Michael Bluejay's guide to

I made this logo as a gift for the band. It reads the same upside-down as rightside up.
I was proud that when I gave it to Robert at a show in Apr. 1997, he remarked, "That's fucked up!"
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Last update: September 26, 2012

This site was selected as the MacroMusic
Noteworthy Site of the day on Feb. 12, 1999.

Ben Folds Five news

Sept. 2012.  The newly-reunited Ben Folds Five releases a new album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and launches their first tour in over a decade.  The Magical Armchair has the tour dates.

Stuff on this site

Ben Folds Five FAQ

MP3 of me sitting in with BF5 on "Best Imitation of Myself"

• Order albums and sheet music

Chord charts for some songs

• My lousy MIDI recording of Best Imitation

Similarities between BF5 songs and other songs

• A Who's Who Guide to Ben Folds Five

Interviews with the band from the 1990s

• BF5 Haikus

• Picture of my BF5 tattoo

• The piano market (piano stocks)

• BF5's shows in Austin

• SXSW 1996 concert photos

Other sites

The band's official site

Magical Armchair (well-known fansite)

Wikipedia article about the band

Lyrics at BestLyrics.com

Misheard lyrics

Ragogna interview, Oct. 2012. Excellent interview with Ben; touches on some technical aspects of the music as well as the meaning behind some of the lyrics.

BF5 All Together Now. Japanese fan site, in English & Japanese.  Doesn't seem to have been updated since 2000, but has some cool GIF animations of the band.

The Strangest Thing.  This large fansite died in 2002, but here's the archive.

1997 interview

Hotel Lights.  Darren Jessee's critically-acclaimed other band

ChuckFolds.com.  Ben's brother's site about his own music

Phil's Finest Hour was an Australian band with a BF5-like sound.  Unfortunately they seemed to have disappeared, and I can't find any recordings of them listed anywhere.

Ben Folds Five timeline

1966. Ben born on Sept. 12.

Mid-1980s.  If the song "Army" is truly autobiographical, Ben works at Chik-Fil-A, contemplates joining the army, and plays in an unsuccessful band.

~1987-90.  Ben forms Majosha with Millard Powers.  Band wins a "Battle of the Bands" contest.

1994. Band forms in Chapel Hill, NC, with Folds, Darren Jessee on drums, and Robert Sledge on bass guitar.

1995. Debut eponymous album on Caroline Records. "Underground" is a semi-hit single.

1996. The band gets a large following in Japan, courtesy of a Japanese TV drama in which one of the characters is a big fan, but gets a lot less attention the U.S.

1997. Second album, Whatever and Ever Amen. The single "Brick" launches the band to stardom, and "Song for the Dumped" and "Battle of Who Could Care Less" hits the Top 25.

1998. Ben releases his first solo album, Fear of Pop, though Ben Folds Five is still going strong.

1999. Third album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. "Army" charts in the Top 20.

2000.  The band breaks up amicably in October.  The bandmembers' projects post-breakup aren't detailed here; instead see the Wikipedia articles about Ben, Darren, and Robert.)

2005. A remastered and expanded edition of Whatever and Ever Amen is released, including seven new bonus tracks.

2008. The band reunites for a single show in Chapel Hill. (NME)

2011. The band reunites to record three new songs for the compilation album The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.

2012. The band releases their fourth studio album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and begins their first tour in over a decade.

Similarities between Ben Folds Five's songs and other songs
(esp. 70's pop)

by Michael Bluejay | Original: Circa 1996 � Last update: May 2024
This page was inspired by Deidre Bowie.

It's hard to write totally original pop music these days. You want to pick a chord, well, you've only got 12 notes to choose from for the root.  And the same for the next chord. "Well," you say, "that doesn't sound so bad—that's 144 different combinations of roots for two chords."  Perhaps, but when you consider that the same song can be played in any key (C-F is the same as D-G, E-A, F-Bb), then you're back down to 12 combinations.  Plus, not all those combinations are going to sound good...

"But," you say, "there are different KINDS of chords—minor, major, 7ths, major 7ths, to say nothing of using alternate bass notes, phrasing, tempo, melody, etc."  Sure there are.  But even with all those variables, in the 35 or so years since pop/rock music has been around, there have been thousands and thousands of songs released.  Every year it becomes increasingly more difficult to come up with something that hasn't been done before.

You can find similarities between just about any currently popular song and some previous song.  That doesn't necessarily mean the artist "ripped off" earlier artists.  It's just that there are only so many musical notes and combinations to choose from.  Something is going to sound like something else whether it's intentional or not. Another Ben Folds Five fan, Joe McNulty, put it best:

"In regard to Ben Folds 'plagarizing' Cat Stevens: They both owe me huge sums of money seeing as I own the rights to both the D-minor chord and the G-minor chord. In addition, anyone who has ever used these chords or the following:
  • C# Major 7
  • B flat diminished fifth
  • and the notes B#, C flat, E# and F flat,

you are hereby ordered to send me a check to cover the copyright fee and any royalties you may have earned from using said notes."

