I have written an article titled, ‘A Great Friggin’ Swindle? Sex Pistols, School Kids and 1979’, which is due to appear in Popular Music and Society towards the end of this year. 1979 was the year of the Sex Pistols’ greatest chart success. They had their biggest selling single in the UK (‘Something Else’ / ‘Friggin’ in the Riggin’) as well as three top 40 albums. It was also the year of their demise. Johnny Rotten had left in 1978, but effected the end of the group by taking his old manager, Malcolm McLaren, to court in February 1979. This was also the month in which Sid Vicious died.
Rotten and McLaren fell out badly. In the song ‘Low Life’, Rotten refers to McLaren as an ‘egomaniac traitor’. In the film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, McLaren calls Rotten a ‘collaborator’. In his view, Rotten had stopped fighting the record industry and had become part of the system. He was being courted by Richard Branson of Virgin Records and was accepting his advances.
In 1979 ‘collaborator’ could only have been taken as a term of abuse. Although punk sneered at hippie values (‘we mean it, man’), it too retained a distrust of ‘the man’, particularly when he was working for a record company. In the song ‘EMI’ Rotten claims an authenticity straight from the rock textbook. He boasts that the Sex Pistols are ‘for real’ and denigrates the record company for thinking the band were just ‘faking’ or ‘money making’. He later wrote, ‘big business is very wise/I’m crossing over into enterprise’, a lyric that should not be taken at face value: Rotten critiqued the idea of ‘careering’.
Fast-forward to today and everyone is collaborating. Hits Songs Deconstructed have published an e-book that provides a statistical analysis of the songs that reached the top 10 in America last year. Their conclusion is that ‘Above all, 2014 was about collaboration’. 59 songs made the top ten, but out of these only 12% were written by solo writers. The rest were written be teams: 20% by two writers; 19% by three writers; 8% by four writers; 5% by five writers; 10% by six writers; 5% by seven writers; and 7% by ten or more writers. What’s more, these teams work in different combinations. Max Martin, who had a composing hand in eight top 10 hits (including four number ones), worked on different songs with Dr Luke (who had four top ten hits as a writer, two of which were written with Martin, two with other composers), Cirkut (four top ten hits; two with Martin, two without), Savan Kotecha (four top ten hits, all composed with Martin), Katy Perry (three top ten hits; two with Martin, one without), Shellback (three top ten hits; two with Martin, one without), Iggy Azalea (three top ten hits; one with Martin, two without), Taylor Swift (two top ten hits, both with Martin), Sarah Hudson (two top ten hits; one with Martin, one without), and Nicki Minaj (two top ten hits; one with Martin, one without). Writers such as Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco, Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith – each of whom had three top ten hits – cast their own collaborative nets.
It’s tempting to say that we are discussing different sorts of collaboration here: McLaren and Rotten were talking about collaborating with the record industry, while these modern songwriters are collaborating with each other. The writers are nevertheless supporting the industry’s aims. As I have written elsewhere, collaboration gives the record companies power. It can best be organised by them – they are the matchmakers and they are the gatekeepers - or at least that’s what they claim. IFPI, the trade body that represents ‘the recording industry worldwide’, produced another of its promotional Investing in Music reports in 2014. These documents make the case for the continuing importance of record companies, stressing that artists need their support if they want to make it big. Record companies offer finance and they offer ‘a network of connections’. They can introduce you to the ‘best producers, sound engineers and session musicians in the business’; they can alert ‘other players in the industry, from songwriters to record producers’ that you have made the grade. You need to collaborate with them if you want to collaborate with others.