You Got Served: The Top 10 Legal Battles in Rock History
Ten years ago last week, one of the most vicious legal battles in rock history took another ugly turn. Ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl found themselves in King County Superior Court over a dispute with Kurt Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, over the band's considerable royalties.
Grohl and Novoselic asked the court to prove Courtney Love was mentally stable, claiming a contract was invalid as Courtney was ultra-mega smacked-out at the time it was signed. Love had already blocked Grohl and Novoselic from releasing the band's final track, "You Know You're Right," as part of a commemorative box set the previous year as well as sued them for control of Nirvana's legacy.
Years after the legal dispute was settled and "You Know You're Right" hit the airwaves, the bad blood remains. Earlier this month, Love took to Twitter to accuse Grohl of hitting on her daughter, Frances Bean, a claim which both denied with a pained sigh.
The battle over Nirvana's legacy was hardly the first twisted legal dispute in rock history. Rock and roll is an ego-driven vocation with a lot of money on the line for superstar performers and their handlers alike.
It's inevitable that some squabbling over credit and royalties emerges from time to time. Some battles take the bitterness to the next level, though. Here are ten of the most nasty and notorious disputes in the annals of popular music.
10. Prince vs. Warner Bros.: Most people I know would be pretty content with a $100 million contract, as Prince did with Warner Bros. in 1992. Prince ain't most people. It wasn't about the money for him -- the label wanted Prince to adhere to the established early-'90s album cycle of promotion, refusing to release reams of music all willy-nilly like he wanted. Rumors swirled that Warners was after his master tapes, too.
Prince didn't handle the dispute like a lawyer -- he's Prince! Instead, he handled things like an artist. First, he took to appearing in public with "SLAVE" written on his face. Then he disowned the name "Prince" entirely, adopted a symbol as his moniker, and refused to record any new material for the label, insisting instead on fulfilling his deal with songs culled from his extensive unreleased repertoire. The relationship seemed to be going off the deep end.
Surprise! They settled in 1994. Prince delivered two more albums for Warner Bros. before celebrating his divorce by re-adopting his own name and releasing the triple-disc Emancipation through EMI-Capitol.
9. Virgin vs. 30 Seconds to Mars: Disputes between bands and their record labels are nothing new; tricky accounting practices have made the business of paying royalties a contentious issue between artists and labels for decades.
Still, it was a pretty bold step for Virgin Records to sue Jared Leto-fronted radio rockers 30 Seconds to Mars for $30 million in 2008 (that's one million for every second!) for breach of contract when the band opted not to deliver a third album to the label in 2008.
Virgin claimed the band was on the hook for a five-album deal, while Leto and the boys claimed they were exercising their right under California law to terminate their contract after seven years, protesting that they'd never seen a dime from the label for more than 2 million records sold.
The litigation got ugly fast, but not so nasty that a deal couldn't be struck. The suit was settled in 2009, and, incredibly, 30 Seconds to Mars inked a new album contract with Virgin soon after.
8. Tony Iommi vs. Ozzy Osbourne: Metal icons Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne have always had a contentious relationship, dating back to their school days by some accounts. The most famous bit of acrimony between the two centered around Ozzy's sacking from Black Sabbath in 1979. The split began a longstanding professional rivalry that has erupted into legal action at various times over the years.
Most recently, Osbourne sued Iommi in 2009, alleging that the guitarist had illegally taken sole control of the Black Sabbath name and cost Ozzy lost profits from merchandise in the process. The pair settled and began making plans for Sabbath reunion shows. Nevertheless, it's doubtful these two are done sparring over the band's legacy for good.
7. Slash and Duff vs. Axl Rose The feud between Axl Rose and ex-Guns N' Roses members Slash and Duff is the stuff of rock legend. At the height of the pair's drug and alcohol addictions, Axl reportedly had his lawyers hold them up backstage at a sold-out show and inform them that Axl wouldn't be joining them onstage unless they signed full control of the Guns N' Roses name over to him. Foolishly, they agreed, and it was the beginning of the end of the group's classic lineup.
A couple of decades later, the animosity still burns hot. In 2005, Slash and Duff sued Axl for quashing lucrative deals to put Guns songs in movies and other media despite owning no controlling interest in the music. A year later, they sued him again for signing a new publishing deal for the band's back catalogue without their consent when their royalty checks stopped coming.
Is it any wonder no reunion materialized at the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction?
