Recurring Riffs #1: Stealing Candy From A Baby

Tom Hanks from Big

Introducing a new series here at TSSL, one that may as well be christened “Recurring Riffs”. In it, I’ll trace a chosen musical motif through as many of its incarnations as I can think of, starting with the earliest and ending with its most modern iteration. These will exist in a land separate from notions of copyright and plagiarism, instead concerning salient phrases or repeated figures which are not necessarily “copied”, and don’t really belong to anybody in particular, but which resurface from time to time in a broad array of recorded works for any number of untold reasons.

This will be a subject that naturally begs for reader participation, largely because there will no doubt be plenty of examples that either space or my own scope on the matter will limit me from covering. It is thus highly encouraged for you to take to the comments section and fill in any gaps that may arise. We’ll then add any pertinent examples to the post, soundclips and all, in an addendum section.


For the inauguratory post, we take things back to the playground.

The children’s sing-along clapping game, known as “Down Down Baby“, is one of those age-old passtime games that exists in many variations in its natural setting of the schoolyard. What might not be immediately apparent is its longevity as a theme used in the outside world.

Here’s a video from Sesame Street, featuring some kids learning the game:

 

And a quicker clip of children’s singer Laurie Berkner singing the song:

Laurie Berkner - "Down Down Baby" (1997)

Right off the bat, I’ll bet many of you who were at first uncertain have by now remembered where else this tune has surfaced, and so in that spirit let’s take a chronological look at a few places it’s been.

Starting with perhaps its earliest appearance in a hit song, Little Anthony‘s version injects some sexual tension into his use of the phrase in an ever-modulating chorus:

Little Anthony and the Imperials - "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop" (1959)

Tom Hanks Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop

Next, a version of “Down Down Baby” was used in a particularly memorable scene in the Tom Hanks movie Big, as the method by which Hanks’ grown-up character Josh convinces his friend Billy who he really is. In lieu of an available youtube clip, here’s the audio:

Tom Hanks - "Shimmy Shimmy Handshake" (1988)

This brings us to probably the most well known use of “Down Down Baby”, found in Nelly‘s debut hit single “Country Grammar“. I don’t know what it is about rappers using juvenile ditties for their hooks — from Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” to the bevy of hip-hop figures involved in reprising “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” (a likely contender for a future Recurring Elements post) — but Nelly’s may well be the most successful attempt at “stealing candy from a baby” in such a fashion. It’s hard to imagine the song would have been such a hit without that irresistible melody and the delightful subversiveness of mixing the original lyrics with lines like “light it up and take a puff / pass it to me now”:

Nelly - "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)" (2000)

Finally, have a listen to one of Philly’s best bands incorporating the song into their sublime “Freedom Park”:

Marah - "Freedom Park (Intro)" (2004)
Marah - "Freedom Park (Chorus)" (2004)

Marah and Nelly

 

The Beatles vs. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan vs. The Beatles

Of the several run-ins between the Beatles and Bob Dylan during the 1960s, perhaps the most abstract involves two particular songs — one from Rubber Soul, the other from Blonde on Blonde. It’s obvious that by 1965 the Beatles had started to exhibit in their own work the absorbed influences of current American music trends, most conspicuously in George Harrison’s emulation of the Byrds and John Lennon’s reverence for Bob Dylan. The collision of both, and arguably Rubber Soul’s most Dylanesque moment, is heard on “Norwegian Wood”. Yet the subject of this post is not which Dylan number that sounds like, but rather how he reacted the following year to acknowledge the song’s similarity of spirit. Dylan did what must have seemed only natural: copied the nuts and bolts of the Beatles’ song right back at them.

