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23 July 2015

It’s One for the Money: Tracing the history of theft in pop music

Does culture exist in a vacuum? This “love letter to creative thievery” would suggest not.

By Yo Zushi

It’s One for the Money
Clinton Heylin
Constable, 461pp, £20

When Marvin Gaye died in 1984 his children inherited the copyright to his music, a spellbinding body of work that continues to inspire listeners today. Some, it seems, were inspired too much. For Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the price of fandom was $7.4m. In March their single “Blurred Lines”, which sold seven million copies in the US alone, was deemed to have crossed the line from homage into plagiarism; the Gaye family argued that it had stolen from Marvin’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up” and a Los Angeles jury agreed.

The court’s decision was rightly controversial. As the music scholar Joe Bennett pointed out, “There are no melodic sections, chord sequences or lyrics from ‘Got to Give It Up’ that appear in ‘Blurred Lines’.” What the two songs share, in essence, are a sound and a “vibe” – elements not previously thought to fall under legal protection. After their victory, the Gayes asked their lawyers to halt all sales of Williams’s and Thicke’s single, which could help them negotiate a co-writing credit for their late father, allowing them to share in the future revenues of a song composed by fans of his music almost 30 years after his death. Before the trial, Thicke had happily told GQ that “Got to Give It Up” was “one of my favourite songs”. Perhaps he regrets that now.

Such absurdity is the meat of Clinton Heylin’s It’s One for the Money, which was completed before the “Blurred Lines” decision and so doesn’t address it directly. Yet, from W C Handy’s supposed “fathering” of the blues in the early 20th century (in reality, he took “building blocks from Afro-American tradition” and crafted them into popular songs, claiming ownership of that tradition in the process) to Paul Mc­Cartney’s frustrated attempts to buy back the rights to his own Beatles compositions from investors, Heylin catalogues seemingly endless variations on the complications that arise when a big tune becomes a big hit, which brings with it big money and, almost invariably, big arguments. And these legal complications, he writes, are harmful to progress in music. When “the lawyers moved in . . . the mavericks moved out”.

For Heylin, a composer’s creative process must be nourished by “the continuum of song”, in which the entire history of the medium is fair game for a productive sort of theft. He links the process of “creation” with “re-creation”, citing, say, Glen Matlock’s appropriation of a guitar riff from Abba’s “SOS” for the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”. The “trick” of songwriting, Matlock says, is to make use of whatever works best, wherever it comes from: “Everything is nicked from something else.”

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That may well be how many of the best songs are written but if music were “every­body’s possession”, as John Lennon once said, then it would be no one’s – and no one would make any money from it. (The ongoing debate over online streaming and file-sharing is relevant here but Heylin seems uninterested in such newfangled developments.) Musicologists such as John and Alan Lomax, who discovered the bluesman Lead Belly in a Louisiana prison in 1933 while on a Library of Congress-funded mission to document American culture, argued for the “folk” status of much music while finding a variety of excuses to claim legal ownership of it for themselves. Even that saintly figure of the mid-century folk revival, Pete Seeger, seems to have embodied an attitude that was “holier than thou and proprietorial as hell”, with his band the Weavers concocting an imaginary songwriter called “Paul Campbell” to claim credit (and the publishing money) for traditional songs.

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To Heylin, copyright law replaced a communal music culture with the erroneous “idea that a popular songwriter was de facto an Artist”, who would pluck new compositions out of thin air. The financial benefits of this, for rights holders, make it “look like a mansion on the hill, but it is really a prison”, preventing new voices from freely speaking the language of pop that has developed over decades of musical conversation between songwriters. Though I disagree with Heylin’s middle-aged lament that modern song has “stopped innovating”, I think he is right to draw attention to the sticky-fingered realities of the craft. Buddy Holly’s borrowing of a Bo Diddley riff to create the timeless “Not Fade Away”, Chuck Berry’s rock’n’roll reinvention of a country song called “Ida Red” as “Maybellene”, Bob Dylan’s plundering of tradition for songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” (its tune is based on an anti-slavery anthem) – all of these attest to Heylin’s contention that the new is often very much rooted in the old.

And his argument has implications that go beyond the parochial interests of the music industry. On 26 June, I was watching Barack Obama on TV giving a eulogy for the murdered Clementa C Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina. He suddenly broke into song: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . .” People sang along – they were in a Methodist church, after all. If that moment felt particularly profound, it was perhaps because it seemed to transcend political oratory and gesture towards something shared, something older.

The British ex-slave trader John Newton’s 18th-century lyrics have a universal quality but “Amazing Grace” would lack power were it not for its melody, which attached itself to the words half a century after Newton wrote them. Their publication in a book compiled by the South Carolina-born William Walker in 1835, to the accompaniment of the tune to a commonplace parlour song called “New Britain”, assured the song a place in America’s cultural heritage, even if the original idea had been thought up in Buckinghamshire, England.

The great “American experiment” for Obama is “a constant work in progress” and that progress, in the view of the New York Times journalist Michiko Kakutani, takes the form of “a crossing, a relay in which one generation’s achievements serve as the paving stones for the next generation’s journey”. But if those paving stones became private property and to walk upon them proscribed, the march forward, upwards, to ever higher plateaus, would surely be slowed. The achievements of a people, be they in politics, in science or even in war, must belong on some level to the people for them to bring forth further achievements. And what is true of a society’s great experiment is true of the culture that society produces. A modern-day William Walker, fearing copyright infringement or loss of royalties, may have thought twice before appropriating Newton’s lyrics – and a beautiful hymn would never have existed.

Heylin’s “love letter to creative thievery” is a timely reminder that culture cannot exist in a vacuum and will thrive only if it is “built from a tree with roots”.

Yo Zushi’s new album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is released by Eidola Records