December 2020 Recap: Dylan Cashes In, McCartney Flies Solo + More
2020 was hard on everyone, musicians included. But before the year was out, many artists had just a few more things to wrap up. Bob Dylan sold the rights to his musical catalog, an enormously profitable decision and one that's become more and more popular, Paul McCartney released McCartney III, his third one-man-band album and Dave Grohl celebrated Hanukkah with eight new songs, all covers of Jewish artists. Meanwhile the legacy of the Beatles marched on with a sneak peek of Peter Jackson's new documentary, and the rock world lost another legend, Mountain's Leslie West.
You can read more about the biggest rock stories of December below.
Dylan Makes Biggest Splash on Publishing Sales Wave
Only a few months after the release of his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, news broke that Bob Dylan had sold the publishing rights to his entire catalog of more than 600 songs to Universal Music Publishing, netting him an estimated $300 million. True to his enigmatic character, the exact details of the deal were not disclosed. Rumors emerged that Dylan had actually turned down a $400 million offer from Merck Mercuriadis' Hipgnosis Songs Fund, a company that currently owns a significant amount of high-profile musical publishing rights and has begun earning a reputation for being an “an artist-friendly” organization, as Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx put it.
“I congratulate [Universal] on making the deal,” said Mercuriadis. “You don’t need me to say this is one of the greatest catalogs of all time. There’s Bob Dylan, there’s the Beatles, and there are very few others that touch that rarified air.”
Regardless of the financial specifics, Dylan is hardly the first songwriting giant to sell away their rights. Stevie Nicks also struck a deal in early December, selling an 80 percent stake in her catalog to Primary Wave, while David Crosby revealed similar plans for his own music.
"I can’t work, and streaming stole my record money," he tweeted. "I have a family and a mortgage and I have to take care of them, so it’s my only option. I’m sure the others feel the same."
The reasoning can be complicated but the reality is simple: publishing rights yield the most profit. As streaming companies have offered artists little in the way of compensation and the coronavirus pandemic has canceled all plans for touring, musicians now have to consider other options to support themselves. For Dylan, whose deal with Universal Music Publishing includes everything from his earliest songs to his latest album, the decision may be a sign that the times are, indeed, changing.
Leslie West Dies
At the end of an already difficult year, the rock world endured another unfortunate loss. Co-founder and guitarist for Mountain, Leslie West. died at the age of 75 of a heart attack after facing numerous health issues in recent years.
"His music remains but his amazing spirit is no more,” tweeted Dee Snider of Twisted Sister. “I'm at a loss for words right now ... and that says a lot. RIP my friend."
Mountain’s most successful single, “Mississippi Queen” was released in 1970 and became a staple in the hard-rock community. It was covered over the years by various other musicians like Ozzy Osbourne and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
"Wow...I’m very saddened to hear this terrible news about Leslie West," wrote Journey’s Neal Schon. "He was a major influence on my playing. God Bless you, brother ... you are soaring with angels."
Dave Grohl’s Hanukkah Covers
In honor of Hanukkah, Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters' producer Greg Kurstin teamed up for a virtually performed, eight-night run of songs by Jewish artists. The duo began with a cover of the Beastie Boys' 1994 hit "Sabotage," and then worked their way through a healthy mix of genres -- from Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" to the Knack’s “Frustrated" to Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35."
"So now everybody must get stoned (not in the Law of Moses sense) as we put some blood on this track,” they wrote as they released the video for the Dylan song.
Grohl and Kurstin wrapped up the series with a cover of “Rock and Roll” by the Velvet Underground, noting the song's message of hope inspired by music.
"This project, which initially began as a silly idea, grew to represent something much more important to me," Grohl wrote in the YouTube description of the video. "It showed me that the simple gesture of spreading joy and happiness goes a long way, and as we look forward, we should all make an effort to do so, no matter how many candles are left to light on the menorah."
And as an extra holiday surprise, the Foo Fighters also released a new cover of Chuck Berry's 1958 Christmas song, "Run Rudolph Run" for Amazon Music Holiday Plays.
McCartney Releases 'III'
On Dec. 18, Paul McCartney released McCartney III, his first full length album since 2018's Egypt Station.
Like everyone else, McCartney had extra time on his hands due to the pandemic. He indulged himself and headed into the studio to do what he does best: create. The process resulted in McCartney III, a follow up to his self-titled solo debut in 1970 and McCartney II in 1980, records on which he also played all the instruments and on which the only other personnel credit is given to his wife, Linda McCartney, on backing vocals. Still, McCartney III was a project he claims was unexpected. Lockdown, it turns out, is the perfect situation for a one-man band.
“Each day I’d start recording with the instrument I wrote the song on and then gradually layer it all up,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. It was about making music for yourself rather than making music that has to do a job. So, I just did stuff I fancied doing. I had no idea this would end up as an album.”
Through the process, McCartney said he remembered the resilient perspective of his parents during World War II.
“They survived. They survived the bombing and losing people left, right and center and yet they came out of it with incredible spirit," he said to BBC Radio 6. "And so I was brought up in a lot of that, so it’s kind of good to draw on that and think, ‘Well, if they could do it, I can do it.’”
For many fans, McCartney III provided a window into the creative sphere of one of the world’s most prolific songwriters who, despite his undeniable superstar status, is still very much evolving as a songwriter and musician.
“And in the end,” UCR’s review of the album reads, “it's both a substantial and tossed-off work, begging not to be taken too seriously while also categorizing itself as a personal statement, just like McCartney and McCartney II, by an artist in transition.”
And for McCartney, this isn’t the journey’s end, but merely another stepping stone on the road.
“Everything I do is always supposed to be my last," he said. "When I was 50 – ‘That’s his last tour.’ And it was like, ‘Oh, is it? I don’t think so.’ It’s the rumor mill, but that’s okay. When we did Abbey Road, I was dead, so everything else is a bonus.”
First Beatles 'Get Back' Footage Surfaces
Fans still have a while to wait for the new Fab Four documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, but director Peter Jackson offered a small, six-minute slice of what's to come, saying it will give viewers the “vibe” they can expect.
“It gives you a sense of the spirit of the film that we’re making,” Jackson said, who noted that he has access to 56 hours of archival film to potentially be used in the finished product. The footage documents a significant portion of the band's 1969 studio sessions as they worked on (and sometimes disagreed over) what would become their final album together, Let It Be. Paul McCartney, often blamed for the band's breakup, is more confident now.
“The proof is the footage,” McCartney told the Sunday Times. “I bought into the dark side of the Beatles breaking up and thought, ‘Oh God, I’m to blame.’ I knew I wasn’t, but it’s easy when the climate is that way to start thinking so.
After seeing clips of Jackson's work, McCartney gave a seal of approval, suggesting these creative differences among the members were ultimately part of what made them such a cohesive band to begin with.
“It was so reaffirming for me,” he said. “Because it proves that my main memory of the Beatles was the joy and the skill."