Thicke as thieves? Photo: David Buchan/Getty Images
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Tracey Thorn: Your songs are like your children – you have to wave them off into the world

Copyright law encourages artists to feel they're in control of what they've made. But in reality, a song is a different thing once it leaves its creator.

There’s been much talk these past couple of weeks about ownership of songs, sparked by the disputed ruling that has left Pharrell Williams liable to the tune of $7.3m over similarities between his “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”. Many interesting and well-informed pieces have been written about this already and I’m not going to add to the conversation, except to say that I was as surprised as anyone else by the outcome. But it set me off thinking about the difference between the legal concept of ownership and a more nebulous, emotional feeling about whether or not songs belong to us.

Copyright law ensures that we writers earn money from our songs, and establishes our rights over the material we have composed. So don’t get me wrong – I benefit from it and am grateful for it. And yet, in some strange way, the idea of owning a song doesn’t always feel true.

Once you have written it and recorded it, and especially if it has then gone on to be a hit, a song slips out of your grasp. Played all day long on the radio – half-heard by people who are doing other things, or taken to heart by some who find that it tells the story of their life and speaks all the words they cannot say – a hit song “belongs” not to the writer, but to the listener. You wave your songs off into the world like children, hoping for the best for all of them. A hit is the child who becomes a star, soaring out of your orbit and control, swaggering about with a new identity all of its own. Sending cheques home.

This is how I feel about the Everything But the Girl song “Missing”, and it might explain why in some ways I’m less protective of it than its fans. It took the music a long time to reach its final, successful incarnation, a meandering journey in which it assumed various forms along the way, leaving me uncertain which version is the real one. And the lyrics were written at home in a scruffy notebook and tell a fictional story that never felt quite real to me, but did to so many who heard it.

I think it was Jerry Dammers who once said that you don’t ever really finish songs, you just abandon them to the public. “Missing” was found on the doorstep by millions of people who adopted and cared for it. One of those was a singer called Newtion Matthews, who sang the song on BBC1’s The Voice, weekend before last.

He spoke of how much it had meant to him, describing “a time when I was down and out and I had lost my way . . . a tough time – I was a young guy and I didn’t have anywhere to live”. And then he funked it up, in a brassy Mark Ronson-type style, taking the song somewhere new and different. Losing the melancholy, he replaced it with a kind of urgency and defiance, perhaps summoning up the feelings that had got him out of that dark place. To me, it all seemed entirely justifiable, and so I was puzzled by people who rushed to tell me on Twitter that he’d murdered it, or been disrespectful. But maybe that’s because – to come back to the point I made at the beginning – those fans feel like they own the song more than I do.

Anyway, poor Newtion got voted off and sent home, proving to me again (this is the third time I’ve seen the song in a contest – it popped up on the Italian X Factor, and before then in a previous series of The Voice) that “Missing” is not an obvious choice. It’s a hard song to sing. Not, I hasten to add, because of the vocal range (there is none to speak of) but the vocal tone, which may, after all, be essential to its success, however much you vary the arrangement.

In my favourite ever review (quoted in Bedsit Disco Queen) the journalist James Hunter described my singing of the song as being “full of her radical mid-range rationality”, but that quality is no use at all in a singing contest, where what is needed is an opportunity to impress, with high notes, ad libs, bells and whistles. “You made that song your own” is the great compliment from the judges. Funny how hard that is for a singer, when it’s what every listener does.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.