A microphone is a good enough platform for getting back at people, but an entire recording studio is even better. When I said “by Heart,” I mean, by Anne and Nancy Wilson, rock and roll’s sisters of awesomeness. Their hit Barracuda, which somehow failed to crack the Billboard top 10 when it was released in 1977, isn’t about about the Plymouth fastback muscle car or even the sleek and toothy underwater killing machines.
With arguably one of the greatest opening riffs in classic rock, Barracuda was written by Ann and Nancy Wilson together with guitarist Roger Fisher and drummer Michael DeRosier. It was written at a time when there was friction between the band and their label. The song appears on the album “Little Queen,” their first album with CBS-Portrait records. They had left their old label, Mushroom Records, after a contract dispute, and Mushroom was none too happy, in that Heart was supposed to have given them a second album. They not only sued the band for breach of contract and to try to block the release of the CBS album, but released “Magazine,” an album made up of songs that Heart had recorded but did not want released as well as some live recordings to get it to album length.
The dispute dragged on and eventually the court decided that Heart was free to sign with a new label, but that Mushroom was indeed owed a second album. So, Heart went back to the studio to rerecord, remix, edit, and resequence the Magazine recordings in a marathon session over four days. A court-ordered guard actually stood nearby to prevent the master tapes from being erased. Heart came out on top, as not only did “Little Queen” outsell “Magazine” hands-down, but the debacle gave the band the distinction of having all three of their albums on the charts at the same time.
The court case wasn’t the only reason the Wilsons and company were mad at Mushroom Records. After the first album became a million seller, Mushroom took out a full-page ad in Rolling Stone magazine touting the band’s success, using the headline “Million to One Shot Sells a Million”. The ad looked like the front page of a tabloid newspaper and included a photo from the “Dreamboat Annie” album cover shoot. The caption read: “Heart’s Wilson Sisters Confess: ‘It Was Only Our First Time!’,” implying that the sisters had had a lesbian affair. Shortly after this ad appeared, a Detroit radio promoter asked Ann Wilson where her lover was. She assumed he meant her then-boyfriend, band manager Michael Fisher, and said he was fine. When the reporter clarified that he was referring to her sister, Nancy, Ann was outraged and retreated to her hotel room to write. When she relayed the incident to Nancy, she, too, was understanbly outraged and joined Ann, contributing a melody and bridge. Nancy put suitably angry music to the words to complete the song comparing the sleazy side of music to a dangerous eel-like fish. The song became an enduring classic and Barracuda remains one of the band’s signature songs.
Barracuda was attached to an incident of severe irritation for the Wilson sisters, et al, again in 2008. During that year’s presidential campaign, the song was used as the as the unofficial theme song for Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. The Alaska governor had apparently earned the nickname “Sarah Barracuda” as a high school basketball player for her competitiveness. The day after it was played at the 2008 National Republican Convention, Ann and Nancy Wilson issued a statement that said: “The Republican campaign did not ask for permission to use the song, nor would they have been granted that permission. We have asked the Republican campaign publicly not to use our music. We hope our wishes will be honored.” Their wishes were not honored. As the Republican campaign pointed out, they had obtained the proper performance rights to the song from the record label and were under no obligation to get further permission to use it, the bar being higher if they wanted to use it in a commercial or video.
With no legal recourse, the Wilson sisters retaliated in the media, telling Entertainment Weekly: “Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song ‘Barracuda’ no longer be used to promote her image. The song ‘Barracuda’ was written in the late 70s as a scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women. While Heart did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC, there’s irony in Republican strategists’ choice to make use of it there.”
The song’s co-writer Roger Fisher was also anti-Palin, but he saw things differently, telling Reuters he was “thrilled” that the song was being used as it was a win-win situation. He explained that while Heart gets publicity and royalties, the Republicans benefit from “the ingenious placement of a kick-ass song.” He added that he would use some of the proceeds in a donation to the Obama campaign, and thus, “the Republicans are now supporting Obama.” See, kids? There’s always a silver lining, if we look for it.
The initible, late, great Freddie Mercury of Queen penned another musical hate letter, though this one is best known to fans who owned the album “A Night At the Opera” (which this reporter has on vinyl), as the song Death on Two Legs wasn’t released as a single. This track was dedicated it to Norman Sheffield, Queen’s former manager and a co-owner of Trident Studios. Mercury himself described the lyrics as “so vindictive that Brian [May, guitarist and back-up vocals] felt bad singing it.” It opens with the line “You suck my blood like a leech, you break the law and you breach” and had lyrics like “was that fin on your back part of the deal (shark)” and “you’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.” The surviving band members noted the unhappy atmosphere in the Days of our Lives documentary, explaining that they felt they were being done wrong by the label, as they kept producing hit singles without seeing any of the money. By way of example, at one point, Roger Taylor was told he couldn’t hit the drums too hard as they “couldn’t afford” new drumsticks. But as Taylor noted, “you see (the management) running around in stretch limos and think ‘hang on, there’s something not right here!'”
