Little known amongst all the hoopla surrounding the incredibly successful Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings movies, is the fact that without John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, these films would not have been made, or at least not in their current form by the same filmmakers. It’s strange, but true as the expression goes. Here’s the story.
In the mid 1960s a young musician named John Fogerty was a stock boy in San Francisco at a little known record label called Fantasy Records. He struck up a friendship with a salesman named Saul Zaentz who agreed to produce an album for Fogerty’s band, the then named Golliwogs, which included his brother Tom Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug ‘Cosmo’ Clifford, who would become world famous as Creedence Clearwater Revival. The resulting album spawned a pair of hits, Suzi Q and I Put A Spell On You, both remakes of 1950s Rock classics. But the real jackpot was just around the corner when Fogerty began writing a string of his own classic tunes that would put CCR and Fantasy Records on the map while making Zaentz’s fortune.
Over the course of the next three years Fogerty’s songwriting pen overflowed with unforgettable songs like Proud Mary, Born On The Bayou, Down On The Corner, Fortunate Son, Run Through The Jungle, Who’ll Stop The Rain and more. It should have been one of those cases where everyone got rich, but according to Fogerty, one of them got richer than the others.
By this time Zaentz had graduated from producer to owner of Fantasy as CCR became one of the biggest bands in the world. The label, a small Jazz oriented outfit, never found another act to match CCR. But that one group was more than enough to turn Fantasy into a money making machine.
As the 60s faded into the hazy cloud of hippie memories, the hit records began to slow and CCR went the way of all of Rock’s classic bands, except for the ever present, ever ancient Rolling Stones, breaking up amid an abundance of over inflated egos and acrimonious infighting. At the end of it all the members of CCR found themselves embroiled in legal issues connected to Fantasy. A series of court battles ensued. Fogerty, locked into a long term contract, brokered a deal to get himself released from Fantasy by giving up most of the rights to his own music. By the time the smoke had cleared, the last man standing at Fantasy was Saul Zaentz who had decided to take his money and invest in something more dependable than Rock and Roll, a nice quiet business with fewer egos involved, the movie business.
In 1975 he co-produced and financed One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with Michael Douglas, Director Milos Foreman and actor Jack Nicholson in turning Ken Kesey’s novel into an Academy Award Winning Best Picture. Zaentz followed over the next twenty years with two more Best Picture Oscars for Amadeus and The English Patient.
Little noticed at the time was Zaentz’s acquisition of the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In 1969 Professor Tolkien had sold the film rights to MGM and United Artists for a figure reported to be in the neighborhood of £10,000 . Zaentz later bought them from MGM. In 1978 he produced a mediocre animated version of the story which helped to dampen enthusiasm for a live action edition for some time to come. But Zaentz knew a good thing when he saw one and unlike most movie makers who would have unloaded the property for a few bucks, he continued to hold onto the rights.
After making The English Patient, (how on Earth did this win the Academy Award, Seinfeld’s take on this pointless, ponderous self indulgent mess said it all), Zaentz retired from the movie making business. In the late 90s, obscure New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson convinced Zaentz that with the aid of modern special effects, he could bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen in proper fashion. The rest as they say is history. Ah but the money machine continues to roll for the Zaentz company.
In fact, one recent report stated that Zaentz’s company and New Line Cinema have filed more than 1500 trademark applications concerning Lord of the Rings. It might not be an exaggeration to say that they’ve trademarked nearly everything in the books except ‘the’ and ‘and’. So just what are they up to these days besides marketing every Hobbit knick knack under the sun? Well, they recently sued a tiny pub in England which had been using the name the Hobbit for a decade before the movies were even made. Here’s an excerpt from the UK MailOline Story:
The U.S. firm’s website says: ‘Middle-earth Enterprises owns exclusive worldwide rights to motion picture, merchandising, stage and other rights in certain literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. ‘We have produced and licensed films, stage productions and merchandise based on these Tolkien works for more than thirty-five years.’
Middle-earth Enterprises is a division of The Saul Zaentz Company. A spokesman for Edward Wildman Group solicitors, who are acting on behalf of The Saul Zaentz Company, said: ‘Our client’s policy is not to comment on matters such as this.’
It is not the first time the company has tried to take punitive action against Tolkien homages. In November, a Birmingham cafe called the Hungry Hobbit was accused of copyright infringement by lawyers representing The Saul Zaentz Company. The cafe was told to phase out the use of the name on menus, websites and signs.
I guess that’s what you call making the world safe for intellectual property…
Oh yeah, and whatever happened to John Fogerty? Well, in 1985 when Fogerty made his comeback album, Centerfield, he include a song called Zanz Kant Danz. The first line of lyric in the song is; ‘Vanz can’t dance, but he’ll steal your money’. Zaentz sued Fogerty and the song title was subsequently changed to Vanz Kant Danz. Fogerty was also sued for plagiarizing himself as Fantasy’s lawyers claimed that The Old Man Down The Road from the same album, was basically Run Through The Jungle with new lyrics. As Fogerty did not own the rights to his own songs, they believed this was depriving Fantasy of much needed royalties. BTW, Fogerty won the lawsuit.
In 2005 Fogerty was quoted by the New York Times in regard to his former employer: “The way I view Saul Zaentz and his henchmen, shall I say – well, that probably gives it away,” Mr. Fogerty said. “I still view them in the same light. If I was walking down the street and those rattlesnakes were walking towards me, I would give them a wide berth.”
Oh and it does keep getting better. In 2008 the Tolkien Estate sued New Line Cinema, the company that made the LOTR movies, claiming they had been paid only $62,500 but were promised 7.5% of the $2.8 billion dollar gross. Zaentz also went to court with New Line. This is the exact statement from the Huffington Post:
Zaentz sued New Line, claiming the studio cheated him out of $20 million in royalties from the film trilogy, which he optioned to New Line for a percentage of the movies’ profits. He and the film studio reached an out-of-court settlement a year later. Peter Jackson’s production company also tangled with New Line in 2005 over profits from the films. A lawsuit was settled last year.
Do we detect a pattern here. Hmm, reminds me of an old George Harrison song.
So as we all sit back and enjoy Viggo Mortensen hacking and hewing away at hordes of Orcs, we should tip our hats to John Fogerty and say thank you. Maybe in the extended version of LOTR or the new Hobbit film, Frodo, or Bilbo can hum a few bars of The Road Goes Ever On to the tune of Playin’ In A Travelin Band. Maybe give a nod to the lawyers too. Sounds appropriate to me.
Sources: Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival by Hank Bordowitz, London Evening Standard, UK MailOnline, Huffington Post and the New York Times