Unreasonable Facsimiles

Maybe these songs were hits purely on their own merits. Then again, maybe not

Unreasonable Facsimiles
From meme to you

This morning, my Instagram feed treated me to a clip of Mister Rogers' visit to The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993, during which the beloved television icon allowed himself to be garbed in a comically loud and puffy jacket before sitting down with the host to calmly and eloquently explain his belief that many of the world's worst problems could be solved if more people understood that each of us is special and precious in our own unique way.

This is a powerful thought and I have no doubt that it's true. On the other hand, there have certainly been times when people have benefited from their uncanny similarity — intentional or otherwise — to others, and this has frequently been proven true to a humorous extent in the music world. With that in mind, here's a loose list of songs whose hit status just might have had something to do with how much the act in question sounded like someone else.

"Steal Away," Robbie Dupree
On a vocal level, Robbie Dupree really doesn't sound anything like Michael McDonald, but there's no getting around the fact that he pulled off a blatant musical heist when he lifted the piano line from "What a Fool Believes," gave it a slight nipple twist, and used it as the basis for the ironically titled "Steal Away." This is unlike the other entries on the list in that it goes out of its way to ape a particular song rather than the sound of another artist, but the overall effect is still so hauntingly similar to the Doobie Brothers' version of "Fool" that it still deserves its spot. (Ever the gentleman, McDonald chose to stay out of it when his publisher weighed the merits of a lawsuit against Dupree.)

"Your Love," The Outfield
When "Your Love" was released as a single in early 1986, demand was high for a new record from the Police, who'd been taking a "pause for reflection" since coming down from the massive success of their 1983 Synchronicity LP. Although Sting had scored a hit with his solo debut The Dream of the Blue Turtles in '85, people still expected the band to regroup — and more than a few listeners were momentarily convinced they had when they got their first taste of the song that ended up becoming the Outfield's career-defining hit. If you, uh, pause for reflection after listening to it, one of your first thoughts will probably be that the Police would never huck a pitch straight down the middle like this, but Outfield singer Tony Lewis is pretty much a dead ringer for Sting on this track. I'm sure it didn't hurt. Didn't help them a ton with most of their subsequent singles, however, which is a shame; these guys had more going for them than a vocal similarity with the 21st century's foremost lute enthusiast.

"Horse with No Name," America
We simply cannot discuss musical doppelgängers without making space for "Horse with No Name," a huge 1972 hit that many people still believe to be a Neil Young song. America's first single, it was also their first No. 1 hit — and also, irony of ironies, the song that knocked Young's "Heart of Gold" out of the top spot. As a Young pastiche, it's fine, albeit lyrically rather dopey; there are a number of very good reasons that, at least according to legend, Randy Newman described it as being sung from the standpoint of "a kid who thinks he's done acid." And unlike a lot of other acts featured in this post, America enjoyed some serious commercial longevity after causing this case of mistaken identity — their final major hit, the decidedly non-Younglike "You Can Do Magic," cracked the Top 10 in 1982.

"On the Dark Side," John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band
Rhode Island is a tiny state, but its musical scene in the '70s and '80s must have been admirably eclectic, if for no other reason than it gave us Talking Heads and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. The latter act, which will forever remain the preeminent musical collective to take its name from a goddamn can of paint, struggled for years to capitalize on their strong local following, allegedly because labels thought they sounded too much like Bruce Springsteen. A few lucky breaks later, Cafferty and crew ended up handling the music for the movie Eddie and the Cruisers, which led to this song becoming a Top 10 hit as a single from the soundtrack. In fairness, Cafferty was far from the only artist who sounded a lot like the Boss in this era; on the other hand, the similarities — especially with this song — are comically strong. Radio's fascination with these guys proved to be pretty short-lived, although they're still touring, as well as allegedly prepping a new album that I suspect may be more fun to listen to than Springsteen's last few LPs.

