Copyright: the great rock’n’roll swindle

In One for the Money, Clinton Heylin reveals how musicians are constantly stealing songs from each other — and then suing for ownership

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

It’s One for the Money: The Song Snatchers Who Carved Up a Century of Pop & Sparked a Musical Revolution Clinton Heylin

Constable, pp.461, £20, ISBN: 9781472111906

For a music fan, the quiz question, ‘Who wrote “This Land is Your Land”?’ might seem laughably easy. Yet if you answered ‘Woody Guthrie’, I’m afraid you only get half marks. Guthrie did write the lyrics, but following his normal practice he set them to an existing melody — in this case that of the Carter Family’s ‘When the World’s on Fire’, which they’d got from their friend Lesley Riddle, who may well have found it somewhere else. None of which, in 2004, stopped Guthrie’s copyright-holders from threatening a satirical website with a lawsuit when, like Guthrie himself, it put new words to the same tune.

And if that doesn’t sound shameless enough, try this. In 2000, the Rolling Stones were sued for having recorded unattributed versions of songs by the pre-war bluesman Robert Johnson, even though Johnson hadn’t written them either. He’d merely recorded unattributed versions of them — which under the 1976 copyright law now being retrospectively applied to the Stones’ 1960s work meant that he’d been as guilty of theft as they were. (Essentially the law stated that recording an uncopyrighted song was the same as publishing it — and several of Johnson’s songs had already been recorded by others.)

Nonetheless, the money still had to paid to Johnson’s ‘estate’. An old bloke called Claud, whose legal status as Johnson’s heir was established on the evidence of

the elderly Eula Mae Williams, a childhood friend of Claud Johnson’s mother, Virgie Jane Smith Cain… [who] testified that she had watched Cain and Robert Johnson having sex in a wooded area in… 1931, which, nine months later, led to the birth of Claud.

Clinton Heylin’s book is packed with examples such as these of what strange things can happen when popular music and copyright law collide. Throughout the 20th century, he argues, songwriters happily borrowed, were influenced by or just nicked other songwriters’ ideas. (One of the book’s more unexpected snippets is that the Sex Pistols stole the introduction to ‘Pretty Vacant’ from Abba’s ‘SOS’.) But, because the serious money has always been in song publishing, this has not only created some great music. It’s also given record company types endless opportunities for unscrupulous profit.

Heylin begins with W.C. Handy, the man usually called — not least by W.C. Handy — ‘the father of the blues’. Handy may not have composed many of the songs he came to own, but he did have an undeniable gift for transcribing them and plonking his name on the top. Of course, it helped that he was working in what had till then been largely an oral tradition — something that also benefitted the folkies of the 1950s and 1960s, whose preferred credit of ‘Trad. arr.…’ often extended to songs identifiably composed by other people. (Heylin is particularly withering about Pete Seeger for combining this tactic with an undimmed left-wing sanctimony.) A more common habit of the time, meanwhile, was simply for the guys in suits to issue contracts that required their names to be added to all songwriting credits.

Heylin certainly makes a strong case for copyright law as the unseen force behind many aspects of pop history, including what he regards as its sad decline. The ever-increasing rigour with which American courts have applied the 1976 law, he suggests, is why pop music has never again hit its 1960s heights, when Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones were free to prove that ‘interesting people steal more interestingly’.

If this makes It’s One for the Money sound like a book with an arresting central thesis and lots of fascinating details, then that wouldn’t be inaccurate. But nor, unfortunately, would it be the whole truth. For one thing, there’s no shortage of boring details either, as Heylin ploddingly traces the antecedents of almost every song he mentions, however obscure. For another, the arresting thesis is left mostly to the final chapter, where Heylin writes that ‘I hereby reveal that what you have been reading … is one long love letter to creative thievery’ — something that does come as a genuine revelation rather than, say, the logical conclusion to the previous 400 pages. (At the time, they seemed more like a highly knowledgeable muso rambling on about whatever interested him.)

And, like so many otherwise intelligent music books, this one is too often written in a kind of — or, as Heylin would have it, ‘kinda’ — parody of old-school rock-writer prose, where jovial archaisms (‘methinks’, ‘pray tell’) bump up against dated hipster slang (as well as ‘kinda’, we get regular helpings of ‘gonna’, ‘coupla’ and ‘helluva’). ‘Magic Bus’, a typical sentence informs us, ‘restored The ’Oo to chart favour on both sides of the pond… in one swell foop’.

