The accompanying music video to George Harrison’s 1976 single, ‘This Song’, opens with a shot of the exterior wall of a New York courtroom decorated with a classical emblem, beneath which the word ‘justice has been carved in bold, imposing letters. As the vibrato of a jazz organ strikes up and the band begins to play, we see Harrison being marched along a long corridor, hands cuffed behind his back by a faceless police officer. But what might on the surface seem like an overly theatrical setting for a comparatively unmemorable pop song is, in fact, a pretty accurate representation of the legal battle that spawned this notorious number.
‘This Song’ was written in 1976 after George Harrison had spent an entire week in a courtroom. Why? I hear you ask. Drugs? Inciting a mass protest? Stealing a pair of harem trousers? Nope, nope, and nope. In fact, Harrison spent the week attempting to convince a judge that his 1970 hit single ‘My Sweet Lord‘ did not infringe on the copyright of the Chiffon’s ‘He’s So Fine’, which was released seven years earlier.
The Chiffon’s hit was written by a young songwriter called Ronnie Mack, who died of cancer following its release in ’63. Mack was born and raised in The Bronx and, in 1960, had his eyes set on stardom. Hungry to achieve this fame, he invited three girls from a local school to sing together and thus created The Chiffons. Their first number one hit, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, made them a household name and, soon after, Capitol Records offered them an astonishing ten-album contract. With new singer Sylvia Paterson in the mix, The Chiffons set about recording their debut album. It was clear that ‘He’s so Fine’ was the hit single, and with no small amount of effort on their part, The Chiffons finally managed to get it released via a small independent label called Laurie. By February 1963, ‘He’s So Fine’ had taken the number one spot in the US R&B charts.
Jump ahead to 1976 and George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ is being submitted to a ridiculously thorough cross-examination, which saw witnesses break down the track into its constituent motifs and analyse them, attempting to decipher precisely where the resemblances to ‘He’s So Fine’ were located. A copyright expert then put together several charts showing the similarities between the musical notation to prove that such similarities were grounded in musical theory. By the end of it, as George Harrison once recalled, he “started to believe that maybe they [The Chiffons] did own those notes”.
‘This Song’ is a direct attack on the entire notion of originality and intellectual property, one which sees Harrison deliberately quote fragments of melody from well-known pop songs such as The Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)’. Indeed, in the first verse, Harrison makes his feelings about the whole copyright case very clear, singing: “This song has nothing tricky about it/ This song ain’t black or white and as far as I know/ Don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright.” But, somehow, Harrison also has the foresight to blend, what would otherwise be a track that deals only with the bureaucratic world of the US copyright system, with shades of the classic love song: “But this song could well be/ A reason to see,” Harrison sings, “That without you there’s no point to this song,” allowing Harrison to both criticise the basis of the trial and explore the purpose of the songwriter in general.