Behind the Meaning of the Song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

In the history of songs and song controversies, the story of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the British-born band The Verve is right up there—perhaps maybe even at the tippy-top.

Not the be confused with the American rock band in the 1990s, The Verve Pipe, which contributed the hit song “The Freshman,” the U.K. band, The Verve, was an English rock group that formed in 1990. Led by vocalist Richard Ashcroft, the band rose to fame with the 1997 single “Bitter Sweet Symphony” from the album Urban Hymns.

That album was one of the best-selling records in U.K. history. And its hit single was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song. But the band disbanded in 1999, citing internal conflicts, ranging from arguments to drug problems and lawsuit issues. The band reunited in June 2007, even embarking on a tour.

Their Biggest Hit

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was released on June 16, 1997. It was the first single from the band’s album Urban Hymns.

The song, though, is based on a sample from the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral cover of The Rolling Stones’ track “The Last Time.” As such, there was a great deal of legal controversy surrounding a plagiarism charge associated with the strings sample that props up the song.

The result of the legal controversy was that The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were added to the songwriting credits of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and all the royalties from the song went to former Stones manager, Allen Klein.

In 2019, however, Jagger and Richards ceded their rights to the song to Ashcroft. (More below.)

1997

“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” with its swelling strings and sticky hook became one of the biggest songs of the 1990s. It was a defining track in the Britpop era, that also highlighted bands like Blur and Oasis.

The song’s music video, which featured Ashcroft walking down a busy sidewalk in East London, became ubiquitous on channels like MTV. The song was nominated for numerous awards. Later, in 1999, the song became the signature song in the uber-popular teen movie Cruel Intentions.

Said music producer and Paul McCartney bandmate, Youth, who worked on the song: “This was certainly the most successful track I’ve done. I think Richard [Ashcroft] had actually cut a version with John Leckie, but by the time I came on board, he didn’t want to do the song. I persuaded him to have a go at cutting a version but at first, he wasn’t really into it. It was only once we’d put strings on it that he started getting excited. Then, towards the end, Richard wanted to chuck all the album away and start again. What was my reaction? Horror. Sheer horror. All I could say was, I really think you should reconsider.”

The Strings Sample

The strings riff that runs throughout the song is its signature aspect that came from a sample of the 1965 Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of The Rolling Stones’ song, “The Last Time.”

That orchestral riff was arranged and written by David Whitaker. But The Stones’ song was strongly inspired by the Staple Singers’ song, “This May Be the Last Time.”

The controversy came, however, when The Verve negotiated rights to use the five-note sample of the riff from the recording’s copyright holder, Decca Records. But the band sadly did not obtain permission from The Stones’ manager, Allen Klein, who owned the copyrights to the band’s pre-1970 songs. This included—yes—”The Last Time.”

Although “Bitter Sweet Symphony” had already been released publicly, Klein refused to grant a license for the sample. This led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, which was Klein’s holding company. That suit was settled out of court and The Verve relinquished all royalties to Klein and the songwriting credits were changed to Jagger-Richards.

Ashcroft received $1,000 for completely relinquishing rights.

Said The Verve’s bass player, Simon Jones, “We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice.”

Added Ashcroft sarcastically, “This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years.” It was the biggest hit attributed to The Rolling Stones since their track “Brown Sugar.”

Offered Keith Richards in 1999, “I’m out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”

2019

In May of 2019, Ashcroft received the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors.

At that ceremony, he revealed there were new negotiations in the works with Klein’s son, Jody, and The Rolling Stones’ manager Joyce Smith. Ashcroft said that the issue had been settled.

He said, “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. I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It’s been a fantastic development. It’s life-affirming in a way.”

Cold Play, 2005

On July 2, 2005, at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London, Coldplay invited Ashcroft to perform the song with them during their set. The group of musicians played it after just one rehearsal. At the time, Ashcroft was introduced by Chris Martin as “the best singer in the world.” Martin described the song as “probably the best song ever written.”

Lyrics

The song is about the beautiful, tragic moments of life. From our adherence to money and capitalism to our constant confusion and our need for love and acceptance.

Sings Ashcroft,

Cause it’s a bitter sweet symphony, this life.
Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money and then you die.
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down.

Covers

Since its release, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” has been covered by countless artists, including Kelly Clarkson, John Mayer, and just recently, Liz Phair and Lisa Loeb.

Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

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