Just last week, it was reported that pop singer Sam Smith had given Tom Petty a cowriting credit and royalties on his mega-hit, "Stay With Me." Thanks to the striking similarities of that tune to Petty's "I Won't Back Down," it has been impossible to ever hear one without thinking of the other. None of this is really a surprise, of course, since the 64-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is one of the most-copied rock musicians of the last four decades.
By Alex Rice
Photo by Steve Cohen, slideshow here. Tom Petty is laughing at all of you copycats.
Let's take a closer listen to "Stay With Me" and four other songs that owe a considerable debt to the Tom Petty songbook.
The Culprit - "Stay With Me" from Sam Smith's In the Lonely Hour, 2014
The Victim - "I Won't Back Down" from Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, 1989
I was walking down the streets of Chicago one night last summer and heard someone blasting "Stay With Me." "That's a rip-off of 'I Won't Back Down'!" I indignantly complained to my brother midway through the chorus, upon hearing it for the first time. Smith and his two "Stay" co-writers claim they weren't familiar with the Petty hit prior to writing their Grammy-nominated song, but one has to wonder whether someone had a classic-rock station on in the background.
The verses of the two songs have little in common, but the notes Smith sings in the refrain ("Won't you stay with me?/'Cause you're all I need") and the cadence with which he sings them are exactly the same as Petty's "Well, I won't back down/No, I won't back down" melody from a quarter-century earlier. The second half of the chorus is far from a carbon copy at first blush, but you can still sing "In a world that keeps on dragging me down/But I won't back down" over it seamlessly.
Petty's publishing company, not the singer himself, contacted the "Stay With Me" team recently to push for credits and royalties for Petty and his "I Won't Back Down" co-author, Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne. Both rock stars are now listed as cowriters on the track. "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen," Petty wrote in a statement on his official website. "Sam's people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement."
G.R.A.D.E. (Gainesville Rockers Against Duplication and Emulation) - B
The Culprit - "Dani California" from Red Hot Chili Peppers' Stadium Arcadium, 2006
The Victim - "Mary Jane's Last Dance" from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits, 1993
"Mary Jane's Last Dance" makes for an interesting case study. Echoing the main guitar lick from "Waiting for the Sun" by Minnesota heroes the Jayhawks, the 1993 stoner anthem has in turn inspired the chorus riff in the White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a Girl," the chord structure in the Black Keys' "Little Black Submarines" and every single thing about "Dani California" by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The first song on 2006's Stadium Arcadium is played a little faster than the Petty song it apes, but pretty much everything else -- Chad Smith's drum beat, John Frusciante's opening guitar lick and Anthony Kiedis' geography-lesson lyrics about a hard-luck vagabond girl -- scream "Mary Jane's Last Dance."
Luckily for Smith and these funk-rock titans, Petty doesn't live up to his last name. Petty's publishing team reportedly wanted to sue the Chili Peppers over "Dani California," but the rocker vetoed that move, claiming to be a fan of the band. "I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there," he told Rolling Stone in 2006. "I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs."
As stated earlier, "Mary Jane" itself owes a lot to "Waiting for the Sun." Someone should've noticed that similarity, because producer Rick Rubin and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench had a hand in recording both songs. The Jayhawks were Petty's opening act on tour in 1992, so their song may have seeped into the headliner's brain through sheer repetition. (That could also explain Petty's reappropriation of fellow openers the Replacements' "rebel without a clue" line for "Into the Great Wide Open.")
G.R.A.D.E. - A
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.