Another BF5 fan, Jessica Brandt, adds this:

"Saying an artist reminds you of another artist doesn't mean that the artist is ripping off the other one.  If you think that your girlfriend looks like your best friend, it doesn't mean she means to, or is influenced by your best friend.  Get over it."

With all that in mind, I decided to list some similarities between Ben Folds Five songs and earlier music, especially 70's pop. I welcome contributions to this list.


  1. There HAVE been other pop piano players besides Ben Folds, Elton John, and Billy Joel
  2. Ben's take on being compared to other pianists
  3. Piano, Bass, & Drums: Who was first?
  4. Why are piano ballads always in C?
  5. Ninths as the Bass Note
  6. Other Stuff in the Bass
  7. Rage Against Fanny Packs
  8. Tiny Dancer: The most BF5-like Elton John song
  9. Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"
  10. It Keeps You Runnin' (and "The Last Polka")
  11. Under Brick Pressure
  12. On Your Radio (and "One Angry Dwarf")
  13. Do Ya Think I'm Fairly Sexy on Salsbury Hill?
  14. Ooh, La La La
  15. Flaming Dump
  16. Lucy in the Hospital Song with Diamonds
  17. Beatles harmonies
  18. Who loves missing Dr. Pyser?
  19. It's Hip to be Kate
  20. Kate vs. My Girl
  21. Steven of the Jungle's Last Tonight Show in Town
  22. She's got a Satan about her
  23. Reader-Suggested Similarities
  24. Know of Other Similarities?

This is not a similarity, but I need to put it somewhere:  I used to wonder whether the line from Fair "All is fair in love" could be a nod to Steven Wonder's "All in love is fair," but it seems more likely that it's from the proverb from the 1500s "All is fair in love and war," given the troubled relationship in the song.  Then again, Stevie Wonder's song itself was also probably taken from the 1500s proverb.

There HAVE been other pop piano players besides Ben Folds, Elton John, and Billy Joel

It's sad that people compare Ben Folds Five only to Billy Joel and Elton John, for a couple reasons.  First, there's actually not a whole lot of similarity besides the fact that they all play piano.  It's like saying that Tracy Chapman and Eddie Van Halen are similar because they both play guitar.  Second, somehow Billy Joel and Elton John are the only pop pianists that anyone seems able to cite.  Maybe much of the media and the fans are too young to have lived through the 70's (or if they did, then they weren't paying attention).  Here are some pop pianists you may not see mentioned, but who arguably have more in common with Ben Folds Five than does Billy Joel or Elton John:

  • Neil Sedaka.  A big pop songwriter in the 60's & 70's.  He wrote hit songs for others, and recorded some himself.  Check out "Laughter in the Rain", his #1 from 1975. (Three of the chords in the intro to both that song and "Alice Childress" have the same rhythm, hitting on 1, 1-and, and 2-and.)  Ben says he was a fan of Neil Sedaka when growing up.
  • Randy Newman.  A pop writer/player of the first order, yet little known today.  His 1979 single "Short People" was his biggest hit, though largely misunderstood.  Ben has gushed praise for Newman in interviews.  By the way, TV show "The Family Guy" deliciously spoofed Newman in its end-of-the-millenium episode which aired on 12-26-99.
  • Joe Jackson.  Jackson's heyday was the late 70's & early 80's.  He distinguished himself with clever writing & playing, making it clear that he was not just a pop songster but a talented musician.  Ironically, on his first release (1979's Look Sharp!) he wrote the songs and sang, but only one number featured a piano.  ("Is She Really Going Out with Him"?)  Perhaps the fact that that lone piano song was the biggest hit from that album was what inspired him to make the piano a focal point on future albums.  The variety of styles and piano tricks he used, especially on Night and Day, is a lot more daring than typical Elton John, and therefore seems a lot closer to the spirit of BF5 to me.
  • Todd Rundgren.  Rundgren was an early master of pop songwriting, playing, and production.  Like Ben, he's a "musician's musician", popular among other musicians.  One of my favorite songs is Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me", which was way ahead of its time in 1968.
  • Carole King.  One of the first women (maybe the first?) to break the Top 40 by writing her own songs and playing her own instrument, in this case the piano.  King is responsible for writing a number of memorable 60's & 70's pop classics, including, "It's Too Late" and "You've Got a Friend", though most of her songs were made famous by other performers.
  • Carly Simon.  Her 70's piano pop classic "You're So Vain" is a dead ringer for a BF5 song, stylistically and lyrically, especially the way the narrator is addressing a specific person.
  • Freddie Mercury.  Queen blasted out pop with a piano/guitar/bass/drums combo, led by frontman/pianist, the late Freddie Mercury.  Some Queen songs omitted the guitar (leaving piano/bass/drums), and others omitted the piano.  Check out the 1978 album Jazz.  (Most of the album is actually straight-ahead rock/pop, not jazz.)
  • Stevie Wonder. Stevie's most famous work in the 70's was done on electric pianos instead of acoustics, but he was no stranger to the traditional grand piano.

