April 4 – Happy Ending To Verve’s Bittersweet Story

It was one of Britpop’s finest moments…and one of music legal bureaucrats worst. The Verve hit #12 in the U.S. on the Billboard singles chart this day in 1998 with the wonderful “Bittersweet Symphony.”

While “Britpop” is rather an undefined and arguably irrelevant category, it’s been widely applied to just about any British pop band or artist of the ’90s who weren’t straight-forward rock nor easy listening. It was the defining movement of the decade there, but in the States, it took a back seat to grunge among other things, and by getting to #12, “Bittersweet Symphony” ranks as the penultimate Britpop single, behind only Oasis’ “Wonderwall”.

The song was one that had widespread and obvious appeal; as The Guardian term it, “a moody, existential anthem driven forward by a distinctive string motif.” Or, as allmusic put it, “astonishing.” It was helped along by a memorable video consisting of one camera watching the band’s singer, Richard Ashcroft as he walked along a London street for the full four-and-a-half minutes (about a minute and a half shorter than the album cut, by the way.) It was a highlight off the great album Urban Hymns, which allmusic rate a rare perfect 5-stars and which remains in the all-time top 20 sellers in their native land. After two albums and seven years, they’d clearly found their stride with it. The song would get nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Song (it lost to Alanis Morrissette) and a Brit Award for Single of the Year. It lost that too, to a ditty by All Saints, but they did take home trophies there for Best Album and Best Group.

Strangely, at the time they were recording, Ashcroft wasn’t crazy about it. Luckily, producer Youth (Martin Glover) was, and more or less demanded they keep it…and had the genius moment of adding something more to it. “It was only after we’d put strings on it that he started getting excited,” he recalls. Ahh, yes the strings.

The string bit he inserted was a little bit of Andrew Oldham’s orchestra playing the Rolling Stones “The Last Time.” The Verve and their record company thought they’d reached an appropriate and legal agreement to sample it, but Allen Klein jumped out of the woodwork and sued them. Klein had been the Stones’ manager around the time the original came out, and owned publishing rights to it. Now famously, he won the lawsuit, getting Keith Richards and Mick Jagger added to the writing credits and taking the lion’s share of the royalties from the smash. Richards’ joked it was the biggest hit he’d written since “Brown Sugar.”

Finally, in 2019, the “Glimmer Twins” over-ruled their one time boss, and Ashcroft announced “this remarkable and life-affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith who have also agreed they are very happy for the writing credit to exclude them and all their royalties derived from the song they will pass to me.” There’s no report on how Mick and Keith managed to get Klein or his estate to agree, but as the manager had died years earlier, we must assume his descendants weren’t as greedy as he had been. Either way, Ashcroft is right calling the Stones’ duo “magnanimous.”

Those royalties will probably serve him well. Because The Verve were already considering splitting up while making Urban Hymns, the legal mess was likely the final straw that caused them to go their own ways. Ashcroft’s had a solo career since, which has been moderately popular but never coming close the popularity of this record.

While it missed the top 10 by a bit in the U.S., it managed to get to #5 in Canada, #3 in Ireland and #2 in the UK… remarkably it somehow missed being a weekly #1, but it still went 3X platinum there. Critically it was picked as the Song of the Year by both the NME and Rolling Stone. And maybe now, after all that legal stuff, people will get to be able to just enjoy it for what it was – one of the ’90s more majestic and timeless works.

March 30 – Chapman Had Fast Lane To Early Stardom

Neo-hippie singer/songwriters were a dime a dozen around the end of the ’60s. But as the ’80s neared an end, not so much. Which is part of what makes today’s birthday girl so special. Happy 58th, Tracy Chapman!

Not only did Tracy come along about two decades after her genre had peaked, she broke ground as well by being a Black artist in one of the more exclusively-white areas of music. She remembers being given a ukulele by her music-loving mom when she was just three, but wanting to play guitar when she saw Hee Haw on TV! Her mom again obliged, and by eight, young Tracy was learning that instrument. Although she grew up in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland, she was smart and hard-working and won a scholarship to a ritzy private Connecticut high school, which in turn led her to university in the ’80s, where she got a degree in anthropology. She told PBS’ Tavis Smiley that the contrast between the poor, largely Black neighborhood she grew up in and the wealthy and largely-White schools she attended later on had a major influence on how she saw life, and the music she listened to.

