Claiming the rights to a particular riff of music is notoriously difficult. After all, Western music is said to be made up of just 12 notes, which can be arranged to yield an almost infinite number of possible tunes. It must be hard, with all the tunes floating around in the world, to come up with something completely original. And in any case, intellectual property is a contested space. Nevertheless, Wikipedia has a list of hundreds of songs that one musician at one time claimed was plagiarised by another.
One of the most famous on that list is the case of The Beach Boys, Surfin’ USA (1963) and it’s uncanny resemblance to Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen (1958). The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson said he’d intended their chart-topping song as a tribute to Berry, but the courts had another idea. By 1966, Berry’s name appeared in the credits and the song’s publishing rights were handed over to Arc Music, Berry’s publisher. It was the first big tussle over music rights in rock history.
Long before that, though, in 1939, a Zulu man named Solomon Linda stood in front of a microphone and, in Rian Malan’s words, “opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of 15 notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of beeswax which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit …” Malan’s story, In The Jungle: Inside the Long, Hidden Genealogy of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, was written in 2000 for Rolling Stone magazine. It also appears in his book, Resident Alien (2009) and, by now, is a piece of music history known to many South Africans.
Less well known is the story revived in this edition by writer Carsten Rasch, who’s researched this tale for years. Rasch is the author of the book, Between a Rock & a Hard Place, an “epic memoir by musician, promoter and enthusiastic participant” in the “music and parties used to stage a punk-driven uprising against the tyrannical government of the ’80s by tiny pockets of antiapartheid whiteys”. As such, Rasch is in a good place to write about the Duck Rock swindle.
Many will remember Englishman Malcolm McLaren for his proximity to the bands the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls (he was their manager) and for his dalliance with fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, if they remember him at all. In the UK he’s said to have initiated the punk movement of the ’70s. On the other hand, many may not remember musician Lulu Masilela and his fellow local musicians at all. But Rasch did, and he sought them out to get to the bottom of the story.