Mark, My Words: did Bruce steal my song? The pop plagiarism plague, and my half-baked plan to combat it

With 'Where Is My Mind?' rip-offs becoming ubiquitous, columnist Mark Beaumont is offering his services as a musical nicker-spotter

Where is my mind? Everywhere, these days. 8am, London City Airport, barred from the business lounges as my lowly standing as international jet set trash demands, an old friend from the Buddhist rehab monastery in Thailand (long story) sidled up and showed me a clip of Ellie Goulding’s 2018 track ‘Close To Me’ on his phone. “It’s ‘Where Is My Mind’!” he insisted, going on to insinuate that the writers wouldn’t even have been ‘inspired’ to steal the original Pixies track, but the wafty chillwave recreation of the song from that Galaxy advert where train carriages fill with birds, paintballs and Post-It notes in a manner even Southern Rail would find unacceptable.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. A few months ago a fellow Pixies-head sent me a link to ‘Blur’ by MØ, a song so shamelessly ‘Where Is My Mind?’ that it’s been declared a danger to nearby skyscrapers. It seems that mainstream popular culture has finally caught up with Black Francis’s iconic alt-snorkling classic about being chased through Caribbean waters by a tiny fish, the indie rock equivalent of being berated by Michael Gove. It’s only a matter of time before the song infiltrates all aspects of modern life. Soon, Alexa will switch herself on every morning with a cheery “ooo-ooo”, ready for a fruitful day of secretive surveillance. Vehicles will start reversing to the tune of Joey Santiago’s two-note riff, fridges will hum the middle eight and your laptop will start up with an expectant minor-key TWAAANGGG.

I’m not the only one starting to think that we now live in an entirely recycled culture. “Have all the songs been written,” sang Brandon Flowers on a Killers piano ballad that Meatloaf could probably nab 40 percent of, claiming it’s ripped off ‘I Would Do Anything For Love…’. Over on Twitter, Princess Nokia is accusing Ariana Grande of plagiarising her song ‘Mine’ on her new track ‘7 Rings’, seemingly unaware that if you’re mimicking trap raps by gasping two syllables per breath, and you don’t just want to sound like you’re having a mid-song panic attack, your options for melodic variety are severely limited. In the courts, the estate of Marvin Gaye is busy trying to claim ownership of anything that might even vaguely be considered ‘funky’.

Ever since Led Zeppelin listened to their first Willie Dixon record and thought, ‘We’re having that, but in trousers likely to cause fertility issues in later life’, plagiarism has become the music industry’s most acceptable guilty secret, alongside miming, songwriting by committee and DJs pretending to twiddle knobs when all they’re mixing onstage is an inadvisable beneath-decks drug cocktail.With well over five million tracks released in the past 60-odd years of rock ‘n’ roll – and with rap and Britpop making ‘sampling’ from the past a legitimate artistic endeavour – it’s almost impossible to come up with something that has no similarity whatsoever to anything that’s gone before. Just ask historic plagiarism defendants John Lennon, George Harrison, New Order, Prince, Radiohead, Elastica, Nirvana, The Verve, The Strokes and the modern-day king of the half-inched hookline, Noel ‘is Ricky Martin litigious?’ Gallagher. And pity poor Coldplay whose ‘Viva La Vida’, according to the number of unsuccessful plagiarism claims against it, has been previously written by everyone bar Chumbawamba, like some kind of musical Murder On The Orient Express.

It’s a difficult line to draw, deciding who owns what series of sounds in which particular order. A distinctive melody line, a recognisable lyric, a particularly banshee-like guitar solo – yes, something that defines the individual character of a song should definitely belong to the composer. But what about basslines, drum fills, even rhythms? Do Queen own thump-thump-clap-silence? Can Nile Rogers sue pretty much everyone from 2011? With so little cash flying round for song-writers, will someone eventually claim that they ‘own’ bongos, or copyright the buttock clap?

I can certainly sympathise with the claimants too. I’ve written one decent song in my life, a kind of Boo Radleys Britpop piece I recorded with my mate Tam and would play to every band that ever came over and comprehensively wreck my flat in the late ’90s. Fifteen years later, my chorus melody turned up on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, mangled in with a bit of ‘The Life Of Riley’ by The Lightning Seeds. Now, I can’t remember much of the ’90s, but I’m about 75 per cent certain that Bruce Springsteen never came round and wrecked my flat. But one musician did take my song away, rewrite it and use it on a demo tape of a singer he was working with at a major label. So Bruce, I know you’re reading this and you know what you did, DM me and let’s settle this without getting the lawyer leeches involved. I’ll let you keep your dignity.

See how easy it is for claims to arise? Million-dollar lawsuits are flying between labels faster than Morrissey in a mood, and that’s where me and my mate Alan can help. I’ve been reviewing bands for decades, honing my skills of melody recognition to the point where I can spot someone ripping off Joy Division from a thousand paces. My mate Alan is an absolute demon at the ‘guess the intro’ rounds in pub pop quizzes. The pair of us are hereby making ourselves available to labels as Plagiarism Consultants – for a formidable fee plus drinking expenses, we are prepared to sit in a pub together and scour any label’s upcoming releases to tell them, with around a 78 per cent accuracy, if any of the songs might land them with a monstrous plagiarism claim. We’ll stall Satriani, muzzle the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and keep Howlin’ Wolf from your door. ‘Where Is My Mind?’-spotting a speciality.