After university, she’d become a popular cafe performer in Boston when she got signed to Elektra Records, who went out on a bit of a limb. As journalist Siobhan O’Neill reminds us, in the late-’80s artists like Tiffany, Whitney and Roxette were the rage and “a young Black woman singing socially-aware folk tunes about poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence was the polar opposite of what was topping the charts.” Nonetheless, Elektra gave her room to do her thing, and it paid off. Her self-titled debut album hit #1 in a range of countries, including the U.S., where it’s 6X platinum, the UK, Canada and Germany, helped along greatly by the world-weary “Fast Car”, a top 10 hit throughout much of the world. The song about the struggling waitress with hope for a better tomorrow won her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Performance and helped her snag the Best New Artist one as well, while across the sea, she took home Brit Awards for Best International Female Artist and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Around that time, she was involved in playing Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party and concerts for Amnesty International. As VH1 point out, “along with 10 000 Maniacs and R.E.M., Chapman’s liberal politics proved enormously influential on American campuses.”

Although she failed to capture lightning in a jar again – none of her seven subsequent studio albums were chart-topping, although her next three or four still earned various platinum awards – she remained popular throughout the ’90s and as allmusic say, “helped restore singer-songwriters to the spotlight.” Fittingly, she was one of the headliners during the first Lilith Fair tour.

Chapman’s been pretty quiet for over a decade, save for a Greatest Hits CD in 2015, which included a popular live performance of “Stand By Me” she’d done on Letterman’s show. Since then the only time she’s been in music news was when she sued rapper Nicki Minaj for sampling her song “Baby Can I Hold You” on one of her records. Although a judge refused to block Minaj from releasing her own song, she did pay Chapman $450 000 to avoid a trial. However, the private Chapman (she says “I have a public life, that’s my work and my private life.”) is still involved in a number of human rights’ charities, advocating on behalf of her Cleveland’s public schools and even being a judge at the Sundance film Festival.

March 3 – The Song So Nice He Got Sued For Playing It Twice

“Mr. Swamp Rock” has his first solo top 10 hit on this day in 1985. John Fogerty had been the voice of and lead guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival, the California band which somehow defined the sound of the southeastern backwoods, with hits like “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” and “Bad Moon Rising” (they also have the distinction of having the most songs hit #2 in the U.S. without a #1 hit – five). After a couple of relatively unnoticed solo albums in the ’70s, and a nine year hiatus, he hit gold again with his album Centerfield.

The epitome of a solo record, John played all the instruments on it and produced it himself, and the single “Old Man Down the Road” was his biggest hit since CCR had broken up. The title track, it’s worth noting, wasn’t a huge seller as a single but remains a radio staple and earned him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame, a rarity for a musician and quite an honor for the big baseball fan. He got to play the track at the Hall of Fame ceremony in 2010, in front of Andre Dawson, a centerfielder being inducted that day!

As for his top 10 hit, the only person not digging it was Saul Zaentz of Fantasy Records, CCR’s old label. There was no love lost between the two, and Fogerty had put a pointed song on the album entitled “Zanz Kant Danz”, complete with a claymation  video featuring a thieving pig. The old boss sued Fogerty for plagiarizing himself, saying “Old Man Down the Road” was the same as “Run Through the Jungle”, a song Fogerty had written for CCR which Fantasy owned the rights to. Fogerty prevailed when he pulled out his guitar and played both songs in front of the judge!

Disappointingly though, John’s popularity as a solo performer hasn’t had the same universality of CCR’s; though he’s put out seven more albums since – the last being 2020’s Fogerty’s Factory – only two have hit gold status at home and he made the Top 20 singles chart only once more, and that with another song off Centerfield, “Rock and Roll Girls.

March 10 – Thicke Had To Give It Up…To Marvin

Sending birthday wishes along to Robin Thicke today. Robin’s turning 44 and isn’t the typical type of artist we look at much here, being a modern day star who straddles the hip hop and R&B line. But he undeniably has some talent, and he had one memorable birthday that involves one of the earlier greats of music – Marvin Gaye.

