There has been a mighty buzz this week in the 'blogosphere' over allegations that the Red Hot Chili Peppers ripped off Tom Petty's song Mary Jane's Last Dance in their new single Dani California. The claim, originally made by two radio hosts in Delaware, can be heard here – consider taking a listen before reading further.
At first glance you say to yourself "Dang, those guys make a pretty good case," and initially, I would have agreed with you. However, your ears can deceive you.
Jared Morris, a producer and talk-show host at WGMD-FM, where the allegations were first made, asserts that
The chord progression, the melody, the tempo, the key, the lyrical theme… they're identical.
If you have a copy of Mary Jane's Last Dance on your PC, load it up and play it. Now compare it again to the aforementioned recording that 'damns' the Chili Peppers for stealing Tom Petty's song. Right away you will notice the tempo is at least twice as fast than in the original recording – if you've heard Petty's song enough, you'll notice this without the comparison. Apparently an identical tempo to Mr. Morris means "identical after we manipulated it."
Now let's look at the 'identical lyrical theme.'
Dani California Chorus and Verse Lyrics:
California, rest in peace
California, show your teeth
She's my priestess, I'm your priest
She's a lover, baby, and a fighter
Shoulda seen it comin' when it got a little brighter
With a name like "Dani California"
Day was gonna come when I was gonna mourn ya
A little loaded she was stealin' another breath
I love my baby to death
Mary Jane's Last Dance Chorus and Verse Lyrics:
Last dance with Mary Jane, one more
time to kill the pain.
I feel summer creepin' in and I'm
tired of this town again.
Well I don't know but I've
been told, you never slow down, you never grow old.
tired of screwin' up, tired of goin' down,
myself, tired of this town,
Oh my, my, oh hell yes - Honey
put on that party dress.
Buy me a drink, sing me a song,
Take me as I come . cause I can't stay long.
Hardly identical lyrical themes, wouldn't you agree?
However, let us assume that you can plagiarize a sole chord progression (you can't, by the way, plagiarism comes when you play the original melody along with the progression - and these are both slightly different progressions), and take another listen to Tom Petty's 1993 hit song.
Wait a minute – that wasn't Tom Petty at all. It was the 1992 song Waiting for the Sun by The Jayhawks.
If we are to follow the absurd logic of Jared Morris and WGMD-FM, then this should be construed as plagiarism as well – moreso, in fact, because I have not altered the tempos of either song as Mr. Morris has.
Here is an excerpt of the Chili Pepper's Dani California that started this whole nonsense.
Despite whatever hype or rumors you hear about Tom Petty being furious at the Red Hot Chili Peppers for 'copying' his song, it is all much ado about nothing. It's simply nothing more than a radio show host/producer being overly proud for recognizing a similar chord progression and trying to make a name for himself by slinging mud at those more prominent than himself.
I'm all for calling people out on plagiarism, but knowingly distorting a work so that it appears plagiarized, when it is in fact a common chord progression used in several songs, is idiotic and irresponsible. It's not like we are talking about Vanilla Ice and Queen.
In case you haven't figured out my conclusion yet, the RHCP are no copy cats and neither is Tom Petty. You can not copyright a chord progression - there are a finite amount that are used in many songs. Slandering RHCP as Mr. Morris has done serves to only benefit one person: himself.
Let us be reminded of the words of the late Hunter S. Thompson: "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
The excerpts above are believed to be covered under Fair Use Guidelines as they are not a substantial portion of either copyrighted work, are used in the context of educating how chord progressions are similar, and do not effect the potential market value of the copyrighted work by being present here.