Musicians can get into contractual trouble for a variety of reasons. A lot of the time it is by not reading, understanding or caring what their contract actually says. As a result, disputes often lead artists to recording an album or song for mere contractual, rather than artistic, purposes. The records made under such conditions are not always as awful as you might imagine, though sometimes they absolutely are.
10. Mama & the Papas: People Like Us
The California Dreamin’ singers initially split in 1968. When their record label, Dunhill, was bought out by ABC, some bright spark realized that the group still owed them one more album. Having gone their separate ways, the former parents didn’t really fancy the gig. Then they were threatened with a million-pound lawsuit. That promptly changed their mind.
John Phillips took over most of the writing duties of People Like Us, overdubbing the work of his former bandmates whenever he could get them to record vocals. The finished product didn’t really please anybody, and sunk without trace when released. As mama Michelle Phillips memorably said of the record, it “sounded like what it was; four people trying to avoid a lawsuit.”
9. Rolling Stones: C***sucker Blues
Back in 1969, the Rolling Stones weren’t happy with their record label Decca. They decided to form their own label, where they would presumably earn more money, and be allowed to release increasingly disappointing albums over a 40-year period. There was only one problem; before they got shot of Decca, they had to deliver one final track.
Being the crazy rock ‘n’ roll rebels that they were, they weren’t going to allow themselves be held ransom to a legally binding contract that they signed in good faith. Nope, not the Stones! Instead, they recorded the most commercially unpalatable song they could think of. It was called Schoolboy Blues, but is more commonly known by the title C***sucker Blues, due to the chorus where future British knight Sir Michael Jagger croons like a perverted Bing Crosby: “Where can I get my c*** sucked? / Where can I get my a** f*****?”
Decca, quite understandably, decided it best not to release the track. Then the Internet came along, as it’s well known to do. Feel free to listen; just note the NSFW lyrics.
8. Van Morrison’s Contract Breaking Sessions
After a pretty unhappy couple of years with his label Bang Records in the mid-60s, Van Morrison wanted out. They demanded he deliver some more short and poppy stuff like Brown Eyed Girl, while he wanted to release 11-minute renditions of lion impersonations (which he did on the album Saint Dominic’s Preview.) The singer became so distraught with his label situation, that he slipped into financial trouble and had problems finding gigs.
Just when it seemed Morrison might never deliver on his musical potential, Warner Music stepped in and bought out his deal with Bang Records. There was still one small contractual detail though. Morrison was obliged to record exactly 36 songs for his old label, who would also continue to earn royalties off anything he released for the first year after leaving Bang. Not a patient man at the best of times, Van did the only thing he could think of: he recorded more than 30 songs in a single recording session, on an out-of-tune guitar, about subjects as diverse as ringworm, blowing your nose, a dumb guy named George, and whether he wanted to eat a danish or a sandwich.
Bang Records, who seemed to think that the songs were below the quality of Morrison’s regular output (imagine that,) deemed the bizarre collection unfit for release. The tracks would eventually see the light of day in the mid-90s, and remain some of the weirdest (and often funniest) music ever recorded by a mainstream artist.
The tracks are available on Spotify, if you truly desire to hear a grown man sing about sandwiches.
7. Prince: Chaos and Disorder
Not many artists get so annoyed with their record label that they change their name and start writing “slave” on their face. But Prince Rodgers Nelson is not “many artists.” After some unhappy years with Warner Brothers, the artist now known as “Unpronounceable Squiggle” was desperate to end his 18 years at the label. For his final release, he decided that releasing something of decent quality was not for him. Instead, he cobbled together Chaos and Disorder, a collection of dodgy leftovers that finally freed him from the vile clutches of Warner. The album was not his finest moment, nor did he ever intend it to be.
With the contract duly fulfilled, Prince promptly celebrated with Emancipation, a 36-song, triple album that actually didn’t stink.
