Who Wrote The Songs? (Lawsuits)[updated]

Lately, there have been lawsuits over…Who wrote the songs?

Did Randy California of the band Spirit write “Stairway To Heaven”?

Did Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams rip off Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” with their song “Blurred Lines”?

Does the organist for Procol Harum deserve credit for writing “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, because he came up with the organ introduction and solo?

All of these would be easily answered if the decision was based solely on the melody and lyrics of the song itself, not on a chord progression or instrumental accompaniment.

For instance, most people know the Temptations’ song “My Girl” (written by Smokey Robinson).  When we hear the record, we recognize what song it is by the opening bass part of just three notes repeating.  The first note is longer and higher than the next two…kind of like:  dumm dum-dum, dumm dum-dum,  dumm dum-dum, dumm dum-dum.  Then the guitar comes in dahh dah dah dah dah dah, dahh dah dah dah dah dah.  Finally the vocalist…”I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.”

The point is this.  Those bass and guitar parts were developed by the amazing session players at Motown.  They were paid to be excellent, and to add to the recordings, and they were great.  But…they are part of the arrangement of the song.  They didn’t write the song.  Sure we know what the song is going to be by hearing those first bass and guitar parts, but we’re recognizing the recording, not the song.

The song could be (and has been) sung  a cappella by the Temptations.  That melody and those words can stand alone, without the bass and guitar, and it’s the same song.  Therefore, no, the session players did not write the song, anymore than the organist wrote “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”.  The recordings of “My Girl” and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” would not have been the same (and probably not as good) without those arrangements, but the songs remain the same.

With “Stairway To Heaven”, the disputed part is the famous long guitar introduction.  Yes, it sounds very similar to the introduction to Spirit’s “Taurus” (the song itself sounds nothing like “Stairway”), but as great as the intro is, that’s all it is.  The song starts with the melody and the words “There’s a lady who’s sure…”, and it was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.  The lawsuit was settled in their favor, but you never know about future appeals.

The “Blurred Lines” case is even scarier, because it seems the jury decided to make the award over “Blurred Lines” having a similar sound and vibe to the Marvin Gaye song.  We could have lawsuits all day long over songs that gave off similar “vibes” to other songs.  Hopefully the judgement in favor of Marvin Gaye’s estate will be overturned.

Update 3/21/18:  A three judge panel upheld the ruling against “Blurred Lines” on a 2 to 1 vote.  The dissenting judge said the two songs aren’t similar in melody, harmony, or rhythm, and that the decision is too broadly allowing the copyright of a style of music.  (Later a settlement agreement was reached for $5-million.)

The organist for “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, Mathew Fisher,  won his suit to be credited as one of the writers.  He’ll receive a portion of future royalties for the 1967 song.  To be fair, his organ part is brilliant and set the mood of the recording.  George Martin’s string arrangement for Eleanor Rigby is also brilliant and set the mood.  George Martin didn’t write Eleanor Rigby either.

Can you imagine how many keyboardists, guitarists, or other instrumentalists could claim their solos or intros mean they deserve a writing credit?  There has not been a rash of other band members suing their songwriters…yet.

If such lawsuits become more common, it might be best if the decisions were made by panels of people with musical backgrounds, or specialized judges, instead of easily swayed juries or judges without expertise in such matters.  Otherwise, decisions could be made on the “vibe” or “Yeah, that sounds similar.”

Update:  Now the owners of Marvin Gaye’s song rights are attempting to get money from Ed Sheeran.  They say his “Thinking Out Loud” infringes on Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.  Sheeran says the songs are not similar, and is hoping to get the case dismissed.  (Aug. 2018)

Update:  Some feedback I received suggested that even though session musicians didn’t actually write the songs, they should be compensated fairly if they played a significant part in creating a recording.  Hopefully, most of the musicians have been appropriately paid, but there is no system set up to guarantee they would be paid more than “scale”.  Non-songwriting members of successful groups should earn very good money through live performances and sales.

