Portland-based “band” Car Seat Headrest—actually composed of just one man, Will Toledo—will be destroying all copies of its first traditional studio album, Teens Of Denial. Did they discover a flubbed note? Does the record encourage listeners to “Hail Satan” when played backwards? Nope: There’s a song titled “Not What I Needed/Just What I Needed” that contains an unauthorized sample of Ric Ocasek’s composition “Just What I Needed,” from The Cars’ 1978 self-titled album.
Not that they didn’t try to license it. According to a press release from Toledo, “Matador (and I) were neither pulling a Banksy nor operating in ignorance of the law, but that we truly believed we had the issue resolved months ago, until last week.” In other words, the label did go through the legal rigmarole that must be endured to license a portion of a composition, but apparently somehow word of the sample never reached Ocasek himself.
As a result, the release date of May 20 for the “physical record” (which is considerably harder to steal than the digital version) has been postponed to mid-summer, but the album will still be released digitally as intended. As for the existing copies that may be residing in record stores across the nation, “There’s a total recall out, and all copies with the original version of the song will be destroyed.” So Car Seat Headrest won’t see a dime from the copies that presumably will soon be hocked on eBay as “ultra rare,” but at least record store clerks will finally be able to buy that pristine copy of The Beatles’ Yesterday And Today with their earnings.
While there is certainly no way to call a standard E-B-C#-A chord structure “intellectual property,” there is no doubt that the song in question nicks the intro (which The Cars lifted from Ohio Express), basic chord structure, and plays on the lyrics of “Just What I Needed,” which made it to No. 27 on the U.S. Billboard charts in 1978. There are those who may think that Ocasek is simply being a spoiled rich kid taking his ball and heading home, but that’s easy to say when it’s not your music being stolen. And if a band like Nickelback lifted a sample from an indie artist, fans would (quite rightly) be quite vocal about “artist’s rights” and “protecting one’s work.” (No matter what, at least one person would agree with the New Waver: The late Prince Nelson Rogers, who wanted to straight up make cover songs illegal.)
Also, let’s not cry a tear for Matador Records, which will write off the whole thing as a business expense (although the environmentalist in you may cringe). As for Car Seat Headrest, the controversy sent Toledo back into the studio to re-record “Not What I Needed/Just What I Needed” with new, original parts. The tune itself—sans the riffs on Ocasek’s song—is an enjoyable piece of indie pop, with more in common with Guided By Voices than the AOR sheen of The Cars. (Here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice: A band called Car Seat Headrest doing a riff on The Cars is clever enough, but save it for the live show.)
“I spent the last 48 hours working on an alternate cut of the track, which is now called “Not What I Needed,” Toldeo says. “It’s not merely an edit - it is its own thing, about half a minute longer than the original track, and goes in a much different direction. Honestly, despite the apparent clusterfuck, I had fun doing it, and I think it’s a stronger song now.” As is usually the case with stories like this, it’s not the actual musicians involved who really have an issue with the whole thing, but lawyers and record companies. And not one news outlet has gotten an actual quote from Ric Ocasek on the whole thing.
The vinyl release will be out “sometime in July,” according to the press release. Teens Of Denial will be available for download on May 20th.