Songwriting credits are, as we know, not always to be trusted. Since the dawn of music publishing, there has always been a manager or an agent or a well-connected representative of organised crime willing to take a small cut of a song’s royalties, in return for services rendered or threats not carried out. Who actually wrote any song? Well, we know that Bob Dylan wrote ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, but after that it gets a little murky. Lennon/McCartney songs, after the first couple of albums, were written by Lennon or McCartney but rarely by Lennon/McCartney. The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, notoriously, sampled more of Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral version of ‘The Last Time’ than it probably should have, and thus the song carries the credit ‘Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft’, with the two Stones getting 100 per cent of the money and Richard Ashcroft having to make do with a slightly disappointing 0 per cent. Allen Klein, that legendary enforcer, insisted on the full whack or the record would have to be withdrawn from the shops. Remember records? Remember shops?
Every song, of course, sounds a little like another song, except possibly for ‘Wuthering Heights’. It’s only when similarities become uncanny that the lawyers are called in. Most recently, chubby young awards magnet Sam Smith settled out of court with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne after someone noticed that Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ bore a striking resemblance in the tune department to Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’. ‘All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen,’ said Petty, unpettily. ‘Most times you catch it before it gets out of the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.’ In other words, make cheques payable to T. Petty Esq. The errant Smith and his co-writers said they were ‘not previously familiar’ with the Petty track, which I suppose is just about possible. ‘Stay With Me’ won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year — because obviously those are two very different things — but Petty and Lynne’s contribution was not acknowledged by the Academy, as they were deemed to have done ‘no new work’ in writing the song. As opposed to the very hard work the others had put in, writing the same song again purely by coincidence.
Who are these co-writers, anyway? Names, just names. Professional songwriters are everywhere, credited in ever-lengthening lists on every new song you hear. Singers can no longer be just singers, valued for their pipes and their infallible dress sense; they must also be songwriters, whether or not they can write songs. So they note down a few useless, illiterate lyrics and the ‘music guys’ come in and build a song around them. It’s remarkable how many professional songwriters are people who had a go at being performers and didn’t sell as many records as their talents might have merited. I see that Dan Wilson, once of powerpoppers Semisonic, has been working with the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift and John Legend, and co-wrote Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’. And one of my favourite songwriters, Gary Clark, who wrote and sang ‘Mary’s Prayer’ for Danny Wilson and many other songs that should have been hits, now lives in the US and shapes whole albums for the likes of Natalie Imbruglia and Delta Goodrem. As they say, it’s a living.
In such a world it can be hard for real singer-songwriters to stand out. Both my children are unfeasibly obsessed with Ed Sheeran’s two albums, so I have heard rather more of them than I might have wished. But I have to admit, he’s not bad. There isn’t much of a voice — it’s often mixed far too high, and its limitations are painfully exposed — but he writes a nifty lyric, works with proper people (Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin) and writes songs with tunes that don’t all sound like each other. These are old-fashioned pop values, but somehow the public ignored all this and made x the bestselling UK album of 2014. And last week silly old ginger Ed with his try-hard tattoos picked up one or two of the Brits that Sam Smith didn’t win. Lucky boy, although if he isn’t co-writing the hits of someone much younger and prettier in 15 years’ time, and saying he much prefers being ‘out of the limelight’, he will have done astoundingly well.