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Bitter Sweet Symphony – The Verve

“The best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years.” Richard Ashcroft

Bitter Sweet SymphonyThe Verve

Hut HUTDG 82 (UK) / Hut-Virgin 38634 (USA)

Recorded at Olympic Studios & Abbey Road, London

Released 16th June 1997

Writers Mick Jagger & Keith Richards   Lyric by Richard Ashcroft.

Producer Andrew Loog Oldham courtesy of The Decca Record Company Ltd

Actual producers of this studio recording were Martin Glover (aka Youth) & The Verve

UK#2  6/97   USA#12  4/98

Considering the aftermath of The Verve’s recording of this song, a more apt title would be hard to find. Although ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ brought the group enormous success, a million selling single and multi-million selling album, it also resulted in a whirlwind of legal activity. This ultimately cost its writer, Richard Ashcroft, 100% of his royalties, and led to his departure from, and therefore, temporary dissolution of the band in 1999. The bone of contention was a sample from an old song that was used in the creation of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. Sampling is best described as the use of a musical element or sequence from a previously copyrighted recording as the basis of a new one. Use of such samples, which became particularly rampant with the onset of rap in the 1980s, must be licensed by both the record company that owns the original recording and the publisher that owns the song copyright. As we shall see, this can be an extremely complicated and expensive affair.

Formed in 1991 in Wigan, north England as simply ‘Verve’, the group had already recorded 2 albums and split up in 1995, before reforming and releasing what many recognised as the best British album of 1997, Urban Hymns. They had earlier had a long-running legal battle with American jazz label Verve Records that resulted in their name being elongated to, The Verve. The group’s vocalist and songwriter Richard Ashcroft was actually no stranger to legal problems, and also got into deep trouble for pinching half of poet William Blake’s ‘London’ for the song ‘History’ which appeared on The Verve’s breakthrough 2nd album A Northern Soul in 1995. (‘Twas Mr Blake who wrote the uplifting ‘Jerusalem’ in 1804, set to music by Sir Hubert Hastings circa 1915) However, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ was to incur the wrath of a number of music business giants.

In creating ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, a sampled musical sequence from a 1965 Decca album by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra had been used. This may sound innocuous enough until one discovers that Andrew Oldham was at that time manager of the Rolling Stones, and the piece in question was an orchestrated version of the Stones 1965 #1 ‘The Last Time’. The Verve’s record company had in fact sought and paid for permission to use the offending sample from Decca, but unfortunately one of the music industry’s most notorious wheelers and dealers got wind of the affair. His name was Allen Klein, another former Rolling Stones manager (he took over from Oldham in 1967 and later also managed the Beatles) – he owned the rights to the Stones songs from the 1960s via his ABCKO publishing, and if The Verve were going to use part of ‘The Last Time’, a song he owned, then it was going to cost them …everything!

A plea to the song’s writers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards fell on deaf ears – there was no way they were going to get involved in a legal spectacle with the spidery Klein. Thus Mr Klein demanded – and received – 100% of the publishing royalties. Graciously, he did allow Richard Ashcroft to lay claim to the lyrics, although he didn’t receive any royalties for this, just a meagre one-off payment of $1000. This was cash that Ashcroft would soon need because the next man to arrive on the scene was a writ-bearing Andrew Loog Oldham. It was Mr Oldham, you’ll recall, whose orchestral recording of ‘The Last Time’ was the source of the whole legal mess in the first place. He now threatened to have Urban Hymns withdrawn from the market unless he received his percentage for the sample from his recording. Since the song publishing royalties, the money accrued from public performance and radio play, had all disappeared in Mr Klein’s direction, he demanded a slice of the record royalties – the money accrued through sales of the actual recording.

The upshot of Klein and Oldham’s legal intervention was that the sleeve credits on Urban Hymns now declared that ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ was “written by” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “performed by” The Andrew Oldham Orchestra and “produced by” Andrew Loog Oldham, even though it was, bar the sample, an entirely new composition and none of the above mentioned had participated in its’ recording. (The string-arrangement, by the way, was executed by Will Malone who did a similarly compelling job on Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. Coincidentally, the video for ‘Bitter Sweet’ was a parody of/homage to the acclaimed Massive Attack video) Richard Ashcroft was by now completely fed up with the entire affair and soon departed in the direction of his own solo career.* Though not before sarcastically noting that ‘Bitter Sweet’ was, “The best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years.” He didn’t, however, leave entirely empty-handed since the follow-up to ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, the 100% Richard Ashcroft composition ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ was a Number 1 single for The Verve in Britain in September 1997 while Urban Hymns shifted over 7 million copies. *(Ashcroft returned to duty in 2007 when the band reformed and recorded the 2008 Number 1 album Forth. True to form, they split up again soon afterwards!)

There is an ironic twist in the tail of this story. While the whole sordid business was based around the rights to the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ 1965 composition ‘The Last Time’, were these rights really theirs to claim in the first place? It seems that Messrs Jagger and Richards had in fact “borrowed” the idea themselves from a 1954 recording by the Staple Singers entitled, ‘This May Be The Last Time’ written by Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples – however, Staples never sued the Stones and anyway, who knows where he got the idea from?


Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton


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