Wednesday, January 1, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Northern Songs: The True Story of the Beatles' Song Publishing Empire



Typically, books on musicians tend to focus on their music, their personal relationships, or stories relating to their break-up, brushes with the law, or inspirations, to name but a few. However, while a seemingly endless supply of books exists detailing all of those aspects of The Beatles' career, Northern Songs: The True Story of the Beatles' Song Publishing Empire attempts to take a look at an aspect of the band that is probably not known very well, if at all, to all but the most diehard of fans: that of their songwriting and publishing company and all of the drama, trials, and tribulations that swirled around it.

Coming in at just over 200 pages, Northern Songs is a short, concise book that endeavors to *ONLY* cover the details around the publishing company set up in 1963.  It leaves the band biography and personal details to other books, and in doing so enhances its cachet as a more niche/specialty book. The book begins first by giving a concise (but still rather confusing and convoluted) history of song publishing in the USA and UK from its inception up to the beginning of the Beatles' career. Continuing on by detailing how Brian Epstein secured the publisher (Ardmore & Beechwood, who were a small EMI-owned publisher) for the first release by the band, the single Love Me Do in October 1962, the authors quickly get to the beginning of the real story that's at the heart of this book. Because the single peaked at #17, Epstein and the band were disappointed, especially with A&B's lack of promotion for the record. Seeking to secure a better songwriting and publishing deal for Lennon and McCartney, George Martin (the Beatles' producer, for anyone who doesn't know) gave him the name of three people he vouched for, the last of whom was Dick James. Via a series of events I won't get into in this review, Epstein (and by proxy, Lennon and McCartney) ended up signing with James, who was a struggling small-time publisher who was close to running out of money with his fledgling company. The deal was sealed when James was able to get Epstein a TV appearance for the Beatles in January 1963 with a single phone call during their first meeting. Later in 1963, James floated the idea to Epstein of starting a company, Northern Songs, to handle all of John and Paul's song publishing. It was to be jointly own by James, his accountant Charles Silver, Epstein, and John and Paul. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were given small shares in the company as well, while George Martin turned down an invitation to be involved due to worries of conflict of interest between his employer (EMI) and the fact that the band were now going with an outside publisher after the failures with A&B. As was typical at the time, however, the Beatles signed the contracts without reading them, trusting Epstein and James completely. This would unfortunately prove to be their undoing.

Amidst ridicule from the London financial community, Northern Songs was floated as a public company in 1965 (on James' idea) to avoid severe financial penalties due to taxation, and all involved made a lot of money. Dick James was now a multi-millionaire and it was all due to John and Paul's songs. However, as the draconian and unfair terms of the agreement came to light over the course of the decade, the relationship between the two writers and James deteriorated, especially after Epstein's death. To make a long story short, James decided to cash out in 1969 and after a long and protracted battle where John and Paul, through Apple Corps., tried to buy Northern Songs, Lew Grade and his ATV corporation outbid them and purchased the copyrights. The remainder of the book details the long and tortuously winding road of the songs and copyrights throughout the 1970s, into the 1980s where Paul and Yoko unsuccessfully tried to purchase them; after a failed purchase bid by EMI, Michael Jackson swooped in and bought them in 1985.  From here, the remainder of the book's story details the path the copyrights took from 1985 to Jackson's sale of them to Sony and where they finally stand in 2007 (as of the printing of this book).


On the plus side, the authors, Southall and Perry, have managed to take what could be a very clinical and analytical subject and make it very interesting and readable. While reading some of the labyrinthine ways in which companies funnel the royalties around and how sub-publishing and transmission rights works in foreign countries gets to be a bit confusing, overall it's not too difficult to follow the general direction of it all. Also, the authors are fairly objective and overall, they report on all of the players involved in an evenhanded and fair manner. Exclusive interviews with many of the primary players at all stages of the saga, including Dick James' son Stephen, shed a lot of behind-the-scenes light on the entire tale.

On the negative side, at times the narrative reads simply like a list of "then this person bought this, and then it was sold to that person, who sued this person, who settled with that person," and so on. Also, the book has quite a lot of typos and printing errors, which, while they don't impair the readability of the book, do get quite annoying after a while.

That being said, overall this is a very interesting and good chronicle of an area of the Beatles' legend that probably isn't discussed in as much detail anywhere else. It gives a sad and sometimes shocking portrait of how Dick James really took advantage of Epstein's naivety and the inexperience and youth of Lennon and McCartney, how Lew Grade's cold and ruthless takeover bid in 1969 would forever paint him, along with James, as the eternal villains in this struggle, and how Epstein, while definitely green when it came to the music business, also sometimes acted in his own best interest at the expense of the Beatles.  As I said at the beginning of this review, this is definitely a specialty/niche book, not for the casual fan but for the hardcore fan who has interest in the band beyond just the music and wants to delve deeper into this area. For that purpose, it's worth picking up a copy of this.

MY RATING: 7/10

2 comments:

  1. Another good review, Drew. Hope you don't mind me pointing this out, but a typo slipped through. End of fourth paragraph, "...Dick James' song Stephen..." Sure you mean "son" there.

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    1. Ah good find, thanks for that! I've changed it. After reading and re-reading it so many times when working on it, there's always at least one that slips through especially when it's a real word and isn't picked up by the spell check :).

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