Thicke seemed an obvious candidacy for stardom ever since young. He grew up in L.A. with his father, actor/game show host Alan Thicke and mother Gloria Loring, an ’80s soap opera star who also had a hit record in her 1986 duet “Friends and Lovers.” And indeed, Robin got into acting as a child. He also learned piano and formed a boy band, As One, as a teenager. That caught the attention of Al Jarreau, who helped get Thicke signed to Interscope Records while still a teenager. Thicke learned production skills and wrote some songs for early-21st Century R&B and pop acts like Christina Aguilera, Brandy and Color Me Badd. Soon he began recording records himself. He was doing alright but was far from a household name, until 2013, when he got together with Pharrell Williams and a rapper called T.I. They put out the single called “Blurred Lines”, and it took off. The song hit #1 in the U.S., UK and over twenty other countries and went on to sell some 14 million copies (mainly through downloads). Although with downright misogynistic lyrics which many read as condoning rape or certainly taking advantage of drunken “good girls”, many didn’t care. (Williams initially tried to defend it as pro-women but eventually gave up.) It was the dance hit of the year and the anthem for party-going youth. And it sounded like an old Marvin Gaye song – “Got To Give It Up.” It sounded a whole lot like it in fact. Of course, Gaye wasn’t a stranger to controversial lyrics. “Got to Give It Up” came sandwiched between two very racy tunes, “Let’s Get it On” and “Sexual Healing” in his list of smash hits.

“Got to Give It Up” was Marvin Gaye’s 1977 attempt at honoring Motown’s request of him in putting out a disco record . It had become his third American #1 single. It lived on not only on radio but in a host of movies including Boogie Nights and Eat Pray Love. Not surprisingly, “Blurred Lines” got noticed by the late singer’s family. Although Marvin’s song had been copied in general style before – most noticeably by Michael Jackson in “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” – never had it been as blatantly ripped-off. The Gaye estate sued Thicke and Williams for copyright infringement. Not surprisingly, the writers/singers denied any sort of plagiarism, although Thicke admitted that “Gaye’s music was a part of the soundtrack of my youth.” Unfortunately (or really, fortunately perhaps) people remembered hearing Thicke say he and Williams had heard the Marvin song while they were in the studio and he’d told Pharrell “damn! We should make something like that.” Which brings us to his birthday.

On this day in 2015, Robin’s 38th birthday, a jury found the pair guilty of stealing Gaye’s music for “Blurred Lines.” They wanted to award the Gaye’s $7.4 million in damages; the judge seemed to give a little birthday gift to the singer by reducing that to about $5.3M. In addition, the Gaye family will get 50% of all future royalties from the song. However, the way it was broken down, Thicke had to pay the lion’s share of the damages, with Williams and the publishing house responsible for about a third of the total.

So that was that…right? Well, no. Are legal issues like this ever simple? Williams eventually disowned the song (which of course didn’t absolve him of legal debts because of it) but Thicke appealed the verdict. He lost. And to top it off, his writing partner became the poster boy for the “People Who Don’t Know When To Shut Up” movement by telling GQ magazine that they did knowingly copy the old Motown single. At last word, a new lawsuit had been launched by the Gaye estate, charging that Pharrell commit perjury and asking for all their prior legal expenses to be covered by him and Thicke.

Lately the “soulful” singer has been working as a judge on the TV show The Masked Singer. Making it likely his 44th will be happier than his 38th birthday. and proving sometimes you can mask the identity of a singer, but seldom do you mask the identity of a song someone else had made a hit.

March 3 – The Bittersweet Story Of A Number 1 Smash

A song with a “bittersweet” backstory involving lawsuits. The Verve release their biggest single by far, “Bittersweet Symphony” in North America (a few months after it was out in the UK) this day in 1998. In Britain, where they were already popular, it was massive. In North America, where they’d been unknown, the song hit top 5 in charts, helped the Urban Hymns album it came off be certified platinum in the U.S. while it went on to be huge in their homeland. In fact the album topped the Brit charts for twelve weeks in total and is among the 20 biggest-sellers of all-time.