The following 70's piano acts aren't especially similar to BF5, but I list them here to demonstrate that there were other wildly successful piano acts besides Elton John and Billy Joel.  Also note that Ben, born in 1966, grew up hearing these artists (as well as those mentioned above):

  • Barry Manilow.  Very white bread, sure, but still a fine 70s songwriter.
  • Captain & Tenille.  Their big hit was "Love Will Keep Us Together" from the mid-70s.  And whaddya know, this song was co-written by Neil Sedaka (mentioned above).
  • Victor Borge.  A piano comedian for several decades. (Died Dec. 2000 at age 91.)  His schtick was not anything like BF5's music, but the total knowledge of his instrument that he conveyed is definitely something I feel from Ben.  Victor also wasn't afraid to smash the keys (on a Bosendorfer, no less—the most expensive brand of piano in the world, played by people like Tori Amos and Dr. Evil / Mini Me), although he pretended to do it accidentally as part of his comedy act, rather than on purpose like Ben.  Many of his acts are available on video/DVD, and are highly recommended.

Ben's take on being compared to other pianists

This is from an interview with Ben I found online, before the page disappeared:

"I don't think other piano players are as much of an influence on me as might be perceived on first listen.  If nothing else, pianists are messengers of melody.  You're going to learn about melody from people who are really good at writing it, and the piano guys are really good at it.   But there are other things that are very influential on the band that aren't piano at all—like Nirvana (Punk)—even melodically.  Kurt Cobain was a really, really cool writer.  Another band, Built To Spill , they'd just made their first record when we were making our first record, and it was melodic and they didn't apologize for it.  Barbra Streisand is an influence, so are Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman and Jimi Hendrix, for that matter."

Piano, Bass, & Drums: Who was first?

Piano-bass-drums trios are nothing new—in JAZZ.  Jazz musicians have been doing that for around a hundred years.  But in commercial pop/rock?  Very rare.  After all, even Billy Joel and Elton John have guitarists in their bands, as did/do all the piano-based artists listed above. Now, very early Elton John (circa 1970) was piano-bass-drums, sans guitar, but he didn't stick with that for long.  In the Doors, Ray Manzarek principally played an organ or a Rhodes electric piano, not an acoustic piano, and famously played the bass with his left hand, along with a guitarist and drummer.  Ben Folds Five, if not the very first pop/rock band to do the piano trio thing at all, is certainly the first band to push the piano-based trio to the degree that it has—touring for years and putting out a lot of recordings with just the three core instruments.

BF5 does break new ground in a number of other ways, too:

  • Doing club tours (vs. stadium shows) with a grand piano they move themselves.  (On their first tour, they had exactly one support person—four people total.)
  • Having arguably the best pianist in the history of pop music (John, Joel, et. al. were excellent songwriters, but they never made trained pianists faint watching them play.  And yeah, there are may be some pianists who equal or surpass Ben's level of skill, but none I can't think of any who are/were commercially successful in pop/rock.)
  • Putting out four excellent full-length CD's and a great stage show without guitars.

Why are piano ballads always in C?

One of the most grating things about piano ballads is that most of them are in C. Here are just some examples:

  • Let it Be (Beatles/Paul McCartney, 1970)
  • Imagine (John Lennon, 1970)
  • Tiny Dancer (Elton John, 1971)
  • Daniel (Elton John, 1973)
  • Piano Man (Billy Joel, 1973)
  • The Rose (Bette Midler, circa 1977)
  • Beth (KISS, circa 1977)
  • Sister Christian (Night Ranger, circa 1983)
  • Home Sweet Home (Mötley Crüe, circa 1985)
  • (Music Box Dancer by Frank Mills, 1979 is in C#, pretty close)

"Brick", however, is in D. But does the key really make a difference?  Yes, it makes a hell of a difference.  If you play piano, try playing Brick in C.  Notice how lame it sounds.  Brick becomes a much stronger song just by the fact that it's not in C!  Because of this, I was especially happy to hear Ben introduce the song at a concert in Dallas by saying something like, "Here's our current single, and it's in D."  Many fans probably thought that that comment had little meaning.  Why bother to mention what key a song is in?  Well, often, it wouldn't matter.  But in this case, it's actually important that Brick is not in C.

In fact, only two songs from BF5's self-titled album (Philosophy and Best Imitation) are in C, and only one song from their second album is in C (Smoke), although you could consider it to be in A-minor instead of C-major.  (Errol Schmidt wrote in from Australia to tell us that Smoke is actually in F-lydian, whatever the hell that is.)  (Another reader wrote in to clarify: "F-Lydian is one of the church modes, that pre-dated major and minor.  If you just play all white keys starting from F you are in Lydian mode. Lydian is kind of a variation of the major scale, you just raise the third and lower the sixth.")

Ninths as the Bass Note

Playing a ninth as the bass note isn't particularly common in rock music, but it was prevalent in 70's pop music, and in Ben Folds Five's music.