Still, if you can put up with all this, you’ll be rewarded not just with a convincing slice of alternative history, but also with a terrific guide to the evolution of the popular song more generally. In other words, one of the most infuriating things of all about It’s One for the Money is that, however infuriated you become, it’s always well worth reading on.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Charlie Harris (No Relation)

    “One of the book’s more unexpected snippets is that the Sex Pistols stole the introduction to ‘Pretty Vacant’ from Abba’s ‘SOS’”

    It’s unexpected because it’s not quite true, as anybody could hear if they listened to the two songs. If the Sex Pistols were thinking of ‘SOS’ when they started writing ‘Pretty Vacant’, they obviously dropped any derivative sections before recording it or more likely, they removed notes until they could correctly play it, by which time it was a new passage of music.

    • red2black

      “Cheap holidays in other people’s misery…” Love it. Does anyone really believe that Mr Rotten would have stooped so low as to nicking a tune?
      “There’s no point in asking… You’ll get no reply…” (tee hee)

    • Ahobz

      Sounds like 1,1, 4, 4 b3,b3 to me in A. On a guitar this is all played on the fifth string open, fifth fret, third fret. It’s the first three notes on the blues scale and is a bit of a guitar cliche and easy to play if you are a bit of a beginner. SOS is the same notes on a piano, but with extra twiddly bits. Maybe SOS was written on a guitar.

      • Sten vs Bren

        “Sounds like 1,1, 4, 4 b3,b3 to me in A.”

        It’s three tones played as crotchets. The lowest A on the guitar, an octave above and a fifth above (E).

        AA AA AA EE repeat.

        I don’t see that this is a feature of SOS.

        I’ve seen the composer interviewed. From what I could gather, he was trying to play SOS and this three note riff came out. It’s more like ‘Diddley Daddy’ by Bo Diddley.

        • Game Bird

          Can you play the guitar?

          • Dan O’Connor

            You can be his groupie.

          • Game Bird

            Well I would never join your far right group Dan.
            Most of us wouldn’t.

          • Dan O’Connor

            I was a Left Liberal in the late 60’s .
            Then, like millions of other people, I woke up 50 years later in 2015 to find myself occupying the ” far right ”
            How did this happen ? That whizzing sound we heard was the ideological / cultural / philosophical centre ground lurching over to the CultMarx Left .
            I didn’t move , the ideological centre did .

          • Sten vs Bren

            “I was a Left Liberal in the late 60’s ”

            Ah! That explains a lot. So, you’ve never actually been worth listening to.

          • Game Bird

            Here’s a piece of music to chill you mind:


          • Sten vs Bren

            Can you act the goat?

          • Game Bird

            I’ve just had to look the expression up:

            Yes I can, I enjoy it too, but that was a serious question as I love the sound of the guitar.

  • Lancastrian_Oik

    The intro to “Pretty Vacant” is more like “Shakin’ All Over” than “SOS”.

    Blues and folk songs were part of an oral tradition, so it’s hardly surprising that many variants, all based on an idea the origins of which are lost or obscured, exist. “Dust My Blues/Broom”, “Matchbox Blues”… the list is endless.

    Somewhere in the vinyl vault I have a Louis Jordan And His Tympany Five version of “Keep A Knockin'”, where authorship is credited to ‘R. Penniman’, a.k.a. Little Richard. The trouble is, Jordan recorded the song in 1939, eighteen years before Little Richard, and Jordan himself was covering a song which was probably written just after the First World War with various versions being recorded as far back as 1938.

    And here is the saga of the Left’s hero Pete Seeger and “Wimoweh”. Not exactly happy reading….

    The music industry always has been a place where idealistic young men and women run full tilt into ruthless and rapacious market forces. To survive you’ve got to be hard, or have a hard manager (and keep track of how much the bastard is paying himself).

  • Innit Bruv

    The Sex Pistols didn’t “pinch” the opening of Pretty Vacant. Glenn Matlock has quite readily admitted that he was inspired by an ABBA song.
    For anyone interested in plagiarism: type in “Led Zeppelin plagiarism” on Youtube.
    The results are, to say the least, surprising !!

  • alejandrocorona

    This hypothesis of the end of piracy being the end of creativity or whatever, crap