Buckingham Nicks

Going through the record store “cut out” bins around 1974, I remember seeing the cover.  You couldn’t miss it.  A nice looking girl and a long haired rocker guy seemingly without clothes.  There was no real nudity, but it was attention getting.  I didn’t buy it, but should have.  It’s the album by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks…Buckingham Nicks.

Lindsey and Stevie found the only major airplay for their 1973 album was in Alabama, because a radio programmer there liked it.  The Buckingham Nicks band flew from Los Angeles to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa a couple of times to play clubs.  The interesting part is that live recordings exist of “Monday Morning” and “Rhiannon” (new songs that were not on the album).  That was before the duo had actually merged with Fleetwood Mac.  The songs are essentially the same as they would appear on the Fleetwood Mac album later that year (1975).  It’s hard to say whether Buckingham Nicks would have survived much longer, but it makes you wonder what would have happened if they had done a second album featuring those two songs.  Plus, Stevie had also written “Landslide” by this time.

Stevie & Lindsey performing as Buckingham Nicks.

The Buckingham Nicks album is important in music history, because if it hadn’t been for this album, there would not have been Fleetwood Mac as we know it.  Most fans are aware that Mick Fleetwood heard a Buckingham Nicks track being used to demonstrate the quality of the Sound City studio in L.A.  Fleetwood Mac needed a guitarist, so they offered the job to Lindsey, who told Mick that he and Stevie were a package deal…the best deal Mick ever made.

Fleetwood Mac had been a successful English blues band in the late 1960’s, and after lots of personnel problems and changes, they had some modest success in Pop/Rock in the early 1970’s.  They were an unstable band, but they still had some clout and a record contract, just what Lindsey and Stevie needed.

                         (Fleetwood Mac…please see the 3 articles on them.)

It was only decades later, after Fleetwood Mac became one of the biggest bands of all time, that I got my hands on the Buckingham Nicks record, and transferred it to CD and into my iTunes.

The album sounds a lot like Fleetwood Mac, and is good.  It helps us understand how much Lindsey and Stevie meant to the sound of the new band.   The 1973 album is still not commercially available, but there are bootlegs.

“Crying In The Night” was the single.  “Stephanie” and “Django” (a salute to guitarist Django Reinhardt) are good guitar instrumentals.  I lean to “Without A Leg To Stand On” and “Races Are Run”. “Crystal” was remade for the Fleetwood Mac album, and “Frozen Love” is the rocker that Mick Fleetwood heard at the Sound City studios.

I did recently find the album online as a free download, along with some never-released demos, and those live recordings of “Monday Morning” and “Rhiannon”.

After hearing the Buckingham Nicks album and the other cuts, it was obvious the new sound of Fleetwood Mac was much closer to the Buckingham Nicks style than the old Fleetwood Mac style.  Lindsey and Stevie are both songwriters, both lead singers, and Lindsey is the producer who shaped the songs, including those of Christine McVie.  It was more like Fleetwood Mac joined Buckingham Nicks than the other way around.

Jackson Browne

The first time I heard about Jackson Browne was from David Crosby.  It was in an interview Crosby did with Rolling Stone magazine.  He talked about this young songwriter he met who was overwhelming other musicians with the quality of his songs.  So, when Jackson Browne’s Saturate Before Using album came out, I bought it right away.  Of course the album was supposed to be simply called Jackson Browne, but the photo of the desert water bag gave it a new title.  Even Jackson Browne refers to it as:

Released in January of 1972, it’s an excellent singer-songwriter album.  The hit was “Doctor My Eyes”, and it included “Rock Me On The Water” and  “Something Fine”, with sublime harmonies by David Crosby.

The song that is probably his best know composition wasn’t included.  Instead, Browne gave it to the songwriter who helped him finish it…Glenn Frey.  The Eagles album premiered a little later that same year with “Take It Easy”.  The ever humble Browne says it was the extended “Eeeeeasy” and other aspects of the Eagles’ arrangement that turned his song into a hit.

Jackson Browne was never a “singles artist”.  It’s always been about his Albums.  For Everyman was next in 1973.  The album included “These Days” (Gregg Allman made a classic version it), and “Take It Easy” also made an appearance.