However, the lush strings that open the single cost the band – big time! They sampled them from a version of a Rolling Stones song played by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. Oldman had been a manager of the Rolling Stones and even though The Verve thought they’d legally bought the rights to the song for use in “Bittersweet Symphony”, Oldham’s successor with the Stones, Allen Klein sued. Courts agreed and credited the Rolling Stones as a co-writer and unbelievably, gave Klein all the royalties for the song save for $1000 to the band for playing it! Oldham quipped “if the Verve can write a bigger song, they can keep the money.” Keith Richards joked it was his biggest hit since “Brown Sugar” and went out of his way to note it wasn’t him or Mick suing the much-less-wealthy band. Something singer Richard Ashcroft of the Verve acknowledged. “I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock & roll band in the world.”

But as for Klein, he sniped “someone stole God knows how many million dollars from me in 1997, and they’ve still got it.” Like the band says in the song “It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life/try to make ends meet/ you’re a slave to the money then you die!”  However, there is a bit of a happy postscript to the story. In 2019, when Ashcroft picked up an Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement in Britain he announced “Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing rights to ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do.” So it would seem the estate of the late Allen Klein won’t continue to get richer courtesy of The Verve. It isn’t clear however if the band will be able to collect any of the royalties they lost over the past twenty years. Bittersweet indeed.

February 27 – Sundown On Gord’s Marriage Equaled Sunrise On Big Career

If you could read the Billboard charts, you’d have seen that Canadian newcomer Gordon Lightfoot was doing pretty well 50 years ago today. His first American hit, “If You Could Read My Mind” had peaked at #5 this day in 1971. Earlier the song had hit the top of the charts in his homeland, where the folkster was already a bit of a big deal.

The song was from Gord’s fifth album, but first on the Reprise label who’d spared no expense in the recording of it in L.A. Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and John Sebastian are among the other musicians who appear on the record, but for this song a more basic arrangement was used, with Gord on guitars and a number of violins arranged by Nick Decaro.

Simple in production and obvious in theme, the lyrics though showcased Lightfoot’s talents with words and crafting memorable melodies. The song was inspired by his own divorce and written “sitting in a vacant Toronto house.” One might surmise with lyrics like “I’d walk away like a movie star, who gets burned in a three-way script” that the first Mrs. L left him for another man. Probably her loss but the public’s gain.

The album it came from was initially titled Sit Down Young Stranger, but Reprise quickly renamed it If You Could Read My Mind when the single became a worldwide hit. The album got to #12 in the U.S., where he was being compared to a northern Bob Dylan, and #20 in Australia. At home, it hit #8 during its run of nearly a year-and-a-half on the sales chart. The record also contained his go at “Me and Bobby McGee” which did well on country charts.

The Dylan comparison is all the more apt since Bob himself has commented that when he “first heard a Lightfoot song” he “wished it would last forever.” Since then he’s had some 15 top 40 hits and a double-platinum greatest hits album at home and been awarded the Governor General’s Award, the highest honor for Canadian entertainers, as well a similar accolade from Queen Elizabeth.

And if you find yourself thinking, “that song sounds vaguely familiar even though I haven’t heard Gord singing it for awhile”, you may be right. It’s been covered by artists including Liza Minelli, Glen Campbell and, most powerfully, Johnny Cash since. Then there’s Whitney.

In 1987, Gordon had sued Michael Masser, not exactly a household name, for plagiarism. Masser had composed the song “The Greatest Love of All”, a platinum selling single for Whitney Houston the year before. Lightfoot explained “it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t want the present day generation to think that I stole my song from him.” Eventually he dropped the lawsuit as he thought it was doing more to harm Whitney than the actual writer; at that point Masser apologized publicly for the faux pas. Ironically, Duran Duran have said that the chorus of “Save a Prayer” was loosely based on the melody to “If You Could Read My Mind” as well, but didn’t get sued. Perhaps ‘fessing up is the best policy…because who knows if people could read your mind?

