The recent unfound case of plagiarism instigated by Grime artist Sami Chokri (Sami Switch) against Ed Sheeran, had me wondering how many times structures, harmonies, beats and particularly guitar riffs have been tweaked, repeated and basically ripped off through time.
(It was only a cursory thought – I didn’t lose any sleep, it has to be said.)
One of the most high profile cases in recent times was that of Vanilla Ice –vs – Queen & David Bowie. Reportedly, the American rapper contested he had added a ‘dum’ to the bassline of ‘Under Pressure’ and that he was not complicit in copyright breach with his ‘Ice Ice Baby’ hit. Of course, he eventually acceded to the contest brought by the British acts and paid out a considerable sum (believed to be @ $4m) for the publishing rights so that he could avoid paying royalties.
There have been several more high profile cases in recent years, but this being a ‘70s blog, there’s one contentious case that stands above all else; one that would inevitably rear its head on this blog, what with co-host, Paul, being a big David Bowie fan and me listing Sweet as one of my favourite bands:
the case of ‘Jean Genie’ –vs – ‘Blockbuster.’
The debate has always been who copied who? Bowie, Sweet; or Sweet, Bowie.
Both were signed with RCA when they recorded their respective hits. They shared the same studios and with ‘Jean Genie’ being recorded on 6th October 1972, Sweet have been accused of nicking the riff for the recording of ‘Blockbuster’ a few weeks later, on 1st November.
A counter argument could be that Bowie overheard Sweet rehearsing and subconsciously picked up on the riff.
Plagiarism is everywhere in the music industry, even extending to blogs. At this point I must confess that after hitting on the idea of writing this piece, I found I had been beaten to it by over five years – by the excellent Darren’s Music Blog.
I discovered this when carrying out my own research into the subject. However, the band / riff that prompted me to look into this is not mentioned in Darren’s blog – so like Vanilla Ice, I contend this article is not plagiarised. But, unlike Vanilla Ice, I will not be buying the rights to Darren’s blog article for @ $4m!
Anyway, as it happens, I reckon neither Bowie nor Sweet have a case to answer. But before I present my case for the defence, a word or two on the band that prompted me to look at this whole issue:
Honeybus are your archetypal ‘one hit wonders.’ Formed in London in 1967, the four-piece were signed to Decca’s Deram label. Their first two singles bombed, though the second, a ballad, ‘(Do I Figure) In Your Life?’ was covered by Joe Cocker, Dave Berry and Dana.
It is for their third single though, that Honeybus are best known. I bet almost all readers (certainly those from UK) will remember this:
(Though this version of the advert is from the early ‘70s, the single, ‘I Can’t Maggie Go,’ which provides the musical accompaniment, was released in 1968. It entered the charts in March of that year, where it spent a total of twelve weeks, peaking at #8.)
Shortly after this though, founder member and co-songwriter Pete Dello quit the band. Ray Cane now assumed the mantle of principal songwriter. His first-penned single, ‘Girl of Independent Means,’ was the driver behind this article, and appears fourth in the timeline that follows.
Unbelievably, in my opinion, the music buying public were not impressed and it failed to capitalise on the success of ‘Maggie.’ When their next effort ‘She Sold Blackpool Rock,’ also tanked, the band folded. Though they would reform in 1971 with the original line-up, mainstream success still eluded them, and an album that had been prepared for Warner Brothers, was cancelled.
An interesting point of note is that drummer and original member, Peter Kircher, would go on to play with Status Quo from 1983 – 86.
Anyway – back to the debate.
I stated earlier I didn’t feel either David Bowie or Sweet were guilty of plagiarism with regards to the riff for ‘Jean Genie,’ and ‘Blockbuster.’ My reasoning is simple: unlike ‘samples’ of other artists’ work where short bursts of music are inserted into another song / track (blatant plagiarism in my book) riffs are able to breathe, mature and develop like a fine cheese. Which is maybe why neither Bowie nor Sweet decided to kick up a stink and join the controversy.
Don’t believe me?
THE MORPH OF A RIFF:
What I’m suggesting is a riff can take a natural progression.
I mean – just because a song may sound like one that’s gone before, it does not necessarily mean it is a plagiarised copy. Does ‘Blockbuster’ really sound like Muddy Waters’ ‘Hoochie Coochie Man?’ Does it?
That would be like saying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a rip-off of Wilbur and Orville’s ‘Wright Flyer.’
I rest my case, M’lud.
(Darren Johnson is a prolific music blogger and writer. He is the author of ‘The Sweet Through the 1970s’ – which I have and can thoroughly recommend – and ‘Suzi Quatro in the 1970s’ – which I have still to get to.)