Bittersweet Symphony: A Cautionary Tale
As subjective an opening statement as this is; I think most people are at least vaguely aware that The Verve's massive 1997 hit song 'Bittersweet Symphony' had at least 'something' to do with the Rolling Stones. But far fewer people are aware of the real story behind it, or the exact nature of the link between the song and the Stones, or how it cost The Verve...well everything. So allow me to tell the sorry tale as best I can.
Back in 1997 when The Verve were writing and recording the song, and encountering a little creative plateau; producer Youth (Martin Glover), suggested to Richard Ashcroft and co. that perhaps the inspiration they were looking for might come from layering in this little orchestral string sample he'd found. Ashcroft; feeling frustrated that the song wasn't quite coming together yet, agreed. This did indeed fire creativity once more, and powered the song down the home straight (so to speak). The sample in question came from a slightly obscure (at least in mid 1990s terms), 1960's recording by The Andrew Oldham Orchestra. The recording in question was an 'Orchestral Pop' arrangement of The Rolling Stones' song 'The Last Time'. This hugely re-imagined arrangement of the song was actually written by the Oldham orchestra's primary arranger David Whitaker. Whitaker incidentally, has never been officially credited, or properly remunerated for his original artistic efforts, considering the immense revenue that was to be generated from his work as a result of it finding its way into Bittersweet Symphony. Ironically, it could be argued that if you were not told Whitaker's arrangement was indeed based on 'The Last Time', you may not even realise it. In any case, if anyone can lay claim to writing the part of Bittersweet Symphony that The Verve didn't write themselves, it's Whitaker.
I digress, but remember this one hugely important point:
The string sample that the The Verve used in their song came from a massively rearranged, re-written, half tempo 're-interpretation' of a Rolling Stones song, arranged by David Whitaker for The Andrew Oldham Orchestra, not the original Stones song itself.
It is also worth noting that Oldham himself was the Stones' manager/producer at the time the arrangement was written, which was why he had access to produce the Stones songbook in Orchestral Pop style in the first place.
Of course, it was still a sample/idea from someone else's recorded work, and proper permissions for its usage had to be sought. In accordance with good practice and procedure; Decca granted them the use of the Oldham/Whitaker sample, and all seemed well.
However, it wasn't until after the single was completed that anyone thought that maybe, just maybe they needed to get clearance from ABKCO as well. ABKCO controlled the interest of the original Stones song (the underlying 'inspiration' for the orchestral version remember). This seems to be the wellspring from which all of the ensuing calamity and greed would appear. There were after all, very tangible creative degrees of separation from the original Stones song, and the Oldham/Whitaker sample actually used by The Verve.
So permission was asked...
...and ABKCO immediately said "No!"
With understandable urgency, EMI head honcho Ken Berry was dispatched to the USA post haste to meet with the head of ABKCO to discuss the matter in person. The head of ABKCO was of course Allen Klein.....yes, that guy.
For those that have never heard of Allen Klein, well go look him up, this is not a man to trifle with, especially in legal wrangling over monies...just ask The Beatles.
Finally, and quite uncharacteristically (after refusing again and again), Klein eventually agreed to issue a licence on a 50/50 revenue split basis, and once again all seemed well, hurrah! Back on track.
After the song started to become a big hit; Klein (surprise surprise), decreed that the band were actually in breach of their licence agreement by using more of the Oldham/Whitaker arrangement than had been agreed, and sued the band.
Now, let's pause here for just a moment and analyse Klein's grounds for suing:
OK, it would seem Mr. Klein objected on the grounds of the Verve track's signature top line (the string hook that everybody hums), being lifted wholesale from the Oldham recording, and therefore in breach of the licence which was for a smaller or less significant portion of the song. To my ears (and I am admittedly not a qualified Musicologist), the Verve top line does not actually appear definitively and unquestionably in the Oldham/Whitaker arrangement (and of course not at all in the original Stones recording). However, one can argue that It is at the very least well hinted at. It's almost there, very very nearly, and perhaps Ashcroft and co. merely joined some very obvious dots. Imagine if you will, the string hook you know from Bittersweet Symphony, but instead of it being a steady symphonic string sound playing the entire phrase; the notes of the line were divided between three or four different instruments with contrasing timbres. This is kind of what we get with the Oldham/Whitaker arrangement when compared directly to The Verve.
On a personal note; I do wonder if the fact that the Verve string line is now so very ingrained in our collective psyche; that it is possible that when listening to the relatively less familiar Oldham/Whitaker arrangement; one's ear may even be helping fill in the blanks to a degree too.
