As long as rock ‘n roll has existed, artists feuding with their labels has been all too common. Tom Petty declared bankruptcy to get out of his first record contract, while Prince famously wrote “slave” on his face, and eventually changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol while fighting his contract with Warner Bros.
Still, the feuding between John Fogerty and Fantasy Records — the label through which classic Creedence Clearwater Revival albums like Green River and Cosmo’s Factory were released — is among the most tenuous musician-label battles ever.
Musicians being accused of ripping off classic songs in their own works is nothing new, as anyone who witnessed the massive “Blurred Lines” lawsuit (in which Marvin Gaye’s estate was awarded $7.4 million) can attest. But Fogerty, who turns 70 today, is the only musician to be accused of plagiarizing himself.
In 1985, Fogerty’s comeback album Centerfield — released on Warner Bros. — had returned him to the spotlight after a 10-year hiatus. While the baseball-centric title track was the album’s biggest hit, he also reached the top 10 with “The Old Man Down the Road,” a song perhaps most memorable for a video which features the world’s longest extension cord. Fantasy Records boss Saul Zaentz thought the song sounded awfully similar to the CCR classic “Run Through the Jungle,” which Zaentz still owned the rights to. Seeing an opportunity to make some cash off of Fogerty’s new hit single, Zaentz decided to sue Fogerty essentially for ripping off his own music.
Compare the two yourself:
The lawsuit, Fogerty vs. Fantasy Inc., would make eventually make it all the way to the Supreme Court. To plead his case, Fogerty brought his guitar to the courtroom to demonstrate the differences between the two songs. In a ruling made by a lower court, Fogerty would ultimately win the case, but he lost when he tried to counter-sue Zaentz for his legal fees. That decision, however, would be overturned by the Supreme Court in 1993 in a decision that would set legal precedent. In previous copyright cases, defendants who won their case and attempted to collect legal fees had to prove that the initial lawsuit was frivolous. In this case, the court ruled that Fogerty could collect his fees from Zaentz without having to do so.
Weirdly enough, this case wasn’t even the only legal battle between Fogerty and Zaentz that involved the Centerfield album. That album’s closing track was initially entitled “Zanz Kant Danz,” which appeared to be a clear reference to Zaentz. Steamed over that one, he sued Fogerty in a $144 million lawsuit. That one would be eventually settled out of court, with the song being changed to “Vanz Kant Danz” on future pressings of Centerfield.
This wasn’t the only time there was tension between Fogerty and Fantasy Records: He was never happy with the way CCR’s classic songs were licensed out to commercials. If you recall hearing “Fortunate Son” in an ad for Wrangler jeans back in 2002, and thought it was weird that a song protesting class warfare was being used to sell dungarees, well, Fogerty agreed with you. In a surprising bit of corporate restraint, Wrangler agreed to stop using the song when they became aware of Fogerty’s objections to it:
Yes, the people that owned Fantasy Records also owned all my early songs, and they would do all kinds of stuff I really hated in a commercial way with my songs. … Then one day somebody from the L.A. Times actually bothered to call me up and ask me how I felt, and I finally had a chance to talk about it. And I said I’m very much against my song being used to sell pants. … So my position got stated very well in the newspaper, and lo and behold, Wrangler to their credit said, ‘Wow, even though we made our agreement with the publisher, the owner of the song, we can see now that John Fogerty really hates the idea’, so they stopped doing it.
These days, Fogerty’s legal battles with Fantasy have mercilessly relented, but after the constant feuding between Fogerty and his old label, one can safely assume there’s no love lost here. However Fogerty decides to celebrate his 70th, it’s highly unlikely that, if he were alive, Saul Zaentz would be involved in the festivities.