The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony

I really liked this song when it was released in 1997. Unfortunately what it’s remembered for is the royalties and credit that The Verve lost. Lead singer Richard Ashcroft wrote the lyrics but the credits also included Jagger and Richards. Allen Klein owned the publishing rights on all of the Stones songs until 1969.

The song peaked at #12 in the Billboard 100 and #2 in the UK in 1997. The trouble started when the Verve wanted to use a sample,  an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” that had appeared on an album by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. It sounded nothing like The Last Time and was written by the arranger.

According to the book Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll, it states that The Verve’s manager offered Klein 15% of the publishing to obtain the rights for the sample. Klein turned him down flat, and when he realized that the Verve were sitting on a hit record they couldn’t release without a deal, he insisted on 100% of the publishing. The Verve gave in, since they really had no choice. Richard Ashcroft, who wrote the lyric, was given a flat fee of $1,000 and had to sign away his rights. “I was put under duress to sign away one of the greatest songs of all time.”

The end result was Klein make an enormous profit on the song every time it was purchased or used in a TV show, movie or commercial. Jagger and Richard still owned a percentage and their name was placed on the song. Jagger and Richards had both a payday and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year which they had nothing to do with.

But there is a good ending. In 2019 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing for Bitter Sweet Symphony, which was the right thing for them to do. Jody Klein (Klein’s son) was part of the process.

Richard Ashcroft said this right after this happened:

It gives me great pleasure to announce as of last month Mick Jagger and Keith Richards agreed to give me their share of the song Bitter Sweet Symphony. This remarkable and life affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith, who have also agreed that they are happy for the writing credit to exclude their names and all their royalties derived from the song they will now pass to me.

I would like to thank the main players in this, my management Steve Kutner and John Kennedy, the Stones manager Joyce Smyth and Jody Klein (for actually taking the call) lastly a huge unreserved heartfelt thanks and respect to Mick and Keith.

From Songfacts

At this point in his career, Ashcroft had learned that money and happiness were not synonymous. “People have been sold a lottery dream in life that money solves everyone’s problems,” he said in a Songfacts interview. “Suddenly you’re looking at people and you’re thinking: ‘I know they need X but if I give X then that relationship that should have died years ago is going to carry on and spoil.’ It opens up a myriad of things that you would never normally be thinking about, responsibilities on a new level.”

The famous orchestral riff incorporates a sample from an obscure instrumental version of the 1965 Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” by Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who included it on a 1966 album called The Rolling Stones Songbook (credited to The Andrew Oldham Orchestra). The Verve got permission to use the six-second sample from Decca Records, which owned the Oldham recording, but they also needed permission from the publisher of “The Last Time,” something they didn’t realize until after the album was completed.

So, with Urban Hymns ready to go and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” slated as the first single, Verve manager Jazz Summers tried to secure those rights, which belonged to Allen Klein’s company ABKCO. The Rolling Stones signed a very lopsided contract with Klein, who was their manager, early in their career, and had to make huge concessions in order to get out of it. Part of the deal gave Klein the publishing rights to all of the Stones’ songs they recorded through 1969.

“Try to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money, then you die”

Ashcroft’s father, Frank, was an office clerk, a dissatisfying job that earned him enough to get by. He died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 1982 when Richard was 11 and his sisters, Victoria and Laura, were very young.

“He worked nine to five and got nowhere,” Ashcroft told Select. “I immediately realized that wasn’t the life for me.”

The sample used in this song is one of many layers that make up the track. The opening section of the song isn’t a sample – it was arranged by Wil Malone – although it was based on those notes.

Nike used this in commercials as part of their 1998 “I Can” campaign, showing everyday athletes practicing with determination. The Verve were dead set against using their songs in commercials, but they didn’t control the publishing rights to this song: Allen Klein’s ABKCO company did. When ABKCO authorized the song, it gave Nike the right to re-record it with other musicians, so The Verve agreed to let their original recording be used so that wouldn’t happen.