In 1974 Jackson Browne released Late For The Sky.  It’s probably his best studio album.  There are only eight songs, because they’re fairly long.  Browne says he sometimes has trouble letting go of the writing process.  I remember the review in Rolling Stone called three of the songs “masterpieces”.  “Fountain Of Sorrow”, “For A Dancer”, and “Before The Deluge”.

1977 was the year of The Pretender.  Besides the title song, it included the hit “Here Come Those Tears Again”, and standout album cut “Sleep’s Dark And Silent Gate”.

All of Jackson Browne’s first four albums are Platinum or multi-Platinum sellers, but his breakthrough to an even larger audience was Running On Empty.  It was an unusual concept.   The songs were new, but instead of using studio versions, they were all recorded live.  (Only Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away” had used that concept.).  Besides the songs being performed to audiences, one was recorded in a hotel room and one even on a bus!   There’s a real freshness to the album.  It went 7-times Platinum.

Running On Empty was released in December of 1977, and Jackson Browne started the album tour in Omaha in January, 1978.  We were there…my all-time favorite concert.  (Paul McCartney’s 1993 concert in Kansas City is a very close second.)

This was the peak for Jackson Browne.  He had many of LA’s best studio musicians…Lee Sklar on bass, Craig Doerge on piano, Russ Kunkel on Drums, Doug Haywood on guitar, Danny Kortchmar on lead guitar, and David Lindley on lap steel guitar.  The sound at the concert was top notch.  We could hear each player so clearly that we could pick out the individual performances on the various instruments.  Jackson Browne was perfect!  Three encores.

The next album Hold Out was #1 and double-Platinum.  Lawyers In Love also went Platinum.  We saw Jackson Browne for the second time, during his Lives In The Balance tour, when we took our son Paul to his first concert.

World In Motion was not as popular as his previous albums, but he bounced back nicely with I’m Alive, and we saw him again in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Other albums followed…Looking East, The Naked Ride Home, Time The Conqueror, and Standing In The Breach (2014).  He also did a couple of live solo albums that are quite good, with some impressive acoustic guitar work.

In 2015 Jackson Browne came to us…Eugene, OR…for an outdoor concert.  Above is a zoom lens shot.  Click to enlarge and make clearer.

The time has passed when singer-songwriters ruled the music world and toured with the best musicians.  But, it was a packed show, and Jackson Browne still sounded great!

From Records to Playlists…Audio Tech

What a long strange trip it’s been through all the ways to buy and play music.

(My 1947 Remler radio/phonograph with 78 RPM picture disc.)

For my dad, it started with 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) records. The reason we call a collection of songs an “album” is because the first collections were like large photo albums that contained multiple 78 records in the sleeves (pages) of the album.

I became familiar with 45 RPM records through my two older sisters, Veronica and Janice, who bought records by artists like Ricky Nelson and The Everly Brothers.  My sisters could harmonize like the Everly Brothers too!

It was about the time of the British Invasion (1964) when I started to buy records of my own.  We lived in Leigh, Nebraska, a small town with no record store, but I was able to buy old jukebox 45’s at “Flossie’s Café”.  The guy who stocked the jukebox would leave a box of singles that were either used, or new overstocked records. They were 25-cents each.  I remember getting “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.  Every once in awhile, my family would make a trip to one of the nearby towns that had record stores. The first new album (33 1/3 RPM) I ever bought was Little Deuce Coupe by The Beach Boys, and the first new single was “Because” by The Dave Clark Five.  I still have the record sleeve:

Thus began decades of buying records…thousands of them.  During high school, it was mostly 45’s, and of course The Beatles’ albums.  Dad provided an old record player for my room, and once in awhile I’d even play records on the console stereo in the living room.  Life was pretty good for a music-loving teenager.  My collection progressed so well that I was the designated player of records at our school dances.  It wasn’t really being a DJ, although there was a microphone for announcements, such as introducing the King & Queen at the Homecoming Dance.

