It was the first chart single ever played on BBC Radio 1, but to this day all royalties from “Flowers in the Rain” go to charities originally chosen by onetime Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The hit song was recorded by Birmingham-based band The Move (pictured), but a satirical postcard printed and distributed by their controversial manager Tony Secunda to promote the single landed them all in hot water. It wasn’t only satirical, but also libellous and defamatory, featuring a cartoon showing a nude Harold Wilson in bed with his private secretary Marcia Williams.
On October 11th, 1967, the group was forced to issue an apology in the High Court for the “violent and malicious personal attack” on Mr Wilson after the court ruled in the Prime Minister’s favour. It must have really pained the band to do so, as their manager produced the promotional postcard and sent it out without consulting them.
Produced for Mr Secunda by an advertising agency, the offending postcard featured a central caricature of a nude Mr Wilson sitting on a bed with a masked woman, said to be his secretary, while another woman, said to be his wife Mary, peered through some curtains. Above and below the image, a slogan read: “Disgusting, depraved, despicable though Harold may be, beautiful is the only word to describe Flowers in the Rain.”
Rumours had been circulating about Mr Wilson and Mrs Williams for some time, but the Prime Minister strongly denied them and, not surprisingly, took exception to the postcard. His lawyers launched a libel action against everyone concerned in its production – Mr Secunda, The Move, the artist who drew the postcard, the advertising agency which supplied it and the firm that printed it.
Speaking for Mr Wilson in court, Mr Quentin Hogg QC said the postcard made use of “malicious rumours” about his client’s character and integrity, all for commercial gain. He labelled the postcard “scurrilous” and criticised the decision to send it to music journalists, publishers, radio stations and TV producers as a means to promote the single’s August 25th release date.
With barely a leg to stand on, the defendants lost the case and were ordered to pay all the legal costs, estimated at £3,000 (around £52,000 in today’s money). On top of that, and in a move which some thought unusually harsh, the court ruled that all royalties from “Flowers in the Rain” would go to charities chosen by the Prime Minister.
That not only covered physical sales of the record, but also the payments due every time it is broadcast, such being played on the radio, and there was no time limit on the ruling. Mr Wilson nominated the Spastics Society and the Amenity Fund of Stoke Mandeville Hospital as his charities, while his barrister, Mr Hogg, warned that in any future incident the Prime Minister might not be so lenient.
Representing the defendants, Mr Richard Hartley said they all expressed “profound regret” for what had happened, while Mr Secunda denied it had all been a publicity stunt. He told reporters: “Wilson started legal proceedings, we did it as a cartoon, remember that. It wasn't intended to be anything but that.”
Publicity stunt or not, it certainly helped promote the record which sold extremely well, each sale generating a royalty payment to Mr Wilson’s charities. The band members themselves appeared to shrug off the legal furore in public, but were no doubt unhappy with the result behind closed doors. It meant they would never earn a penny from one of their most successful singles, a ruling which especially affected frontman Roy Wood, who wrote it. Soon afterwards the band sacked Tony Secunda and found new management.
Despite the lawsuit, The Move went on to enjoy considerable success, scoring nine top 20 UK singles and becoming one of the most popular bands of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Band members Roy Wood, Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne went on to form The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) while Wood later enjoyed glam rock success in his new band Wizzard, with hits including evergreen seasonal favourite “I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day”.