We know you’ve been anxious for part two of Clinton Heylin’s article on the art of song-snatching, so here it is! If you missed part one, you can find it here!
6. James Bond Theme
In 2001 fabled film composer John Barry was finally forced to defend a libel suit brought by Monty Norman after for some years hinting that it was he who had really written the James Bond Theme, not Norman, as it said on every 007 film-credit. When openly asked by the Sunday Times in 1998 whether Norman really wrote the theme he was unequivocal, ‘Absolutely not’. Unfortunately for the Times, Barry was required under oath to explain exactly how he came to compose a theme Norman wrote a full five years earlier, under the name ‘Bad Sign, Good Sign’.
Barry changed tack, begrudgingly admitting he did use the riff from ‘Bad Sign, Good Sign’ but still insisted the rest of the tune was his. Unfortunately for Barry, the prosecution’s expert witness was Dr Sadie, Professor of Music at Trinity College. Sadie showed that the fundamental idea in the ‘James Bond Theme’, including the riff itself (the one playing in your head right now) was wholly derived from ‘Bad Sign, Good Sign’. The only part which wasn’t so derived was a standard vamp inserted by Barry.
Barry insisted it was all a misunderstanding, and he had never intended to claim royalties on the song. The prosecution promptly produced two letters sent by Barry’s solicitors, threatening to go after Norman for all the royalties unless Norman withdrew his libel action. Barry’s goose was cooked. He lost the case, the Times faced a substantial bill for costs, and Norman was awarded £30,000. More importantly, Barry reminded the world what it had in fact forgotten, that he did not write that trademark riff. Monty did.
7. Mbube/Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Once upon a time of apartheid, a Zulu singer, Solomon Linda, recorded a traditional Zulu hunting chant, ‘Mbube’, for a local South African label run by an Italian immigrant, Eric Gallo, who had originally solf imported hillbilly records to working-class South Africans. The 1939 78 was a minor local hit, the small sum it made going to Gallo, who had purchased the copyright outright from Linda, as was the norm then.
One of these locally-sold 78s found its way to Pete Seeger after Alan Lomax brought it back from an African folk-collecting trip. Intrigued by the song, he transcribed it (badly), rearranging it as ‘Wimoweh’ and generously assigning the copyright to a nom de plume he and his fellow Weavers often used to claim 100% of the publishing on traditional songs (when only 50% was permitted).
If there was any problem Seeger could always turn to his music publisher, Howie Richmond, who only lied when his lips were moving. He hd already defended The Weavers from another suit over a ‘traditional’ African song they appropriated. ‘Tzena Tzena’ sold over a million copies in the US. The suit was finally settled in favour of the Israeli soldier who authored it in 1941.
Eric Gallo, to his credit, was aware enough to realize ‘Wimoweh’ was ‘Mbube’. In exchange for not contesting the ‘Paul Campbell’ credit, he struck a deal with Richmond which gave Richmond the US publishing for ‘Wimoweh’ in exchange for Gallo administering the song in the English-speaking parts of Africa.
‘Wimoweh’ was covered a few times over the next decade, once by Jimmy Dorsey, but only entered the financial stratosphere in 1961, when George Weiss rearranged it completely, giving it a new set of words and gave it to doo-wop group The Tokens, calling it ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. Six months earlier, Weiss had done the same for Elvis, turning ‘Plaisir D’Amour’ into ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, giving him his first number one of the decade.
Only now did Solomon’s snatch of Zulu become a genuine worldwide pop phenomenon. ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ was a number one smash for The Tokens, doing the same for Karl Denver in the UK, and, twenty years on for Tight Fit. Meanwhile, Token Jay Siegel called at New York’s South African consulate, where he was told ‘Wimoweh’ ‘was derived from a traditional folk song that was used as a hunting song’. Linda had no copyright claim anyway, though he did live long enough to see the song cross the folk-pop divide, dying in 1962.
In fac,t the family of the Zulu singer did nothing about (re-)securing rights to the song until South African journalist Rian Malan appeared on his metaphorical milk-white steed nearly forty years after Linda’s death, unleashing the dogs of copyright law. But before they could go after the American copyright-holders, they needed to get back the rights Linda signed away in 1939.
Fortunately for them, the deal Eric Gallo had struck back in 1952 had been so badly constructed he had made very little money from a song that had earned millions. Once the Gallo family agreed to return all rights to the Linda family, they could contest the 10 per cent cut they were receiving from ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, asserting that Weiss’s song was little more than a reworking of ‘Mbube’, which it self-evidently was not.
If Weiss had been a more mean-spirited man, he could have returned the entire copyright to the Linda family. Instead, an agreement was struck which allowed the Lindas to share equally in the steady stream of revenue from The Lion King. Any seventy-year term on this new copyright would only start when Weiss himself died, which he duly did in 2010; meaning that a traditional Zulu song that may or may not have been adapted by Linda in 1939 will still be in copyright in 2080!
