Wednesday, May 27, 2015

TMFW 90 - De La Soul (Take and) Give Away Their Records

De La Soul is a hip hop act that came to prominence in the late '80s.  Their 1989 record 3 Feet High and Rising is widely regarded as a classic. Wikipedia collects the plaudits nicely: it has been called "The Sgt. Pepper of hip hop," was in several top-10 album lists the year it came out, is included in Rolling Stone's "200 Essential Rock Records" and The Source's "100 Best Rap Albums" lists, and was chosen by the Library of Congress for their National Recording Registry.  Pretty much everybody agrees that it is great.

But despite De La Soul's influence and their commercial appeal, you won't find 3 Feet High and Rising (or other early De La Soul records like Stakes Is High or De La Soul Is Dead) on iTunes, or Spotify, or Amazon mp3.  You can't buy them digitally.  This is because the albums are richly layered with samples - from Johnny Cash to Hall and Oates - and the owner of the band's back catalog has apparently decided that it is just too hard to clear all of them for digital sales.

(This is a side note, but it's "too hard" for at least three reasons.  First, while some of the samples were "cleared" back in 1989, the rights probably didn't include digital sales.  Back then, contracts would include rights for records, cassettes, and compact discs.  People weren't thinking about mp3s or commercial internet distribution because they weren't yet invented. So for many of the already cleared tracks, you'd need to go back and renegotiate contracts for additional money.  Second, sample agreements are individually negotiated and depend on lots of factors like the prominence of the song used, the popularity of the band, the financial needs of the rightsholder, etc.  And the deals come in lots of shapes and sizes like flat fee, percentage, or volume-based sliding scale arrangements.  That makes accounting and remitting royalties way hard for acts that have used over 500 different samples.  And third, De La Soul was making albums back when sampling was seen as artistic license rather than legal obligation. It's possible that they don't even know all of the samples that were used. So while it's frustrating that you can't buy mp3s of De La Soul's early stuff, it's hard to get mad at the label for that decision.)

Without the ability to obtain the songs legitimately, people wanting De La Soul's music digitally were left to their own devices: either they would have to rip their own CDs, or more likely they would have to look to the shadier parts of the internet and pirate the records.  And that brings us to today's TMFW.

Last year, De La Soul decided to commemorate the 25th anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising with a 25-hour-long "giveaway" of the group's early stuff.  For one day, people could download mp3s of the group's back catalog for free.  Fans that did so noticed something funny about the tracks.  Apparently, De La Soul got the mp3s of their records the same way most other people did: they pirated them.  Looking at the metadata for several of the mp3 files, astute downloaders noticed that the piracy fingerprints - e.g., links back to the place where the (illegal) download originated - were still there. 

It's a funny commentary on the modern state of the music business that, to give away their own records, a group had to pirate itself first.


BONUS FACT:  In 1993, De La Soul teamed with TMFW-favorite Teenage Fanclub on "Fallin'," from the Judgment Night soundtrack.  

BONUS FACT 1.5:  Judgment Night was an unremarkable film that starred Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Jeremy Piven as buddies who spend an evening running away from bad guy gang leader Dennis Leary.  It has a not-so-great 31% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and made only $12.5 million at the box office, which put it in 95th place for 1993 (right behind Weekend at Bernie's II and behind classics such as Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday).  

But its soundtrack was something altogether different.  Across 11 songs, the soundtrack teamed up some of the biggest rock and rap acts of the day: Living Colour played with Run DMC, Sonic Youth with Cypress Hill, Mudhoney with Sir Mix-A-Lot, and Dinosaur Jr. with Del tha Funkee Homosapien.  Rock Critic Robert Christgau (seen before in TMFW 27) gave it an A-Minus, and Entertainment Weekly called it "a MUST."  It's definitely not for everyone, but I respect the ambition.

BONUS FACT 1.75:  Dennis Leary was having a moment in 1993.  In addition to starring in Judgment Night, that year also saw the release of his parody song "Asshole."  The song got airplay on MTV (an on my high school carpool's "morning zoo" radio show of choice) and propelled his comedy album No Cure for Cancer to gold status. 

BONUS FACT 1.875:  You may not be surprised to learn that Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was not, in fact, the final Friday the 13th movie.  Three more have come out since: 2002's Jason X, 2003's Freddy vs. Jason, and 2009's reboot Friday the 13th.  