Lyrically, the song stands in stark opposition to the sneaker-selling corporate monolith, but Nike used just the instrumental portion, which was in high demand, as Coca-Cola, Budweiser, and other big companies were vying to use it.

The Verve were reportedly paid $175,000, with ABKCO receiving much more. The group donated the money to the Red Cross Land Mine Appeal.

After the ad started running, the Urban Hymns album got a nice sales bump in America, giving the band lots of additional exposure in that country.

In Europe, the song was used under similar circumstances around the same time in ads for the car company Vauxhall.

This was the only American hit for The Verve, but they were far more popular in their native UK, where their next single, “The Drugs Don’t Work,” went to #1. The band broke up in 1999 and reformed in 2007, releasing the album Forth in 2008. Their previous albums were:

A Northern Soul – Released in 1995, it has a darker side.
A Storm In Heaven – Released in 1993, a psychedelic rocker.
No Come Down – A collection of the B-sides from A Storm in Heaven, released in 1994.

After Urban Hymns, their lead singer, Richard Ashcroft, launched a successful solo career. 

Did you catch the play on words in the title?: Bitter Suite Symphony.

The video shows Ashcroft bumping into people as he walks down Hoxton Street, a crowded shopping area in London. It was inspired by the video for Massive Attack’s 1991 song “Unfinished Sympathy,” which was showed the singer walking down a street in a similar manner. The clip was directed by Walter Stern, who also did Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” promo.

Had The Verve retained publishing rights to this song, there’s a good chance it never would have become a hit in America. That’s because they wouldn’t have allowed it to be used in the Nike commercial, which is what introduced the song there.

The Verve tried to break into the American market in 1992 when they staged a publicity stunt, playing their song “A Man Called Sun” for a few hours from the back of a flatbed truck driving around New York City. But they couldn’t break through in America and put little effort into promoting Urban Hymns there.

When Nike started airing the commercial (it debuted during the NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers on January 11, 1998), radio stations added “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to their playlists, and MTV put the video in rotation. But the song wasn’t released as a single in America until March 10, when it had already peaked in popularity. It debuted at #13 on the Hot 100, peaked at #12 a week later and gradually climbed down the chart over the next 18 weeks.

Because this sampled the song from The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got composer credits along with Richard Ashcroft. Upset that he lost the royalties, Ashcroft said this was “The best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years.”

This is featured at the pivotal end scene in the 1999 movie Cruel Intentions, where after Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) dies, his stepsister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) gets her comeuppance. It is meant to portray Sebastian’s ups and downs in life: Kathryn’s cruel antics that nearly destroyed him and the beautiful girl (Reese Witherspoon) who showed him how to love and redeemed his life.

According to producer Neal Moritz, the song cost nearly a million dollars to clear, about 10% of their budget. When they found out the cost, they tried many other songs in its place, but none had the same impact. 

We have yet to find an explanation why, but the Seattle Seahawks football team has been using this as their theme song since the mid-’00s. The song is certainly not a typical sports anthem, and has nothing to do with Seattle – a city with a rich musical history and many homegrown songs that seem more appropriate.

The Seahawks play the song when coming on to the field, so it could be heard at the three Super Bowls the team made: a loss to the Steelers in 2006, a win against the Broncos in 2014, and a loss to the Patriots in 2015 (the Pats came out to “Crazy Train”).

Details of the legal tussle surrounding this song aren’t clear-cut, as there was no court case to get it on record. It appears that David Whitaker, who did the string arrangement on the orchestral version of “The Last Time” that was sampled, got nothing. Andrew Loog Oldham, who produced that version, got in on the action after “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was released, and it’s unclear if he got a settlement.

As for the publishing rights to the “The Last Time,” those were administrated by ABKCO, but Allen Klein apparently was not the sole owner. According to an article in Mojo magazine, Klein got 9/24ths of the publishing, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards split 9/24ths, and 3/24ths went to Westminster Publishing, who were the Stones publishers early on. The takeaway here is that Jagger and Richards profited from the deal in a big way, which explains why they never had much to say about the lawsuit.

