Top Ten Hits That Prove That Originality Is Overrated
don’t remember too much from my American Lit II class. I didn’t pay much attention in it, and I’ve been actively trying to forget the little I did learn. One thing I do remember is how offended I was at a line our professor quoted to us from Ezra Pound (or maybe it was T.S. Eliot; that part’s unimportant) about how all great art must be unique. Such a statement would, in most cases, be taken as an utter non-observation, an obvious platitude containing about as much insight as saying that “all great dance music must have a good beat” or “all great Boyz II Men songs must have a mid-song monologue.”
Still, I instinctively felt it to be wrong; my experience with music has taught me that originality, while an admirable quality if present, is about as essential to great music as a xylophone or glockenspiel solo (i.e. somewhat, but not completely). Mott the Hoople base most of their reputation in the US on a Bowie-penned song that sounds exactly like Bowie and for all 80% of the population knows, was in fact performed by Bowie, yet still regularly makes All-time Best lists by critics and classic rock radio programmers. Stone Temple Pilots wrote some of the best Pearl Jam songs, and The Goo Goo Dolls beat Paul Westerberg at his own game for much of the 90s. Every two years or so during the 80s, The Cure would do New Order better than New Order, every three years or so, New Order would do The Cure better than The Cure.
Art has almost (well, almost almost) as rich a history of bliss through derivation than as bliss through originality. And here are ten hit songs (each of which is a disturbingly direct rip of another artist) that prove it.
10. Randy VanWarmer – “Just When I Needed You Most”
Bread were hardly a wellspring of creativity to begin with, but at least they had an identifiable sound, and one aped shamelessly by Randy VanWarmer on his only solo hit. A percussionless ballad filled with airy production, light strings, and soft, lilting vocals, not to mention a picked guitar accompaniment that sounds disarmingly like the guitar line from “If” eight years earlier. Still, there’s no discounting the song’s somewhat heart-rending loveliness—turns out even stale Bread can still be pretty tasty.
09. Cause & Effect – “You Think You Know Her”
An almost entirely time-forgotten ’92 hit that just barely scraped the US top 40, “You Think You Know Her” starts out by ripping the beginning of “Bizarre Love Triangle,” but then switches gears to Depeche Mode, mostly by way of singer Robert Rowe’s surreally Gahanian intonation. Strangely, C&E; eschew the dark lushness of Violator-era DM for an ’84-era DM sound, with a thin, jittery beat and romantic-but-not-quite-creepy-yet lyrics. However, the song is still hooky enough to make it a worthy alternate for Catching Up with Depeche Mode—who still listens to “Flexible,” anyway?
08. The Count Five – “Psychotic Reaction”
Lester Bangs called it “the all-time slop-bucket copy of The Yardbirds,” and he wasn’t far off: the song’s titular freakout (sped-up tempo, spazzy guitars and everything) is almost copied and pasted from the Birds’ “I’m a Man”. But of course, Lester meant it as a compliment, and the song’s a total classic—as deservedly well-loved as anything their predecessors ever did, and with just enough of a personal trademark in the verses to keep the song from the top of this list.
07. John Cafferty & the Brown Beaver Band – “On the Dark Side”
I’ve never seen Eddie & the Cruisers, so I couldn’t tell you if it plays into the plot of the movie or something, but this top ten hit from the soundtrack sounds so Springsteenian it’s uncanny. The lyrical preoccupations, the throaty, 50s-style vocals, the twinkly piano intro—it’s all Born to Run-era Bruce. And it essentially does The Boss proud, perhaps giving Springsteen devotees disappointed by the stark Nebraska the old-school Jersey rush they so desperately craved.
06. Animotion – “Obsession”
The Human League belly-flopped with Hysteria, and before Jam & Lewis got them back on their feet, audiences were treated to Animotion’s “Obsession,” which bore all the trademarks of classic-era League: shimmering synth hooks, funky bass and most importantly, dispassionate male/female vocal interplay among them. It’s shallow, superficial stuff, even compared to most Human League hits, but it rocks in full force the way Oakey should have allowed a bit more often.
05. The Knickerbockers – “Lies”
Forget Klaatu, these guys are by far the most genuine of the fake Beatles. These guys could’ve taught a class in late-’64 / early-’65 Lennon/McCartney songwriting: the harmonies, the chiming riffs, the lyrics about distrust and deceit, the verse/chorus structuring—SPOT. FUCKING. ON. The Knickerbockers never had another Top 40 hit—presumably because Rubber Soul was harder to ape than A Hard Days Night—but this single was a good enough Beatle approximation to land them a spot on the original Nuggets, along with the even better, even more shameless, Dylan-aping Mouse tune “A Public Execution” (regrettably not quite hit enough for this list).
04. Player – “Baby Come Back”
Proof positive that bands should always be ripping off Hall & Oates. “Baby Come Back,” a # 1 hit for the boys in Player, was pretty much the exact same song as H&O;’s “She’s Gone,” stealing everything except that godly key modulation at the end. A wise choice of um, inspiration, if there ever was one, but Player didn’t appreciate the comparisons to Daryl & John, claiming there was more to the band. As evidenced by follow-up top ten hit “This Time I’m in it For Love,” it was true—they were also capable of ripping off Steely Dan (while essentially still re-writing a Hall & Oates song). Ah, potential.
03. Ready for the World – “Oh Sheila”
Comparisons to Prince for mid-80s funk might be inevitable, but Ready for the World especially deserve it for “Oh Sheila”. In addition to the song’s title and hook, which sounds like a paean to Prince disciple o’ the times Sheila E., the programmed drum lines, slapped bass, and rubbery vocals (not to mention a spoken word intro weird enough to be worthy of The Purple One) all sound gloriously similar to Prince’s mid-80s output, even outshining all but the Minnesota legend’s very best with its hypnotic groove. Just as good was RFTW’s other big hit, “Love You Down,” which went for a “Beautiful Ones” / “Do Me, Baby” feel with equally orgasmic results.
02. Trade Winds – “New York’s a Lonely Town”
A gorgeous mid-60s production featuring chimes to spare, Spectorian production, heavenly harmonies, and surf-obsessed lyrics, “New York’s a Lonely Town” might be the best Beach Boys song of 1965—no small feat, especially considering that it wasn’t done by The Beach Boys. The only Trade Winds hit could be seen as a vocalization of Brian Wilson’s alienation at having left behind his surf-rock roots for more mature listening, or it could just be seen as a universal tale of feeling out of place. Either way, its extremely hard to believe that anyone but The Beach Boys could have done this song.
01. The Hollies – “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)”
It might not be the best song on this list, or the biggest rip-off (although it very well could be both), but what makes “Long Cool Woman” the #1 on this list is the oddness of the whole thing: British Invasion hit machine from the late 60s makes a brief stop off in the 70s to emulate John Fogerty at his grooviest, and in the process has the biggest hit of their career. Even today, few associate this song with The Hollies, probably because it basically sounds nothing like them and everything like CCR (really, are there any clues whatsoever?) Still, from that unforgettable opening riff to the “GET IT ON” exhortations at the end, “Long Cool Woman” arguably does Creedence better than Creedence, and coming from a band that did “Carrie Anne” barely a half-decade earlier, it’s more than enough to merit the #1 spot.