Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-Off Riffs, And The Secret History Of Rock And Roll, by Timothy English
One of the secrets of the history of rock & roll is now unoriginal much of it is. It is common for people to think of the uncreative nature of contemporary music, as it is a regular talking point among those who are even casual fans of music. But such a thing has always been the case in rock & roll. From the very beginning of the genre, previous riffs and melodies were stolen, sometimes with a wink and a nod and honest appreciation and sometimes not. Sometimes things have been solved by tolerant and gracious good will, sometimes it has ended up in court. One of the remarkable aspects of this book is that the author generally thinks pretty well of both songs that are inspired or otherwise stolen and ripped off by others as well as those songs that pay honest homage to the music that came before. Originality is hard, and it is intriguing to see how different artists have made use of the same few chords and the same riffs and the same melodies. In my own mind, it must be admitted, I have a stronger degree of fondness for those who honestly appreciate others than those who simply rob and pillage and then try to sue those who are inspired by them. Such things have been known to happen, after all.
This book is a relatively small book of less than 200 pages that is divided into eleven parts. The first part of the book looks at sound-alike songs and their histories, looking first at the song that copied another and then a look at the usually more obscure song that was copied. After that the second and third parts of the book look at specific examples of copying on the part of the Beatles (both copiers and copied) and Led Zeppelin (mostly the latter), though the author does consider it amusing that others copied Led Zeppelin the way that they plundered others sometimes as well. After that come sections on the Rolling Stones (4) and Rod Stewart (5). The author spends a short section talking about examples of borrowing that seem unbelievable (6), like the way that Smells Like Teen Spirit borrows from Boston’s More Than A Feeling, how Imagine borrows from That’s My Life, a song by Lennon’s father, how Buffalo Soldier borrows from a children’s television theme, and how Autobahn takes from the Beach Boys. This is then followed by examples of self-borrowing (7), the Oasis game (8), examples from “new music (9),” a case history of Bolton vs. Ivey (10), and some musical family trees (11). The book ends with an afterword, bibliography, and information about the author.
The author is also much to be praised for the way that he sticks up for authors who do not tend to get a lot of credit for their work. The author notes, however, that Michael Bolton lost a dubious copyright claim and likely for the reason of his reputation. A similar thing, it should be noted, can be said for the case of Robin Thicke. Another interesting aspect of this book is the way that it traces the family tree of songs, noting how it is that certain riffs or melodies are used by others and then used by still others in turn, sometimes leading to long traditions of a particular riff being appreciated. There are many examples of these things not being included in the book, but the book does give plenty of cases where people intentionally used other songs as jumping off points and where this became especially troublesome. I could think of a few examples of stealing and “inspiration” that were not included here, but if all of the examples of such things were included in a book it would probably be more than a thousand pages, and no one would want to read it but me.