A "ninth note" is the next note after the root note. For example, if the root is C, then the ninth note is D. In sheet music, the chord might be listed as "C/D", meaning you play a C chord but with a D as the bass note.

Many musicians might call the D the "second note" instead of the ninth note, but I think of it as a ninth because it's the note that appears in a ninth chord. A ninth chord is a fairly common chord, and who the hell ever plays a "second" chord? There are more "proper" ways to name a C/D chord instead of "a ninth as the bass note", but that's what I'm calling it, and you know what I'm talking about.

By the way, an example of a ninth chord is the very first BF5 chord: the first chord on the first song of the first album, in Jackson Cannery, a C9, which is C-E-G-Bb-D. (LH: C-C, RH: E-G-Bb-D).

Here are some Ben Folds Five songs which feature a ninth as the bass note:

  • Where's Summer B.? ("...been? Hey Summer, where ya been?")
  • Sports & Wine ("sports and wine, NO, NO")
  • Alice Childress (all over the place)
  • Video ("I can't WAIT 'till the future gets here")
  • Fair (opening chord -- G/A, A/D repeat throughout)
  • Kate ("I see her 'round every COUPLE DAYS")
  • Evaporated ("I can't SEE what I've done")
  • Tom & Mary (fourth beat in each measure of the intro, and "blow their MINDS")
  • Eddie Walker (after the first verse, right after he sings "Eddie Walker".  You can't miss THIS one!  It's also in other parts of this song.)

And here are some other songs with ninths as the bass. (There are LOTS more.)

  • Hello, It's Me, by Todd Rundgren * 1968 (during the instrumental bit after the verse)
  • The Long & Winding Road, by the Beatles * 1969 (after "The long & winding road...")
  • Tiny Dancer, by Elton John * circa 1975 ("...on the HIGHway")
  • Don't it Make my Brown Eyes Blue?, by Crystal Gayle/Richard Leigh * 1977 (" don't it make my BROWN EYES blue", in the second verse)
  • Sometimes When We Touch, by Dan Hill/Barry Mann * 1977 ("till the FEAR IN ME subsides")
  • Minute By Minute, by the Doobie Bros. * 1979 ("you should spend your life with someone")
  • Baker Street, by Jerry Rafferty * 1979 (after "But you're crying, you're crying now.")
  • Is She Really Going Out with Him?, by Joe Jackson • 1979
  • Babe, by Styx * 1979 ("The time is drawing NEAR")
  • Sad Eyes (can remember artist's name) * 1979
  • Two Out of Three Ain't Bad (Meatloaf) * 1979 ("I WISH you wouldn't make me leave here")
  • Woman, by John Lennon * 1980 ("I'm forever in your DEBT")
  • Hill Street Blues theme, by Mike Post * 1980
  • On the Loose, by Saga * 1981 ("One day you'll feel quite stable")
  • Stepping Out, by Joe Jackson * 1982? ("stepping O-UT")

Other Stuff in the Bass

Ninths aren't the only thing you can put in the bass. Ben also uses fourths (e.g., the second chord in "Fair"), as does -- surprise -- lots of 70's pop songs, and lots of jazz. In fact, creative players use all kinds of crazy stuff in the bass besides the root note. This is not terribly common in rock music, but a bit more common in pop music, and extremely popular in jazz music.  Readers interested in songs with interesting bass note/chord pairings will want to check out these two 70's pop classics:

  • Laughter in the Rain, by Neil Sedaka * 1975 (see above for more info on Neil Sedaka)
  • After the Love has Gone, by Earth Wind & Fire * 1979

And while we're talking about unusual things in the bass, it's only fair to point out Paul McCartney's contribution to contemporary bass styles.  Paul thought that the bass part should be more than just the root note, and he had great respect for other musicians who explored an expanded (in that day) bass role.  Here's what Paul had to say about the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, released in 1966: "Paul regarded Pet Sounds as one of the greatest popular-music albums ever made and was effusive in its praise, particularly for the way in which it proved that the bass player need not play the root note of a chord but can weave a melody around it of its own.  He recommended the album to everyone he met." (from Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, by Barry Miles, 1997)

Rage against fanny packs

Darren's screed on For Those of Y'all Who Wear Fanny Packs is an obvious homage to Zack de la Rocha, the vocalist for 90's anti-establishment band Rage Against the Machine.  (Coincidentally, I was honored when that band linked to the website I used to do of worldwide Critical Mass bicycle rides.  But I digress.)

In fact, at 3:39, he (or maybe it was Ben) says "Let's break it, break it, break it down," which is straight from Rage's 1992 "Take the Power Back" (at 2:35).

Tiny Dancer: The most BF5-like Elton John song

Saying that Ben Folds Five is like Elton John just because they both feature piano is sophomoric. It's like saying that Tracy Chapman and Eddie Van Halen are similar because they both play guitar. Indeed, Ben Folds and Elton John do have some similarities, but it's not because they both play piano. It's because they use some of the same pop stylings in their piano work.