"Stuck in the Middle with You," Stealers Wheel
Similar to the Outfield and "Your Love," this is a song that has some obvious (and apparently deliberate) sonic overlap with a well-known artist — in this case, Bob Dylan — while bearing little musical resemblance to anything one could imagine the well-known artist in question actually releasing. That being said? "Stuck in the Middle with You" was released as a single in 1973, and I promise you that you know people who still believe this is a Dylan song. Stealers Wheel were a short-lived phenomenon, splintering in 1975 and freeing up frontman Gerry Rafferty to pursue a solo career that led to one of the most memorable sax riffs of all time, but the band's legacy lives on, especially among Tarantino fans.

"See the Lights," Simple Minds
This one is a little iffier than some of the others, if only because Simple Minds were a decidedly known quantity by the time they released what would become their final Top 40 hit in the U.S. Still, there are some pretty persuasive reasons that these guys were often (somewhat unfairly) lumped in with the long, long list of acts who bent over backwards to sound like U2 during the latter half of the '80s, and songs like "See the Lights" — which, for the record, I like — are among them. Released in the spring of '91, it likely caught the attention of a number of U2 fans who were then eagerly awaiting what would eventually become Achtung Baby.

"Rain in the Summertime," The Alarm
Remember that long, long list of U2-indebted artists I just mentioned? The Alarm earned their spot on it with this song, which does an arguably better job of distilling the widescreen, sepia-toned strengths of mid-to-late '80s U2 than some of the music U2 actually released during that era. I like the hell out of "Rain in the Summertime," is what I'm saying.

"Dance with Me," Orleans
Crosby, Stills & Nash (and/or CSNY) are consistently heralded as one of the premier vocal groups of the rock era, with all the classic rock cred that goes along with that sort of stature. There is no denying, however, that like any number of Laurel Canyon-adjacent acts, they had a profound weakness for drippy love songs — all of which is to say that while certain people might reflexively scoff at Orleans being compared to those guys on any level, "Dance with Me" is absolutely not far removed from the type of stuff Crosby, Stills, Nash, and/or Young were doing at the time.

"I Saw the Light," Todd Rundgren
As prolific as he is eclectic, Todd Rundgren has traversed the genre spectrum with a madman's abandon over the course of his distinguished career. His discography has generally been longer on great reviews than big smash hits, but there have been exceptions — including this well-known number, which sounds for all the world like a Carole King song. Pretty damn good one, too.

"Harden My Heart," Quarterflash
The early '80s were a great time to release a single if you had a lead singer (and sax player!) who sounded a hell of a lot like Pat Benatar. One can only assume that this fact was absolutely not lost on the execs at Geffen, who had to have been rubbing their hands in anticipatory glee the week they shipped "Harden My Heart" to program directors. The magic wore off quickly — Geffen dropped Quarterflash after the underwhelming release of their third album in 1985 — but this remains one of the era's quintessential kiss-off songs.

"Something About You," Level 42
When Level 42 released "Something About You" in 1985, Joe Jackson was only a year removed from his big (and vaguely similar-sounding) hit "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)." That song spelled the end of Jackson's Top 40 run — unless you count "Something About You," which slots pretty neatly into the type of thing Jackson was doing at the time, right down to lead singer/bassist Mark King's noticeable vocal similarity. A great single no matter who people thought they were listening to.

"Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress," The Hollies
When I interviewed Dan Baird following the release of his Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired album in 1992, he told me his song "I Love You Period" was such an NRBQ ripoff that if the members of that band confronted him about it, he'd have no choice but to cheerfully hand over a check. One hopes the members of the Hollies were equally magnanimous regarding this transparent nod to Creedence Clearwater Revival, which hit the airwaves (and soared all the way to No. 2) just as CCR was busy imploding. It's hard to imagine John Fogerty feeling anything but litigious after hearing this, not least because "Long Cool Woman" is better than vast chunks of the band's Mardi Gras LP.

"All for You," Sister Hazel
American Top 40 radio needed any number of things in 1997, but a hit single from a band that sounded an awful lot like Blues Traveler was definitely not on the list. Son of a bitch, we got one anyway, courtesy of Sister Hazel and their annoyingly pervasive "All for You." God, how I hated this song when it was popular. Turns out I hate it still. It's kind of sweet that Sister Hazel's lineup has remained unchanged throughout their many decades of doing whatever it is they do, but I hope to keep their patchouli-scented hooey out of my ears for the rest of my life.