Soundalikes

The second day of writing a song is the hardest. The first day you just let it flow, but in the second session you have to edit and cut and polish and ask yourself, “Is this really my song? Did I write it or only remember it?”

We’ve all heard songs that sound like other songs. Some relationships are obvious, like Lady Gaga and Madonna. But sometimes soundalikes reveal surprising connections between artists. The other morning I heard a live version of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Power of Soul” (1969) and was struck by a lick in the intro. Hendrix plays the lick, then goes into a series of variations until it turns into something completely different. But the original riff seemed good enough to have been a whole song by itself. By afternoon the answer had percolated to the surface. It was “Mary Ann” by Ray Charles (1956), a tune Hendrix surely knew from his years on the chitlin’ circuit, and before that it was “Hard Way” by T-Bone Walker (1954).

One of my favorite examples of the same song twice is “Searching for My Love” by Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces (1965) and Freddie Scott’s “Are You Lonely For Me Baby” (1966), written by Bert Berns, the author of an amazing list of hits, among them “Twist and Shout”.

Any Mexican guitarist who has played a strolling restaurant gig knows that “Twist and Shout” is interchangeable with “La Bamba”. But did they start out that way? The original “Shake It Up, Baby” by the Top Notes (1961), produced by Phil Spector, sounds nothing like Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” (1958). Berns didn’t like what Spector had done with the rhythm, so he produced a second version that became a hit for the Isley Brothers (1962). The Isleys’ record has a Latin feel, but it’s more Cuban than Mexican. Only with the Beatles’ version (1963) does “Twist and Shout” starts to sound like “La Bamba.” That’s the kind of synthesis that probably evolved in sweaty six-set nights overlooking a dance floor in Hamburg. The Isleys’ rhythm figure does sound like something else, though. It’s “Hang on Sloopy” (1964), a song written by Berns under the name Bert Russell, and it’s also the bridge of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (1965), the part that says, “Baby, baby, I’ll get down on my knees for you,” the part written by – yes – Phil Spector.

After the Brains recorded “Money Changes Everything” an English record producer accused me of having lifted the intro keyboard riff from David Bowie’s “Heroes”. Well, I still say it’s not the same. But I had been listening to that album a lot that year, so maybe a little of the flavor seeped in. Cyndi Lauper’s version used the same riff, but behind that there’s the guitar figure from “Needles and Pins” (1963), which was written by Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche, both of whom worked with – who do you think? – Phil Spector.

So should Buddy Miles have said, “Jimi, I think Ray Charles has already used that lick”? Should John have told George, “That guitar part sounds too much like “La Bamba”? Should someone have told MC Hammer, “Funny, but ‘U Can’t Touch This’ reminds me somehow of ‘Super Freak’?” Well, I’d be surprised if nobody did. But that didn’t stop him.

The songwriter’s mantra is this: steal from the best, then push it, turn it and twist it until it’s yours.

There must be thousands of examples of similar sounding songs. There’s even a website dedicated to them. So please chime in. What are some of your favorite soundalikes?

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