BONUS FACT 1.9375:  You may also not be surprised to learn that Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was not even the first "final" movie in that series.  The fourth installment promised to be the "Final Chapter" all the way back in 1984.  8 films (the epilogues or maybe the appendices, I guess) have followed it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

TMFW 89 - "MC Hank" Wouldn't Have Sounded as Cool

Stanley Kirk Burrell grew up in Oakland, California.  He was a talented dancer and a natural showman, and started doing street performances at a young age.  When young Stanley was 11 years old and dancing outside of the Oakland Coliseum (home park of TMFW 36 subject Josh Reddick, who so far this season has a very respectable batting average of .315), the legendary Oakland A's owner Charles O. Finley took a liking to him and brought him on as a bat boy.
Stanley worked as a bat boy for 7 years and became somewhat of a clubhouse mascot for the A's (and eventually even a tongue-in-cheek Vice President of the ballclub).  Shortly after he arrived, a visiting player noticed a close resemblance between Stanley and Hank (the "Hammer") Aaron, then the all-time home run king.  Reggie Jackson, then with the A's, ran with the nickname and Stanley Burrell became "Little Hammer." (You can see at that link that the resemblance is really uncanny.)  Little Hammer wore jersey number 44 for the A's in tribute to Aaron.
You see where this is going by now, of course.  Little Hammer grew up to become MC Hammer, the "super dope homeboy from the Oaktown."  He has sold over 30 million records worldwide, and his breakout album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em was #1 for 21 weeks in 1990.  He was a worldwide star for several years, his "U Can't Touch This" video has almost 150,000,000 views on YouTube, and for a short window of time in the early 90s he inspired every kid in my 8th grade class to wear terrible clothes.
One wonders whether, if he had never been adopted and renamed by the Oakland A's, "Stanley Burrell" would have accomplished the same thing.
BONUS FACT:  As alluded above, MC Hammer popularized a type of baggy, loose-fitting pants that have forevermore become known as "Hammer pants."  They are famous enough that they have their own Wikipedia entry.  (Per that entry, do NOT confuse Hammer pants with parachute pants.  Not the same thing, people.)
BONUS FACT 2:  At the height of his fame, MC Hammer had a Saturday morning cartoon called Hammerman, in which he played a crime fighting rapper/dancer who was powered by magical talking shoes.  The show ran for only 13 episodes on ABC.  Almost 25 years later, it looks like an intentional parody.  
BONUS FACT 3:  Other than his music, Hammer is probably most famous for his christian ministry work.  That goes back to before he made it big: in the early 80s, Hammer was part of a Christian rap group called the "Holy Ghost Boys." 
BONUS FACT 4:  Outside of the entertainment business and his ministry work, Hammer has had an eclectic variety of business ventures.  Some were pretty successful - his Oaktown Stable horseracing venture trained a winner of the Kentucky Oaks (it's the other big race run on Derby weekend) and a 3rd place finisher in the Kentucky Derby.  Others were not so successful - his 2011 "WireDoo" search engine lasted only one year and never got out of beta.  A Time blog post summed up what was probably most people's feelings at the time: "MC Hammer Launches 'WireDoo' Search Engine for Some Reason."  
BONUS FACT 5:  Hammer's best known line has provided fodder for graffiti artists the world over.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

TMFW 88 - Yoko Ono Plays the Rat

[NOTE: Real life is getting in the way, so today's TMFW is a relatively short one.]

Jack Douglas is a record producer and engineer.  Over his prolific career, he has recorded music for artists as far ranging as Miles Davis and Alice Cooper, with all sorts of groups in between.  Douglas is probably most famous for his work with John Lennon (he engineered the Imagine album, produced John and Yoko's Grammy-winning Double Fantasy, and did several other John/Yoko related records) and for his work with Aerosmith (he engineered and produced most of their stuff in the 70s, including the 4x platinum Rocks and the 8x platinum Toys in the Attic.)

But today's TMFW is about a unique track that Douglas engineered that never got released.  Douglas recorded Yoko Ono's double album Approximately Infinite Universe in 1972.  I will confess that I have never heard a single moment of that record, but I am intrigued by song titles it includes like "I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window" (who hasn't?) and "What a Bastard the World Is" (this is the truth sometimes.)  Douglas has told today's story several times over in interviews, so my retelling is an amalgam of various versions.

