July 24, 2020 Musicology, Opinion No Comments

(Update: Weeknd was granted summary judgment. See note at bottom of this month old post.)

For The Weeknd, one much-publicized lawsuit went away, but another comes back around to take its place. The band, “Yeasayer” had claimed The Weeknd’s “Pray For Me” (a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar that appeared in the Black Panther soundtrack) sampled without permission their 2007 track called “Sunrise.”

Here’s that complaint. It was rather a weird claim, in my opinion. I could easily enough hear what Yeasayer was talking about. But it was quickly evident to me that the audio snippets in question, while similar, were different; that is, not of the same derivation. Anyway, that’s over. A joint filing from both sides says they’ve agreed it wasn’t an infringement.

But there’s another existing suit, filed in 2019, that should begin to make news again soon. This one, a bit stickier I’d say.

Three British songwriters – Brian Clover, Scott McCulloch, and Billy Smith are suing The Weekend, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, because “A Lonely Night” from The Weeknd’s huge “Starboy” album sounds way too much like a 2004 track of theirs called “I Need To Love.”

And the newer complaint includes an “access” explanation that involves the three songwriters having had a publishing deal with a company called “Big Life Music” who showed their songs around for years. “Big Life” was eventually bought by Universal, which: never found an artist to “exploit” the songwriters’ songs, evidently told them so, and relinquished its claim to those songs. Not long after though, Universal put out ‘Starboy” which included “A Lonely Night,” which to the plaintiffs’ ears, sounded like one of their tracks, “I Need To Love.” This is no smoking gun, but I’ve been surprised by the stickiness of access arguments before. Access is not musicological; not directly at least. We look at the notes.

As far as I can tell “I Need To Love” was never published. Here though is a youtube video that purports to play the two tracks back to back. Since I haven’t found a copy of “I Need To Love,” in the wild, I can’t say for sure what, if anything, has been done to make them sound more alike. It is my opinion that “I Need To Love” has been manipulated here, but not in a way that is musicologically significant. In other words, it’s still apples to apples, even if they’re selling it a bit. And the similarity is plainly obvious. Listen for yourself.

As the complaint reads, “Subjectively, I believe these similarities are so clear as to be obvious even to a casual listener.” Yep, that’s fair.

Objectively, while I haven’t transcribed the respective phrases for you to view here (I have done it in my head), if I were to write it out for you, believe me, they’re going to look very nearly identical for eight bars. Also, I’m guessing these are the chorus hooks in both tracks. I’m further guessing that these nearly identical phrases appear very many times. And one last guess: no other similarities of note will emerge, though an industrious musicologist will point to less notable ones nevertheless. This is the melody we’re concerned with, I’m quite confident. The rest will be noise.

This one should be interesting. Do they sound similar? Yes. Did the plaintiff’s song come out first? Yes. Did the accused infringer have access? Plausibly, I guess, kinda? Is the material protectable by copyright? THAT’S where it gets interesting.

Again, I haven’t gotten into this on any sort of molecular level, I’m doing it in my head, but I suspect it’s one of those times where you can begin to think of lots of songs that use this same melodic and harmonic vocabulary.

First to mind, consider Rota’s “Love Theme From The Godfather,” or if you like, the lyrical version, “Speak Softly Love,” (which by the way was lyric’d up by the same fellow who put the words “A Time For Us” — more Andy Williams for y’all today! — to Rota and Mancini “Romeo and Juliet” theme, and thus got a hat tip from Dire Straits in their “Romeo and Juliet.” and Lana Del Rey, always looking for trouble, taps it a bit for Old Money. That was a substantial tangent.) Rhythmically “Godfather” is different, and it passes between the two harmonic tonalities at different points in its four bars, but they are the same two tonalities. And melodically, the shape is the same. The “blue chip notes” as I like to call them — the ones that give the melody its character more than the others — are pretty much the same.

Similarly, when I distill these two melodies down to their “blue chip notes,” I find I can begin to think of lots of songs that use that melodic device when passing between these very common chords. And moreover that all of the note-for-note similarity that’s clearly between these two tracks, and will look so impressive as a percentage of like notes falling on like beat subdivisions is arguably driven by the number of syllables in the respective lyrics and the natural shape of human language that songwriters have to accommodate (good songwriters anyway). One story I just read mentioned Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass,” and that’s certainly apt. “Heart Of Glass” however is in a major key, so the analysis might look pretty different on paper. But with just a bit of musicological consideration, you can draw lots of relatable parallels even beyond the nearly identical rhythms. Maybe I’ll write some of that out and post it here later.

Someone mentioned a James Bond theme as well, and that’s going to be a thing where the most high-value single note of all (Would those be black or purple chips at casino tables nowadays?) in these two songs, the sixth degree of the minor scale, is a familiar element in James Bond themes, in the one I’m recalling, it’s an octave lower. No matter really. I’m not sure what movie(s) it’s from, nor am I necessarily thinking of the same Bond theme that’s being argued. At any rate, it’s a James Bond music device, and it’s a valid point.

So I’ll look forward to seeing how this goes. And I’ll try to come back and fortify this with some written examples of my thinking. But leaving it here for now, and of course, welcome your thoughts.

**** Already I can update this a little… the James Bond theme that’s relevant is from “The World Is Not Enough.” The “someone” who mentioned it was “Complete Music Update,” (great site) and it has more specifically in common than the more general idea that was passing through my head. I still think I can find a classic James Bond motif that David Arnold was thinking about when he wrote The World Is Not Enough’. It will come to me.

***** And now, July 24th, I can update it further still… SUMMARY JUDGEMENT. What?! I’ll say this quickly, this went away too easily. The musicology is debatable, but if indeed it’s Blondie and James Bond being argued, that’s not going to negate fourteen consecutive notes in a chorus; not as a matter of fact. Something here doesn’t gel for me.

Written by Brian McBrearty