Buying lots of records wasn’t always a given.  When my wife, Jeannette, and I were first married (so young!), spending a few dollars on an album was more of a big deal.  During a time in Memphis, we’d go to a record store that had open copies of popular albums and listening stations.  We’d listen to albums, and then eventually buy the one album we thought was best.

 (Newlyweds near Memphis in 1970 with our cool ‘63 Dodge Polaris coupe.)

The other thing that became part of our listening experience was a Sony stereo reel-to-reel recorder.  I was making tapes and saving the records from the repeated ravages of a diamond-tipped needle.  I could make my own “Greatest Hits” albums too!

Above is a recording console my friend Danny helped me build in 1973.  The photo was taken at an apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska while I was attending college in 1975.   Included are…a Sony 4-channel reel-to-reel on top, regular Sony reel recorder, Kenwood receiver/amp, AR turntable, and four Pioneer speakers.  (Click photo to enlarge.)  My wife provided the fern.

For a time in the 70’s, there were 8-track tapes.  Never owned one.  They did make music portable.  Good idea.  If you’ve ever heard 8-tracks, you know some changed tracks in the middle of songs.  Bad idea.

At some point in the 70’s, Cassette tapes took the place of 8-tracks.  Cassettes were good, but not the lo-fi pre-recorded ones.  Instead I still bought records and transferred them to cassettes that had high-quality tape.  So at this point, we had shelves and boxes filled with records, and self-recorded cassettes (that had replaced all those reel-to-reel boxes).

A miracle was about to happen…CD’s!  Sure there were some early CD’s that had less than fantastic equalization, but damn they were so cool!  I used to call myself a “record collector”, but the CD format made me realize the term should really have been “music collector”.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the experience of getting record albums, reading all the information on the covers, etc.   I know there are die-hard “vinyl” fans who love the analog warmth of record albums…but there were problems.  It’s not that the format is inherently bad; it was mostly the manufacturing problems of the records themselves.  You would take off the plastic and remove the record, being careful to handle it by the edges, and gently place the needle at the beginning.  Too often, the record would be printed off center (like Jackson Browne’s Pretender album), or be filled with “clicks & pops” (like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 4-Way Street).  Today’s vinyl is a lot better, but also costs about $25+ per album.

CD’s have no wow-and-flutter, no surface noise, no wear, and never a click or pop as the final chord of a song fades.  An average album might have four really good cuts, and even the best albums could have songs you wanted to skip.  That was not a problem with programmable CD players.  CD’s were first introduced to mainstream America in 1983.  I always needed a way to record, so in 1986 I bought one of the first CD recorders.  Blank CD’s were $6 each back then, and had to be special ordered.  When my first CD recorder developed problems, The Phillips Company replaced it with a new model.  Even today, I can plug an audio source into it in a way I can’t do with my computer.

(Shown with my 1980’s CD recorder is a Bakelite radio from the 1940’s, and a wooden radio from the 1930’s.)

If you’re like me, you never imagined the next step.  Our son, Paul, showed us something new.  He said it was an iPod.  OMG!

 (Above is the first iPod model, like our son showed us.)

Record albums could hold about 45-minutes of music.  Tapes normally held an hour or so.  CD’s hold an hour and 20-minutes.  My 160-Gigabyte Classic iPod is the size of a cassette, has about 18-thousand songs on it, and it’s not full.   A giant leap for mankind!

That brings us to today.  CD sales have dropped dramatically as digital downloads and streaming services have taken over.  Apple Music, Spotify and other services are the norm, especially for younger generations.

So where does that leave an old guy like me?  I love the Playlist format. Using iTunes, I’ve loaded-in all my music, and have at least a thousand rare, alternate, and bootleg versions that no streaming service would have.  Everything is at the highest-quality audio available, which is very similar to today’s CD’s.

I made a choice at the beginning to make almost all of my playlists CD-length (80-minutes max).  Not only is that long enough to listen to an artist, but if a friend or family member likes the playlist, I can simply burn it to a CD (which costs about a quarter now).  They can then load it into their own computers if they wish.  Even though the CD format is fading, this still works for most people.

