The music industry can be a suffocating environment. It has the capabilities to transform the one thing you love most in the world into a loathsome chore, a notion that George Harrison discovered the hard way.
Harrison’s post-Beatles career started successfully with All Things Must Pass, a project that showed how far he had developed as a songwriter, and in truth, it remains as good as anything that his former bandmates in The Beatles have put out in their respective solo careers. In the wake of the album’s triumph, an incident would knock the guitarist for six, leaving him questioning whether he even wanted to listen to music again, let alone make it.
‘My Sweet Lord’ was the hit single from the album. It topped the charts in almost every country and saw Harrison break out from being the ‘Quiet Beatle’ into an undisputed star in his own right. However, people were there trying to drag him down and leech off his success, making Harrison’s stomach turn in the process.
A few months after the track’s release, Bright Tunes Music decided that the song was too similar to The Chiffons’ 1963 hit ‘He’s So Fine’ and brazenly sued Harrison for plagiarism. It wasn’t even the band who put the case forward against the former Beatle, but the production company who made the track, and it is a case study in the greed of the music business.
As the years passed, and as the court case rumbled on, Harrison’s heart hardened towards making music. Increasingly, with every single day that this dark cloud lingered over him, the musician began to retreat within himself creatively. The proceedings gradually became more convoluted, and it played a pivotal role with Harrison falling out of love with the music industry.
At the time of the case being filed, Harrison’s manager Allen Klein dealt with Bright Tunes on behalf of his client, yet, he’d end up making the situation a million times worse.
Eventually, Bright Tunes filed for bankruptcy, with the case disappearing until 1976, following Klein departing his role alongside Harrison on sour terms. He wanted to get revenge over the former Beatle for how it ended and, in turn, he began consulting for Bright Tunes.
Harrison offered to settle the case for $148,000. However, Klein fancied a day in court and proceeded to push through a legal battle. The trial eventually took place between February 23rd and 25th. Primarily, it focused on the musical pattern of the two songs, which were both based on two musical motifs, ‘G-E-D’ and ‘G-A-C-A-C’, that appeared in the pair of tracks.
While the judge maintained Harrison didn’t deliberately copy ‘My Sweet Lord‘, they did somehow find him guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” on August 31st, 1976. Furthermore, Harrison was ordered to pay around $1.6 million, significantly higher than he ever envisaged. To make things worse, two years later, Klein’s company ABKCO went one step further and purchased Bright Tunes for $587,000, which prompted Harrison to sue.
Thankfully, in 1981, a judge declared Klein wasn’t allowed to profit from the judgment and could only access the $587,000 he paid for the company. All further proceeds from the case had to be dispatched back to Harrison. However, things dragged on for another 12 years until the case finally ended.
Harrison later reflected in an interview with Rolling Stone about the arduous saga, stating: “It’s difficult just to start writing again after you’ve been through that. Even now when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else.”
“I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity to ‘He’s So Fine’,” he wrote in his autobiography. “When I wrote the song it was more improvised and not fixed.”
Adding: “Why didn’t I realise? It would have been very easy to change a note here or there, and not affect the feeling of the record. I don’t feel bad or guilty about it. It saved many a heroin addict’s life. I know the motive behind writing the song in the first place far exceeds the legal hassle.”
John Lennon later even threw Harrison under the bus in an interview with Playboy in 1980. He said: “He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that… He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”
Subconscious plagiarism is a grey area, and indeed if it isn’t conscious, then it’s a notion which you can’t be sued for committing? In Harrison’s case, it tarnished his solo career, made him overthink, and stopped him from creating freely. The case highlights what is wrong with the music industry and goes against everything art should be about.