The Verve: “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
Ah, poor The Verve. Or the poor Verve. Whatever. If ever a song was appropriately named, in a very inadvertent sort of way, it was this one. “Sweet,” because it’s such a magnificent song and was the biggest hit ever for The Verve, but “bitter,” because it was unfortunately the subject of a successful plagiarism lawsuit by the Rolling Stones (or their lawyers, in any case) and as a result the Verve doesn’t get any royalties from the song.
When you listen to “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” from the 1997 Verve album, Urban Hymns, you may wonder how the heck it has anything to do with a Rolling Stones song? Well, it’s a somewhat roundabout thing: The song it was ruled to have been plagiarized from is the Stones’ 1965 hit, “The Last Time.” Still, listen only to that song in its original form and it wouldn’t make sense; where the so-called plagiarism comes from is a symphonic version of that song done by The Andrew Oldham Orchestra in the mid-’60s. Andrew Loog Oldham was manager of the Rolling Stones, and produced their albums, through 1967 — the Andrew Oldham Orchestra was a side project.
The thing is, the Verve actually had negotiated a deal to use a sample from that recording before “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was released, splitting royalties 50-50 with ABKCO Records, which owns the rights to the Rolling Stones material from the ’60s. But upon the song’s release, ABKCO claimed that more of “The Last Time” was used than had been allowed for in the licensing, and sued the Verve. ABKCO won, so now the Rolling Stones receive all the royalties. And you might think, “Bastards! Don’t they have enough money already? It was just a small bit of an obscure version of their song!” But then you hear the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording, and it becomes a bit more clear how the Verve lost this one:
The section of the recording that was used corresponds to the verse portion in the Stones’ original recording (albeit slowed down substantially), and damned if it isn’t exactly the entirety of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”! So you can see why the suit was brought after all, but still, hard to feel understanding about it knowing that the Stones hardly needed the income, while the Verve probably did — and I’m quite sure the Verve figured they’d done the right thing with the original licensing and didn’t intend to take advantage of it. They simply made a big mistake — but the fact remains that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a wondrous song. The Verve’s leader, singer, and primary songwriter Richard Ashcroft recognized the beauty of the strings section in the Oldham recording, but elevated it far beyond that with moving lyrics and gritty singing. The song becomes a majestic statement of how short and predetermined our lives are, but Ashcroft strives to break free and find the beauty amidst the sadness. The strings are the perfect melodic accompaniment, underscoring the song’s message by being simultaneously beautiful and melancholy. According to Ashcroft (in an ironic quote to Rolling Stone magazine that I found on Wikipedia), it was “the best song Jagger and Richards had written in 20 years.”
As it happens, the video for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is one of the coolest videos ever made — Ashcroft walks purposefully down the sidewalk, so intent on the song that he is completely oblivious to the people he’s pushing past, bumping into, and knocking over. It’s funny in a way, but powerful in its commitment to the song.