Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, more familiarly known as Becker/Fagen in this regard, account for almost one hundred percent of Steely Dan’s composing credits. One of the few exceptions exists on the title track of the band’s 1980 release Gaucho, which includes the addition of piano player Keith Jarrett. The thought of a collaboration between Steely Dan and Mr. Jarrett probably makes more than a few fans drool, but unfortunately the song was not written on amicable or cooperative terms.
Steely Dan, “Gaucho”:
Rather, Mr. Jarrett claims that Becker and Fagen stole from him, and sued on the basis of copyright infringement. The song that Jarrett claims they stole is his own “Long as you know you’re living yours,” from his 1974 release Belonging. Fagen and Becker were rather straighforward about its influence on their music (from an early 80’s interview in Musician Magazine):
MUSICIAN: Are you familiar with a Keith Jarrett record Belonging, particularly a tune called “Long as you know you’re living yours”?
MUSICIAN: Have you ever listened to that up against “Gaucho”?
MUSICIAN: I’m not casting any aspersions now, but in terms of the tempo and the bass line and the saxophone melody it’s pretty interesting.
BECKER: Parenthetically it is, yeah [uneasy laughter]
MUSICIAN: At this point the reporter traditionally asks the cornered politican or athlete to “go off the record.”
FAGEN: Off the record, we were heavily influenced by that particular piece of music.
BECKER: I love it.
Keith Jarrett, “Long as You Know You’re Living Yours”:
As far as Becker and Fagen go, this is a remarkably candid response, and for good reason. As their 1974 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” illustrates, the duo are no strangers to borrowing from their influences: the first 8 bars are an exact transposition of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.” Like many other artists, Becker and Fagen see such interpolations as intrinsic rather than insidious. It is at once both musically inherent and traditional to draw from music that one admires. But what is the difference between drawing from and stealing from others? Apparently, Keith Jarrett knows the difference: over $1 million dollars in royalties. So is there a difference between Jarrett and Silver? Where do we draw the line between influence and pilferage? Historically, the line is blurred.
Beethoven “expanded upon” Mozart: The influence of Mozart on Beethoven was documented by the latter composer himself in sketches and notes. He even copied an entire section from Mozart’z 40th symphony and used it in his own 5th symphony. The eventual overshadowing of the 40th symphony by the 5th in the classical music canon shows that such unintended collaborations contribute to both the further development and increased popularity of music.
Ravel “drew influence from” Debussy: In 1903 Ravel debuted his String Quartet in F Major. Like his older contemporary, Debussy, it would be the only string quartet he ever wrote. When it emerged, many rejected its significance because of its obvious similarities to Debussy’s 1893 String Quartet in G Minor. Blair Johnston explains this:
The similarities between [the two] can hardly be avoided or ignored. During the early years of his career, Ravel was frequently and sometimes vehemently criticized for having copied Debussy, and it was only later that musical society began to realize that, in the realm of piano music at least, it was equally possible that Debussy had imitated his younger colleague. With the String Quartet in F, composed in 1902 and 1903 and then revised up to 1910, however, Ravel seems more certain to have relied on Debussy; as emotionally, psychologically, and even structurally different as the two works are, one could never accuse them of having a language barrier.
Yet despite the cries of musical heresy, there was one person in particular who appreciated Ravel’s Quartet for what it was: Debussy. In a personal letter, he told ravel “In the name of the Gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” It remains one of the most often-performed string quartets of the last century.
Bebop pioneers “developed contrafacts” from the Great American Songbook: Open the Charlie Parker Omnibook and you’ll find dozens of original songs that were staples of the bebop era. The only catch is that Parker and his contemporaries didn’t exactly compose the songs themselves, the chords were borrowed from “pop” songs of the day. To avoid the same legal action that later cost Steely Dan over $1 million, artists like Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver and Tadd Dameron, among others, constructed new songs out of the works of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and more of their contemporaries, as well as from traditional songs. These contrafacts exist today as staples of the idiom, as an invaluable base to an ever-developing style.
Hip Hop producers “sample” anything and everything: Hip hop production is based almost entirely on sampling. What started as DJing and spinning turned into modern beat-making: pioneers such as Prince Paul, RZA, Dr. Dre and DJ Premier composed beats for MCs that were comprised of parts of any vinyl they could get their hands on. What started as a combination of sometimes even more than 15 often unrecognizable samples in a song paved the way for instrumental artists such as DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, who more overtly used samples to create their pieces. In more recent years, the style of sampling has become legally accepted, and after certain rights are obtained, producers like Kanye West create singles that are little more than exact copies of the songs they sample.
Cut Chemist, “The Garden”:
Despite the ominpresence of mutual influence in today’s music, however, some artists still decide to take it to heart. The Rolling Stones sued The Verve for 100% of the royalties for their biggest hit, “Bittersweet Symphony”, claiming that the entire song is based on a previous arrangement of a Rolling Stones original. Asked to comment, Keith Richards said “If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”
In the most absurd example to date, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), Joe Satriani, and the band Creaky Boards are all seperately claiming that Coldplay’s hit single “Viva La Vida” was a copy of their own. These accusations (some requesting royalties, some not) exist despite the fact that “Viva La Vida” is an extremely simple melody that bears similarities to not just these other examples but also to the standard “Everything Happens to Me” and the them from Zelda.
A professor of mine once scoffed at a famous musician’s claim that he was “self taught.” No one is self taught, he argued, we all get our influence from somewhere. And in most cases, even when it is blatantly obvious, it is generally understood and accepted. But sometimes, money becomes more important. The truth is whether it be stealing, adapting, drawing from, interpolating, interpreting or even blindly and unintentionally copying, drawing upon other artists for influence is the way music develops. Those who accept and admit this fact are essentially just admitting that they are real musicians, and the ones who deny it are only proving that money becomes more important than the art itself.
Such a distinction separates artists like Steely Dan and Keith Jarrett. Asked whether he thinks Keith Jarrett is happy with the royalties he ended up receiving from Steely Dan, Walter Becker replied “I certainly doubt it, but I’m fairly happy with mine.”