I absolutely love being able to organize my music collection with playlists. Too often we would lose track of music we liked, because the album or CD was stuck on a low shelf, or we just forgot about it.  Now, we can simply scan the playlists to see our whole collection.  Artists who’ve only had one or two hits can be included in multiple-artist playlists.  Playlists can also be developed using streaming services, and by using the playlists they provide we can discover music from new artists.

With technology, the musical road goes on forever, but it’s not bad at this roadside stop.

Note:  For a further technology update, please see the article on the Apple HomePod.

Melody/Paul McCartney

You can have a song…only if there is a melody.

You can have lyrics…but without a melody…it’s poetry.

You can have rhythm…but without a melody…it’s just a beat.

Of course lyrics and rhythm are important aspects in music, but the only essential ingredient is melody.  A song without lyrics is still a song…an instrumental…and you can vary the rhythm.

There’s an excellent book Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo.

He interviews over 60 songwriters.  One of the more fascinating revelations is that songwriters tell him some of their best songs come to them almost like the universe is presenting them with a gift.  Three famous examples of this are the songs “Yesterday”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “You’ve Got A Friend”.  Paul McCartney, Paul Simon,  and Carole King say the songs came to them in dreams.  Plus, so many times songwriters have said…”It practically wrote itself”.

So who is the best melody writer?  Paul Simon says it’s Paul McCartney.  Let’s check the evidence.  The most recorded song of all time is “Yesterday”.  For years, the second most recorded song was “Michelle”.  A recent search of the top ten most recorded songs found “Yesterday” still at #1 with “Eleanor Rigby” now at #2.  Also in the top ten are “And I Love Her” and “Blackbird”.  No other songwriter has more than one song in the top ten.  John Lennon has “Imagine”, and then there are older classics like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Summertime”.

Here’s a playlist of some of McCartney’s Beatle songs.  (You can tap or click it to make it larger.)

By the way, my playlists include “Beatle Songs by John”, “Beatle Songs by Ringo”, and my favorite title: “Beatle Songs By George”.

While nearly everyone knows The Beatles were the top Billboard singles artists of the 1960’s, it might come as a surprise that Paul McCartney was the top singles artist of the 1970’s (he was mistakenly listed as #2 earlier).  Sir Paul has had 37 top 40 hits, 9 number one singles and 8 number one albums.  McCartney opens himself to criticism at times for less than poignant lyrics, but no one questions his melody writing.  “Silly Love Songs” spent five weeks at the top of the charts.  At one point in the song there are three melodies beautifully intertwined.

A playlist of some of McCartney’s best solo songs:

Today, there’s a lot of criticism about the lack of great melodies, and of course Rap is often devoid of melody altogether.  The trend in Pop music is to have teams of writers manufacture the hits.  This results in some interesting arrangements that can have “hooks”, but most do not have the classic flow of great melodies.  Maybe there needs to be a little less teamwork and commercial intent, and a little more soul and inspiration.

The Beatles: You Had To Be There

To truly understand the impact and amazing musical development of The Beatles, you had to be there.

Sorry, but discovering them fully formed after they had made their progressions, after they had written all those songs, and after you’ve heard more recent recordings just doesn’t cut it.  You can historically and intellectually appreciate what happened, but that’s not feeling it happening.

Nothing replaces first hearing The Beatles as they were hitting the American airwaves…that excitement for something so different from the Teen Idols and the smooth pop music of the early ‘60’s.  Not that there weren’t good singers and songs, but it was only slightly rock & roll at that time.  In early 1964 The Beatles broke bigger than any act ever.  Just the impact from their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show was enough to encourage so many future music stars.

It all could have simply been an exclamation point in music history, except for two things.  One, The Beatles became amazing songwriters, and two, they were great musical innovators.  You needed to hear it as it happened. There is no replacement for being in your room, closing the door, and dropping the needle on Rubber Soul, then Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper, and through the remainder of their albums as they were released.

