Monday, May 16, 2011

Same Old Song

     Songs get recycled. Sometimes an artist will release a hit song and try to follow it with something that sounds much the same hoping to recapture that success. This was especially true when the recording company essentially owned the artist and called the shots.

     The Four Tops had a smash hit, the wonderful “Can’t Help Myself,” and followed it with the self-mockingly titled “Same Old Song,” which sounded a lot like the earlier song but not as good.

     Similarly, The Drifters’ “On the Boardwalk” was followed by “Up on the Roof.” I can just see the record company calling Tin Pan Alley and telling young Carole King, “Honey, we need you to write something for The Drifters which sounds like ‘On the Boardwalk.’”

     Jim Morrison kicked and screamed about it, but he was forced to follow The Doors’ single “Light My Fire” with “Love Me Two Times.”

     But what I really want to talk about is when people just copy an earlier tune and change the lyrics. Sometimes this is OK because it’s so obvious. Everybody has a “Bo Diddley.” Buddy Holly quickly followed it with “Not Fade Away.” The same song, but you can’t really sing “Bo Diddley” if you’re not Bo Diddley anyway. And just to cite one of many others: Springstein’s “She’s The One.”

     Other times songwriters just lift tunes and claim them as their own. Those bobbysoxers in the fifties had no idea Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” (the only of his hits I know of that he “wrote”) is the Civil War ballad “Aura Lee” with substituted lyrics, but Elvis wasn’t trying to con anybody and the song was public domain.

     Not so with Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver.” We’re not supposed to notice that the verses are Neil Young’s “Helpless”? This riles me. Neil only has about a dozen tunes which he recycles into hundreds of songs and this guy just rips one of them off?

      But Neil’s too nice a guy to sue.

     Not so the guy who wrote “He’s So Fine” for the Chiffons and sued George Harrison for “My Sweet Lord.” I must confess that I and nobody else I knew or heard of who grew up with “He’s So Fine” and walked around campus singing “My Sweet Lord” caught it. Maybe it was changing “doolang doolang” to “hare krishna” that threw us off, but once you know, it’s straight “He’s So Fine.”

     Sometimes, as with “My Sweet Lord,” the masking of the earlier tune is quite an accomplishment in itself. Have you ever noticed that the Indigo Girls only hit, “Closer to Fine,” is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” slightly speeded up with some interesting harmonies? Beck’s “Loser” is sung over the “Midnight Rider” backbeat riff. And Gary Wright gets some measure of his due with Springstein’s “The Rising.” Sing the chorus of that song then the chorus of “My Love is Alive.” Where’s the difference?

(Readers are invited to cite similar instances in the “comments” section.)

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