Sugar Baby Love goes bad in fight over Rubettes name

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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago The Rubettes, with their flared white suits and floppy caps, were instantly recognisable to pop fans around the world. Their first single, "Sugar Baby Love", topped the UK charts and they went on to sell a further eight million records and enjoy 15 international hits.

Having failed to trouble the charts for nearly two decades, and after an acrimonious split saw the band continue under two different names, members of the original line-up found themselves back in court yesterday fighting over exactly which was the genuine article.

Fans of that far-off glam rock era might have hoped that the dispute had been settled by mutual consent in 2002. Then, the High Court in effect abolished The Rubettes as a legal entity, allowing both to continue performing as long as they made it clear exactly which original member was at the helm. So two bands - The Rubettes featuring Alan Williams (the lead singer), and The Rubettes featuring Bill Hurd (an original band member) - were born. All was well for nearly two years as both bands continued touring, until an appearance on the German television station ZDF by Hurd's band prompted Williams to begin legal proceedings against him.

According to the band's website, Williams received an apology from ZDF. But the bitterness is apparent. It said that the performance "has caused much confusion for many people and in answer to many of your e-mails that certainly wasn't Alan Williams after cosmetic surgery gone wrong singing with them. We all know what Alan looks like and it certainly isn't like that. Alan is very upset that anyone who hasn't seen him for some time should think that he could have changed that much."

Williams is accusing Hurd, Alex Bines and Paul Prewer, a session singer who sang the original version of "Sugar Baby Love", of promoting their group as the original 1970s band and using photographs of Williams to publicise their concerts.

But Hurd is claiming it is in fact Williams who has breached the agreement and failed to ensure that the proper names were used at all times. Both are seeking a court order restoring the abandoned legal action.

They are asking Mr Justice David Richards to "unfreeze" the case, and allow the passing-off and trademark dispute to proceed to trial. The hearing, at which the judge only needs to decide whether there has been a breach of the 2002 agreement, is scheduled to last up to four days.

The Rubettes are the latest in a long line of bands to end up slugging it out in the courts. A similar fate befell their contemporaries the Bay City Rollers, the Glitter Band and Paper Lace. Roger Waters disputed his former bandmates over the right to be Pink Floyd, while Fleetwood Mac, the Beach Boys and Spandau Ballet have also battled over the right to the original name.

It is a sweet irony perhaps that The Rubettes was assembled around the songwriting team of Wayne Bickerton, the then head of A&R at Polydor Records, and his co-writer, Tony Waddington. Influenced by their love of doo-wop and 1950s Americana, Bickerton and Waddington originally recruited Williams, John Richardson and Pete Arnese. They in turn persuaded Mick Clarke, Tony Thorpe and Bill Hurd to join up. But, after splitting with their song-writing team in 1976 and flirting with country rock, the band in effect disappeared from view. Reformed in 1982 to exploit the German market for 1970s nostalgia, The Rubettes foundered again in 1999. Now, both versions of the band continue to market themselves in their distinctive floppy white hats.

What's in a name?

BUCKS FIZZ: The former Eurovision winners argued over the right to the group's name. In 2002, Bobby G won the right to keep the name. The name had also been used by former member David Van Day. They settled the row out of court.

SPANDAU BALLET: The band formed in 1979 with Gary Kemp and his brother, Martin. The three non-Kemp members lost a court battle over hundreds of thousands of pounds of song royalties, and toured as a trio called 'Hadley, Norman and Keeble'.

FLEETWOOD MAC: The band ran into trouble when it abandoned an American tour in 1973. Manager Clifford Davis put together a new band to finish the tour. When original band members went to court to stop him using the name, the 'new' Mac stopped touring.