6. John Fogerty vs. Fantasy Records: John Fogerty wrote, sang and produced a titanic string of hits with Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late '60s, but Fantasy Records owner Saul Zaentz owned the copyrights to those songs. After Creedence was disbanded, the two became mortal enemies, and Fogerty for years refused to play the classic tunes that made Zaentz rich.
Zaentz won no admirers when he sued Fogerty for essentially plagiarizing himself, claiming that his 1985 song "The Old Man Down the Road" was an illegal remake of Creedence's "Run Through the Jungle." Fogerty won the case, and his countersuit for reimbursement of his legal fees went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Apparently, the bitterness never extended to the label itself -- Fogerty signed a new deal with Fantasy in 2005 almost immediately after Zaentz sold the company.
5. The Smiths vs. The Smiths: It's no secret that the music of alt-icons the Smiths was based on the songwriting of singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. But when the pair gobbled up 80 percent of the band's royalties, their former bandmates cried foul. In 1989, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and Marr for an equal share of the band's profits on all activities other than songwriting and publishing.
Deeply in debt, Rourke settled quickly for a lump-sum payment. Joyce, however, continued on with the legal action and was eventually awarded his 25 percent share of future royalties as well as a large sum in back royalties. Rourke really should have held out -- by 1999, he was bankrupt. After the bitter suit, the Smiths are virtually certain never to reunite, despite fans' fervent prayers.
4. Liam vs. Noel: Oasis's Liam and Noel Gallagher have been fighting forever, but their on-again, off-again feuding took a nasty legal turn last year. At odds over which of them was truly responsible for Oasis's breakup in 2009, Liam sued his brother last August, alleging that Noel had lied when blaming a V Festival no-show and the band's subsequent breakup on Liam being too hungover to perform.
Noel countersued, alleging that a major precipitator of the band's demise was a fight over Liam's demand to have his clothing line, Pretty Green, advertised in the band's tour literature. What, you expected that Oasis would break up over something that wasn't insanely petty?
Both bros have moved on to other projects these days, but if they can get over a lifetime of bloody noses and hilarious insults, perhaps one day they can move past the lawsuits, too.
3. Destiny's Child vs. Destiny's Stepchild: Original Destiny's Child members LaTavia Roberson and Letoya Luckett had had their differences with the group's mastermind, Matthew Knowles, over the years, accusing him of granting preferential treatment to Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé.
What they apparently didn't realize, however, was that Matthew considered that grounds for dismissal. The pair was shocked to see the video for "Say My Name" on TV with two strangers lip-synching their parts in 2000.
Roberson and Luckett quickly filed a lawsuit against the group claiming unfair dismissal, stating that they were never informed that they were out of the group. The case was eventually settled out of court, with Roberson and Luckett receiving royalties and writing credits for their contributions as founding members of the group.
It wasn't the end of the group's issues with Matthew Knowles, however -- Beyoncé fired her father as her manager last year.
2. N.W.A. vs. N.W.A.: The gangsta-rap godfathers weren't exactly prepared for the incredible success that came their way following the release of Straight Outta Compton, and the hiring of Jerry Heller as the group's manager soon led to the group's end. First, Ice Cube got into a financial dispute with Heller, who he claimed had cheated him out of royalties. They settled out of court, but Cube was gone from the group for good.
When Dr. Dre became fed up with his share of the loot, too, legend has it that his soon-to-be business partner Suge Knight secured his release from Heller and Ruthless Records by making (pretty fucking credible) threats of violence.
In 1991, Eazy-E filed a state court complaint against Dre, Death Row Records, Knight and rap artist D.O.C. that alleged he voided Dre and D.O.C.'s contracts under duress. The diss-tracks that resulted from the nasty affair on all sides remain among the most blistering in hip-hop history.
1. Roger Waters vs. Pink Floyd: When artistic and business differences turned personal between Pink Floyd's chief songwriter, Roger Waters -- who brings The Wall back to Toyota Center this evening -- and the rest of the band, Waters figured he had every right to dissolve the group permanently and carry on as a solo artist. In order to terminate the band's management contract, he ceded the Pink Floyd name to guitarist Dave Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason, never once considering they might have the balls to use it.
Simply put, they did. Shocked and outraged, Waters sued to stop his ex-mates from recording and touring under the Pink Floyd banner, but he couldn't stop them from releasing A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987.
To his horror, the band's 1987 tour raked in $30 million, far outstripping his own drawing power. The two parties remained bitter for years before finally reuniting for one night only at Live 8 in 2005.
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