One of the songs Ono was working on for the album was called "Dead Rat."  Douglas recalled "I had no idea what it was going to be. The music was like, ‘da da da da da da da da da da,’" and it was interspersed at various points with silence.  Douglas wondered what was to become of the silence, until one day Ono (or maybe her assistant) came into the studio holding a shoebox.  Inside the shoebox was "a freshly killed rat, size large," and Ono announced "'Okay, you know where the band stops playing? That's where the rat takes it.'"

Douglas, sitting with his assistant and no doubt understanding that working with John Lennon meant working with Yoko Ono too, set the rat's box on a stool and placed "an expensive mic" a few inches away.  They recorded the rat's solo at the designated spot in the song, but the first take was unsatisfying.  Douglas recalled "there's no noise, and I stop tape, and say to Yoko 'It's not quite right, is it?' and she says 'no, Jack, there's something wrong.'"  So Douglas sent his assistant in to adjust the microphone ("about four inches up and a little to the left") and tried the recording again.  The second take satisfied the artist: "I turn around and say, ‘What do you think, Yoko?’ She says, ‘It’s much better like that.’ And she’s dead serious.”

Alas, Yoko's track never saw the light of day.  Though the album was four sides long, there was apparently no room the tune.  Aw, rat(s).


BONUS FACT:  Douglas got his start in music as a folk performer, and early jobs included writing political jingles for both Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.  It's a long way from that to mid-70s Aerosmith, for sure.

BONUS FACT 2:  You can't write about Yoko Ono without linking to TMFW 30 subject Barenaked Ladies' classic track "Be My Yoko Ono."

BONUS FACT 2.5  The Barenaked Ladies video above features several charming clips of John and Yoko that were supplied by Ono herself; her son Sean Lennon was a fan of the song and shared it with his mom.  She in turn shared the clips with the band.

BONUS FACT 2.75:  In 1992, the Canadian MTV-ish channel MuchMusic made a one hour special about the Barenaked Ladies called "On Gordon Pond" which featured a clip of Yoko offering her approval of the song.  You can watch the whole thing here (and I know that at least one of my readers will do that).

