Should Tom Petty Have Backed Down?

Did Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” rip off “Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”? A recent court action ruled that it did; the song now credits Petty and his producer, former ELO frontman Jeff Lynn, as co-writers.

Let’s get this out of the way: they’re both terrible, so it’s funny anybody’s fighting over them. SWM is a whiny little bleat that illustrates how wrong British people can get soul music. WBD is smug dad rock that even Johnny Cash couldn’t redeem.

The “SWM” vocal hook seems to rip off about six sequential notes from “WBD’”s chorus. As this purportedly damning video demonstrates, while the songs are in different keys and tempos, the songs partially lines up after some quick digital editing.

I don’t think that’s enough for it to be considered a total rip off. The tempos are different, the instrumentation’s different and the key is different. The vocal is different enough to make it its own song. Unfortunately, “WSM” is so minimal that once you hear “WBD” in it, it never goes away. The same three piano chords rumble in the background throughout the song. The vocal melody flutters around it for the verses and then lines up with it for the chorus and the contrast makes it an effective song.

Even though Petty’s a chill weed-smoking stay-at-home Willbury now, back when he was a hungry swamp rat trying to break out of North Florida, he was notoriously litigious. In a series of protracted legal battles, he fought record companies about artists’ rights and record prices.

I don’t know what record label Sam Smith is signed to. I don’t know who the executives of that label are. But my guess is that maybe Petty had one last score to settle.

UPDATE: Evidently I am wrong. According to Petty, his legal team merely contacted Smith’s team and never threatened a lawsuit. All right, whatever. Who cares, really.

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