Last September Bob Dylan lashed out memorably at those who noticed similarities between his work and others’. Dylanologists will know that he’s been dogged by accusations of plagiarism at least as early as his Freewheelin’ days and will accept that the appropriation of idiom and folk tradition is what the pop culture process is all about. But Dylan’s full songwriting claim for his recent “Soon After Midnight,” in which he purloins the entire chord structure of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “New Shade of Blue” is kind of outrageous, and I’m stunned that only a few muffled “wussies” in comments sections of the online wilderness have taken notice of this. “New Shade of Blue” songwriters Bobby Fuller and Mary Stone have both passed on, but giving them a bit of songwriting credit where it’s due shouldn’t strike anyone as being an unnecessary gesture.
[P.S. Remember when Dylan gave Rod Stewart the business over "Forever Young"? Quoting myself: "Rod got in trouble ... in ‘88 when his 'Forever Young' irritated Bob Dylan, whose own 'Forever Young' was an obvious influence. So the two mammoths ended up splitting the royalties. No compensation for those of us who were irritated by the song in general."]
The Bobby Fuller Four - “A New Shade of Blue” (1966) (excerpt)
Songwriting credits: Bobby Fuller and Mary Stone
Bob Dylan - “Soon After Midnight” (2012) (excerpt)
Songwriting credits: Bob Dylan
George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” is the most notorious borrowed tune in record biz history due to its decades-long slog through courts concerning its similarities to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” Most fascinating to me, though, are the possible effects the lawsuit had on the creativity of such an inventive songwriter. The “My Sweet Lord” saga likely informs everything Harrison wrote from 1971 onward, and musicologists would do well to remember that.
An opinionated timeline:
1962 – “He’s So Fine,” a song written by Ronnie Mack and recorded by the Chiffons, is released in December and tops the US Billboard charts for five weeks in early ‘63. It also hits #12 in the UK.
1967 – “Oh Happy Day,” a gospel recording by the Edwin Hawkins Singers that updates an 18th century hymn, is released. By 1969, it has become a #4 hit in the US and a #2 hit in the UK. Its influence on Harrison would become a forgotten factor in the creation of “My Sweet Lord.”
1970 – Billy Preston releases the first version of “My Sweet Lord,” which is credited to George Harrison as writer and producer.
1970 – George Harrison releases his own recording of “My Sweet Lord” in November, which reaches #1 in both the US and UK the following year. During recording sessions for “My Sweet Lord,” Harrison and producer Phil Spector are likely aware of the song’s exuberant similarities to the recent public domain hit, “Oh Happy Day.” This awareness deflects notice, perhaps, of the song’s similarities to “He’s So Fine.” (How else to explain it? Spector had major girl group credentials, and it shouldn’t have been lost on him.)
1971 – In February, Bright Tunes Music, the company that owns “He’s So Fine” circa 1971, files suit against Harrison for plagiarism. It is unclear whether the suit was common knowledge before 1976, when stories about it finally appeared in Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times.
1971 – Harrison releases “Bangla Desh,” which features complicated, non-intuitive chord changes and low memorability. This song’s dour, uninviting demeanor perhaps responds to the lawsuit as much as it does to the devastating famine in Bangla Desh.
1971 – American country singer Jody Miller releases a version of “He’s So Fine” featuring an arrangement borrowed from “My Sweet Lord” that verges on mockery. The song reaches #5 on the Billboard country singles chart and #53 on the Hot 100.
1973-1976 – George Harrison releases Living in the Material World (1973), Dark Horse (1974), Extra Texture (1975), and Thirty-Three and 1/3 (1976), albums that each include one or two memorable tracks among a majority of (deliberately?) unmemorable ones.
1975 - The Chiffons stir the pot with their own cover version of “My Sweet Lord”
1976 - Harrison is found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” by the United States District Court with damages of $1.6 million. Harrison later admits to having become “paranoid” about writing anything new.
1978 - Allen Klein, Harrison’s diabolical former business advisor, buys Bright Tunes and offers it to Harrison for $1.6 million.
1981 - Judges decide Klein has been duplicitous and order him to transfer ownership of Bright Tunes to Harrison for half a million. Although Harrison is now the rightful owner of “He’s So Fine,” legal dickering regarding administrative fees and the like carries over into the 1990s.