Another wrinkle: “The Last Time” is very similar to a 1955 song by The Staple Singers called “This May Be The Last Time,” but The Stones claimed it as their own.

In a statement released on May 23, 2019, Richard Ashcroft announced that Jagger and Richards had given him back “Bitter Sweet Symphony” royalties and The Stones duo also had their writing credits removed. The announcement coincided with Ashcroft receiving the Outstanding Contribution To British Music prize at the Ivor Novello Awards. Ashcroft says he can finally enjoy the song when he hears it played at football matches.

Bitter Sweet Symphony

Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life
Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die.
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet, yeah.
No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change,
but I’m here in my mold, I am here in my mold.
But I’m a million different people from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

Well I never pray,
But tonight I’m on my knees, yeah.
I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah.
I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now.
But the airwaves are clean and there’s nobody singing to me now.

No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change,
But I’m here in my mold, I am here in my mold.
And I’m a million different people from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

(Well have you ever been down?)
(I can’t change, I can’t change)

Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life.
Trying to make ends meet, trying to find some money then you die.
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet, yeah.
No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change,
but I’m here in my mold, I am here in my mold.
But I’m a million different people from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

It justs sex and violence melody and silence
It justs sex and violence melody and silence (I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down)
It’s just sex and violence melody and silence
It’s just sex and violence melody and silence
It’s just sex and violence melody and silence (I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down)
(It’s just sex and violence melody and silence)Been down
(Ever been down)
(Ever been down)
(Ever been down)
(Ever been down)
(Ever been down)

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

20 thoughts on “The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony”

      1. Yeah it was completely the right thing to happen. When the story first dropped I was like ‘which stones song is it meant to be copying!!’ Still baffles me. The tracks are so so different

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I thought the same thing…That is the catch dude…the arranger wrote it for an orchestration album of their songs…I’m not sure how he got there from “The Last Time”….Mick and Keith had nothing to do with it. So they sampled from someone’s vision of “The Last Time”

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This story. Thankfully, Ashcroft was strong enough to weather the extended beatdown. I hurts to say it, but I’m deeply disappointed in Keith and Mick. They knew Klein’s character, and they had the power to make this fair from the start, but instead they shrank back into the corner and let Klein’s deeds play out for two freaking decades.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean. I was happy to hear that Klein’s son was at least willing to work it out. Maybe there is hope for him. What is so frustrating is that Mick and Keith didn’t even write what they sampled.

      In the mid 90s when MIcrosoft wanted Start Me Up…Mick and Keith were going to give them a live version so they would get more of the royalities. MIcrosoft wouldn’t budge…they couldn’t have had that bad of money problems.

      They should have never took credit for this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, kudos to Klein’s son, I suppose. It taints Mick and Keith’s image for me, and that’s so disappointing. They didn’t do it when they were young and inexperienced. They were old, wise and rich, when they played along with Klein’s shakedown and accepted the fruits of a young artist’s creation.


  2. A great song – the standout tune from an all-round excellent album. I don’t think it quite fit the “Britpop” mold, but if you consider it that, it to me was up there with Pulp’s “Different Class” as the best of that genre in the 90s.
    Glad Ashcroft finally got the writing credit back. Seemed like it was Klein and maybe Oldman who were the villains in it, Keith Richards always said he had no part of it and didn’t want the credit or money (I think he also joked ‘that’s the biggest hit I’ve written since Paint it Black’)… I suppose they could have negotiated to buy back their own song rights THEN donate it to the Verve but it was really a greedy manager who knew too much law to blame.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad Klein’s son saw to it…it was done. At least he showed more compassion than his dad.
      Mick and Keith did make quite a bit off of the record because they owned a certain percentage. What is odd is…they didn’t even write that part…it was an arranger.


  3. I enjoyed watching the video as I was wondering if he was going to get jumped. In real life he would have been beaten up! I do love the hypnotic quality to the song. Shocking story about stolen fortune then returned to the rightful owner.

    Liked by 1 person

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