I have actually had some personal experience with this in my own career, when a label I was writing for took me to task over possible plagiarism, only to admit under closer analysis that the drum hook in my composition was simply reminding them of the bass line in a famous recording, and that no plagiarism at all was occurring.
In any case, you take my point.
Klein obviously felt it was more than had been agreed, and sued the band for plagiarism. The galling thing here, is that unless I'm missing any pieces of the puzzle; there is really no way Klein couldn't have already heard the finished track during the negotiations for the original licence, and knew how much of the Oldham/Whitaker arrangement was present. His silence at that time regarding any apparent term breaking is at the very least, shall we say....interesting. Seems to me that The Verve walked innocently into a trap of Klein's making. It was a win/win scenario for him. But I'm sure no crafty gamesmanship was at work here at all, not at all Allen Klein's style....erm, moving on.
The Verve, their management, and label decided to settle out of court, as they really didn't want to get into a what could be a terrible and financially catastrophic legal battle with the infamous Klein.
The unfair settlement:
So what did Klein want? 60%? 75%? 90%?! No, he wanted everything. Yup, everything...EVERYTHING!
I'll say that one more time in bold: He sued for 100%
Yes, the man wanted 100% of the writing (for Jagger and Richards, and as much of the broadcast and mechanical royalties as could be grabbed up by ABKCO.
Yup, total, complete and utter ownership of Bittersweet Symphony in its entirety....and that's what he got.
That's what they still have now over twenty years later.
To this day, Bittersweet Symphony has two and only two credited writers: Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, with Klein's ABKCO picking up a third of the publishing.
This is a portion of the work entry for the song from PRS/MCPS database this week:
It is interesting to note that the Wikipedia page on Bittersweet Symphony is incorrect in stating that Ashcroft still has a writing credit. As you can see from the above pic, he does not. Not in terms of royalty ownership anyway.
As I have now hopefully explained; this creative 'ownership' of Bittersweet Symphony is so tenuous as to represent a pretty terrible example of the powerful exercising control over the powerless on not much more than a technicality.
At this juncture (and in case anyone still thinks Jagger, Richards, and Klein are still somewhat on the side of 'right'), it is important to point something further about their 'original' song (The Last Time).
If you, dear reader go right now and find a 1961 album by American Gospel group The Staple Singers called 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' (you can even find it on Spotify these days), you will find a song on there called 'This May Be The Last Time' (my that sounds familiar).
Yes, that's right boys and girls, the Stones 'original' song is actually not quite what it seems. Or at least, it took a pre-existing idea...and a title, and a lyric), and heavily built on it to create a new song.
It's funny, because Jagger and Richards don't seem to think what they did to The Staple Singers was a problem. Yet for twenty odd years, they have seen their already abundant coffers swollen with 100% of the fruits of someone else coming along and doing pretty much the exact same thing to them (in fact arguably less egregiously, as no lyrics were taken from the Stones song at all, and the borrowed sample was not from the Stones song recording itself as I have already explained).
Did Jagger and Richards throw some wedge to the Staple Singers to say 'thanks'? Well, maybe (the last time) I don't know (sic). It certainly leaves one heck of a shitty stank on the whole mess though doesn't it?
To add insult to injury. Once under his control; Klein immediately began whoring Bittersweet Symphony out to just about anyone who wanted to use it as the backdrop to their shitty ad campaign. Ashcroft and co. could do nothing but sit back and watch their greatest folly being used to hock everything from fizzy drinks to high-street banks, and do so in the gut wrenching frustration that not a single penny of that advertising lucre would be coming directly their way...ever.
Both Jagger and Richards have been disappointingly evasive about it when quizzed ("that's serious lawyer shit man" - Richards), with only Oldham (who also sued for mechanical royalties), being positively nasty and dismissive about Ashcroft's artistic credentials and input into the song. This, despite his own total lack of artistic/creative involvement in the composition with his name on it.
So this, friends is the bitter story of Bittersweet Symphony as best and true as I can tell it.
What can we learn from all of this? Well, many things I guess. Not the least of which is to make sure that sample licenses are iron-clad before crossing the Rubicon.
It also teaches us a rather sad and distasteful lesson; that there is no limit to the depths of greed already supremely wealthy people can plummet to if given half a chance, and a quarter of a reason.
Richard Ashcroft, I salute you sir - May glory and vindication await you if not in this dimension, then in the next. I'm really sorry this happened to you man.
Benjamin J. Pegley - June 2018