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

TMFW 87 - Tales of Copyright Silliness, Vol. 3: Run Through the Court System

Today's TMFW is the third in our series "Tales of Copyright Silliness," joining Men At Work's fight over two bars of "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree" and The Verve getting royally hosed by The Rolling Stones' old manager.  It's the story of John Fogerty and his record label, who fought each other to the Supreme Court and back.  
Most TMFW readers will know that John Fogerty was the lead guitar player and lead singer for the late-60s, early-70s band Creedence Clearwater Revival.  CCR was an influential and hugely successful act - on top of nine top-10 singles, six of their seven studio records went platinum (the last went gold), five of their albums were top-10, and two of them hit number 1.  
Each of CCR's albums were released by the label Fantasy Records, a San Francisco imprint that was known primarily for jazz recordings by artists like Dave Brubeck ("Take Five") and Vince Guaraldi ("Linus and Lucy").  By the time CCR came on, Fantasy was principally owned by a guy named Saul Zaentz. Zaentz would go on to be most famous as a film producer - he won three Best Picture Oscars for producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient, and he got the Irving G. Thalberg award in 1996.  
But when he was at Fantasy, Zaentz was like many record executives in those days and took as much advantage as he could of CCR's success.  That included signing them to a low-royalty contract (promising to renegotiate at some point in the future), locking them into long-term deals to preserve the label's piece, and convincing the band to funnel their royalties to a bank in the Bahamas as a tax-avoidance scheme. As you might guess, Zaentz did not renegotiate the royalties even when CCR became huge.  And far worse, the Bahamian tax shelter collapsed in the mid-70s and $8 million of CCR's money went with it.  
After CCR broke up in 1972, Fogerty recorded one solo album for Fantasy, which sold poorly.  By that time, he was thoroughly sick of Zaentz and wanted to move on.  But CCR still owed Fantasy 8 additional records, and Zaentz wasn't willing to let him go for free.  To get out from his recording obligations, Fogerty ultimately signed away the publishing rights to his songs and got some help from TMFW 42 subject David Geffen, who paid Fantasy $1 million in cash.  Fogerty released one album for Geffen's Asylum label, but it too was a commercial disappointment.  
Fogerty's career stalled after his second solo record in 1975, and he didn't release another one until 1985's Centerfield.  That album was a surprise hit: it reached number 1 in the US (and Norway and Sweden) and was top-5 in seven countries.  Fogerty's first single off of Centerfield was "The Old Man Down the Road," which (at long last) is the core subject of today's TMFW.
But first, just a little bit more to set the scene.  Among its 9 tracks, Centerfield featured two songs that were thinly or not-at-all veiled insults aimed at Saul Zaentz.  The first was "Mr. Greed" ("you're a devil of consumption, I hope you choke Mr. Greed" / "you feast upon the blood and pain, but the bones you hoard can only bring you shame") and the second was "Vanz Kant Danz" (originally named "Zanz Kant Dance" but changed after legal threats, anthropomorphizing Zaentz as a pig and featuring the refrain "Zanz can't dance but he'll steal your money, watch him or he'll rob you blind.")
If I have done this correctly, you understand well at this point that John Fogerty and Saul Zaentz were not friends in 1985.  When "The Old Man Down the Road" was released as the first single off of Centerfield, many people recognized a distinct similarity between that song and CCR's 1970 single "Run Through the Jungle."  That would make sense, as both of them were written and sung by Fogerty.  But recall that despite his authorship, "Run Through the Jungle" was no longer owned by Fogerty: he had signed it over to Zaentz years earlier to get out of his Fantasy contract.  So Zaentz, recognizing an opportunity both to make some money and to stick it to Fogerty, sued him for infringement.  In a California federal court, Fantasy Records sued John Fogerty for ripping off... John Fogerty.
If you listen to both songs, they do sound remarkably similar.  But at trial, Fogerty argued that lots of his songs done in the "swamp rock" genre sound similar, and played the guitar on the witness stand to demonstrate the differences between the two tracks.  The jury agreed, and returned a verdict in his favor. 
(What came next is some legal nerd stuff, but as a legal nerd I find it very interesting.)  Having won at trial, Fogerty then asked the court to order Zaentz to pay his legal fees, as the Copyright Act allows for "prevailing parties" to recover the cost of litigation.  The trial court refused, finding that Zaentz had not brought the case in "bad faith."  Fogerty appealed, arguing that if plaintiffs get legal fees as a matter of course, defendants should too and should not have to prove a higher standard of bad faith.  The court of appeals again sided with Zaentz, and Fogerty went to the Supreme Court of the United States.  
In the 1994 decision Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., the Supreme Court agreed with Fogerty and made new law, holding that successful defendants in copyright suits could get attorney's fees under the same standard applied to successful plaintiffs.  On remand, the court awarded him $1.3 million in fees.  Fogerty got the last laugh.  (And it probably sounded a lot like a CCR laugh.) 


BONUS FACT:  In 2004, Zaentz sold Fantasy to a group of investors.   One of their first signings after the purchase?  John Fogerty.

BONUS FACT 2:  Prior to recording their first full-length record for Fantasy, CCR was named The Golliwogs.  A golliwog is a "blackface" minstrel caricature that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is now widely recognized as racist; the term "wog" is still a slur in the UK for Middle Eastern and South Asian people. The band apparently came by the name innocently, though: a Fantasy executive wanted a name reminiscent of The Beatles and the British Invasion and imposed it on them.

BONUS FACT 2.5:  Zaentz conditioned his agreement to record a full-length record with CCR on them changing their name from The Golliwogs.  According to the story, they chose "Creedence Clearwater Revival" as a combination of (1) a friend of Tom Fogerty named Credence, (2) an Olympia beer advertisement touting the "clear water" used to make it, and (3) the idea that the renamed band (which at that point had played together for 8 years with limited success) would energize the group and bring success.  That's all pretty dumb, but I guess it worked.

BONUS FACT 3:  Eight years after CCR's breakup, in 1980 Fantasy released a live album in the US and Europe titled The Royal Albert Hall Concert.  The record has since been renamed simply The ConcertThat's because it was recorded at the Coliseum in Oakland, California rather than at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  Oops.

BONUS FACT 4:  The jazz artist Dave Brubeck was one of the biggest artists for Fantasy Records, where his deal made him a half-owner.  In that role, he convinced several other jazz acts to sign to the label, too.  But then Brubeck learned that he was in fact only the half-owner of his own records, NOT of the whole label as he had thought. So advised, Brubeck left Fantasy shortly thereafter for Columbia Records, where he had his biggest success.

BONUS FACT 5:  It's silly and pointless, but I enjoy this story from Norm Macdonald to David Letterman about Bob Uecker and John Fogerty.