February 22 – When Radiohead Began To ‘Creep’ Into Pop Consciousness

Sweet ! It’s the 28th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most critically-acclaimed careers in recent history – Radiohead. They released their major label debut, Pablo Honey on this day in 1993. Although contemporaries of Oasis and Blur, the guitar rock on this one didn’t have a lot in common with those Britpop acts and the further into the career they would go, the less they’d fit in that grouping. Many sat up and took notice; few imagined how inventive and, well, odd the band would become.

Radiohead had been around, more or less, for about eight years by this time. They’d started as a group called On A Friday when members Thom Yorke, Colin and Johnny Greenway, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien met at a boy’s school in Oxford, England. By the time of Pablo Honey, they’d taken their current name, become local faves and put out a grungy EP called Drill (if you have one of the 3000 copies made, it would sell for about $123 online.) EMI Records had big hopes for the band, so much so that they put the release out on the Parlophone label, commonly associated with the early days of The Beatles. They weren’t let down.

Although off the bat, the album did fairly well on alternative rock radio, and was a top 30 hit in the UK,(it peaked at #32 in the U.S.) it certainly got the band attention and opened the door wide for their later releases, like OK Computer, a #1 hit in their homeland, and 2000’s Kid A which even topped American charts. In time, the debut went platinum in the US an double that in the UK and Canada, largely on the strength of a song the band hates! Thom Yorke says he wrote “Creep” in a drunken haze about a “man lacking confidence “ to approach women. He and his mates ended up thinking the song “crap” but it was the lead single and it the top 10 in Britain and Australia and #2 on American alternative charts – after the label had released a radio-friendly version changing the F-word to “Very” in the chorus (as in “you’re so VERY special”). As if the fact that the band apparently didn’t even like the song that made them famous wasn’t enough, they’d soon end up in court over it. Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood sued for plagiarism, thinking it borrowed too heavily from the song “Air That I Breathe” which they wrote for the Hollies. Courts agreed, that pair were added in to the writing credits and got some of Radiohead’s earnings from it. (In time, Radiohead would curiously enough sue Lana Del Ray who they claim plagiarized “Creep”.) A little less successful but at least not lawsuit-inducing was the grungy second single off the album, “Anyone Can Play Guitar.”

While later releases by the band were often ethereal and electronic, this one had a good deal of guitar and basic rock Rolling Stone, when they reviewed the album months later, compared them to The Who (!) while Q thought them similar to Nirvana and Sugar. Whatever the comparison, most liked the effort. The NME pointed out that they were “one of rock’s largest hypes” but still gave the album 7 out of 10, predicting the band’s “talents will really blossom later on.” Rolling Stone gave it a 5-star rating, saying “Radiohead warrant watching,” and even Billboard weighed in saying “certain tracks might remind listeners of U2” and that they produced “excitement enough to heat up the target radio markets.” That they did, and would do for the better part of two decades.

November 23 – George’s Lord, He’s So Fine!

”My Lord”… talk about mixed blessings. George Harrison took a giant leap forward and made a massive mistake all at the same time 50 years ago. “My Sweet Lord” was released as a single this day in 1970. It was his first single, from the great triple-album All Things Must Pass, which although his third was his first solo release since the breakup of the Beatles.

Of course, calling it a “solo” is a bit misleading, and probably wouldn’t have been his own description of the record. He had a bevy of friends along working on the record with him. On this song alone, besides George and his singing plus slide guitar, all four members of Badfinger played (three on guitar, one on drums), as did Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton on guitars, Gary Wright and Billy Preston both played keyboards. And that’s only a partial list. It was co-produced by Phil Spector, and even though he was famous for his “Wall of Sound” production, he found it a bit overwhelming. “It took about 12 hours to overdub the guitar solos,” he said, “perfectionism isn’t the word. He was beyond that.” But as demanding as he was, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, who worked on some other songs on the album, remembers “all the time that I ever knew him, (George) was a wonderful man” and added that various Hare Krishnas would pop into the studio in their white robes at times and hand out cookies.

