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Bittersweet Symphony: A Cautionary Tale


Bittersweet Symphony:

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.

But then...

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.<