I’ve been a little hard on Coldplay lately, trashing their latest album and calling them – gasp! – boring. I fear that I may have even run off my friend and loyal reader Jody (are you still reading?)
But can I kick them while they’re down? Is the band guilty of plagiarism?
That’s what guitarist Joe Satriani is claiming in a lawsuit filed against the British band. The melody of his 2004 song “If I Could Fly” does sound similar to Coldplay’s title cut from their 2008 album Viva La Vida. “Almost immediately, from the minute their song came out, my e-mail box flooded with people going, ‘Have you heard this song by Coldplay? They ripped you off, man’,” he told MusicRadar last month.
The key to the case will be whether the band even heard Satriani’s song. Let’s face it: Satriani, aside from a few thousand guitar aficionados who proclaim him the greatest guitar player ever, is not the most well-known artist. “It is doubtful that Coldplay, whose members are avowed disciples of U2 and Radiohead and whose music has about as much in common with Satriani’s guitar workouts as Anton Webern’s does with Miley Cyrus, listened to the guitarist for inspiration. Or even entertainment, for that matter. This whole thing appears to be a matter of complete coincidence,” notes Jeff Miers of the Buffalo News.
Who wrote it first?
A question that needs to be answered as well is: Who wrote the song first?
Just weeks after Coldplay’s album was released, an indie band named Creaky Boards claimed that not only does Coldplay’s song sound like their 2007 song “The Songs I Didn’t Write,” but that Coldplay’s Chris Martin was in the audience of one of their concerts. Did Creaky Boards listen to Satriani’s album, too?
But wait. It goes on. Did Satriani rip off Enanitos Verdes, who has almost the exact same guitar solo in their 2002 song “Frances Limon”? Did that band borrow from John the Whistler’s song “I’m in Love,” released in 2000? Did he in turn get it from Babik Reihardt’s “Histoire Simple”? Internet conspiracy theorists have traced the melody back to a 1973 Cat Stevens song and list about 10 different songs that use it.
Miers pegs it correctly:
Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” relies on a series of chords repeated as a mantra. The song begins on a D major 7 chord, proceeds to an E, then to the tonic, or “home chord,” A, and finally to the relative minor chord in the key, F# minor. It repeats this progression throughout the song, over a steady four beats-per-measure rhythm that is presented almost like a march. The melody line –which is completely sublime, in both the Coldplay and Satriani instances –begins on a C#, the major 7 of the D chord. If you happen upon this chord progression, the melody practically writes itself.
And it seems to have written itself over and over. I’m reminded of a cut from one of my daughter’s Sesame Street albums in which the cast sings three different songs with the same melody – the ABC song, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, and “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”. Some melodies just seem to prevail more than others, and Coldplay’s formula seems to be yet one more iteration – and evolution – of his particular melody.
The final verdict
That’s not to say that Coldplay didn’t steal the song. I just find it hard to believe that they were sitting around listening to a Satriani album. But it happens. Even John Lennon had to pay damages for lifting part of a Chuck Berry song in the Beatles’ hit “Come Together,” and he freely admitted to taking snippets of melodies and altering them slightly. (And then there’s the famous George Harrison case with “My Sweet Lord”; I’m sure Satriani’s lawyers will be looking at “subconscious plagiarism” very closely).
The fact is that there are only a certain number of melodies available in Western music. Coldplay may have been a little lazy, but the strings and staccato rhythms are distinct. It’s also the best version of the melody – not to mention the best song on the album.