His “4th Time Around” is equal parts knowing nod and humorously lazy admonition, couched in a similar melody and bar structure and stretched out about twice as long. Though “Norwegian Wood” moved the Beatles’ lyrics for the first time past straight love song and towards more whimsical terrain, its rhyme scheme is still kind of laughable on paper — likely intentionally so — and this is something that Dylan, no stranger to ridiculous rhyming himself (see: Bob Dylan’s 1st and 115th Dreams), lampoons mightily. With lines like “She buttoned her boot, straightened her suit, said ‘Don’t be cute,’” it almost seems that Dylan was sort of reaching into his past and possibly even making fun of his own former proclivities on an album that had otherwise left them more or less behind. In that way, “4th Time Around” represents an injection of tongue-in-cheek absurdity into an otherwise poignant account of a bitter misunderstanding and the amends that follow. That being said, the song overall plays it pretty straight with a lovely simplicity which, taken at face value, belies the complexity of his multi-layered homage.

Have a listen to the two:

The Beatles - "Norwegian Wood" (1965)
Bob Dylan - "4th Time Around" (1966)

It’s hard to escape the notion that John’s “Norwegian Wood” lyrics were a bit of a lark, while “4th Time Around” actually achieves some kind of real emotional resonance. For example, each song features a character who winds up on the floor, but for different reasons. John’s first person narrator gets there because he’s told “to sit anywhere, so I looked around and noticed there wasn’t a chair,” while Dylan riles his lady into screaming “till her face got so red, then she fell on the floor.”

John Lennon had different interpretations of the “response” song over the following decade, imagining that Dylan was trying to send a message to the Beatles to back off from copying his style, before ultimately deciding that the song had a more friendly tone. There are lines that make one wonder, like the downright ornery “Everybody must give something back for something they get,” and “I never asked your crutch, so don’t ask for mine.” Though for every line like that, there’s a “Felt with my thumb, gallantly handed her my very last piece of gum,” so all in all who can say.

George Harrison vs. The Chiffons

In the continuing interest of building upon the archive here at That Song Sounds Like, it’s time to make mention of one of the most high profile instances of song similarity in the history of popular music.

George Harrison vs. The ChiffonsGeorge Harrison’s All Things Must Pass debut, quite possibly the best of all post-Beatles solo recordings, was the proof, if ever there was any, that the band was not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts. While the record, released in 1970, had the benefit of including unused material that was originally conceived during the heady White Album sessions, it also had a wealth of newly crafted gems — a double album magnum opus of unwavering musical clairvoyance. One such number was “My Sweet Lord”, a song that went on to be Harrison’s first and biggest hit as a solo artist and established his trademark slide guitar sound. Perhaps in part a result of its success, the tune swiftly came under fire for its outright melodic similarity to the 1963 girl-group classic “He’s So Fine”, written by Ronnie Mack. Despite the numerous unique properties inherent in Harrison’s composition, by 1971 he had to face the music in the form of a lawsuit filed by Bright Tunes Productions.

What followed is a confounding tale that unleashed a fervor of excitement and took the better part of the decade to resolve. After extensive legal wrangling and highly duplicitous manipulation by some of the parties involved, U.S. district court ultimately deemed “My Sweet Lord” to have been “subconscious copied” by Harrison. Whether conscious or not, it’s unfortunate that the story of these proceedings has become an inextricable part of a song which was otherwise so purely intentioned.

The Wikipedia article on the matter is well written and essential reading for anyone who’s read this far already — among other things, in the way that it made an example out of Harrison, the lawsuit set a precedent for future measures taken in the music business to counteract allegations of plagiarism.

Here are the originals:

The Chiffons - "He's So Fine" (1963)
George Harrison - "My Sweet Lord" (1970)

Another more immediate result of the lawsuit was a series of reactionary recordings to capitalize on or otherwise outline the claims being made. Of particular note is the Chiffons’ recording of “My Sweet Lord”, made while the case was in limbo:

The Chiffons - "My Sweet Lord" (1973)

Finally, in 1976, Harrison offered his own reaction to the incident in the form of “This Song”:

George Harrison - "This Song" (1976)