The band’s split from Trident Studio was unsurprisingly acrimonious and this song acted as something of a final word from the band, the aural equivalent of the British two-fingered salute. As it appears on the album, the song had “Dedicated to…” after the title. Even though the song didn’t use his name or any overtly identifying characteristics, Sheffield tried to sue for defamation of character. This was a bit of a miscalculation on his part, as by doing so he effectively admitted there was cause for them to dedicate this song to him. The parties eventually reached an out of court settlement, but y’all I Googled for nearly an hour and couldn’t find any specifics outside of the fact that Queen was the one doing the paying.
Queen’s next manager, John Reid, spent a lot of his initial time working with the band clearing up their finances and resolving the bad deals they had gotten into.
In his autobiography published in 2013, Life on Two Legs: Set The Record Straight, Sheffield denied that he had mistreated the band in his capacity as manager, and cited the original 1972 management contracts between himself and Queen, which he included in the book, in his defence. He named his autobiography after their song; the lady doth protest too much, methinks.
The music industry is a harsh mistress. Record executives not only tell you how to live in the present day, they make up a punchier past for you, altering your history to help them sell records. And once you’re no longer laying golden eggs for them, your goose is cooked. At least, that’s how the members of Pink Floyd felt. The album title “Wish You Were Here” and the song title “Welcome to the Machine” may have been statements, but their recording actually asked a question, “What is the true cost of fame?”
The story of the album is in no small part also the story of founding member Syd Barrett. Barrett was the band’s original lead guitar and vocalist, but in the late 1960’s, dove headlong into the heavy LSD use. His behavior became erratic and unpredictable, leading people to speculate now that he may have been self-medicating schizophrenia. As his hold on reality became increasingly tenuous, the band finally made the painful decision to replace him, bringing on David Gilmour. Barrett’s deterioration was the impetus behind one of the band’s most enduring hits, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” If the title is written on three lines, you’ll see the acronym Syd. Barrett visited the band once in the studio, virtually unrecognizable to his former bandmates. It was the last time any of them would see him alive. “Shine On” bookends the album, dominated by a four-note guitar theme that Roger Waters, the guitarist who would fill the void as singer, though sounding like Barrett’s lingering ghost.
“Shine on” contains the lyric, “you were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom.” They blamed the music industry for Barrett’s decline. This can be seen again in the song “Have A Cigar” with the famous line, “Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?” The lyrics are one half of a conversation between a record exec and the musicians he’s trying to woo with fame and fortune, without bothering to know the first thing about them. The same sentiment makes up “Welcome to the Machine.” It tells the story of a record exec talking to a musician, without caring in the slightest about that person, creating a marketable backstory, something they can sell to the fans. The execs even write the creative’s future. “What did you dream? It’s alright; we told you what to dream.” The song is full of ominous tones and mechanical sounds, reflecting the cold, inhuman nature of the industry.
Pink Floyd carried this message through to the album cover art. The front cover shows two men shaking hands in a business deal, with one of them on fire, literally being burned in the deal. On the back, a faceless businessman in a barren desert
If you’re going to pause the podcast to go back give Welcome to the Machine a listen, check out the cover by the band Pinwheel. Do NOT listen to the Queensryche version. Just don’t; trust me. The Shadows Fall version is good, too; pretty faithful with some extra harmonies.
At the same time Pink Floyd was dealing with their label, we had the launch of Virgin Records, which got a huge initial boost from artist Mike Oldfield and his hit Tubular Bells. Oldfield was only 19 years old when he wrote the epic rock symphony, which, at 49 minutes, had to be split on two sides of a record. After the demo he recorded in his London flat somehow found its way into the hands of billionaire-to-be Richard Branson, Branson signed Oldfield to a recording contract and sent him to re-record a new version of the album in their newly established Manor Recording Studio, where Oldfield played nearly every of the instruments himself. The finished product would become the first release on Virgin Records and a critical and commercial success, reaching number one on the U.K. album chart and it remained on the charts for a record-shattering 280 weeks. Its fame was further cemented by director William Friedkin, who used the album’s spooky opening piano theme for the soundtrack of his 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. The success of Virgin Records set Branson up to create a business empire, including Virgin Mobile and Virgin Atlantic Airlines.