That doesn't mean that Ben Folds is an Elton knockoff -- far from it. Ben Folds eeks a different sonic texture from his piano and his band. (And Elton rarely played as a three-piece sans guitar, although he did in the early days.) Not that I'm bashing Elton -- he clearly set the standard for piano pop. And SOME of that is reflected in Ben Folds Five's music.

"Tiny Dancer" by Elton John is probably the most BF5-like of Elton's songs, since it contains four key parts that have similarities in three BF5 songs:

  • Opening arpeggios are similar to those in "Brick"

As noted before, Tiny Dancer is in C, while Brick is in D. But try playing Tiny Dancer in D, or Brick in C, and the similarities are striking. What's more, once the keys are the same, the root of the first two chords in both songs are the same (C-F, or D-G, depending on what key you're playing it in).

  • Piano lick is the same as in "Philosophy"

In Tiny Dancer, Elton plays these notes: G+C (g on bottom) --> A --> F. It's near the end of the first two lines of the verse (if memory serves correct). Ben uses the exact same lick in Philosophy, right after the word "skyline". And unlike Brick, Philosophy *is* in C, just like Tiny Dancer, so the similarity is more obvious.

  • Ninth in the bass

Ben loves to play a ninth as the bass note. For example, if the chord is C, then he would play a D in the bass. Since Elton and many other 70's artists did the same thing, this helps give BF5 a 70's pop sound. Tiny Dancer is one of those songs with a ninth as the bass. In the chorus, after the word "highway", Elton plays a G/A.

  • Chord structure of chorus similar to "Alice Childress"

The chorus of Tiny Dancer is similar to the chorus of Alice Childress. Below I wrote out the chords for the chorus of each song, after moving the key of Alice Childress up a semitone so that it's in the same key as Tiny Dancer. I'm doing the chords from Tiny Dancer from memory. (I don't have a copy of the recording.)

Tiny Dancer:

   F        C/E            Dm    Em F           C/E                  G/A
Hold me closer tiny dan-cer. count the headlights on the highway.


Alice Childress:

   F           C/E            Am G/B C   C/E    F           C/E            G/A
Try not to think about it Al-ice Childress. Try not to think about it anymore.


Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"

A lick in the piano solo at the end of "Philosophy" is from Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue". It's these notes, played in octaves. (Read it left to right, like there's invisible sheet music lines behind it, not top to bottom.)

Bb Bb

By the way, this part is not detailed in the sheet music book of the debut album. (The last I heard, this book was out of print a long time ago; don't ask me how to get one.) The sheet music book left out a LOT, and this is just one example of the things that were omitted.

It Keeps You Runnin' (and "The Last Polka")

The chorus of "It Keeps You Runnin'" (Doobie Bros.) and "The Last Polka" are similar, bouncing back and forth between I and V chords. (They may even be in the same key, i.e., Bb - F, but I haven't heard It Keeps you Runnin' in a while so I don't remember.)

Under Brick Pressure

BF5 has often been compared to Queen (including earlier on this page). In particular, Queen's early 80's collaboration with David Bowie, "Under Pressure" shares an outro similar to that of Brick: All the other instruments stop besides the piano, there's a treble piano lick, and many of the notes are the same. Incidentally, in the 90's some modern rap/hip-hopper appropriated the signature bass/piano lick from "Under Pressure" for a new arrangement, much like someone took the Police's "Every Breath You Take". Hell, maybe it was even the same person in each case, I don't pay much attention to that stuff.

On Your Radio (vs. "One Angry Dwarf")

Ethan Jon Kreitzler writes:

"As Joe Jackson's name has been popping up quite a bit lately, I thought I would point out what I have always observed to be the biggest similarity (more than the melodica). On Jackson's second record, the premise of the first track "On Your Radio" is remarkably similar to to our beloved band's second album's first track. The lyrics are as follows:"

"On Your Radio" by Joe Jackson
Ex-friends, ex-lovers and enemies
I've got your cases in front of me, all sewn up
Ex-bosses you never let me be
I got your names and numbers filed away, I've grown up
(chorus) See me, hear me, don't you know you can't get near me
You can only hope to hear me on your radio
You're gonna hear me on your radio
Ex-teachers still coming through to me
Tough kids don't stop trying to kick me to the ground, I don't care
Go on just do what you do to me
You look so sick when you're pushing me around, you're nowhere
(repeat chorus) (end)

- - - - -

Good catch, Ethan. Another interesting thing about "One Angry Dwarf" is that it was actually a very early BF5 song, although it didn't appear on their first album.  I heard them perform it at a show in Austin in February 1996. And back then, when nobody had heard of them, they couldn't be seen as being serious when doing a song about rubbing people's noses in it after becoming famous.  The irony, of course, is that now that you CAN see BF5 by "check[ing] the papers and the TV", there is now a HUGE potential for misunderstanding.

