When we think of public battles between major recording artists and their current or former label heads, we think… well, as of late June 2019, we’ve thought Taylor Swift and Big Machine. But for more than four decades prior to that, everyone’s first go-to was John Fogerty versus Fantasy Records chief Saul Zaentz. There’s plenty about these two situations that is different — the Creedence Clearwater Revival singer/songwriter was going to battle over his publishing, not his master recordings — but there’s also enough in common that music biz aficionados with long memories couldn’t help but hear echoes of Fogerty’s decades-old struggles in Swift’s fresh laments about not being able to own her own work.
Variety wanted to see if Fogerty himself is tracking the parallels. Getting him on the phone from a tour date in Norway, we weren’t disappointed. An edited transcript of our conversation about Swift follows.
Have you followed Swift’s career or her recent travails?
I remember first riding with a 15-year-old Taylor Swift in an elevator in Detroit, and I’ve loved her and her songwriting and her records ever since. She’s a great role model for my daughter and kids in general, and she’s always projected that she’s strong and not going to get knocked down by a slight wind. When I first heard this news, I felt really empty inside, just really sad, because I know exactly how it feels, you know. It was almost personal, almost like she was a member of the family, because we’ve followed her career pretty closely. She’s a wonderful artist and she deserves to be able to continue that without having a heart full of sad feelings. I didn’t really even think of myself at all, at first. And then after about a few minutes had gone by, I just thought to myself, “Somewhere, Saul Zaentz is laughing.”
I sure recognize this situation. Because I’ve had that happen to me in a very similar way. What I fought for was my publishing – the ownership of the songs I had written. Because I was in a band, and there were four of us, and we hardly ever got along in the later years, the idea of us trying to get together and get our masters back (was unthinkable). So I was fighting for my songs, but it’s kind of the same thing. I’m appalled that she really wasn’t offered the chance to buy them, because her money would have been just as good as the next guy’s money.
Her lawyer (Don Passman) said that she was not given a chance to buy it. And I believe that statement. I don’t believe the cover-up PR spin doctors on the other side trying to say that Taylor turned down the opportunity, because there’s probably nothing more on this earth that she would want more than those masters. As in my case, it’s not so much about the money as it is about owning your children. After such a long period of having so much of the benefit go to somebody else, in the back of your mind you think that you’re finally going to be given the chance to own what you created. It’s only right. In my case, I’ve waited 50 years already. I’ve got about another five years to go of just waiting it out.
So you have it calculated down to the moment when your publishing rights will revert to you?
Yeah, by law … My songs seemed to fall under an earlier copyright law, which was changed somewhere around 1973, I think. That’s why you hear people now being quoted talking about 35 years for their masters, but before 1970, that law was not in place. The publishing law was that the first publisher would own the publishing for 28 years, with an option — their option — to renew one time. So you add those two together and that’s 56 years. So here we are. [Laughs.]
And Taylor may have to wait a long time for her masters. In this world of social media, maybe things can be more immediate than they were for me. As you probably know, at one point my frustration and sadness was so great that I stopped playing those songs for quite some time — about 25 years. By the way, I don’t recommend that to anyone. [Laughs.] It’s a horrible career move. It’s terrible. But that is indeed what I did. I still don’t have my songs back. So I can’t say that that strategy was a good one.
This feels like war, in a way, where each side thinks of the other as the instigator. You hear rumblings from the Big Machine or Scooter Braun camps that any future negotiation over the masters just became more unlikely because she went so public with this. Does that strike a chord with your situation?
In the court case that I had against Saul about the slandering case, my lawyer asked him when he was on the stand, “Isn’t it true, Mr. Zaentz, that you have a vendetta against John Fogerty?” And before it came out of my lawyer’s mouth, Saul had screamed at the top of his lungs, “It’s an answer to a vendetta!” You could see steam and smoke coming out of his ears. [Zaentz died in 2014.]
In a situation like this, the label and artist each tend to feel like they are responsible for the other’s success and deserve payback for it. Did Taylor make Big Machine, or did Big Machine make Taylor? You were in a similar situation, as very much the artistic figurehead and key success story of your label.
