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The Inevitability of Influence

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-08-21


One of the best singles of the 90's was "Bittersweet Symphony," a majestic, ringing anthem from the British pop-rock group The Verve. Featuring a brilliantly sampled, orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ "The Last Time," "Bittersweet Symphony" became a huge international hit and vaulted the previously-unknown band into headliner status and placed them on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. The album, Urban Hymns contained two other singles than became huge U.K. hits — "The Drugs Don't Work" and "Lucky Man" — but it was the glorious lead track that became the band's identifier. After "Bittersweet Symphony's" run, though, The Verve's new-found popularity didn't last too long in the States — a second single failed to chart here and the band eventually broke up in 1999.

Almost as noteworthy as the song itself was the protracted legal battle that determined who owned the rights to "Bittersweet Symphony." Initially, The Verve was granted permission to sample the song, but later the owner of the 60's Jagger/Richards songbook — former Stones manager Allen Klein — argued that The Verve used "too much" of the sample, and that he deserved 100% of the royalties. Incredibly, the court agreed, and thus The Verve was deprived forever of owning their most popular creation. On the CD, "Bittersweet Symphony" is credited to Jagger/Richards, and there is no mention of the lyrics written by vocalist Richard Ashcroft. It's as if the courts determined that the lyrics didn't exist, or, rather, that they had nothing to do with the integrity or success of the song.

It's the kind of ruling that makes you hate lawyers. In a Toronto Star article from 1997, bassist Simon Jones said, "We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don't have much choice." It should be noted that after Klein took control of "Bittersweet Symphony," he demonstrated his deep artistic appreciation for the song by selling it to Nike for use in a tacky, multi-million dollar ad campaign. And of course, when "Bittersweet Symphony" was nominated for "Best Song" at the Grammy's in 1998, the songwriters listed were "Mick Jagger and Keith Richards." Richard Ashcroft and The Verve were nowhere to be found.

The "Bittersweet Symphony" ruling illustrates the capricious and often absurd nature of "intellectual property" and plagiarism cases. If you listen to the origin of the sampled material, the Andrew Oldham Orchestra's 1965 "The Last Time," you'll instantly recognize the lilting, six-note sequence, but you'll also recognize, instantly, that The Verve's version is better. The band laid down over fifty tracks of instrumentation, and the sound is fuller, more commanding. The actual sampled material is buried underneath a wall of intricate, interesting sound effects. And the original lacks the booming drums that kick the song into the sonic stratosphere. While I agree that the sampled sequence is integral to the song, and that the composers should be compensated accordingly, it's ridiculous to disavow the lyrics — back in the late 90's, every drunk 20 year old at some point shouted along to "I'm a MILLION DIFFERENT PEOPLE, from one day to the next," feeling that the line applied directly to them, to the particulars of their current dark-night-of-the-soul. In short, The Verve took a long-buried piece of music, buffed it up, and created an utterly original and brilliant song that resonated with a lot of people. And they got screwed for it.

Hardliners will maintain that, strictly speaking, The Verve still committed plagiarism, and should be at least a tiny bit culpable for the court's findings. But it's a difficult argument to swallow; there are countless, endless examples of great artists stealing liberally from other sources. Shakespeare built his tragedies from the bones of various, lesser works, and Bertolt Brecht unabashedly took the plots of innumerable sources to create his distinctive brand of theatre. Do we need to acknowledge Holinshead everytime "Henry the 4th" is performed, or John Gay, whenever a college theatre mounts a production of "The Three Penny Opera?" In both cases, the original material is dwarfed by the greatness of the later, superior works.

In the long history of my career as a hack writer, it's been both humbling and relieving to realize that I'll never be a terribly original artist. As a kid, I simply read too much, and the influence of what I devoured is apparent in virtually everything I write. Take James Kirkwood, add Ray Bradbury, throw in Pauline Kael and Harold Bloom and Joe Queenan, mix together, add some bitchiness, and you basically have the totality of my oeuvre. And there's no shame in that — at some point, most writers have to accept that they simply don't have the incredible, earth-shaking imaginative gifts of a James Joyce, an Emily Dickinson, a Walt Whitman. We're always going to be at the mercy of our inestimable influences, for good or ill.

I guess I should differentiate between "influences" and out-and-out thefts here — word for word plagiarisms are always something to be vilified, like the 2008 revelation that White House doofus (and Fort Wayne native) Tim Goeglein had stolen copious amounts of copyrighted material for the columns he guest-wrote for The News-Sentinel in the 2000's. In that case, Goeglein was forced to resign, and rightly so, and good for Nancy Nall (former News-Sentinel writer) for pointing out the plagiarism on her blog. In general, though, it's a tricky thing, knowing when it's necessary to acknowledge other sources. I've stolen a lot in my columns and occasionally I'll feel a pang — I lifted a joke from John Commorato, for instance, and the adverb/adjective combo "radiantly bizarre" from Joe Queenan. But I'm pretty confident most of my artistic crimes won't land me in a court of law. A well-used turn of phrase or an interesting metaphor feels like fair game to me, much different (at least in my eyes) from large-scale rip offs of whole sentences or original ideas.

In writing this article I had to do some research, and in doing so I looked up a column from The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, called "Something Borrowed." I remembered reading it when I picked up a copy of "What the Dog Saw" last year, and I thought it might be a good reference for the article. With a flush of embarrassment, I discovered that my "original" desire to comment on plagiarism was nothing more than a re-visit of Gladwell's well-thought out paper. Without being wholly aware of it, Gladwell's perceptions had wormed their way into my brain, where they laid dormant until this week. So there you go. In writing a column about thievery, I became a thief myself.

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