In 1998, The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was everywhere. With its lush strings, mod sensibilities, and a killer video, the pop-friendly epic was arguably the last of the great Britpop hits. It was also a welcome reprieve in a year otherwise dominated by Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys.
Released on The Verve’s third studio album, Urban Hymns in 1997, “Symphony” reached #2 in the U.K. and stayed on the charts for three months. In ’98, it was released in the U.S., where it reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was named the single of the year by both Rolling Stone and NME.
To the casual listener, The Verve is a one-hit wonder. But that one hit is a landmark recording of the era.
Good for those guys, right?
Well, actually, this next part is kind of a bummer. Within a year of its release, the Verve was forced to surrender 100% of the royalties for its only major hit.
So how did it happen?
The Rolling Stones—The Last Time (1965)
The story actually begins more than 30 years earlier.
In 1965, the Rolling Stones unveiled their third U.K. studio release—Out of Our Heads. Like their first two records, this one was mostly composed of American blues and R&B covers. But it was their first LP to contain a few Jagger-Richards originals. This included the album’s first single—“The Last Time.”
It topped the charts in the U.K. for three weeks before reaching #9 in the U.S.
Andrew Oldham Orchestra—The Last Time (1966)
The following year, The Andrew Oldham Orchestra released an album called The Rolling Stones Songbook, composed entirely of orchestrally arranged Rolling Stones compositions.
This was a pretty common practice in the ‘60s. The syrupy, overproduced orchestral pop album was generally a reliable way to cash-in on a band’s popularity without burning any original ideas. Andrew Oldham’s record is no different, with but one exception.
Andrew “Loog” Oldham was actually the Rolling Stones’ producer. So his involvement with the source material had some merit.
Still, the album’s only real pleasure is the tune harvested by The Verve 30 years hence. Lead singer Richard Ashcroft has noted that he was inspired to compose “Bitter Sweet Symphony” after hearing Oldham’s orchestral arrangement of “The Last Time.”
At first listen, he believed that he could build “something outrageous” out of this otherwise forgotten recording.
The Verve—Bittersweet Symphony (1997)
Formed in 1990 as a quartet, The Verve emerged from Wigan, part of the same Greater Manchester region that produced Oasis. Like Oasis, The Verve was beset by internal squabbling and substance abuse. Unlike Oasis, they saw only modest success during the Britpop boom of the early ‘90s.
But just as Oasis was unraveling on a global stage, Richard Ashcroft and company dusted off Andrew Oldham’s recording and produced one of the era’s lasting statements. Ashcroft looped four distinctive bars from “The Last Time,” before adding dozens of layers including strings, percussion, and multiple vocal tracks. Ashcroft also composed original lyrics which made no reference to the original Jagger-Richards composition.
The Verve’s management also cleared use of the sample with ’60s Stones label, Decca. The result is a song that Rolling Stone magazine aptly described as a “pocket concerto.”
Allen Klein Steps in
Though Decca had approved use of the sample, former Rolling Stones manager and all-around crooked music-magnate Allen Klein stepped in at the zero hour. Klein had been manager to The Stones, The Beatles, The Animals, Sam Cooke and countless others in the 1960s. He was a major power-broker at the dawn of rock. Klein commanded robust contracts for his stars while absorbing enormous profits for himself.
Most of his relationships ended in contentious legal wrangling. So it was with the Rolling Stones.
Klein’s ABKCO Records owned the rights to all songs composed by the Rolling Stones prior to 1970. In Klein’s view, the Verve used too much of the original. Klein refused to clear the rights for the sample even as “Bitter Sweet Symphony” began climbing the charts.
Moss Gathers on Resting Stones
The Verve reached out to their record company for help. At the time, they and the Rolling Stones were actually labelmates on Virgin Records. When the label appealed to Jagger and Richards for help, the Stones had nice things to say about the song, but declined involvement.
You could hardly blame them. Jagger and Richards had already spent years in court feuding with Klein for his shady dealings. (These shady dealings would even land Klein in jail on tax fraud charges for two months in 1980).
Of the “Bitter Sweet” dispute, Keith Richards did offer a spot-on legal analysis: “I’m out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”
Instead, The Verve was crushed in litigation. Klein initially consented to a 50/50 split of the royalties. However, as Ashcroft remembers it, ABKCO saw how well the song was doing and successfully pushed for 100% of the royalties. In exchange for his trouble, Ashcroft was given a $1000 check—which just seems mean.
In the aftermath, Jagger and Richards were given 100% compositional credit for “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”
They—and not Ashcroft—were nominated for a Grammy that year. Allen Klein, rather than the members of The Verve—received 100% of the royalties for that year’s massive hit. ABKCO continued to reap profits with licensing deals that saw “Bitter Sweet Symphony” featured in film (*see Cruel Intentions) and advertising (*see Nike Campaign).
At the time, Ashcroft noted wryly that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years.”
The Verve’s biggest success would also prove a heartbreaking letdown. They disbanded in 1999.
More Sweet Than Bitter
Fortunately, that isn’t the end of this story. Unlike most rock and roll heartbreaks, this one actually has a happy ending.
In 2009, Allen Klein passed away at age 77. His son Jody assumed duties as CEO and owner of ABKCO records. Ashcroft reached out to Jody Klein to reopen negotiations. With Jagger and Richards at the table, ABKCO agreed to return 100% of the rights for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to Richard Ashcroft.
20 years after the demise of his band, Ashcroft became the proud owner of his biggest hit.
Ironically, this completely unauthorized mashup of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” may actually be the best of all versions. From what we can determine, this mashup should be credited to SirFluffy Productions.
You can check out their stuff at SoundCloud.