8. My Sweet Lord
If McCartney was always careful to diguise his musical debts, barely had erstwhile Beatle George Harrison left the band when he had his biggest solo hit and rock’s most infamous lawsuit, all over the song, ‘My Sweet Lord’. Though he always claimed any debt to The Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ was accidental, others have insisted otherwise.
Delaney Bramlett claims Harrison was backstage at a Delaney & Bonnie show in 1969 when ‘I grabbed my guitar and started playing the Chiffons’ melody from “He’s So Fine,” and then sang, “My Sweet Lord, oh my Lord, oh my Lord.”’ Two years later, when he heard the song on the radio, Bramlett called Harrison up to say he hadn’t meant for him to use the exact melody and to complain about the lack of recit, ‘But I never saw any money from it.’ Nor did George.
John Lennon displayed little sympathy for his old friend George, suggesting, ‘He walked right into it. He knew what he was doing.’ And if he didn’t, the producer of ‘My Sweet Lord’ surely did, because the first time Harrison played the song to Phil Spector, he must have pointed out its similarity to The Chiffons song, one he knew well.
However, Harrison paid fully for his conscious songsnatch, thanks to the double-dealing of Harrison’s own accountant-manager, Allen Klein, whose right hand, as Eric Idle lampooned in The Rutles, ‘never knew who his left hand was doing’.
Back in 1971, when the song’s publisher Bright Music first filed suit, Allen Klein met with the president, on Harrison’s behalf, offering to purchase the entire catalogue as they were all but bankrupt. They refused. Harrison then offered the company $148,000, supposedly representing 40% of US royalties on ‘My Sweet Lord’. Bright Music unexpectedly demanded 75% of worldwide receipts and surrender of the song’s copyright. Harrison, having recently terminated his contract with Klein, should have smelt the whiff of mendacity. Klein had bought Bright Tunes himself, knowing the future value of this copyright. It was a clear breach of the fiduciary duty he owed to his former client, and even the judge in the case saw it. He awarded Klein $587,000 in damages, the exact sum that he had paid for Bright Music, rather than the two million he had confidently expected.
9. Blue Monday.
For three years New Order had been living in the shadow of Joy Division when they released ‘Blue Monday’ in 1983. It promptly charted twice in the UK, selling over a million copies domestically while topping Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play charts. What no one in the band could agree on, though, ws where it came from. According to Peter Hook, ‘We stole it off a Donna Summer B-side’ (meaning ‘Our Love’, actually an A-side).
Bernard Sumner admitted to further lifts, taking part of the arrangement from ‘Dirty Talk’, by Klein + M.B.O, the signature bassline from Sylvester’s disco classic, ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’, and sampling the long intro from a Kraftwerk song, ‘Uranium’. Keyboardist Gillian Gilbert didn’t think its debts ended there, ‘Peter Hook’s bassline was nicked from an Ennio Morricone film soundtrack.’
Seemingly, the only recent song from which Sumner and co. didn’t take elements was indie single ‘Gerry And The Holograms’ by Gerry & The Holograms. But if ‘Blue Monday’ had a starting point, it was this obscure Mancunian slice of electronica, released on Absurd Records in 1979. Except ‘Gerry And The Holograms’ was a send-up of the New Electronica by arch satirist C.P. Lee, of Albertos Y Los Trios Paranoias fame, and his friend, John Scott. New Order all knew the ‘Manc’ from Albertos – and his sense of humour, but decided the joke was on him. They were never sued.
10. Blurred Lines.
The March 2015 judgement of an LA court that ‘Blurred Lines’, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ modern megahit, was plagiarized from ‘Got To Give It Up’, a 1974 Marvin Gaye dance track, sent shockwaves through the industry. As it should. Never before had someone – or in this case, their hysterical daughter – claimed copyright on a ‘groove’. Because, as Rhodri Marsden wrote in the New Statesman, a week after the judgement:
“The view that ‘Blurred Lines’ plagiarises from Marvin Gaye is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what songwriting is. Let’s be clear: these two songs are fundamentally different. They have different structures, different melodies, different chords. Were it not for the similarity of the sparse arrangement (an offbeat electric piano figure and a cowbell clanking away at 120bpm) the court case wouldn’t even have taken place.”
One suspects there will be another court case and the judgement will end up overturned. This is America, after all. In which case, Gaye’s daughter may rue the day she did not follow the example of Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, whose 1989 hit, ‘Don’t Back Down’, provided the melodic undertow to Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’, the Grammy Song of The Year, but settled for a revised namecheck and a 25% cut of the proceeds from the mulit-million seller. After all, as Petty himself said, ‘These things happen.’