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Never quote a rock lyric in a book unless you’re rich

David Hewson
Oct 23, 2015 · 4 min read

I was having a coffee the other day in this fantastic place in De Pijp when someone showed me a copy of the new Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) book Career of Evil.

We didn’t talk about the book. We did talk about the stack of pages at the back of it which list every last rock lyric quoted therein, and the copyright holder. There are a lot of them, believe me.

And it was pointed out to me that the title itself, and many of the chapter quotes, is from a band I only remember for a single song, Don’t Fear the Reaper and that because it’s a) very good and b) was in Halloween.

The band, if you’d heard of them, you probably think of as Blue Oyster Cult. Though technically there’s an umlaut in there so it should be Blue Öyster Cult. There are various theories floating around about this though none seem to cover the obvious: someone was really stoned when that one came up.

So Career of Evil is positively stashed with quotes from rock songs, a number of them quite old. If you’re thinking of doing this yourself let me offer one word of advice: Don’t.

I speak here from personal experience.

Back in 1996 I was writing my second novel, Epiphany, a somewhat trippy thriller set in two eras split between San Francisco and Seattle. Being new to this business, and since music was a big part of the book, I thought I’d drop in some rock quotes. Not long ones. Just a single line here and there.

I submitted the book. My then publisher and editor loved it, and went on to do very well with it too. But they pointed at the lyrics and said… you do have permission for these, don’t you?

Permission? These were just snatches of words from some of my favourite artists of all time. Gods of the rock world back when music was about peace and love and revolution, not twerking to a drum machine in your underwear on MTV while watched by an Armani-dripping audience glugging back $500-a-bottle champagne.

No. I didn’t have permission. So I set off to get it.

Trust me, it’s hard. For starters a lot of the lyrics aren’t actually owned by the people who wrote them. Just take a look at the odd company names you’ll find attached to them at the back of the Galbraith book to understand that. So tracking down the right person to ask is an absolute nightmare, one that was quite beyond me because I was writing another book at the time and trying to work as a journalist for the Sunday Times too.

Somehow I found a charming and saintly lady in Oxford who obtained permissions for a living. I sent her the ones I wanted to use by email (which had just been invented around then if I recall). She set about tracking down the copyright holders, asking them for permission and then the kind of fee they’d expect in return.

Boy was this illuminating. The Rolling Stones? I’d have blown a big part of my advance if I’d wanted them in there. If I recall correctly one line from Street Fighting Man (you know, that great anti-capitalist anthem) would have set me back a grand alone.

Some copyright holders didn’t want to know at any price. Others just wanted a small fortune. A few settled for a few hundred quid and they were the ones I used. But it was a terribly slow process, and I was lucky that charming lady in Oxford didn’t charge half as much for her time as rock stars and their representatives wanted for six words, perhaps written in a drug-fuelled haze, twenty years before.

When it was over I swore I’d never use rock lyrics in a book again (and if you buy Epiphany on Kindle now you’ll find it has none, because I wouldn’t have had permission for them there either).

Being an idiot I never kept to that promise of course. A few years later I wrote a standalone called The Promised Land which just begged for two little quotes, one from Fleetwood Mac, the other from a Bruce Hornsby song.

Fleetwood Mac eventually came back and said that while three of the band were cool with the idea one of them wasn’t and would never allow her words to be quoted in any book or movie under any circumstances ever. Her choice. I should point out however that is totally inaccurate to claim that thunder only happens when it’s raining. Quite often it’s not raining at all.

And then there was Bruce Hornsby. He still owned his own work. I got back the sweetest email directly from his assistant in the States. Bruce, she said, would be flattered to have that line quoted in the book. He didn’t want any money but it would be nice if I could send him a signed copy when it came out.

Great guy Bruce. Not many like him. Which is why I’ll never use a quote that requires permission again.

If you really must have epigraphs in your book here’s a tip: unless you really don’t care about the money pick dead people out of copyright. Makes life a lot easier.

Or actually… just ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this at all?’ Will the book be improved by their omission? Is there really someone out there who’s going to read it and think, ‘You know if only this guy had stuck in a couple of lines from the Peter Gabriel era Genesis this thing would have been so much better?’

Second tip: the answer’s no.

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