originally published May 21, 2014
A survey of music lovers who possess even so much as a passing interest in the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly reveal “Come Together” to be one of the most universally beloved bullets in their melodic clip. From its swampy bass, its percussive “Shoot me” refrain to its absurdist and almost comically weird lyrics, the song righteously opens the gates to the magnificent Abbey Road album, tantalizing and gratifying most every pair of ears it meets.
It’s almost shocking to imagine the pretzel of nefarious backlash it provoked. “Come Together” may have begun its life as John Lennon’s attempt to pen a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s quest to unseat Ronald Reagan as governor of California, but it wound up inadvertently connecting Lennon with one of the most insidious corners of the music industry.
If only it were as simple as Lennon scribbling a new idea then slapping it onto vinyl with his buddies through the immaculate channel of producer George Martin. For the origin story of the madness that would follow, we need to travel back to 1956, back to when songs about cars were a veritable genre unto themselves. To a little single by rock ‘n roll’s illustrious grandpa, Chuck Berry.
In 1956, Chuck released a song called “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon’s song boasts a similar vocal melody and a set of lyrics (“Here come old flattop, he come goovin’ up slowly” to “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”). The similarity ends there – Berry’s song is about driving quickly whereas Lennon’s is about something called ‘toe-jam football’ and some guy with feet below his knees. But it was enough to snag the ear of music publisher Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Berry’s song and promptly launched an infringement lawsuit against Lennon.
To be clear, Morris Levy knew something about messing with copyright. He gained a reputation for snuffing out songwriter credits and plopping his own name in their place, in particular with his African-American talent. Don’t get me wrong – the guy opened the Birdland club in New York, he helped to fund Sugar Hill Records, the first rap-oriented music label, and he co-founded Roulette Records, which featured Tommy James, Dinah Washington and Sammy Davis Jr. He contributed a lot to the landscape of 20th-century music. But now he was battling a Beatle.
Around this time (1973), the Beatles were broken up and John Lennon was living in Los Angeles during his famous ‘lost weekend’. For those unfamiliar with Lennon’s life story, this was the period of about 18 months in which he lived apart from Yoko Ono and substituted her presence in his life with copious amounts of alcohol and the occasional ejection from an L.A. nightclub. Lennon didn’t want to head back to New York for a court battle. In exchange for Levy dropping the suit, John offered to record three Levy-published songs on his next album, thus giving Levy a heap of royalty money. Levy agreed.
With his Mind Games album in the bag, Lennon set about recording new material, enlisting Phil Spector to act as producer. Unfortunately, Spector suffered from the vocational handicap of being completely batshit insane. After a few drunken arguments, Phil disappeared with the master tapes and wasn’t heard from in months. By the time the recordings resurfaced at Capitol Records, Lennon was back in New York, working on another new album.
Walls And Bridges was Lennon’s next project, and while it featured an uncomfortable snippet of a Morris Levy song (“Ya Ya”, with his 11-year-old son Julian playing drums), it was hardly fulfilling the promise Lennon had made. But when the Spector-produced tapes had emerged from the darkness, Lennon was working at full tempo on something fresh. He didn’t throw them out, he simply put them on the shelf for a little bit.
Morris was not happy. He threatened to refile the suit, but Lennon placated him with the twisted tale of what had happened to the recordings. As a gesture of good faith, he gave a rough copy of the session recordings to Levy and promised to get them cleaned up and market-ready as soon as he was done with his current project. Levy suggested they could make a little more money from the album if he put it out on his own Adam VIII record label, foregoing having to pay Capitol and EMI any royalties, and maybe market the thing through television mail-order. Levy was predicting the infomercial.
John was on board – even willing to shill the record on TV – but he had a contract with EMI and they told him to turn Levy down. Levy was pissed again, and he launched a $42 million lawsuit against Lennon and EMI. What’s worse, he released the rough tapes Lennon had given him anyway, accompanied by what might be the worst album cover of all time:
Lennon finished his version of the album, taking a co-producer credit and cleaning up the master tapes nicely. Rock ‘n’ Roll was released in 1975 right around the time he reconciled with Yoko. Levy did not drop the suit.
The case went to New York District Court in 1976, and Levy lost. He received a token payment for the initial complaint (the “Come Together” plagiarism), but wound up having to pay $109,700 in lost revenue to EMI, and another $42,000 to John for ‘damages to his reputation’ – meaning a crappy-sounding album with a ludicrously horrible cover. Only about 3000 copies of Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits were pressed, making it a valuable LP for collectors.
Lennon himself ordered one through the TV promotion, and was rather disgusted that it took over a month to get delivered.
As a result of this legal hassle (and as far as legal hassles go, this was an easy one for Lennon, who spent almost as much time battling with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr over the dissolution of the Beatles as he had spent in a band with them), John was careful about avoiding any potential infringements in the future. This was an experience he shared with George Harrison, who went through his own litigation hell during the 70’s over his song “My Sweet Lord” – a story for another day.
As for Levy, after the accusations of his credit-pilfering ways arose, he wound up indicted and convicted on extortion charges in 1990, after it was proven that he had allowed the infiltration of organized crime figures into the music business. Whatever good he did had been overshadowed by his greed, his thievery and his spinelessness. He passed away in May of that year, about two months before he was to report to prison for his ten-year sentence.
Who knows? Maybe Levy’s dickishness is one of the reasons Lennon retreated into partial retirement for most of the last five years of his life. Who knows what brilliant – and wholly original – music he could have made?