This is similar to The Knack's first album, Get the Knack, released in 1979.  The cover art was designed to look similar to the Beatles' first U.S. album.  But nobody would think they were REALLY trying to compare themselves to the Beatles, right?  Right, unless Get the Knack happened to sell big.  And it did.  It held the #1 spot for six weeks.  As The Knack's Doug Fieger put it: "Perhaps if we had sold 50,000 copies instead of 5 million+, questions of artistic sacrilege would have been avoided, and those who got it would 'get it'.  Alas, that was not to be..." (from the liner notes for The Knack's Retrospective [Greatest Hits])  By the way, The Knack were masters of aggressive, incredibly tight pop, so you might like them if you like BF5, although they don't feature a piano.   The Knack was the last band I was really excited about before BF5, if that tells you anything.

Do Ya Think I'm Fairly Sexy on Salsbury Hill?

In the bridge of "Fair", Robert plays a repeated bass sequence of a "D" eighth note followed by two D's an octave higher as 16th notes. (See my sorry attempt at making sheet music for this song.)  This same riff was prevalent in Rod Stewart's 1979 hit "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?", and other disco-era hits ... I asked Robert about this, and he played "Do Ya Think..." in his head and said he saw what I was talking about, although he said he'd never thought specifically about that comparison before.  Other disco-style songs that have that same bass eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes an octave higher include "YMCA" by the Village People and "I Was Made for Loving You" by KISS (which I was lucky enough to get to play with Ace Frehley, but that's another story).

By the way, a curious thing about "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" is that the words in the title never actually appear in the song! (What Rod actually sings is, "IF you want my body, AND ya think I'm sexy...") ... I'm a little too familiar with this song — I remember playing this by ear when I was 12 during my piano lesson, which greatly annoyed my piano teacher.

Also, the bridge of "Fair" ("All this breathin' in...") is reminiscent of the main instrumental lick Peter Gabriel's "Salsbury Hill" (E, F#, D#, E, D#, C#), in that Ben's right-hand rhythm is playing between the beat, just like in Salsbury Hill.  The songs are otherwise fairly dissimilar. (Salsbury Hill is in 7/8.)

Ooh, La La La

Have you been racking your brain trying to remember where you first heard that "Ooh, la la la" bit from Kate?  It's at the end of "You Won't See Me", from the Beatles' Rubber Soul album (1965).  And while we're talking about Rubber Soul, check out George Harrison's song "Think For Yourself" for one of the very first examples of fuzz bass in popular music (played on that song by, yep, Paul McCartney) — a style also employed by BF5's bassist Robert Sledge.

Flaming Dump

At 1:00 and 2:00 in Paul McCartney's "Flaming Pie" (from the 1997 album of the same name), there's a piano break that has much of the feel of the break in "Song for the Dumped" — it's a change of direction of the mood of each song, the other instruments grow quieter and the piano comes to the forefront, the melody doesn't stray much from the notes in the chords, and there are lots of "bent" notes.

Lucy in the Hospital with Diamonds

Todd Daley said I should check out the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" as compared to BF5's "Hospital Song", and boy was he right!

  • Both songs are in 3/4 (or 6/8, depending on how you count it), and are of similar tempo.
  • The signature instrument melody in each song is repeating sets of 3 notes, with an accent on the 1st note in each set.
  • Both instruments sound kind of eerie of spacey.  In Hospital Song, it sounds like a piano played through a chorus/flange effect, which makes it kind of sound like a sitar. The instrument in Lucy is more like an organ, but of course George Harrison's sitar is also characteristic elsewhere in Lucy (as well as in much of the rest of the whole Sgt. Pepper's album on which Lucy appeared).
  • Both vocal melodies differ by only a few notes. The first six notes are exactly identical, and they're almost in the same key (one semitone apart).

Beatles harmonies

BF5's powerful harmonies remind me of those of the Beatles—take "Missing the War" vs. "Because" for example.  I asked Darren about that once in an AOL meet-the-band chat, mentioning the dramatic harmonies in Missing the War, and pointing out how John, Paul, and George each sang their bit on Because three times, for NINE voices total; I asked if the Beatles were a harmonic influence.  He said only, "The Beatles influenced everyone."

Who loves missing Dr. Pyser?

The "bah bah bah BAH" from 'Missing the War' and 'Theme from Dr. Pyser' are straight out of "Who Loves the Sun?" by Velvet Underground.  There are probably other earlier songs that used that bit, but that one's the only one that comes to mind at the moment.

It's Hip to be Kate

The melody notes for "I wanna be Kate" are the same as "It's Hip to be Square" from the Huey Lewis song of the 80's of the same name. This is particularly ironic, since Ben Folds has been deemed by the press as the champion of "geek rock" !

Kate vs. My Girl

Rajes Haldar writes: "Have you ever noticed that the bassline to Kate is almost exactly the same as that of 'My Girl' by the Temptations? Obviously it is phrased a little differently."

By golly, he's right! All the notes are the same, and the phrase begins on beat 1 and ends on 4+ (four-and). The differences are that Kate repeats the first note (for a total of seven notes vs. My Girl's six), and the timing of the middle notes is different.