2001 - Harrison releases an updated version of “My Sweet Lord” as a bonus track on the All Things Must Pass CD reissue. His new vocal dances purposefully around the original melody in a way that likely would not have attracted a lawsuit back in ‘71.
I’m trying to contain the venom over this only because the Evil Beach Boy show at the Backyard in Austin on Oct. 6 had an association with firefighter-related events. My irritation with Mike Love at the moment, though, is particularly high. Everyone who bought tickets early to this show had no reason to believe it would not be the feel-good, reunited version of the Beach Boys who would be playing. By the time news of Mike Love’s firing-or-whatever of Brian, Al and David (first reported in the Sep. 20 Los Angeles Times) reached ticket buyers like myself, though, there was no hope in getting refunds from Extreme Tix (who apparently did offer them until the 21st), and certainly not the Backyard, who claimed complete innocence. I tried selling my tickets for half price through Craig’s List, which was overrun with this particular product. I also made a valiant effort to give them away. No takers. I can only hope that my two empty seats - and those of any other partners in suckerdom - were glaring.
I’ll share a personal quandary with you. When I was very young and first learned about God as a man who lived very far away and loved His children very much but also expected much from them, I never once thought about this man as someone with a white beard and robe. I thought of Him as the cosmic, clean-cut personage pictured on a specific record in my earthly father’s record collection - Pat Williams’s Think. This conception has proven to be a complex one for me over the years and I may yet attempt to unravel it in writing, but not now. It makes me wonder, though, whether one’s first distinct visual conception of God is a key factor in one’s future religious behavior. Kinda makes you think.
One of my favorite “borrowed tunes” is Shocking Blue’s “Venus” (1969), which was lifted from the Big 3’s 1963 version of “Oh Susannah,” which they called “The Banjo Song.” I like how Neil Young’s new version of “Oh Susannah” is directly inspired by “The Banjo Song.” I like the fact that many people who listen to it will think that Neil’s lifting from Shocking Blue. I also like how Neil once had a group called the Shocking Pinks and he will now be accused of lifting from Shocking Blue, who were actually lifting from the Big 3. I also like how I lifted my “Borrowed Tunes” heading from a Neil Young song he lifted from the Rolling Stones.
Number of years after signing with Chess (1956) that the Four Tops finally signed with Motown (1963): 7.
Number of Four Tops songs to crack the Billboard Top Ten: 7 (”I Can’t Help Myself” - #1, “Same Old Song” - #5, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” - #1, “Standing in the Shadows of Love” - #6, “Bernadette” - #4, “Keeper of the Castle” - #10, “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” - #4).
Number of Four Tops charting hits to feature a number: 3. The number featured: 7 (”7 Rooms of Gloom,” “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life),” “Seven Lonely Nights”).
Numbers featured in two albums recorded by the Four Tops/Supremes supergroup: 7 (The Magnificent 7, The Return of the Magnificent Seven).
Billboard’s “Hits of the World” (2/28/70, p. 65) shows Robin Gibb’s “Saved By the Bell” as the only non-Yugoslav Top Ten entry. I must admit, though, that J.J. Light’s “Heya” appearing at #9 in Switzerland is what really has me swooning.
Full page Rig ad from the May 23, 1970 issue (p. 73) (click to enlarge).
The cassette version of Aja I used to listen to in my teens had a totally different song sequence from the LP version. Still don’t know what the reasoning was behind that. I maintain that not only should the cassette sequencing for Pretzel Logic become the standard version, but also that the cassette sequencing for both Aja and Can’t Buy a Thrill are much stronger and more sensible than the LPs.
All the Steely Dan albums through Gaucho, incidentally, had weird cassette vs. LP sequence discrepancies. Gaucho is actually the one Steely Dan album that I feel strongly about as having a better LP lineup. But again, why the difference in the first place?
Aja (LP): Side 1 - Black Cow; Aja; Deacon Blues. Side 2 - Peg; Home at Last; I Got the News; Josie.
Aja (Cassette): Side 1 - Aja; Deacon Blues; Josie. Side 2 - Black Cow; I Got the News; Peg; Home at Last.
Gaucho (LP): Side 1 - Babylon Sisters; Hey Nineteen; Glamour Profession. Side 2 - Gaucho; Time Out of Mind; My Rival; Third World Man.
Gaucho (8-Track): 1 - Babylon Sisters; Time Out of Mind. 2 - Gaucho; My Rival. 3 - Hey Nineteen; Third World Man. 4 - Glamour Profession.