I had two meetings at Bill Graham’s house with Saul, and Saul said a few things that were a little not in reality. One of the things he said at some point was, “Well, we discovered Creedence.” They were a tiny little jazz label. Saul, before he managed to purchase the label with some financial backers, was the sales representative at Fantasy, and so we knew him through that. But there was absolutely zero artistic input or anything like that. Other than Vince Guaraldi and “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” in the middle 60s, they had never had a hit record until “Susie Q,” which, while I didn’t write it, sold about a half million records. And then even at that point, all of us were at a very small level of show biz. And if it hadn’t been for someone kind of turning everything on its end and starting to write some great songs and make some great records out of them…
As everyone with a brain knows, it is the artist. All the lawyers and the PR men and the rest can stand around and take credit for what’s going on. But without the artist, nobody’s going anywhere. And that’s true in Taylor’s case too, obviously, even though she was quite young… Think of all the numbers of people on the planet, and there are just a precious few who are gifted enough as artists to create things that get the public excited enough to want to spend money, especially in the numbers that Taylor has enjoyed for the last 15 years. People like managers and label execs and all that seem to take that part for granted when they’re making these sort of statements. If they only could have a little bit of humility and realize how rare somebody like Taylor Swift is in the universe. And she’s quite young, still. Twenty-five years from now, she’ll utilize even more of what she’s got.
Would you have any advice for her, based on your experience in being part of a public struggle like this?
Boy. Well, as I already mentioned, I wouldn’t stop singing the songs. That’s something I did, and I don’t advise that. That really harmed my career. That’s something I learned. But I did it for me, you know. That was a point of self-pride and dignity, I guess, and that’s why I did that. I did the best I could with the hand I was dealt.
But I would say that she seems, especially in this world of social media, I’m quite certain that 99% of her fans are on her side. The main thing is to have a support group. It’s horrible to have to do this alone. Especially because the name-calling starts, and when people run out of the truth, they start trying to attack your character. I think my advice would be to keep doing what you’re doing. I think her fans want her to stick up for herself, because she always has. … I’m sure she could have raised the money to have this happen. It sounds pretty spiteful that Scott (Borchetta) wanted to sell the label to her only real enemy, as far as I know. He was the manager of Kanye, and Kanye did some pretty dreadful things publicly to Taylor.
Her side has said the only deal she was offered to get her masters back was to basically…
“Give us more!” [Laughs.] I remember early on, way back, Saul Zaentz offered to get us into this offshore tax plan, and he sat at his desk and said, “Well, I’m going to get you into this plan, and in return you guys will sign a 10-year contract.” I took that back to the guys in Creedence and I said, “Uh, I don’t think this is a very good plan. He wants us to sign for 10 years so that we can have a small percentage of ourselves.”
When you stopped doing your old Creedence material for all those years, was that a matter of pride, or was it because you did think it would force their hand and finally get them to give you back your publishing?
I think it was more of a feeling that they’ve done this horrible thing to me, and gee, if nothing changes, then why would I keep doing the same thing? In other words, if you go in to negotiate with somebody, but you keep giving them everything that they want, well, there’s no pressure on them to do anything to change. It became very much a point of valor. Plus I felt that if I was out there screaming “Proud Mary,” I just thought I would probably end up in a bar somewhere, having a gig playing for 10 people, and being a complete screaming alcoholic and insane and living a horrible life. I didn’t really know a way out, but it seemed to me if I kept performing those songs in front of people, and hating myself more and more for doing it, that there would never be a positive end to that.
She would likely never do anything as radical as you did in excising old songs from the setlist, but it might influence how many she includes, if this isn’t resolved and she’s not enjoying the thought of singing them live.
Yeah, you’re very angry inside. It’s like somebody twisting the knife every day. That’s probably why I felt so empty when I first heard the news. And I’m not smart enough to know what her way out is. It would be great if people kind of outside of her circle maybe decided to help. I went to Bill Graham. I thought that he would be a fair witness, like in the old “Stranger in a Strange Land” book — a person that would be respected by both sides and could figure out the answer. But sadly, that didn’t work out either.
Good people think, “Wow, these two neighbors are just screaming at each other every single day. The rest of us should get together and figure out a way to mediate.” Perhaps her lawyer can get some people to actually get in there and mediate and try to actually find a solution for the right reason — because it’s the right thing to do. [Laughs.] I’ve just said something so blazingly unknown to the music business, but it’s the way us normal people think.