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The Beatles double-cross: Michael Jackson's betrayal of Paul McCartney

Music is full of partnerships. In fact, one might even say it is defined by them. Billie Eilish and Finneas, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Chas and Dave, you get the picture. Since the advent of pop culture, there have been countless partnerships that have underpinned our favourite pieces. If you were to think of the most iconic acts/hits of the past 60 years, they would be almost certain to have featured a successful duo. In fact, if we were to extend this sentiment outside of music, we find that life is full of successful partnerships that have come to embody the essence of yin and yang. Skinner and Baddiel, Puyol and Pique, Laurel and Hardy, Cannon and Ball.

This idea goes some way in demonstrating that one’s strengths can be augmented by another, and vice versa, as the traditional doctrine of marriage would tell you. However, this is not always the case. One decade that was brimming with these bizarre musical convergences was the 1980s. As if the advent of the digital world made people think that truly anything was possible, there were countless instances of musical shoe-horning. Although the decade gave us great partnerships such as The Pogues and Kirtsy MacColl’s ‘Fairytale in New York’ and Run DMC and Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’, it also gave us another weird partnership that has long since been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. This disaster was initiated in 1978 when McCartney wrote the song ‘Girlfriend’ for MJ. In fact, Jackson’s producer, Quincy Jones, suggested that Michael cover the track, to which he agreed. It was included in his 1979 breakthrough, Off the Wall. The pair then dueted on the hit single ‘The Girl is Mine’ in 1982 from Jackson’s most iconic album, Thriller. The musical axis powers would not stop there, though. They teamed up again the following year for not one but two songs on McCartney’s fourth studio album, Pipes of Peace. These were the album’s hit lead single ‘Say Say Say’ and album track ‘The Man’. 

It was to be during the recording sessions for ‘Say Say Say’ that events would be set in motion that would kick off music’s biggest betrayal, equating to Brutus and Caesar. Allegedly, when in conversation, the affable McCartney advised Jackson to invest his colossal wealth into music publishing. 

On this day, August 14th, 1985, the unspeakable would happen. MJ obtained the publishing rights to the majority of the Beatles back catalogue for $47 million from parent company ATV. McCartney had not been receiving his share of the earnings from Beatles songs since 1969, due to the mismanagement of him and John Lennon’s publishing company, Northern Songs. Retrospectively, in 1989, McCartney said of the Northern Songs situation: “Very early on we got managed into a little situation.” He explained, “It meant that whatever the lion’s share of the songs we did were taken by someone else.”

However, back in 1985, McCartney planned to lodge a bid to purchase back the rights to what was truly his. However, old friend Michael Jackson, who at the time wielded an unrivalled economic might, sealed the rights all for himself before Macca could get there.

McCartney felt betrayed by Jackson. (Credit: Alamy)

Understandably, McCartney was shocked and outraged by the insidious manoeuvring of MJ. He opined, “I think it’s dodgy to do something like that.” He concluded that it was like, “To be someone’s friend, and then buy the rug they’re standing on.” Typical of Jackson, he remained quiet on the matter. However, he did let out a Freudian slip in his 1989 autobiography Moonwalk. He claimed: “Paul and I both learned the hard way about business”, and the “Importance of publishing and royalties and the dignity of songwriting.”

Jackson’s purchase would support his increasingly opulent lifestyle up until his death in 2009, all while McCartney looked on. Whilst no pauper by any stretch of the word, it must be deeply hurtful to witness a former friend own and live off what is naturally yours, particularly in such an unscrupulous manner. Et Tu, Jackson?

In 2009 McCartney told David Letterman: “Somebody had to get it, I suppose. What happened actually was then I started to ring him up. I thought, here’s the guy historically placed to give Lennon–McCartney a good deal at last, ‘cos we got signed when we were 21 or something in a back alley in Liverpool. And the deal, it’s remained the same, even though we made this company the most famous – hugely successful. So I kept thinking, it was time for a raise … I did talk to him about it, but he kind of blanked me on it. He kept saying, ‘That’s just business, Paul.’ You know. So, I thought, ‘Yeah, it is,’ and waited for a reply, but we never kind of got to it … It was no big bust-up. We kind of drifted apart after that”.

In 2017, McCartney and his legal team filed a lawsuit in New York against what is now known as Sony/ATV, attempting to finally regain his ownership stake in the Beatles back catalogue. After a long, winding struggle for McCartney, shortly after the claim was lodged, Sony/ATV decided to settle. Both parties knew that this had the potential to be a nasty, drawn-out legal confrontation. 

A letter from McCartney’s attorney said: “The parties have resolved this matter by entering into a confidential settlement agreement.” All’s well, ends well, eh? McCartney finally got back what was truly his, and luckily for him, his unbelievably dated work with Jackson has been tossed into the paper shredder of memory.

Listen to ‘Say Say Say’, below.

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