Things were strained between Oldfield and Branson right from Jump Street. Branson and an engineer remixed Tubular Bells without Oldfield’s permission. Oldfield could politely be called a recluse, but Branson knew they needed to capitalize on the song’s success by having Oldfield perform it live. Branson even gave Oldfield his own Bentley if he would just get on stage at a show. The Bentley, as it turned out, cost more in repairs than it would have cost Oldfield to buy one for himself. Branson also got considerably richer than Oldfield from Tubular Bells, as he was both the owner of the record label and Oldfield’s manager. It took time for royalties to trickle in to Oldfield, at his below-industry-standard rate of 5%, but the tax bill came promptly. Rather than our usual assumption that instantly famous equals instantly rich, Oldfield was in debt more often than not and counseled by an accountant to move overseas. His contract with Virgin Records was grueling, requiring 13 albums from him over the span of only 17 years. Lawyers were brought in and the pair were joined in a legal struggled that dragged on for years, only narrowly avoiding going to court.
In 1990, Oldfield released his second-to-last obligatory album, Amarok. He decided to “get his own,” as the Brits say, in a subtle way. The album was an hour-long continuous stream of often discordant music, essentially guaranteed to be unplayable on the radio. Buried 48 minutes in, the rhythmic cacophony is overlaid with staccato screeches. Though it would fail to grab the ear of the average person, Boy Scouts and old sailors would recognize it as Morse code. What were the words? Well, let’s just say the first word was the acronym of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (which, side note, is not where that word comes from and you can bet your sweet bippy I’ll do an episode on that one day). The next word was “off,” followed by the initials R. B. This was certainly not the sequel to Tubular Bells that the record execs had been pushing for. Oldfield finally recorded that after he signed with Warner Brothers.
Things seem to be better between the Oldfield and Branson now. They’re able to share an occasional meal amicably and Oldfield get free flights on Virgin Atlantic, though they don’t fly to his new home in the Bahamas, so he rarely gets to use them.
Mike Oldfield is far from the only artist to produce a deliberately unusable album to fulfill a contract. Quality is subjective, particularly in a form of artistic expression like music, so it’s impossible to bake a requirement into a contract. Here’s a run-down, but by no means exhaustive list, of albums recorded for the sole and exclusive purpose of fulfilling a contract. There’s one item of note I can only mention in passing, a Rolling Stones track called Schoolboy Blues, which may require you to turn off Google safe search to find the lyrics.
Even if you don’t know the artist’s name, almost everyone who’s ever knowingly tuned in a classic rock station can sing along to Brown Eyed Girl. After a pretty unhappy couple of years with his label Bang Records in the mid-60s, Van Morrison wanted out. Luckily for him, Warner Music stepped in and bought out his deal with Bang Records. Unluckily, however, there was still one small contractual detail — Morrison was obliged to record exactly 36 songs for his old label, who would also continue to earn royalties off anything he released for the first year after leaving Bang. Not a patient man at the best of times, Van did the only thing he could think of: he recorded more than 30 songs in a single recording session, on an out-of-tune guitar, about subjects as diverse as ringworm, blowing your nose, a dumb guy named George, and whether he wanted to eat a danish or a sandwich. Bang Records concluded that the songs were below the quality of Morrison’s regular output (ya think?) and deemed the bizarre collection unfit for release. The tracks would eventually see the light of day in the mid-90s, and remain some of the weirdest and often funniest music ever recorded by a mainstream artist.
In early 1977, Frank Zappa wanted out of his deal with Warner Bros. and recorded Läther, an eight-sided, three-hour, quadruple album of brand-new material. He was told he needed to deliver four separate albums to fulfill his contract, however. So he reformatted the whole thing into the four required albums. Warner wasn’t having it though, and still wouldn’t release the records. They not only refused to let Zappa out of his contract, but also wouldn’t pay him. In the pre-Internet age, Frank did the only thing he could do; he took one of the test pressings to KROQ in Los Angeles, and played the whole set on the air as an exclusive. He also asked his fans to record the whole thing, thus giving them permission to bootleg it. Warner Brother released some material from Lather in 1977 while they and Zappa were tied up in court and he was not recording. They eventually released the bulk of the album in 1996, three years after Zappa’s death. To say that Zappa was prolific is to damn with faint praise – Lather was his sixty-fifth album.
Things were tense between Neil Young and Geffen Records, and David Geffen personally, as he reached the end of his contract in 1986. Geffen had sued Young for $3.3 million, on the grounds that Young’s most recent records were non-commercial and musically uncharacteristic. Basically, David Geffen had sued Neil Young for making albums that didn’t sound enough like Neil Young. Landing on Water sounded like Neil Young, alright, albeit a rather jaded and disillusioned version thereof. Several of the songs on the album were resurrected from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s failed 1984 sessions – a set of sessions where, according to longtime producer David Briggs, the musicians “played like monkeys”. Young settled out of court with Geffen Records, but again I can’t find specifics.
