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Eagles’ Don Henley defends legal action against Frank Ocean, Okkervil River

By | Published on Thursday 5 June 2014

Don Henley

Eagles frontman Don Henley has taken aim at Frank Ocean and Okkervil River for reworking his music. Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, meanwhile, responded by saying that copyright law is “strangling and depleting our culture”.

Ocean used the instrumental version of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ as the basis for the track ‘American Wedding’ on his 2011 free download album, ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’. Although a clear breach of US copyright law, such sneaky uncleared free releases by new artists, particularly in the form of hip hop mixtapes, are common and something the industry generally turns a blind eye to. Henley, however, did not.

Writing on his Tumblr blog ahead of a performance at Coachella in 2012, Ocean said: “[Henley’s label Warner/Rhino] threatened to sue if I perform [‘American Wedding’] again. I think that’s fuckin awesome … They also asked that I release a statement expressing my admiration for Mr Henley, along with my assistance pulling it off the web as much as possible. Shit’s weird. Ain’t this guy rich as fuck? Why sue the new guy? I didn’t make a dime off that song. I released it for free. If anything, I’m paying homage”.

In a new interview with Australia’s Daily Telegraph, Henley admitted that he had initiated this action, saying: “Mr Ocean doesn’t seem to understand US copyright law. Anyone who knows anything should know you cannot take a master track of a recording and write another song over the top of it. You just can’t do that. You can call it a tribute or whatever you want to call it, but it’s against the law. That’s a problem with some of the younger generation, they don’t understand the concept of intellectual property and copyright”.

He added that he had not wanted the matter to go legal, but: “[Ocean] was quite arrogant about it. We tried to approach him calmly to talk reason to him via his managers and his attorneys and he wouldn’t listen. So finally we threatened to bring legal action against him. He was clearly in the wrong. I wouldn’t dream of doing something like that. What kind of ego is that? I don’t understand it”.

This shouldn’t be a matter focussed entirely on R&B and hip hop though, he said. He also brought up a rework of one of his solo songs, ‘The End Of The Innocence’, by Okkervil River, which he forced the band to remove from their website, where they were also giving it away as a free download.

“They don’t understand the law either”, Henley said. “You can’t re-write the lyrics to somebody else’s songs and record it and put it on the internet. I’m sorry, but it wasn’t an improvement. We were not impressed. So we simply had our legal team tell them to take it down and they got all huffy about it”.

He continued: “It’s a different mindset. I don’t know how they’d react if I took one of their songs and re-wrote the lyrics and recorded it, I don’t know if they’d like that. Maybe they wouldn’t care, but I care. We work really really hard on our material. We spend months writing it and years recording it. You don’t go into a museum and paint a moustache on somebody else’s painting. Nobody would think of doing that”.

Well, there was that thing with the Mark Rothko painting, but you can see the general point he’s making. Though that doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Will Sheff from Okkervil River certainly doesn’t.

Noting Henley’s remarks about reworking other people’s art, in a piece for Rolling Stone Sheff said: “I thought of doing that. Maybe I didn’t spend months recording [our rework], maybe it wasn’t an improvement, and maybe he wasn’t impressed, but I did think of doing that. But I wasn’t the first person to do that, because doing it goes back to Afrika Bambaataa, to Marcel Duchamp, to Bob Dylan, and to pretty much all folk music pre-1940”.

Meanwhile, on the inspiration for the ‘Golden Opportunities’ series of cover versions that his band’s Henley cover was a part of, he wrote: “I realized that this is what artists are supposed to do – communicate back and forth with each other over the generations, take old ideas and make them new (since it’s impossible to really ‘imitate’ somebody without adding anything of your own), create a rich, shared cultural language that was available to everybody”.

He continued: “Once I saw it in folk art, I saw it everywhere – in hip hop, in street art, in dada. I became convinced that the soul of culture lay in this kind of weird, irreverent-but-reverant back-and-forth. And I concluded that copyright law was completely opposed to this natural artistic process in a way that was strangling and depleting our culture, taking away something rich and beautiful that belonged to everyone in order to put more money into the hands of the hands of a small, lawyered few”.

Read Sheff’s full article here.