30 Day Song Challenge, Day 16 – “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve

The subject for Day 16 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song from the 1990s“, and my pick is “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve. I’ve always loved songs with lush soundscapes and cinematic orchestration, and “Bittersweet Symphony” fits the bill quite nicely. The magnificent song is one of my favorites from that entire decade.

Though they’d been releasing music for over five years, their singles and albums failed to gain traction in the U.S. or elsewhere outside of the UK. “Bittersweet Symphony” proved to be their breakthrough hit, making them international stars. Released first in the UK in June 1997, the song reached #2 on the UK Singles Chart, and was nominated for Best British Single at the 1998 Brit Awards. It was named Single of the Year by both Rolling Stone and NME, and is considered one of the defining songs of the Britpop era. “Bittersweet Symphony” was subsequently released in the U.S. in March 1998, where it reached #3 on the Billboard Adult Alternative, #8 on the Adult Top 40, and #12 on the Hot 100 charts. The song was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Song, and the music video was nominated in three categories at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. Surprisingly, it was their only song to ever chart in the U.S., though their albums Urban Hymns and Forth both reached #23 on the Billboard 200 Album chart.

The Verve have had a rather troubled history, facing numerous challenges, including name and line-up changes, break-ups, health problems, drug abuse and various lawsuits, for most of their existence. Originally formed as ‘Verve’ in 1990 while still in their teens, the Wigan, England-based group consisted of lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft (who Coldplay front man Chris Martin said is the best singer in the world), guitarist Nick McCabe, bass guitarist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury. (Guitarist and keyboard player Simon Tong later became a member during their first reunion period.) But within a year, American record label Verve, known for its extensive jazz catalogue, took issue with the band’s name and demanded they change it. Both parties reached a compromise by the band agreeing to add ‘the’ to their name.

From its beginnings, “Bittersweet Symphony” – whose title would become sadly apropos – was also beset with controversy. The song is based on a sample of a 1965 orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra, a group formed by Andrew Loog Oldham, the former producer and manager of the Rolling Stones. There was no actual orchestra, but rather a group of session musicians that sometimes included members of the Rolling Stones. Their recording of “The Last Time” was included on their album The Rolling Stones Songbook, featuring symphonic versions of Rolling Stones songs.

When Richard Ashcroft heard the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time”, he thought it could be “turned into something outrageous“, as he later recalled to David Fricke for Rolling Stone. He sampled and looped four bars from the original recording, then added dozens more tracks, including additional strings based on the melody in the sample that were arranged by Wil Malone, along with guitar, percussion and his own layered vocals. In that Rolling Stone interview, Ashcroft said he imagined “something that opened up into a prairie-music kind of sound“, similar to the work of the Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and that “the song started morphing into this wall of sound, a concise piece of incredible pop music“.

The Verve obtained the rights to use a few notes of the string melody from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s “Last Time” by the copyright holder, Decca Records, in exchange for half of The Verve’s royalties on “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” However, they were not given permission from another former Rolling Stones’ manager Allen Klein, who owned the copyrights to the their pre-1970 songs, including “The Last Time”. When “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was about to be released as a single, Klein, by then head of ABKCO Records, refused clearance for the sample, saying The Verve had used a larger portion than previously agreed to. The Verve’s co-manager Jazz Summers turned to their American record label Virgin Records for help. Virgin played “Bitter Sweet Symphony” for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who liked the track, but declined to become involved in the dispute. Summers also sent a copy to Oldham, who wrote back: “Fair cop! Absolute total pinch! You can see why [ABKCO are] rolling up their sleeves.” (Rolling Stone)

ABKCO Records filed a lawsuit, which forced The Verve to relinquished all royalties to Klein, and change the songwriting credits to Jagger–Richards. Ashcroft received only $1,000. According to The Verve bassist Simon Jones, “We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice.” Rolling Stone wrote that the outcome was “patently absurd”, noting that Jagger and Richards were not involved with the sample or Ashcroft’s melody and lyrics. Ashcroft said sarcastically that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years“. Asked in 1999 whether he believed that the situation was fair, Keith Richards said: “I’m out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”

In 1999, Oldham sued AKBCO, saying he was owed up to £1 million in royalties for the use of the sample. Years later he joked that he had bought “a pretty presentable watch strap” with his royalties, and said: “As for Richard Ashcroft, well, I don’t know how an artist can be severely damaged by that experience. Songwriters have learned to call songs their children, and he thinks he wrote something. He didn’t. I hope he’s got over it. It takes a while.” Billboard estimated that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” had generated almost $5 million in publishing revenue by 2019. In 2018, Ashcroft expressed his anger over the situation, saying: “Someone stole God-knows-how-many million dollars off me in 1997, and they’ve still got it … Anyone, unless you are mentally ill, will always remember the day when 50 million dollars was stolen off them.”

In early 2019, Ashcroft’s managers approached Jody Klein, who’d become head of ABKCO following his father’s death in 2009, for reconsideration of the lousy judgement. Klein then connected them to the Rolling Stones’ manager, Joyce Smyth, who agreed to speak to Jagger and Richards about the issue. That April, ABKCO, Jagger and Richards agreed to return the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” royalties and songwriting credits to Ashcroft. Ashcroft announced the agreement a month later at a ceremony in which he received the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. He said it was a “kind and magnanimous” move, adding “I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It’s been a fantastic development. It’s life-affirming in a way.” In a statement, the Rolling Stones said they acknowledged the financial and emotional cost of “having to surrender the composition of one of your own songs.” (Wikipedia)

Here’s the full album version of the song:

And here’s the instrumental version of “The Last Time”, by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra, that served as the basis for “Bittersweet Symphony”: