It was written in March 1976 after Harrison spent a week in a New York court, during the case to determine whether his 1970 hit ‘My Sweet Lord’ plagiarised The Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’. Harrison testified in court about the writing process.
Judge Richard Owen ruled that while there were some differences between the two songs, the essential musical nature of the songs were substantially similar. He said it was “perfectly obvious” that the songs were “virtually identical”.
In September 1976 Owen ruled that Harrison was guilty of subconscious plagiarism, and ordered a further trial to set damages. The plagiarism verdict was upheld on appeal; Harrison argued that subconscious copying was an unsound policy, but the appellate court ruled that the Copyright Act did not require evidence of an intent to infringe, leaving Harrison liable for damages.
After the case in New York over the ‘He’s So Fine’/‘My Sweet Lord’ affair I wrote ‘This Song’. It was the end of a nightmarish week in court which all hinged on two parts of the song – which they had titled Motif ‘A’ and Motif ‘B’ – Motif ‘A’ is the three notes under ‘My Sweet Lord’, and Motif ‘B’ is the part ‘really want to see you’. That in effect was the crux of the infringement as ‘repetition’ can’t be allowed to constitute further infringement. The plaintiff had huge charts made up with the three notes ‘A’ and the four or five notes ‘B’ drawn on them – and they talked about these for about three days to the point where I started to believe that maybe they did own those notes.
I wrote ‘This Song’ as a bit of light comedy relief – and as a way to exorcize the paranoia about song writing that had started to build up in me. I still don’t understand how the courts aren’t filled with similar cases – as 99% of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other.
I Me Mine
Harrison was deeply troubled by the litigation, and wrote ‘This Song’ about his courtroom experiences. It contains the lines “This song has nothing ‘Bright’ about it” (a reference to the Bright Tunes Music Corporation, the plaintiff in the case); “My expert tells me it’s okay”; and “This song ain’t black or white, and as far as I know don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright”.
It’s like a running joke now. The guy who actually wrote ‘He’s So Fine’ had died years before, Ronnie Mack. Bright Tunes Music, his publisher, was suing me. So we went through the court case, and in the end the judge said, yes, it is similar, but you’re not guilty of stealing the tune. We do think there’s been a copyright infringement, though, so get your lawyers together and work out some sort of compensation. But Bright Tunes wouldn’t settle for that; they kept trying to bring the case back into court. They even tried to bring it back into court when I did ‘This Song’.
Rolling Stone, 19 April 1979
Despite his earlier case, Harrison began ‘This Song’ with an introduction that deliberately recalled two 1965 hits, the Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)’ and Fontella Bass’s ‘Rescue Me’. Monty Python’s Eric Idle referred to the conscious plagiarism in a mid-song spoken word section: “Could be ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch'”; “Nah, it sounds more like ‘Rescue Me’!”
It was moderately successful, reaching number 25 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and 28 on the Cash Box chart, yet failed to chart in the UK. The single was an edited version with 20 seconds missing.
Harrison directed a video for the song in a Los Angeles courthouse. It featured a cast of friends including drummer Jim Keltner as the judge, and Ronnie Wood miming to Eric Idle’s spoken words. Harrison’s partner Olivia Arias appeared as a member of the jury.
The video, along with the one for ‘Crackerbox Palace’, was first shown on the 20 November 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live, which featured Harrison as a special musical guest.