Steven of the Jungle's Last Tonight Show in Town

Near the end of the instrumental breakdown in "Steven's Last Night in Town" (after the unintelligible chanting, then the piano solo, then the drum fill), the boys sing, "BAH dup bah baaah dah..." This is nearly identical to the opening melody of the old "The Tonight Show" theme, back when Johnny Carson hosted it (before Jay Leno).  (Note: I previously wrote here in error that Carson's conductor, Doc Severinsen, composed the theme music.  However, a reader corrected me that the theme was actually written by crooner/songwriter Paul Anka. Here's an article about the authorship of the theme song.)

And for those of you old enough to remember this cartoon, the breakdown after the solos when all the instruments stop except for Darren's drums is a dead ringer for the drumbeat in the theme to the old cartoon "George of the Jungle".  During that part of Steven's, you can actually sing along, "George, George, George of the Jungle, friend to you and me!"

While we're talking about Steven's Last Night, once a friend invited me to dinner with one of her friends, who she said was a well-regarded klezmer musician.  I thought, Oh, he probably knows the guys who played on Steven's Last Night.  Well, turns out he played on Steven's Last Night.

She's Got a Satan about Her

Harvey Johnson writes: "The chord progression in the beginning of 'She's Got a Way' by Billy Joel are as in Ben's 'Satan is my Master.' Just so you know I'm a fourteen year old boy. (1999)

[Ed. note: I had to correct the last half of the chords in HJ's version of Satan, so the similarity may not be as striking as he thought. Then again, I don't have access to "She's Got a Way" right now, and maybe those chords need to be corrected too, and maybe they'd be corrected to be similar to "Satan..."?] 12-99

G           D/F#      Em    Dm7 Em
she's got a way about her.

Don't know what it is, but I know that I can't live w/out her.

G D/F# Em G7 C C/D G C/D
Satan is my master, He has always been.

Alice Childr-as

Tiffany Jordan (cellist) writes in April 2010: "I find the opening 8 bars of "Alice Childress" to be very close to (if not almost identical) the beginning of "As" by Stevie Wonder. The keys are the same, the chord progressions are the same, and they're very close rhythmically."

I checked it out, and while it's true, we're basically talking only three chords here: B, Bmaj7, and Emaj7.  So it doesn't strike me as that big a deal.  But there is some similarity, so there you have it!

Other Reader-Suggested Similarities

Here are some reported similarities which I haven't been able to check out yet because I'm unfamiliar with the songs in question, or I don't have recordings of them:

Piano Greats

  • Trevor writes: "There is a soprano sax solo in 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant' by Billy Joel that plays the exact same notes as Ben's piano in the intro from 'Philosophy.' Especially in the live version in the box set...it's right before the amazingly-fast piano riff...toward the middle of the song."

  • Adam Cullum writes: "The intro of 'Philosophy' is sort of like Billy Joel's 'Miami 2017' in that it is very fast treble notes and it has a descending bassline. Maybe not quite the descending bassline but they both have the IV/IV chord. Uh, maybe that's kind of vague. Sorry, whatever (and ever amen!)."

  • Harvey Johnson writes: "If you play the beginning chords of BF5's 'Don't Change Your Plans' in 12/8 (A da two da A6/F# da two da • next measure •G da two da, E no 3rd da two da) It's the same as the beginning of the Billy Joel song 'Sooner or Later'. 12-99

  • A reader reports that the "overall feel" of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." is similar to that of "Kate".

  • Beth Ann says: "Selfless, Cold, & Composed" is similar to the Peanuts songs "Snoopy on Ice" and "Skating", by Vince Guaraldi, who wrote all the Peanuts music.  George Winston recorded a tribute album of Vince's stuff in the mid-90's, and Skating is on it.

  • Rob Lawrence writes: "At times BF sounds quite like Stevie Wonder, especially when he does 70s-type jazz (I'm thinking of "Selfless, Cold, and Composed," particularly—compare to Wonder's "Mistra Know-It-All" on "Innervisions".)  As you may know, Wonder is a pretty amazing pianist—certainly, in my opinion, better than John or Joel." 2-00


  • Brian Smith writes: The opening phrase of the chorus melody for "Cold Morning Light" from Todd Rundgren's "Something/Anything?" album is virtually identical to "Evaporated".
    "Evaporated"            "Cold Morning Light"

    Here I stand We are close
    Sad and Free We are friends
    I can't cry And our love
    And I can't see Never ends

    The rhythm and melody of the lyric follow each other very closely. I've not bothered to work out the chords; they are similar, but not an exact match. I recall reading an interview with Ben Folds where he specifically professed a fondness for side one of "Something/Anything?", and that is (probably not coincidentally) where "Cold Morning Light" resides in the album's running order.

  • Mogadon18 writes: "The intro vocal melody of "Your Redneck Past". sounds quite similar to the "O, O O O" vocal arrangement on David Bowie's "TVC15" [from the mid/late 70's].