Before releasing his own unsellable but required albums, the Purple One himself, the late great artist formerly and then later again known as Prince changed his name to the famous unpronounceable, gender-mixing squiggle. He also performed with the word “slave” written across his face, making it even more difficult for Warner Brothers to market him, in hopes of being more trouble than he was worth to them. He began churning out albums at a prodigious rate. The last album of his contract, Chaos and Disorder, was a collection of dodgy leftovers and tracks otherwise unsuitable for a proper album. The first album he released with his new label, EMI, was back up to his usual standards. It’s title? Emancipation.
Releasing a live record is a time-honored way to deliver on the obligation to deliver an album. With his band The Experience having broken up in mid-1969, Jimi Hendrix put together a new band — the eponymous Band of Gypsys — in order to make this record and get it out as quickly as possible, but even though the motives were entirely pragmatic, the results were pretty amazing. Recorded over two nights at the Fillmore East in New York City (specifically, New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970), the album finds Hendrix at his incendiary best. The band went their separate ways a few weeks after, and barely six months later, Hendrix would be dead.
For much of the ’90s, British goth punk band The Sisters of Mercy battled viciously with their record label EastWest. There was a trainwreck of a co-headlining tour with Public Enemy, the snap firing of a manager, and cancelled distribution in the States. Trying to kill the last two albums that The Sisters owed EastWest, singer Andrew Eldritch sent the label work from another project. Without first listening, the label said the new material would cover their obligation. What Eldritch sent was some abysmal techno, entitled SSV-NSMABAAOTWMODAACOTIATW, which is rumoured to stand for “Screw Shareholder Value – Not So Much A Band As Another Opportunity To Waste Money On Drugs And Ammunition Courtesy Of The Idiots At Time Warner.” EastWest never released the album, but bootlegs abound.
Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear was not an album recorded to appease a grumpy record label. Rather, he was trying to please both the courts and an unhappy ex-wife. The legendary crooner and his missus, Anna Gordy, had become estranged. Marvin’s remarkable cocaine habit, and extravagant lifestyle, meant he couldn’t afford to pay her alimony. Therefore, a deal was struck: half the royalties of Gaye’s next album would go to Anna. As you might imagine, Gaye didn’t really fancy making another masterpiece like What’s Goin’ On. Instead, he hoped to turn in something a bit rubbish, or “lazy, bad” as he put it. Of course, you can never predict when genius will strike; once Gaye got going, he just couldn’t help but make one of the most beautifully candid, and emotionally raw, break-ups albums ever. That having been said, Gaye got his original wish when the album was released and both fans and critics gave it a collective “meh.”
Every now and again, the double-edged sword of artist integrity pops up. Ben Folds of the eponymous Five signed a publishing contract that he later regretted. It required him to pen a very specific amount of songs a year, right down to the decimal point. The track One Down is one of a number of songs he dutifully churned out to meet the contract, and details the struggle and silliness of being party to such a legally binding document. The lyrics directly address the ridiculous situation of having to write .6 of a song, as well as the temptation to give his publishing company something a bit terrible. With not a little irony he sings: One down and three-point-six tomorrow/ And I’m out of here/ People tell me “Ben, just make up junk, and turn it in”/ But I could never could quite bring myself to write a bunch of s***.
Not all contract-fulfillers are of poor quality. David Bowie thought his contract with RCA would expire with Lodger, the third album in what is called the Berlin trilogy. He was counting the double live album Stage as two records. RCA, however, were having none of that and demanded another album to fulfill Bowie’s obligations to them. The result was arguably his last great studio album, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. The advance single “Ashes to Ashes” – which resurrected his popular Major Tom character from “Space Oddity” – went to No. 1 in the U.K., while performing strongly in numerous countries. (In the U.S., the song had an entirely different fate, just missing the Billboard Hot 100 and peaking at No. 101.) “Fashion,” a direct descendant from Station to Station’s “Golden Years,” following in short order, pushing Scary Monsters to the top the charts in the U.K.; Bowie reached No. 12 in America. For many fans, you need say no more than “Ashes to Ashes” to remind them of Bowie’s creative genius.
And that’s where we run out of idea, at least for today. The music business is often business first, music second. With stardom close close they can taste it, many young performers find themselves in contracts that primarily benefit their manager or the record label. Luckily for them, they’re also imbued with this tremendous platform to subtly or not so subtly strike back. Have you ever listened to an album that you thought was made purely for business reasons. Pop over to our Facebook page or leave a comment on that platform you’re listening through, if it allows comments. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.