6. Ben Folds: One Down
Ben Folds has delighted in telling the story of this song on stage over the years. Before he started getting all famous and such, he signed a publishing contract that he later regretted. It required him to pen a very specific amount of songs a year, right down to the decimal point. One Down is one of a number of songs he dutifully churned out to meet the contract, and details the struggle and silliness of being party to such a legally binding document. The lyrics directly address the ridiculous situation of having to write .6 of a song, as well as the temptation to give his publishing company something a bit terrible. With not a little irony he sings:
One down and three-point-six tomorrow
And I’m out of here
People tell me “Ben, just make up junk, and turn it in”
But I could never could quite bring myself to write a bunch of s***
5. The Band: Islands
In the mid-’70s, Robbie Robertson decided he had enough of the wild energy-sapping struggle of life on the road (he preferred drug-taking with Martin Scorsese instead,) and decided to call it a day with The Band. His last-ever gig with the group, entitled The Last Waltz would be an incredible all-star send-off to one of America’s finest groups. There was only one problem; before the concert recording could be released on their new label Warner, their previous label Capitol needed one final record. Islands was hastily strung together, leading to an uneven, occasionally sloppy, and sometimes-somber record.
It’s not quite them at their peerless best, but it’s also not awful. Their one attempt at a seasonal song, Christmas Must Be Tonight, is borderline. Islands would be the last album featuring the full line-up of the group.
4. Buffalo Springfield: Last Time Around
Renowned for drug abuse, in-fighting, and egos the size of Mount Rushmore, it is no surprise that Buffalo Springfield, featuring the likes of Neil Young and Stephen Stills, never threatened the Rolling Stones in the longevity stakes.
By the time Last Time Around, the group’s third album, was released in 1968, Buffalo Springfield had disbanded. Nowhere on the album do all members of the band appear on the same track. Even the cover photo of the band is a montage, with Neil Young being tacked-on to a photo of the rest of the group. It was compiled by Richie Furay and Jim Messina from tracks recorded by various band members over the previous year, to fulfill Buffalo Springfield’s contract with ATCO Records. Despite the troubled gestation, it is an often lovely (and occasionally brilliant) record.
3. Frank Zappa: Läther
In early 1977, Frank Zappa wanted out of his deal with Warner Bros. and recorded Läther, an eight-sided, three-hour, quadruple album of brand-new material. He was told he needed to deliver four separate albums to fulfill his contract, however. So he reformatted the whole thing into the four required albums. Warner wasn’t having it though, and still wouldn’t release the records. They also wouldn’t pay Zappa, and refused to let him leave the label.
In the pre-Internet age, Frank did the only thing he could do; he took one of the test pressings to KROQ in Los Angeles, and played the whole set on the air as an exclusive. He also asked his fans to record the whole thing, thus giving his permission to bootleg a record that wouldn’t come out in its original form for another 30 years.
2. David Bowie: Scary Monsters And Super Creeps
After the former space alien released Lodger, he had assumed his contract with RCA was up, or at least that’s what he hoped. However he was counting the double-live album Stage as two records, and his record company wasn’t. Since record executives are always right, they demanded one final release. The result was Scary Monsters And Super Creeps, more often referred to as “David Bowie’s Last Great Album,” and the home to some of his finest songs, namely Ashes to Ashes.
1. Marvin Gaye: Here, My Dear
Unusually, Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear was not an album recorded to appease a grumpy record label (although it would turn out to be.) Rather, he was trying to please both the courts and an unhappy ex-wife. The legendary crooner and his missus, Anna Gordy, had become estranged. Marvin’s remarkable cocaine habit, and extravagant lifestyle, meant he couldn’t afford to pay her alimony. Therefore, a deal was struck: half the royalties of Gaye’s next album would go to Anna.
As you might imagine, Gaye didn’t really fancy making another masterpiece like What’s Goin’ On. Instead, he hoped to turn in something a bit rubbish, or “lazy, bad” as he put it. Of course, you can never predict when genius will strike; once Gaye got going, he just couldn’t help but make one of the most beautifully candid, and emotionally raw, break-ups albums ever. It tracked his current mindset, and the couple’s relationship, in an often strikingly-direct manner (sample lyric: “Why do I have to pay attorney fees / This is a joke / I need a smoke.”)
Oddly enough, upon its release, neither critics or fans were overwhelmed, and the album fared quite poorly, just as Gaye had originally hoped. Today, it’s rightly regarded as a masterpiece.
Written By Kevin Forde