Five Musicians Who Ripped Off Tom Petty

Photo by Steve Cohen, slideshow here.
Tom Petty is laughing at all of you copycats.

By: Alex Rice

Just last week, it was reported that pop singer Sam Smith had given Tom Petty a cowriting credit and royalties on his mega Grammy-winning 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.

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


The Culprit – “Run to You” from Bryan Adams' Reckless, 1984
The Victim – “Refugee” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

You could argue that Bryan Adams was a poor man's version of any of your favorite heartland rockers from the '70s and '80s, but it's hard not to compare “Run to You” to Petty and the opening track off his greatest album, “Refugee.”

A blatant rip-off this is not, but it wouldn't be surprising to learn that Adams had worn out his copy of Damn the Torpedoes while writing and recording his own best-seller, Reckless. The verses are somewhere between “Dani California” and “Stay With Me” in terms of Petty duplication, and both chilled-out sections could easily be played over each other.

The similarities, however, become clearer in the pre-chorus. In this section, Adams yelling “I know her love is true/But it's so damn easy makin' love to you,” echoes Petty upping the volume in the “Listen/It don't really matter to me” part of “Refugee.” The way both pre-choruses lead into their choruses is very reminiscent of one another, and the instrumentation matches up perfectly in the refrains. Considering his stance on other sonic similitudes, Petty probably doesn't begrudge Adams his relatively minor offenses. Ryan Adams is still the one that Bryan has to worry about.

G.R.A.D.E. – C

The Culprit – “Wheels” from Foo Fighters' Greatest Hits, 2009
The Victim – “Learning to Fly” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Into the Great Wide Open, 1991

Foo Fighters' 1999 smash “Learn to Fly” reminded many of Petty's “Learning to Fly” from eight years earlier because of its title, but musically the songs have little in common. It wasn't until a decade later that Dave Grohl and company made their true homage to the Into the Great Wide Open hit, a song called “Wheels” from their own career-spanning compilation.

Grohl's bouncy, lyrically vague verses certainly recall Petty's, and a closer examination of this section of each song reveals only a slight change in structure. While “Learning to Fly” has five syllables per line, “Wheels” alternates between six and five each line. “Wheels” features a pre-chorus and “Learning to Fly” doesn't, but the tunes come together again once you reach the refrains. “Wheels” sports call-and-response vocal harmonies just like its forebear, while both talk of “coming down” in the chorus. The stop-start section that follows the Foos' chorus is also clearly inspired by the lead-in to “Learning to Fly”'s solo.

Petty asked Grohl to be the new Heartbreakers drummer upon Nirvana's disbandment in 1994. The then-25 year old indeed played with Petty and his band on Saturday Night Live that year, but ultimately turned the rock icon down. There's clearly a mutual respect between the two musicians, even though Grohl prefers the road and Petty the air. As evidenced here, whether you're using your “Wheels” or “Learning to Fly,” you'll arrive at pretty much the same place.

G.R.A.D.E. – B

The Culprit – “Last Nite” from The Strokes' Is This It, 2001
The Victim – “American Girl” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

The Strokes is the only one of the five artists featured here to admit that it copied Petty. It's not like the group was fooling anyone, though, since the beginning of the New York quintet's first big hit and the famous “American Girl” intro are nearly identical.

Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture doesn't provide a dramatic bass intro like Ron Blair does in the original, but that's about the only difference between the first 30 seconds of each of these tunes. Beyond that section, however, “Last Nite” and “American Girl” share little common DNA, aside from the jangly guitar tones.

Petty didn't mind the mimicking, and he even took the Strokes on tour for a few dates in 2001. “The Strokes took 'American Girl' and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it,” he told Rolling Stone. “That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'Okay, good for you.' It doesn't bother me.”

G.R.A.D.E. – A

See also:
The 50 Best Things About the OC Music Scene
The 50 Worst Things About the OC Music Scene
The 25 Greatest OC Bands of All Time: The Complete List

Follow us on Twitter at @OCWeeklyMusic and like us on Facebook at Heard Mentality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *