In 1998, R.E.M. released Up, their first album without drummer Bill Berry. On the album was an electronic track called “Hope” that had a memorable riff featured throughout the song. Here’s a snippet of the song:
Two years later, during the sessions for their album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 recorded a track called “Levitate” that didn’t make the final tracklist for the album. It was eventually released in 2004 as a set of demo recordings. Listen:
Can you hear the similarities? The main riff is exactly the same. Here are the two songs, transposed into the same key. I didn’t have to change the tempo.
Granted, it’s only seven notes, but people have been sued for less. The center of the lawsuit filed against George Harrison by Bright Tunes Music Corp. alleging that Harrison stole the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” hinged on three notes (four other notes were mentioned as “motif B”, another part of the song, but the court focused on motif A, below).
Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism,” meaning that he copied the Chiffons song without realizing it. It sent a shudder throughout the music industry, making copyright infringement suits easier to win. Over the years, others followed:
John Lennon was found guilty of lifting the melody and lyrics from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” in his Beatles song “Come Together.”
Ray Parker Jr. settled out of court with Huey Lewis for lifting the bass line from “I Want a New Drug” for his song “Ghostbusters.”
Vanilla Ice was sued by Queen for copying the bass line for “Ice Ice Baby” from the group’s duet with David Bowie, “Under Pressure.”
The Verve even negotiated with the Rolling Stones to borrow five notes from the song “The Last Time,” but the Stones’ manager, who owned the song, still filed suit, alleging that the Verve borrowed more than the five notes. The Verve was forced to forfeit all royalties from the song, only getting the songwriting credit and royalties back this year.
Is U2’s lifting of “Hope”‘s riff subconscious or conscious? Only they know the answer. The two bands are close, so there’s no doubt that the Irish group listened to R.E.M.’s song. But the fact that members of the bands are friends probably explains why R.E.M. didn’t go after U2 for lifting the main riff of “Hope” for “Levitate.”
On a side note, R.E.M. gave partial songwriting credit for “Hope” to Leonard Cohen for his song “Suzanne” – the two melodies are similar. Now that’s how you do it.