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Angel of Dublin

May 23, 2010

Growing up I was always baffled by popular musicians accused of “ripping off black artists” by critics. While the concept of black musicians having their musical histories and styles stripped mined by white artists who would later go on to be big, big stars was not confusing, the choice of artists often accused was.

The Beatles were a band of four working class lads who could kind of play their instruments, wrote great songs – however, simply could not carry a tune in a bucket. Sound like any black artists you know?

Madonna once famously boasted of being confused for a black artist. Except the only time a black woman who sings as poorly as Madonna ever gets play anywhere is on stage at Karaoke. Trust me, I’ve done the legwork. So as a tween I conflated “ripping off black artists” with “cannot sing, but makes catchy tunes” and this did not reflect any black artists I listened to – even the mediocre ones.

Then there was a matter of exactly which black artists needed to report thefts. Since the terms “R&B” and “Black artists” were often used interchangeablely there was some debate as to who the fuck they were talking about. Sometimes critics would vaguely reference Motown as though its artists were a monolith. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to be more specific. Are we talking Smokey & the Miracles, The Contours, Kiki Dee, Dazz Band, Teena Marie, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Charlene? These and a host of other artists have all recorded for Motown. Hall & Oates are ripping off Charlene? Oh Snap. Scandalous. CAGE FIGHT.

Music historians leveling criticisms of misappropriation get no breeze from me. Most often because their arguments are not steeped in fear mongering and hand wringing – “Oh noes, the childrenz. What about the childrenz. We’ll just say sounds like black music!”

Leaving us black folks minding our own business, listening to Kashif to wonder what the hell is going on. Ha. Kashif. Oh no I didn’t.

For the record, I love The Beatles. But you know what I love more? OTHER PEOPLE SINGING THEIR SONGS. I don’t care if you did write Yesterday; coming wack on an old school track is not allowed.

Thankfully, they all went on to become much better vocalists when they each went solo thus couldn’t blame the sour notes on the other three. And it’s well established that Somewhere in England (George), Double Fantasy (John), McCartney (P-Mac) and Good Night, Vienna (Ringo. don’t make that face) are some of my favorite LPs.

Oh snap. I’m ‘pposed to be talking about Bono!

Last week Bono was rushed into emergency surgery for his back. I love me some Bono. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Love the man, the myth and the legend. Wore my handmade “Bono Loves Black People” shirt when I saw U2 in Montreal a couple of years back.

U2 has also had the “ripping off folks” criticism leveled at them. Yeah, well whatever. Nobody asked what I thought, therefore they’re wrong and Bono and the boys rule. Get better quick, Bono!

Here’s my favorite U2 song. PS: it’s not “ripping off” if you actually take your ass to Sun Studio and record with the damn Memphis Horns. Bitin’ off, yes. Doesn’t that sound a bit nicer? Hopefully, he cleared up those problems with his RED label.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2010 12:59 pm

    I think the Beatles presaged MTV to an extent — they were basically a “boy band” when they started out, presented as being very cute and photogenic. By the time Madonna came along — and I do think she was kinda cute and sexy when she was young and chubby — it was already well-established that you didn’t need to be particularly talented to be music industry star material.

    I’m not saying anything about the issue of either of them being conflated with black performers, who I agree have always had to bring the goods to get even a fraction of the success of their white counterparts.

  2. May 23, 2010 1:30 pm

    I sing as poorly as Madonna, where’s my Holiday.

  3. May 23, 2010 1:35 pm

    oh I love the Beatles more than just about anything. John Lennon’s voice is one of my very very favorite voices ever, it’s very raw to me. Paul’s voice is more like Paul, more polished and less vulnerable, but I wouldn’t say back in the 60’s that he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

    They also were a total mishmash of styles. I mean Paul had a total love of vaudeville and such which is part of why When I’m 64 got written. He grew up on Noel Coward and other British stuff like that.

    Ripping off black music? You ever hear Paul sing “Long Tall Sally”? They had early concerts that were nothing BUT songs by black American artists. For example, Chuck Berry was another big influence of theirs, which you can hear as late as their last album. “Come Together” was taken from “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry, to the point where John had to cover the original as part of a legal settlement. Also, he totally tries to use the speech he heard in American music, I wonder if white country music could count with that speech as well but I’m sure black music does, when he says “he wear no shoeshine, he got…” etc., adopting a speech pattern.

    They covered so many of Chuck Berry songs, Roll Over Bethoven, Rock and Roll Music, etc. They did a, very nice IMO, version of You Really Got a Hold on me you can hear on the first Anthology. Not Smoky Robinson but John was far from not being able to carry a tune in a bucket there.

    Also, John Lennon was obsessed with black girl groups and their sound, covered many of their songs as well.

    And his cover of Twist and Shout on their first album? his voice was shot to high heavens by the time he sang that song, they sang it at the end of recording ALL day long, but that was the POINT. It wasn’t prissy or perfect or whatever, it was rock and roll. Part of the appeal is that they took rock and roll, which was starting to be sanitized by white American artists, and renewed passion for that art form. They gave props to their favorite artists, whatever color, and many of them happened to be black and most of the songs they covered where written by black artists before they had such a catelogue of their own. You can look at their evolution and see they started writing in their own styles, but in the beginning their biggest influence WAS American rock and roll, black white or whatever.

    But they were influenced by TONS of stuff. Paul quite a bit by British music, classical music. George by the white Carl Perkins (the one who originally wrote Blue Suede shoes, so even Perkins was a mishmash of everything he heard growing up) and indian music, etc. I mean yeah it wasn’t JUST black music. I mean even come together shows soem of John’s individuality and personal style in it, too. Hear John’s finger picking on Julia? Dylan, Donovan, folk music got him big. Every artist has influences, they had MULTIPLE. And they use them and mixed them together in their own way enough where I don’t think it was an insult to any of them, I think they were very creative.