Rubber Soul wasn’t any kind of shock.  It was a maturing of their songwriting, and simply a high quality album.  The American version didn’t even have any singles. But we all know “Norwegian Wood”, “Michelle”, “In My Life”, “I’m Looking Through You”, etc.  Of course the British version included “Nowhere Man”.  Plus, on the same day the album was released, “We Can Work It Out” & “Day Tripper” were released as a two-sided single.  Those seven songs would make a nice side of a greatest hits collection.

The first “What are they doing?” release of The Beatles was Revolver.  Why does the album start with that odd count-in at the beginning of “Taxman”?  One interviewer even asked them if they meant to do that. Nothing previous could have prepared fans for “Tomorrow Never Knows”… the one with John’s voice through a Leslie organ speaker, and the lyrics “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream”.  You couldn’t play that one for your parents. Instead, you played “Here, There, And Everywhere” to try to get them to understand the musical quality of The Beatles.

Revolver, along with two tracks that should have been on the album, “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, were filled with studio innovations…backward guitars, backward vocals, tape loops, odd microphone placement, and so much more. Great melodies, lyrics and arrangements abound…”Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Here There And Everywhere”, and basically the whole album.  It’s easy to see why many fans list this album as their favorite.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band brought even more wonder.  Crowd noise, then The Beatles calling themselves another band, the title song introducing the singer of the next song, and then flowing right into it!  That was new. What, no silence between “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”?  And it turned out all of the cuts lacked the few seconds of separation that was normal on albums.

To understand the difference in popularity between The Beatles and any other artists, look at the songs on the album.

Do you know them?  Most people of the era will recognize almost all of the song titles even though there weren’t any singles released from the album.  No other artists were so popular that the public knew so many of their album cuts. Not even close.

The White Album, released a year later, was another change.  It contained just about every style of music. It was probably named The Beatles, because it represented nearly all of the group’s musical influences, and showed how versatile they were…Rock & Roll, Blues, Country, Music Hall, Ballads, Pop, Hard Rock, Humorous, Experimental, Acoustic, Electric, Orchestral, etc.  When The White Album was released, a Lincoln, Nebraska FM station, KFMQ, played the whole thing.  As two DJ’s commented on the album, they said they didn’t know how The Beatles even came up with a running order, because the songs were so different from one another.

The next two albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road (which The Beatles recorded last), were released in the opposite order from which they were recorded.  Let It Be is often looked upon as a lesser album, but would an album with “The Long And Winding Road”, “Two Of Us”, “Across The Universe”, “Get Back” and “Let It Be” be considered a “lesser” album for anyone else?

Abbey Road is a favorite of many fans, especially those who came later.  It has two of George Harrison’s best songs “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”, plus Lennon’s “Come Together”, and the side two medley, which is mostly McCartney.  “Carry That Weight/The End” is a great way for The Beatles to finish…trading guitar licks, Ringo’s excellent drumming, and a final message about love.

The quality of their album cuts from their 7 years (1963-1969) of recording together would make a fantastic greatest hits album.  No other artist could possibly put together anything like it from their own non-singles.  Here’s a playlist of songs not released as singles during The Beatles era.  (You can tap or click to make it larger.)

Please look over the above list for any songs you think would have made good singles, or that you thought were singles.

Oh, and The Beatles had 46 singles in the Billboard Top 40 chart during their active years.  If you watched that chart in the ‘60’s, you saw 21 of those hits make it all the way to number-one.  It’s important to note that they did this when all of the rock and pop songs were competing on one chart, not the high number of charts today, when it’s much easier to have a number-one somewhere.  We can’t really measure popularity anymore, because sales are so slight, and the majority of people have never even heard the songs that reach the top of a chart.

It’s almost unbelievable that The Beatles recorded all of their singles and albums in just 7 years in the ‘60’s (only “I, Me, Mine” was worked on in January of 1970 by Paul, George, & Ringo).  And, when they broke up, all four of The Beatles were still in their twenties!

Maybe today’s fans are feeling similar excitement about current artists.  It’s also fantastic that other generations keep discovering The Beatles and love their music.  But, they can never know the amazement the first Beatles fans experienced as each new album was released.