright rip-off, though. I still don’t know what to make of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap: all four of their big hits “Woman, Woman,” “Over You,'”Young Girl,” and “Lady Willpower,” sound the same to me and are basically about the same situation. Was this intentional self-plagiarism or just a lack of imagination?

For the most part, really outstanding artists don’t copy themselves just to get a cheap hit, because the don’t need to, have some artistic integrity and respect for their fans, or if they do, you don’t notice it. Connie Francis, the queen female pop vocalist of the Fifties, had a hit with “Follow the Boys” that was obviously intended to evoke her previous hit “Where the Boys Are,” (it was also a movie theme), and I must admit, I love the rip-off  as much as the original, maybe more. It’s just a good song, Connie is great as usual, and all is forgiven….

But for the Drifters, one of the great pop groups of all time, to not only rip off themselves but do it badly and obviously with “Sand in my Shoes”–well, that’s just disappointing. They were better than that.


20 thoughts on “Pop Ethics: The Drifters And Musical Self-Plagiarism

  1. As librarians get together we often lament how much most children love trite book series. It comes from their love of predictability. They know exactly what will happen in the book because it’s exactly what happened in the first one and it will be the same thing that will happen in the last one. Fast food is another example. TV series and movie franchises are also examples. I don’t think it’s unethical at all. At least in the children’s book world it seems to be a universal developmental task to want predictability and ease for a while before moving on to more challenging fare. It may not be performance at the top possible level, it may show a lack of imagination, it may even be trite, but I don’t think that is unethical.

    • It’s dishonest. It’s selling left-overs as fresh. It’s selling a copy as an original. When “Sand” was presented to the group, the ethical thing would have been for the group to say, “Hell, we already did that song!”

  2. ““Downtown” was a nearly identical ditty with the same theme called “I Know a Place,”

    But “Downtown” was to the rhythm of a gently bossa nova, which makes all the difference. Also, I don’t know if the video will post in this space, but you linked to the wrong version of “I Know a Place”:

    This version is superior because the girl behind Petula dances exactly like Elaine.

  3. Well unfortunately a lot of the best artists do it. Chuck Berry’s “Riding Along In My Automobile” is a blatant rip off of “School Days”. It’s pretty well done though so I guess that excuses it. Still, I’d rather listen to Chuck Berry’s rip off, than some of the forgettable songs Elvis cut such as “Acapulco” or “Roustabout”

  4. Don’t blame the artist when the record company is most likely to blame.

    Particularly with groups like The Drifters, who were basically poor kids from New Jersey at the start.

    Read the Wikipedia entry on the group, and you’ll see that the founding member around whom the group was built was only there for a year or two; the name was sold and over the years more than 60 different singers have been members of the band.

    With bands like The Drifters, if they were lucky enough to be recorded, they recorded what the record company told them to record. They had virtually no creative control. The same was true, by the way, of the vast majority of the Motown acts; the record company assigned producers, songwriters and arrangers. All the artists did was sing. And if the stars aligned and the record company found itself with a hit on its hands, the record companies always wanted another one just like it.

    The unwillingness to deliver the same old thing again and again, and the ability to top themselves each time, is but one of the things that made The Beatles so exceptional. They really broke the mold of how pop music was made – and how money was made making pop music.

  5. I’m going to nitpick… But only because j just noticed this literally yesterday when watched a Charlie Brown Christmas, his name is Charles Shulz… No “t”.

    Chalk it up to the Berenstain Bears type of conspiracy. But I always thought it was Schultz also…

  6. Arg. That was an editing failure on all counts.

    I’m going to nitpick… But only because I just noticed this literally yesterday when we watched Charlie Brown Christmas, his name is Charles Shulz… No “t”.

    Chalk it up to the Berenstain Bears type of conspiracy. But I always thought it was Schultz also…

        • From Wikipedia: Schulz is a common German family name in Northern Germany. The German word Schulz originates from the local official known as Dorf-Schulz(e), a local law enforcement officer like a police officer, magistrate, bailiff or mayor.

          It then proceeds to list a whole bunch of people named Shulz. I would provide the link but I am a Word Press idiot.

  7. Petula Clark could do no wrong. However Stopping Gilbert and Sullivan churning out endless repeats would have been a great service. Forcing Mozart not to copy previous hits would have lost us some of his best work. I’d personally be quite happy if Richard Wagner had never started at all.

    • I know the Gilbert and Sullivan canon as well as anyone. They had a style; and infinite variations on it. They did not start repeating themselves until “The Grand Duke,” a show that neither should done, and that was diminishing talent, not self plagiarism.

      People who don’t know beans about G&S say, for example, that the patter songs are “the same.” Utter nonsense. They are one genre of song, that’s all: The Major General’s Song, The Nightmare Song, My Name is John Wellington Wells, A Heavy Dragoon, In Enterprise of Martial Kind, A Private Buffoon, When I good friends, I’ve got a little list and My Boy, You May Take It From me have nothing in common musically or lyrically, except that they are sung fast.

      Cheap shot, and misleading.

    • I wonder if the author has listened to any of Petula Clark’s records. She is probably one of the most versatile pop artistes ever.

      The theme may be similar in I Know a Place, but the rhythm is different, and the orchestration too.

      I think a lot of pop songs are about going out and having a good time and maybe finding someone kind to help and understand you, or if not, at least dancing…

      Fifty years on Pet still sings both songs in her wide ranging concert acts, and brings the place down with them. I think that says all you need to know about them.

      • Irrelevant to the post, however. I wasn’t talking about artists who were not versatile, though I mentioned several; in fact, the post was about a classic group, also versatile, stooping to self-imitation. I know Clark’s career very well, and am an admirer, but the follow-up to Downtown was a rip-off. Listen to the the opening bars to each song.

  8. Gary Puckett had a great singing voice. I still have the single of his original hit, “Woman, Woman”. But then, after three successive reruns of essentially the same tune, the Union Gap faded up the trail. Puckett, I understand, went solo on the Vegas circuit where, one hopes, he found a songwriter with talent. Even the local DJ’s were getting embarrassed to play his songs.

  9. As a skilled musician/composer/producer I have to argue against your sentiment that “self-plagiarism” is desperate, or negative in all circumstances.

    For instance I am a very intuitive and “by feel” musician, and I also write music for other artist friends (as a co-writer/producer/engineer/session musician) free of charge, as I enjoy it, and I’d like to get my name out their in the credits etc… and often out of those pieces of music/songs, there will be some killer parts that I really love.

    Now I will take those sections, and use them in my own music/side projects with no guilt or shame, the context will be different, but the essence the same or built with either the same melody, chord progression, rhythm, or all 3 but with different instruments.

    If I were not to do this, I would instead have to act completely selfishly or completely selflessly, and either not write music for other people/friends projects in fear that I will “give away” something vital of mine, or I would “give it away” and then feel robbed of that musical idea/spark.

    Many of the greatest works of art (music/film/novels/paintings/architecture/video games etc…) have recurring themes used by their creators, and there should be no issue with it (as long as you are not just repeating yourself endlessly with no progression or creativity). And I am absolutely 100% against copying others, or even consciously taking influence from another artist… I think that in the past few years because of the internet, people have been coping peoples work with no remorse, changing it very slightly and then passing it off as there own… which to me is not creativity, that is engineering or a mechanical activity, true creativity comes from deep within the spirit/universe/whatever you wanna call it…

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