Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery--especially in pop music.
Ever since the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" headed for the top of the charts late last year, clever rock impressionists have been busy spoofing the irresistible pop hit.
We've heard "Walk Like a Tarkanian," which touted popular University of Nevada at Las Vegas head coach Jerry Tarkanian. And KIIS-FM gave a big chunk of airplay to "Walk Like a Deukmejian," which celebrated Gov. George Deukmejian.
But during the past few weeks, the biggest uproar has focused on "Walk With an Erection," a risque if affectionate parody performed by a group of local popsters known as the Swinging Erudites. The song (initially only available on cassette) has been such a huge hit on trend-setting KROQ-FM that the unknown band has just been signed by Airwaves Records, an L.A.-based record label that is releasing the song as a single this week.
However, the song's ride at the top of the KROQ hit-parade is over. "It was a huge hit for us, but we've taken it off the air," said KROQ program director Rick Carroll. "One reason was just because the song had burned out. But we got a sizable number of complaints. In fact, we probably had more complaints than on any record in the history of the station.
"Mothers who heard it when they took their kids to school were upset, saying it was offensive." Carroll said the station also received some petitions from parents.
But KROQ also heard from another interested party--Peer Southern Organization, the music publishing firm that represents Liam Sternberg, who wrote "Walk Like an Egyptian." The publishers warned KROQ (and any other stations playing the song) that the publishing firm had not granted the Swinging Erudites permission to use the song for their own variation.
"We've happily licensed several versions of 'Walk Like an Egyptian,' " explained Kathy Spanburger, general repertoire manager at Peer Southern. As far as they're concerned, Spanburger said, the Swinging Erudites' version "just isn't in good taste. So there's no advantage for us as a publisher--or for our songwriter--to have a song parodied in that fashion."
In a similar move, ATV, the publishing firm that owns the Beatles' catalogue, recently forced KROQ to quash "I'm Down," an unauthorized version of the old Beatles hit performed by the Beastie Boys.
According to experts in the field, when groups change the lyrics to a song, they must receive permission from the copyright owner--normally the music publisher--before they can release any new version. Most publishers keep such a close watch on their songs that veteran spoofsters--like Weird Al Yankovic, who's had hits with "Eat It" and "Like a Surgeon"--will often seek rights to the song even before they compose the parody.
"We always take Al's idea for a parody, even before he's written it, and run it by the original songwriter," explained Jay Levey, Yankovic's manager and producer. "He spends an enormous amount of time sculpting a song, so why go to all that trouble if the writer doesn't like it in the first place?"
Levey said that such pop faves as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Dan Hartman (who wrote the James Brown hit "Living in America," which Weird Al revived as "Living With a Hernia") all happily granted permission.
However, Prince was not as forthcoming. "We got his initial approval to do a parody of 'Let's Go Crazy,' " Levey said. "His representatives said Prince knew Al's work, liked it and gave us the go-ahead. Then, after Al had written the song, we took the lyrics to Prince and all he said was 'Nope.' "
Airwaves Records may get a similar response to "Walk With an Erection" when it's officially in the stores this week. The original song's publishers say they hope to resolve the situation "amicably," but added that they will seek a cease-and-desist order, if necessary, to prevent the song's release.
"We're going to put the record out and let the people decide," said Airwaves chief Terrence Brown. "We feel we're well within our legal rights. It's clearly labeled a parody, and the publishers will get full royalties from any profits we make."