Song authorship controversies, from George Harrison to Oasis
The Tom Petty/Sam Smith settlement is just one example of how music industry players have handled controversies regarding hit songs with contested pedigrees. Here are some others:
The Rolling Stones, “Anybody Seen My Baby?”: The post-"Steel Wheels” Rolling Stones run a pretty tight ship from a commercial standpoint, so everything seemed ready and triple-checked for the 1997 release of “Bridges to Babylon.” Everything, that is, until Keith Richards happened to spin an advance copy of the lead single, “Anybody Seen My Baby?,” at Redlands, his Sussex estate.
“My daughter Angela and her friend were [there] and I was playing the record and they start singing this totally different song over it,” Richards writes in his entertaining 2010 autobiography, “Life.” Over the chorus melody of “Anybody Seen My Baby?” the then-twentysomething Angela and her friend were singing the lyrics to k.d. lang’s 1992 worldwide smash “Constant Craving,” and they scanned perfectly. According to his book, Richards’ first thought was, “Oh ..., he’s lifted another one.” “He” being, of course, songwriting partner Mick Jagger.
“I don’t think he’s ever done it deliberately,” adds Richards. “He’s just a sponge.” Richards called his management, “and all of the heavy-duty lawyers, and I said, have this checked out right now, otherwise we’re going to be sued. And within twenty-four hours, I got a phone call: you’re right. We had to include k.d. lang in the writing credits.”
“I got a phone call from my lawyer saying, ‘Would you like 25% of the Rolling Stones’ new single, for the publishing,’” a bemused lang told the BBC program “Something for the Weekend” in 2011. “And I said, ‘Yes! Sure! It’s like I won the lottery’.”
The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony”: That same year, Jagger and Richards (sort of) were on the other side of a songwriting controversy. ABKCO Records, the company founded by controversial manager-accountant Allen Klein, claimed that rising U.K. indie band the Verve had failed to properly license a sample of an instrumental 1965 cover of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” for its monster hit “Bittersweet Symphony.”
ABKCO owns and administers the rights to all the Jagger-Richards compositions from 1963 to 1971. As part of the out-of-court settlement, Jagger and Richards were listed as cowriters of the song, alongside the song’s actual composer, Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft. The trio (who had never collaborated in any way, shape or form) were hilariously nominated for a Grammy Award in 1999.
“I’m out of whack here,” Richards told Q magazine at the time about “his” unexpected hit single, “This is serious lawyer [stuff] . If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”
Oasis, “Step Out”: The original version of the album that made Oasis worldwide superstars, 1995’s "(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” originally included the peppy, anthemic tune “Step Out.” The band’s label Creation Records even sent reviewers a (now highly collectible) promo cassette, which included the song.
Right before the album’s official release, however, someone noticed that “Step Out” bore a strong resemblance to the Stevie Wonder classic “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” Wonder’s people were contacted and allegedly asked for a lot of money, so Creation ended up removing “Step Out” from the album’s master at the last minute and releasing it as one of the B-sides to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (Wonder did receive a co-writing credit on the single).
Oasis eventually released a replica of the promo cassette, with “Step Out” in its original slot in the album sequence, as part of a 2014 deluxe box set commemorating "(What’s the Story) Morning Glory.”
George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord”: Truly the mother of all sound-alike copyright court battles, the seemingly endless saga of Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” versus the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” began in early 1971 when many people noticed that the ex-Beatle’s massive solo hit bore more than a passing melodic resemblance to the Chiffons’ 1962 smash.
Almost immediately, the copyright holders, Bright Tunes, filed a lawsuit against Harrison, who at the time was working with manager Klein and producer Phil Spector. Klein initially tried to settle the copyright claim by offering to buy, allegedly on behalf of Harrison, the entire Bright Tunes catalog. But the lawsuit trundled on, Klein and Harrison parted ways acrimoniously in 1973, and when the U.S. district court finally ruled against Harrison in 1976, the damages had gone up to almost $1,6 million. (Harrison addressed the matter directly with a hilarious song and video, 1976’s “This Song.”)
Klein eventually did end up purchasing Bright Tunes (and the potential income from the ruling in its favor) for himself, but Harrison’s lawyers successfully accused the manager of duplicity in his dealings with the singer. All matters of related to this litigation were settled finally in 1998, making the “My Sweet Lord” controversy a crucial, thorny textbook case in the field of copyright law.
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