The Fifties Progression

It’s always about history—but today it’s about musical history.

I have to start off with a disclosure: I don’t own—or even listen to—any music from either Marvin Gaye or Ed Sheeran.

Please don’t hold that against me—I don’t own or listen to Mozart, Brahms, or Liszt either. In fact, my familiarity with the last two comes from the cockney rhyming slang for pissed—a bit brahms…

My knowledge of Marvin Gaye was—until now—limited to three elements: the song ‘Sexual Healing’, his Detroit, i.e. Motown, soul context, and his death; getting shot by your father is unusual even by the exalted standards of the United States.

I now know he was born Gay—no, not gay, ducks, Gay—I presume he changed his name for obvious reasons, although artists sometimes add the ‘e’ for interest: Sam Cooke was once Sam Cook, although I doubt Ed Sheeran was ever D. Sheran.

I also now know that Marvin Gaye’s hit ‘What’s Going On’ was written about someone with a brain tumor, and that—no small irony—Gay Sr. also had a brain tumor when he murdered his offspring.

Sheeran? I know even less about him, except that he is very popular and a member of the ginger fraternity—not to be confused with the Green Beards. Ed sports a ginger beard—incidentally, and here (I promise) endeth the slang, ginger beer is also cockney rhyming slang for both ‘queer’ and ‘engineer’.

My disclosure is important because I want to write about the lawsuit brought by the heirs of Ed Townsend (or D Townsnd) against Sheeran, claiming that the latter’s tune ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is copied—plagiarized—from Gaye’s song ‘Let’s Get It On’, written by Townsend.

If we can establish my lack of devotion to either party, I feel my impartiality is less open to question.

I read an article about the lawsuit in the New York Times—quite a change from reading about the death and destruction that surrounds us—and then had a look at the ‘tab’, which is guitarspeak for the words and music, for Let’s Get It On.

The tab claims the song is in Cm, but apparently not—Ebm is closer to the mark. However, the point is the chord progression follows a sequence which is at the heart of pop music—it’s one of the first I ever learned, and it consists of C – Am – F – G, or if you like your doremi, Do – Lam – Fa – Sol—now we’re gittin erudite (or just rudit).

This sequence is so well known it has a name—it’s called the Fifties Progression—I’m going to call it FP50.

Songs like ‘Stand By Me‘, originally by Ben E. King and covered by just about everyone, including John Lennon, Roy Orbison’s ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream‘, or Walking In Memphis. All use this four-chord mantra.

But wait! That’s not all, oh no… not by a long shot.

If you like music and history, then this next one’s for you—all the way from Blue Moon to Lady Gaga.

I think by now you get my drift…ers—and by the way, I own and play lots of the tunes you just heard.

The notion that because the chords are identical or similar, when you’re dealing with a four-chord progression like FP50, you are plagiarizing, is L-U-D-I-C-R-O-U-S.

In this particular case, where the melody is totally different, there’s nothing to even discuss—I’m amazed the case was not immediately dismissed, but bear in mind that an American plaintiff always has a major advantage in a U.S. court against a foreign national.

I go to YouTube all the time, mostly for education—there are amazing musicians on there and legacies are preserved for ever. It’s possible, for instance, to get a lesson from Robby Krieger, the legendary Doors guitarist, on how to play “Roadhouse Blues‘—and BTW, I love his cannabis T-shirt.

But today I want to share an analysis made by a musician called Rick Beato on the Gaye vs. Sheeran question.

I’ve watched a number of Rick’s lessons—this one, for instance, on history of guitar solos—and apart from anything else, he reminds me of Al Pacino, and the man-cave studio he holds forth from looks as dark and sinister as a Mafia hideout.

What I like most about Rick’s analysis is that he refrains from providing an opinion—although I know exactly what his opinion is. If you’ve enjoyed all the discussion so far, I recommend you listen to what Rick—and particularly the two-song comparison itself—has to say.

The comments below his YouTube video are priceless.

I think all lawyers should be sued for suing in the same sue style that other suers have sued in.

I couldn’t put it better myself.

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