    They refused to play here in Jacksonville, btw, until the stadium was desegregated. Interesting story. Too bad there ended up being a hurricane when they came here, so lots of people stayed home. Also, they got their start in Hamburg Germany, met Little Richard there, and they did some concerts with him in England right before they became famous in the US where Billy Preston was in Little Richard’s band. So when they played with BIlly Preston in Let It Be, they had known Preston from when he was a teenager. I think those are examples of how, no one is perfect and the 60’s were not today, but their inherent quality was to recognize the artists that they “ripped off” and give them credit and like music based on the artist and not their race, they looked at rock and roll as an art form and appreciate those who were good at it. That’s why I don’t criticize the “ripping off.” Plus it’s not like they set on their butts and never created anything new of their own. Paul singing Little Richard

    I will talk about the Beatles for forever, i will shup up now!

  4. May 23, 2010 1:40 pm

    oh fix on my factoid….it’s my understanding that the stadium was not desegreated for football games, they just desegretated it for the beatles concert, which WAS sold out but not many people came due to the hurricane so the whole issue kinda got put to the side.

    I mention that becuase it WOULD be cooler if the Beatles had said “we won’t play this stadium until you promise to desegregate it for EVERYTHING from here on out.”

  5. May 23, 2010 1:47 pm

    in response to Redlami, they did have some good management to how to be a boyband by Brian Epstein. he changed what they wore from leather suits to look like clean dapper lads. Instead of drinking, eating and smoking onstage they took bows. But they got their start in Hamburg playing for prostitutes, sailors both german and American that wanted hardcore loud raccous music all night, etc. They really worked their tails off before they got to the point they were at, and had a lot to do with their own original direction.

    Also, the way they evolved, and all within 10 years, also makes them not just like a boyband because they kept increasing, improving, and expecting more of themselves every album, and by the end were writing all the songs themselves.

  6. heathereff permalink
    May 24, 2010 2:51 am

    I don’t think U2 has ripped off anyone. I admit, way back when, I was kind of annoyed by some of the stuff on “Rattle and Hum”. Rescuing “Helter Skelter” from Charles Manson, adding a new verse to “All Along the Watchtower”, writing a sequel to “God”… it felt like Bono was positioning himself as the Savior of Rock and Roll, and that seemed pretty arrogant to me.

    But since then, I’ve mellowed on all that. Bono was doing what rock stars have always done. And doing it with permission, to the extent that it was possible to obtain it. Anyway, it could be argued that U2 was the most important rock band on Earth at that point in time. I can think of many that I like more, but none I could really say were more important. So if they want to be saviors of rock and roll? Let ’em. I’ve made my peace with it.

  7. badhedgehog permalink
    May 24, 2010 4:04 am

    The man of the house and I were just having a conversation yesterday breakfast time about the “stealing black music” thing (followed on from a small rant of mine about some very annoying racism in a series of otherwise only moderately annoying rock music documentaries). I was thinking that the same kind of racism that erases black musicians’ participation in rock music, also ignores the deliberate and explicit celebration and recommendation of black musicians by white rock musicians. Or at least, acts like “erm, okayy ,but what are we meant to do with this information???”

    These days I’m bored of U2, but back in the late 80s me and my parents were right into the Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum. U2 were always about sharing the music they liked and introducing it to their audiences. How many young white British and Irish people know who B B King is because of U2?

    (I bet Madonna was just boasting of being confused for a black artist because she’d heard someone else say it and she thought it sounded cool. Bloomin’ Madonna.)

  8. May 24, 2010 9:03 am

    I love love love Angel of Harlem. Bono has the right voice to sing that style of music while still sounding distinctly…Bono. And “When Loves Comes to Town” is fantastic!

    What bothers me are things like the generic use of the word “Motown” to not only describe actual Motown artists like the ones mentioned, but to describe any “Black artist.” A lot of the artist that get categorized that way are actually of the “Memphis Soul” genre, not Motown. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam&Dave, Booker T. And The MGs–all NOT Motown. And a number of the folks in the backing band for The Blues Brothers were in the MGs.

    ….I love Oates’ face in that picture….

  9. badhedgehog permalink
    May 24, 2010 11:13 am

    I was just thinking something similar, like how often is it that the artist or tunes the person is thinking of when they use “Motown” as a metonym for black music, are actually on Stax.

  10. May 25, 2010 10:52 am

    What bothers me are things like the generic use of the word “Motown” to not only describe actual Motown artists like the ones mentioned, but to describe any “Black artist.” A lot of the artist that get categorized that way are actually of the “Memphis Soul” genre, not Motown. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam&Dave, Booker T. And The MGs–all NOT Motown. And a number of the folks in the backing band for The Blues Brothers were in the MGs.


  11. evmaroon permalink
    May 25, 2010 11:26 am

    On our honeymoon cruise to Alaska, Princess Cruiselines put on a “Motown Review” show comprised almost entirely of white people, one of who was still in the running for America’s Next Top David Hasslehoff Impersonator. When they acted out a voodoo theme to Superstition, I’d had enough. At least it became a litmus test for meeting other people on the cruise, because you could ask them, “uh, did you see the Motown show?”

  12. May 25, 2010 11:53 am

    one of who was still in the running for America’s Next Top David Hasslehoff Impersonator

    Am I the only one who would totally watch this show?

  13. May 25, 2010 11:57 am

    hahah. I would watch that too.

  14. evmaroon permalink
    May 25, 2010 4:44 pm

    I want a finder’s fee if anyone actually goes through with that. You heard it here first, folks!

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