Co-writing is a bit of a dirty word these days. Damon Albarn recently caused a Twitter storm for allegedly criticising Taylor Swift’s adoption of the co-writing approach. For people like Albarn, having a team of writers working together to craft a song seems symptomatic of our inauthentic, super-charged modern music industry. However, co-writing has always been around in one way or another – it’s just collaboration under a different name, after all. And for as long as it’s been around, it’s been a source of squabbles and backstabbing. Take, for example, the time John Lennon pinched a song he wrote with Frank Zappa for an album of his own.
Lennon had always struggled with his public image. In a retrospective interview with Rolling Stone writer Jann S. Wenner, John opened up about how he resented the way people regarded George Harrison as a philosopher and Paul McCartney as a musician, while he was seen as little more than an angry activist who used to be in The Beatles. His ambition had always been to be treated as an artist. Frank Zappa had managed it, why couldn’t he? Lennon looked up to the West Coast rocker and admired his ability to declare himself an artist without any fear of what people might think.
This admiration led to the pair being introduced to one another, with Lennon and Yoko joining Zappa on stage for a four-song jam during his performance with The Mothers of Invention at Fillmore East. While the collaboration was a big moment for Lennon, Zappa wasn’t so buzzed – he didn’t much care for The Beatles anyway; aside from ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Paperback Writer’ that is.
As Zappa recalled on his 1984 Interview Picture Disc: “A journalist in New York City woke me up – knocked on the door and is standing there with a tape recorder and goes, ‘Frank, I’d like to introduce you to John Lennon,’ you know, waiting for me to gasp and fall on the floor. And I said, ‘Well, OK. Come on in.’ And we sat around and talked, and I think the first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re not as ugly as I thought you would be’. So anyway, I thought he had a pretty good sense of humour so I invited him to come down and jam with us at the Fillmore East. We had already booked in a recording truck because we were making the Live at the Fillmore album at the time.”
The audience was blown away with the arrival of John and Yoko, and many people commented on how well the pair blended with the far-out sound of the Mothers. But, looking back on his performance with Lennon, Zappa recalled feeling bitter about with the whole experience: “The bad part is,” Zappa began, “There’s a song that I wrote called ‘King Kong’ which we played that night, and I don’t know whether it was Yoko’s idea or John’s idea, but they changed the name of the song to ‘Jamrag’, gave themselves writing and publishing credit on it, stuck it on an album and never paid me,” Zappa added. “It was obviously not a jam session song: It’s got a melody, it’s got a bass line; it’s obviously an organized song. Little bit disappointing.”