Sounds like Madness (or Fleetwood Mac . . .)

But it isn't. Sean Thomas on the case of the advertising pop pasticheur s
THE MIDLAND Bank's latest catchy ad tune, with its jaunty chorus ``Is that too much?'' is a deft reworking of the classic Labi Siffre hit ``It must be love''. And the pop group Madness are very unhappy with it; they see it as a dubious pastiche of their version of the Siffre song, right down to the lolloping Nutty Boy feel.

``The style of the commercial is extremely close to the group's original version, and to their video. It makes it look like the band support Midland Bank. And I'm not sure they do,'' said a spokesman for Madness, who are considering legal action.

``It's clearly all our own work, we weren't even aware of Madness's style when we made the ad,'' retorted a Midland spokesman.

However this particular spat is settled, ``pastiche pop'' is a burgeoning phenomenon in the ad world. David Reynolds is a thirty-something publisher who imitates original music in his spare time. Anyone who's watched a television commercial and thought ``Hey, I know that song . . . I think,'' has experienced David's work or that of his colleagues: such as the chocolate biscuit ad that mimicked, without replicating, the Dave Brubeck jazz classic ``Take Five'' or the recent motor oil commercial that closely imitated, without actually plagiarising, Fleetwood Mac's anthemic Grand Prix-linked instrumental, ``The Chain''.

So how is it done? Playing one of his proudest creations, a re-jigging of Burt Bacharach's ``Walk on By'', David Reynolds explains the process. ``All you need is a CD and a digital sampler. You take a song and you deconstruct it, strip it down to its constituent chords and its instrumentation and its intonation and its timbre and all that. Then, depending on how close you want to get to the original - and the usual idea is to get as close as possible without breaking the law - you juggle the melody or chord sequence while keeping the timing and instrumentation and tone.''

The reason television commercial producers employ people like David is, of course, money. Music libraries can charge the earth for the privilege of broadcasting famous tunes. A song like ``Is You Is Or Is You Ain't'' - the one used in the current Access campaign - costs upwards of pounds 50,000 for one year's publication rights.

Pasticheurs are distinctly cheaper. A part-timer like David Reynolds will earn pounds 500 for an evening's work; a top man in the field (``I can't tell you what I've done, but I guarantee you've heard it'') may make between pounds 2,000 and pounds 5,000 per jingle, stretching to pounds 10,000 for a really big budget. Pastiching is also a rather successful micro-industry - top British imitators find plenty of work in Europe, Japan, and the United States.

Guy Jeffries runs a studio in a south London business park; over the years his venue has become one of the centres for musical mimics. ``We've got a regular band of guys who come here and write that kind of stuff. And this is just one studio - there are lots of others with many more pastiche writers making a pretty nice living. It's a genuine cottage industry, although most people don't even realise it exists.''

Much of his business comes from the parodists' freemasonry; he is equivocal about the ethical question. ``I'm not sure there really is a moral problem in this field. Though I suppose if a song was a bit too close and was a total steal I might have some qualms.''

His relaxed attitude is not shared by every member of the music industry. The Performing Rights Society and the British Association of Songwriters and Composers would like to see the current copyright laws, which date from 1908, updated to take into account the huge advances in technology of the last few decades. A very average musician can now steal a guitar solo or embezzle an entire vocal line at the touch of a computer keyboard.

``It's a terribly grey area,'' says Carol Humphrey, a sound producer for television commercials. ``About 18 months ago I saw a toiletries ad and the beginning was a complete rip-off of George Michael's 'Freedom Ninety', no question. It was identical and it really annoyed me. The whole practice is lazy and cheapskate.''

Her opinion is shared, con brio, by the composers who have seen their works lifted. Songwriter Guy Fletcher, chairman of the British Academy of Composers, says ``Everybody knows what's going on - but that doesn't make it right. The only reason there isn't more litigation is because it's too expensive to go to court.'' Another composer went so far as to confess that he would gladly garrotte the parodists with their own guitar strings - ``that's if they had guitars. Or knew how to play them. Which they don't.''

But according to David Reynolds, a slight haziness hanging over the originality of musical sources is by no means new. ``Recently I had to rejig an early Rolling Stones song. The Stones had ripped it off Bo Diddley, of course. So I was doing a pastiche of a pastiche - this is how popular music has evolved. Led Zeppelin stole from old bluesmen. The Beatles weren't above nicking a few chords. Most modern dance music is an amalgam of sampling and borrowed riffs. Maybe we are just a bit more honest about it these days - in my field anyway.''

(Photograph omitted)