Of course, the result was well-worth it, a record that seemed worthy of Harrison’s message. He said it was a call to unite religions and have people be thankful no matter how they might worship. “All of us – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists – can address our gods in the same way, using the same phrase,” he explained. He’d gotten the idea that he wanted to write a spiritual song, and came up with “My Sweet Lord” while in Denmark with Clapton and Preston the year before. He hadn’t even intended to record it, initially, so he let Billy Preston release a version before All Things Must Pass came out. In the end he got a spiritual tune with a pop feel… too much of a pop feel, as it turned out.

Now when his album was ready for release, he wanted no singles. He figured people should experience it all as one work, and perhaps didn’t even want to show favoritism to one of his songs over another. Of course Apple Records saw it differently and needed something to get on radio for Christmas time to spur on sales. Harrison relented somewhat, and “My Sweet Lord” was released in North America, with “Isn’t It a Pity?” on the other side. Although the former was the real hit, he considered it a two-sided single, just as so many of the Beatles 7” records had been. He got his way initially in Britain, with the company waiting until 1971 to release the single there.

Reaction was great. Billboard declared it “a powerhouse two-sided winner.” The UK’s NME said it “establishes George as a talent equivalent to either Lennon or McCartney.” Later Elton John would declare it the last great song of its era and say the first time he heard it, “you know when a record starts on the radio and it’s great and you think ‘Oh, What is This?’”… that’s what “My Sweet Lord” was to him. “The only other record I ever felt that way about was ‘Brown Sugar’”.

Many people felt that way too. The song quickly hit #1 in North America, and then the next year became the biggest-selling single of the year in Britain. It topped German charts for 10-straight weeks. It won the Ivor Novello Award for most played record of the year. In time, it sold beyond 10 million copies, making it in all likelihood the biggest-selling single ever by a Beatle after that band’s days were done.

So all was great, right? Well, not quite so fast. Just as the reviews loved the song, several of them, notably Rolling Stone and the NME also pointed out that it bore more than a passing similarity in tune to the 1963 Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine.” One wonders how Spector didn’t notice it and tell George something, or for that mater as Harrison himself would later ask “why didn’t I realize?”

Not surprisingly, he, and Apple Records, were sued. Now the writer of the Chiffons hit,Ronnie Mack, had died young of cancer around the time that song became a hit. So a record publisher, Bright Tunes filed suit against Harrison only weeks after “My Sweet Lord” hit the charts. What followed was…messy to say the least. And complicated and lengthy. It involved different courts and ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein at first representing Harrison, then being replaced… an entire book could be written about the proceedings, which dragged on into 1976. George actually thought if he used any tune for a base, it was the old hymn “Oh Happy Day.”

In the end, Harrison lost. The judge, Richard Owen, himself a composer, said “did he deliberately use the music of ‘He’s So Fine’? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘My Sweet Lord’ is the very same song as ‘He’s So Fine’ with different words…this is under the law an infringement of copyright.” Harrison had to pay approximately $1.6 million, which was 3/4 of the North American royalties from the single and some of the album’s sales too. However, the case dragged on more and after appeals, that amount was reduced to approximately $587 000, with other courts finding Judge Owen’s finding overly harsh and also finding that Klein was negligent in his defense of Harrison.

The whole thing left the ex-Beatle understandably upset and “paranoid”. He said “99% of the popular music that is heard is reminiscent of something or other”. He had trouble writing any material for several years as a result. And one would think he worked as a cautionary tale for other artists in the future. Or at least those not called Radiohead or Vanilla Ice.

June 23 – Zeppelin’s Spirit Prevailed In Court

What could be better than writing a nice little instrumental piece that would obscurely blend into a prog rock album that would sell in the tens of thousands? Hmm…maybe writing a rock classic that would be spun millions of times on radio and help sell over 10 million copies of its album?

We don’t claim to be psychic, but this might have been a little of the mentality that came into play last decade… and which made Led Zeppelin happy four years ago. It was on this day in 2016 that Zep won the first of two court cases that had been launched against them by a relatively-obscure band called Spirit.

