While there is some incredibly complicated math suggesting infinite possibilities, there are basically just 12 notes in music. Twelve! Think about that for a second. Doubtless you own more than 12 albums, each containing at least 12 songs, all of them conveying different emotions, all of them unique in their own way. It really is astonishing.
There are times, however, when those songs are not quite so unique, and where, whether by design or by coincidence, those songs sound remarkably similar, sometimes even identical. Here then, are 10 such tunes. Stop me if you've heard this one before…
Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven”
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) case of alleged thievery came in May 2014 when L.A. rock band Spirit filed against Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement, arguing that the opening guitar arpeggios for “Stairway to Heaven” bore a striking similarity to their own instrumental entitled “Taurus.” The case went to court and made the news worldwide, but on June 23, 2016, a jury decided that there weren't enough similarities between the tunes, finding in favor of Zeppelin. Several other cases with the Zep have been settled out of court, not least when writing credits for “Whole Lotta Love” were given to Muddy Waters, who had previously penned a similar tune called “You Need Love.”
ZZ Top, “Tush”
Motörhead, “No Class”
As it says on a popular meme, if you don't like Motörhead, you may as well just fuck off. Having said that, there's no denying the fact that the riff for Motörhead's “No Class” from 1979's Overkill album sounds pretty much identical to ZZ Top's classic “Tush,” which was released three years earlier and reached the top 20 in the Billboard Hot 100. Heavier and faster, but otherwise exactly the same! Moving swiftly on…
The Stooges, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”
Queens of the Stone Age, “If Only”
If you're going to steal riffs from The Stooges — and many have — then at least have the decency to make the song your own. Here we find Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme paying, er, homage to Detroit's finest by taking the iconic riff for “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and rearranging it just enough to make a difference. Homme has confessed to pilfering riffs from British punk hooligans GBH and slowing them down for QOTSA tunes, but even the most hardcore punk would be hard-pressed to identify one.
Conflict, “Mighty and Superior”
The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army”
Released as the fourth single from The White Stripes' Elephant album of 2003, “Seven Nation Army,” with its distinctive and instantly recognizable riff, has gone on to become the duo's signature tune, covered by everyone from Metallica and Audioslave to Kate Bush and Maroon 5. The riff, however, previously was employed by anarcho-punk legends Conflict on the blistering “Mighty and Superior” in 1985, albeit with rather more vicious intent, and it's kinda their signature tune, too.
Rob Zombie, “Well, Everybody's Fucking in a UFO”
Primus, “Wynona's Big Brown Beaver”
While it can be reasonably assumed that Rob Zombie lives on some distant planet and only visits Earth every now and again to go on tour or make a movie, it also can be reasonably assumed that said planet has at least one radio. In which case, Mr. Zombie doubtless would have heard the Primus single of 1995 titled “Wynona's Big Brown Beaver.” Perhaps he then decided that instead of being a brilliantly eccentric tune about a large semi-aquatic rodent — or not, as the case may be — it should be about an orgy on a spaceship. Who the hell knows? Either way, most intelligent lifeforms would be able to identify these as basically the same song.
The Beatles, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
The Offspring, “Why Don't You Get a Job”
In 1968 a little-known pop group called The Beatles penned a happy little nonsense ditty titled “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which was released as a single that faded into obscurity by reaching No. 1 in eight countries. The White Album from whence it came fared no better, selling a mere 3 million copies in the United States in the first four days of its release. You've probably never heard of them. And then, in 1998, a band called The Offspring wrote an entirely original tune called “Why Don't You Get a Job,” which sounds absolutely nothing like The Beatles. Oh, no, not at all. No, sir-ee.
Iggy Pop, “Lust for Life”
Jet, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
It might be best to put the lid back on this particular can of worms and back away to a safe distance. The first time one hears the hit single “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by Aussie rockers Jet, it seems fairly apparent that they've ripped off the Igster's classic “Lust for Life.” It's a criticism that the band have heard before, in response to which they point out that they were actually ripping off Motown beats, specifically “You Can't Hurry Love” by The Supremes and “I'm Ready for Love” by Martha and The Vandellas. Which also begs the question about where Iggy got those beats from, since the Motown thing was obviously first. Furthermore, it has been suggested by Doors manager Danny Sugerman that the riff was stolen from The Doors song “Touch Me,” which was written a decade before “Lust for Life.”
Killing Joke, “Eighties”
Nirvana, “Come As You Are”
Nirvana may have been one of the biggest and most influential bands on the planet, but that didn't stop them from “borrowing” the occasional riff from their peers, Kurt Cobain himself admitting that “Come As You Are” may have been rather close to Killing Joke's hit song “Eighties.” Clearly Killing Joke thought so, too, with frontman Jaz Coleman later stating that litigation was dropped because “Kurt had the “disadvantage of being dead.” Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl later made amends by playing on Killing Joke's self-titled album of 2002. It has since been noted that the Damned song “Life Goes On” precedes both Nirvana and Killing Joke and employs a similar riff. To be fair, The Damned usually get there first.
Wire, “Three Girl Rhumba”
OK, here's a good one for you: Type Wire's “Three Girl Rhumba” into YouTube and see what comes up as the next selection. Then when you're done saying, “What the fuck! Listen to this!” to your significant other, type in Wire's “I Am the Fly,” let it play for a moment, and then type in Elastica. You'll probably only get as far as El before YouTube does the rest for you. You can also try The Stranglers hit “No More Heroes” and Elastica's “Waking Up” if you really want a laugh. It's hardly surprising that Elastica's self-titled debut album of 1995 was a massive success, since half the songs had allegedly already been hits for other bands. It's similarly unsurprising that accusations of plagiarism were settled out of court. YouTube, incidentally, will know exactly what you were looking for, and will further suggest a list of the biggest ripoffs in music history, some of them making Elastica pale by comparison.
The Who, “Baba O'Riley”
One Direction, “Best Song Ever”
Oh, so many choices … We could go with American Heartbreak's “Crawling,” an astonishingly blatant copy of The Wildhearts' “29 x The Pain,” or perhaps even Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Phantom of the Opera” with its, ahem, echoes of Pink Floyd. But instead, let's leave you with those loveable pop boys One Direction and a modest little anthem titled “Best Song Ever.” Which we know to be true because it appears in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. Trouble is, it appears there as a song called “Baba O'Riley” by The Who. This is because The Who wrote it! Do these people honestly think no one will notice? Well, we do! And while we're on the subject, One Direction's “Midnight Memories” from 2013 is just Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar on Me” for virgins. Enough already!