The bittersweet ordeal of Bitter Sweet Symphony
The Verve, from Wigan, England were not experiencing great success following the mediocre response to their first two albums however on 29th September 1997 the group’s lives were turned upside down. Their third album, “Urban Hymns” was instantly met with overwhelming success, knocking Oasis off of the number 1 spot. The album remained at the top of the UK charts for a 12-week period. “Urban Hymns” was the 8th best-selling UK album of the 90s, going platinum 10 times, outselling other albums such as “Ok Computer”, “Blur” and “Be Here Now”, all released in the same year. A majority of the success of this album can be attributed to their first single of the album, “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. The track became renowned as one of the best songs to come out Britain in the 90s and also received many awards, such as NME’s Best Single & Music Video in 1998. The success of this song however came with one of the most famous legal battles in music history.
Although frontman Richard Ashcroft wrote the lyrics to the single, the instrumentals bared a similarity to a Rolling Stones song, “The Last Time” that had been re-record into an orchestral version by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. In order to use a sample from the Stones, the Verve got permission from the Rolling Stones’ record label, Decca to use a five-note string sample in exchange for half of the royalties from “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. (8, 2018) The Verve only got permission to use this re-recorded orchestral version and didn’t think to ask permission to use the original Stones song until after the song was recorded. The publishing clearance from the song was rejected as the manager of the Stones, Allen Klein just didn’t “believe in” the idea of sampling. However, after some persuasion from Ken Berry, the head of EMI records, Klein supposedly agreed to a fifty/fifty split of all royalties received from the song. Upon release, it was clear that the song was going to be a lot bigger than anyone would have expected, causing Klein to state that The Verve had used too much of “The Last Time”. He later sued the band for plagiarism. The case was settled out of court, with Allen Klein insisting that The Verve were to not only give song-writing credits to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones but also all royalties received from the song. In 1999 Oldham also sued The Verve for $1.7 million in mechanical royalties. (Tsioulcas, 2019) As a result of all of these battles, the band ended paying all of their royalties to Oldham, Jagger and Richards for over twenty years. Ashcroft had no power or control over his song. It was being played everywhere, on movies, on TV shows, and they were earning no money whatsoever. There was, however, a light at the end of the tunnel for Richard Ashcroft. On 23rd May 2019, Ashcroft announced “As of last month, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing for Bitter Sweet Symphony, which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do.” Ashcroft stated this when he received his lifetime achievement prize at the Ivor Novello Awards. (Savage, 2019). In his speech, he continued to appreciate the fact that Jagger and Richards accepted the fact that Ashcroft was responsible for creating the “masterpiece”.
Ashcroft has continued his music career as a solo artist and has created four albums, each reaching the UK’s top three. His most recent album “Natural Rebel” released on 19th October 2018 reached number four on the UK charts and Ashcroft has been granted all future royalties by Jagger and Richards. Despite this “victory”, a spokesperson for the Rolling Stones acknowledged that “Of course there was a huge financial cost, but any songwriter will know that there is a huge emotional price greater than the money in having to surrender the composition of one of your own songs. Richard has endured that loss for many years.” This just shows the huge effect the loss of the song had on Richard. However, as time progresses, the strive originality becomes an arduous and almost impossible task. The frontman of OneRepublic aired his concerns about the state of music today as he believes that “The odds of getting sued in this day are so high….because everything will be derivative of something else”.
8, M., 2018. Did The Verve STEAL Bitter Sweet Symphony?. s.l.:Middle 8.
Savage, M., 2019. The Bitter Sweet Symphony dispute is over. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-48380600
[Accessed 6 May 2020].
Tsioulcas, A., 2019. Not Bitter, Just Sweet: The Rolling Stones Give Royalties To The Verve. [Online]
Available at: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/23/726227555/not-bitter-just-sweet-the-rolling-stones-give-royalties-to-the-verve
[Accessed 6 May 2020].