  • Keith Petit writes: There is a strange similarity between BF5's "Underground" and Blood, Sweat, And Tears' "Spinning Wheel" towards the end. The end of Underground hits a 3/4 segment that alternates between a blatty two measures and a progressive jazzy two measures. It can best be described in the versatile language known as onomotopoeia:

    "BOP   BANG-BANG    BOP  BANG-BANG,     da da ba da da da da

    BOP   BANG-BANG    BOP  BANG-BANG,    da da ba da da da da"

    This is very similar to Spinning Wheel towards the end. The "BOP BANG-BANG" is considerably brassier than Underground's and the two measures that follow it are actually a fruity woodwind solo but I figured that it was worth a try anyway.

    [Editor's notes: Well, of course BS&T's version is considerably brassier, since they use actual brass. To me, the MIDDLE of Spinning Wheel sounds more like the outro to Underground than the end does — I think it's the stabbing syncopation (the part that Ben does with his left hand). Oh, the fruity woodwind solo sounds like the nursery tune, "The More We Get Together".

  • Jolemite X writes: "The first John Lennon solo album "Plastic Ono Band" has a lot of good Piano/Bass/Drum songs on it—though it is not a formula that the whole album sticks to."


  • Ryan Vallance offers: "[Regarding] jazz / blues New Orleans style jazz, I hear this style somewhat in Ben's piano playing (Uncle Walter, Fair end solo, Tom & Mary, Philosophy end solo, etc...). A lot of the pianists who play this style credit the great James Booker as being a key influence in their music. I don't know if the same is true of Ben, but I hear it very clearly in the way he rolls and hits his chords (especially at the beginning of Uncle Walter)."


  • Marcus Brannon writes: I've noticed theres a section of Dr Pyser that sounds a lot like Misirlou by Dick Dale. 4-02

  • Ian Baillie writes: Hiya, damn good site. I am said in school to be insane when it comes to BF5: I had BFF shaved in the back of my head -- I got sent home! anyway to the point: I've noticed that when the first line of singing comes in on 'Subterranean Homesick Alien by Radiohead on 1997's OK COMPUTER, it sounds so much like BF5'S 'Hospital Song'. ("lyin' awake in my hospital bed.." etc) The rhythm of the singing and how it changes from each note especially, though Thom Yorke whines it a bit more. I think Homesick Alien goes 6/8 7/8, but the bit I'm talking about is in 6/8 like Hospital Song. 7-01

  • Ryan VanArsdall writes: "Fraggle Rock was a show created by Jim Henson in the early 80's.  Well, the beginning of Sports and Wine sounds extremely similar to that of the theme song from Fraggle Rock." 5-00  [And whaddya know...twelve years later, Ben Folds Five made a Fraggle Rock-themed video for their first single from their 2012 album The Sound of the Life of the Mind!]

Know of other similarities?

If you know of any other similarities, I'd like to hear them. Please be specific, and talk in musical terms. (i.e., please demonstrate WHY two songs are similar, with the kind of detail I provided on this page, and not just something like "I think Kate sounds like Jet!")

Listen to free samples

Listen to the samples of the entire Ben Folds Five catalog on iTunes for free

Ben Folds Five (1995)
1. Jackson Cannery
2. Philosophy
3. Julianne
4. Where's Summer B.?
5. Alice Childress
6. Underground
7. Sports & Wine
8. Uncle Walter
9. Best Imitation of Myself
10. Video
11. The Last Polka
12. Boxing

Whatever & Ever Amen (1997)
1. One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces
2. Fair
3. Brick
4. Song for the Dumped
5. Selfless, Cold and Composed
6. Kate
7. Smoke
8. Cigarette
9. Steven's Last Night in Town
10. Battle of Who Could Care Less
11. Missing the War
12. Evaporated

Bonus tracks: (on the re-released version) 13. Video Killed the Radio Star
14. For All the Pretty People
15. Mitchell Lane
16. Theme from Dr. Pyser
17. Air
18. She Don't Use Jelly
19. Song for the Dumped (Japanese)

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)
1. Narcolepsy
2. Don't Change Your Plans
3. Mess
4. Magic
5. Hospital Song
6. Army
7. Your Redneck Past
8. Your Most Valuable Possession
9. Regrets
10. Jane
11. Lullabye

The Sound of the Life of the Mind (2012)
1. Erase Me
2. Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
3. Sky High
4. The Sound of the Life of the Mind
5. On Being Frank
6. Draw a Crowd
7. Do it Anyway
8. Hold That Thought
9. Away When You Were Here
10. Thank You for Breaking My Heart

Ben, Darren, and Robert rode bicycles in the Uncle Walter video.  If you ride a bike, check out my guide to How to Not Get Hit By Cars.

Ben told me in 1998 that Darren Jessee (BF5's drummer) is a vegetarian.  Vegetarianism and even veganism are a lot more common now than they were in the 90s, so props to Jessee for being ahead of the curve on that one.  Other vegetarian musicians include as Paul McCartney, Prince, Madonna, Natalie Merchant, and a host of others (including many you've never heard of, like me).  Get the scoop on meatless diets on my Vegetarian Guide site.