The California band from the ’60s, described by allmusic as an “ambitious and acclaimed West Coast psychedelic band” got to thinking that their little 1968 instrumental “Taurus” sounded a great deal like the opening to “Stairway to Heaven” (released three years later) and decided to sue for plagiarism. The instrumental was written by Spirit’s guitarist, Randy Wolfe (who at the time went by Randy “California”) but he’d passed away almost two decades earlier, so the band’s bassist Mark Anders sued Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (listed as the songwriters for “Stairway to Heaven”) on his estate’s behalf. Although no lawsuit was launched in Wolfe’s lifetime, he had written in liner notes to a re-release of their album that he thought his song sounded similar to the Zeppelin staple. The lawsuit was in 2014, in Pennsylvania. Plant and Page responded that they hadn’t plagiarized the song and weren’t aware of the Spirit song until 2014. That was in legal papers they filed in California. Two years later, it finally went to trial in L.A., and made a lot of lawyers richer.

Jimmy Page showed up with his guitar, but unlike a similar lawsuit involving John Fogerty, he didn’t have to play it… perhaps to the jury’s chagrin. The trial took nine days, and focused on the similar chord structure and the two band’s histories. Turns out they did play a show together in 1969 so they knew each other, and somewhere along the line Page had bought some Spirit records which he admitted were in his collection. Robert Plant was asked if he recalled the show they did together and responded that “I don’t have recollection of most anyone I’ve hung out with” back then. John Paul Jones, not being sued as he wasn’t a listed writer of “Stairway to Heaven”, showed up too for moral support and testified that he’d never heard Page mention Spirit and agreed with Jimmy that the song skeleton was a “chord sequence that had been around forever.” Spirit countered with a respected musicologist, Kevin Hanson who said “to my ear they sound like one piece of music.” Oddly, neither record was played in the trial; due to the age of “Taurus”, it was ruled that only sheet music was admissable. The law had been changed in ’72 to allow sound recordings as well, but the judge ruled that because both came out prior to that change, the records themselves were irrelevant. The things lawyers have to know!

Which led to this day in ’16, when the jury found Led Zeppelin not guilty of copyright infringement and plagiarism. No doubt Zeppelin partied like it was 1999, considering Pharrell and Robin Thicke had just had to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate $5 million in a similar lawsuit they lost, involving a song (Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”) which hadn’t been as massive as “Stairway to Heaven.”

And that was the end of it, right? If you think so, you don’t know the American legal system! Spirit appealed and another judge ruled that the first one had erred with his instructions to the jury and that the sound recordings should have been played also because the law should be interpreted as it is now not when the recordings were made. They also thought that he should have invoked the “inverse ratio rule”, which in effect says that the bar of proof be set lower if a relationship between the two parties could be shown.

So back to court they all went, and finally earlier this year the new court of appeals found once again that Led Zeppelin hadn’t plagiarized Spirit. The judge said “the trial and appeal process has been a long climb up the Stairway to Heaven.” Zep posted a statement saying “we are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and are pleased it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about teh origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’”.

The moral of the story seems to be if you want to start a band, make sure you have a good lyricist, a player with a good ear for melody… and a good lawyer!

January 16 – Wings High Over Japan

Not one of Paul McCartney‘s finer hours 40 years ago.

Arriving with his band Wings in Tokyo this day in 1980 to kick off what would have been an 11-show tour of Japan culminating with 4 concerts at the famous Budokan Hall, he was arrested at the airport with almost half a pound of marijuana. He recalls that the security officer “looked more embarrassed than me” and says in retrospect he had no idea how stern Japanese laws regarding drugs were. He was whisked away to jail and spent over nine days in a small cell before being released and deported.

It wasn’t the first time “Mac” had troubles from his love of pot; he’d been fined in Sweden in 1972 for it and in Scotland in 1973 for growing it and his wife Linda was charged at L.A. airport in 1975 for trying to bring some into the country.

Although the Japanese didn’t press charges in the long run, they did briefly ban all of his music from their radio and TV and the Wings tour was canceled, resulting in a costly refund for over 100 000 tickets. Coupled with bad reviews for the 1979 Back to the Egg album (Rolling Stone called it “the sorriest grab bag of dreck in recent memory”) it was supposed to promote, the band got their noses out of “joint” and soon after broke up. Denny Laine, ex of the Moody Blues and Wings’ guitarist (and sometimes additional bassist to Paul as well) had put out a solo record by year’s end and soon McCartney would be doing the same.