“Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve was one of the most enduring alt-rock tracks of the late ’90s. It propelled the Wigan, U.K.-based band—fronted by vocalist/songwriter Richard Ashcroft—everywhere. And it also broke them up.
The hit song’s major hook was a sample from a version of the Rolling Stones’ song “The Last Time” that appeared on a collection of orchestral arrangements of the iconic band’s songs issued by the ABKCO label. While the Verve did get sample clearance, a contentious lawsuit from ABKCO Records’ owner/then-Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein claimed the band used a bigger portion of the song than what was cleared and successfully got the songwriting credits changed to add Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ names alongside Ashcroft.
According to Kembrew McLeod's book Freedom Of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies Of Creativity, “[The Verve] eventually settled out of court and handed over 100 percent of their songwriting royalties because it seemed cheaper than fighting for a legal ruling that might not end in their favor.”
When Ashcroft received an Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Contribution To British Music this evening, he announced that his managers made a personal and direct appeal to the Stones’ management company to give him credit. Jagger and Richards had no problems with the appeal, and according to a statement Ashcroft tweeted, “agreed to give me their share of the song,” thereby reverting songwriting royalties solely back to Ashcroft, However, Jagger and Richards still maintain publishing rights, a source told Variety.
In his statement at the awards show, Ashcroft said, “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.”
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was a massive success internationally for Ashcroft and the Verve, with the album Urban Hymns going gold in the U.S., double platinum in the United Kingdom and nearly 350 million streams on Spotify. The Verve broke up two years later (later regrouping in 2007 for the album Forth). But it was the massive response to Urban Hymns that got Ashcroft on the cover of AP 118 back in May 1998.
“The wounds were still very recent when I interviewed Richard back in 1998,” former AP Editor in chief Robert Cherry recalls. “It might have even been the first time he’d spoken to a magazine at length about the whole ordeal, and he was understandably very hot about it. At one point he said [Klein’s company] ABKCO is ‘dealing with a band they shouldn’t be fuckin’ messing with because they will suffer the consequences.’
“Looking back at his quotes, I’m also struck once again by his integrity, which he’s always maintained,” he continues. “He was more upset that the music was out of his control and could be used in ads—it soundtracked a Nike ad at the time—and therefore devalued; it wasn’t that he’d miss out on considerable royalties he was due.
“He said, ‘The only problem for me is the fact that we don’t have power over the track, and that it can be bastardized and used all over the world for anything. But you’ve got to move on, and you’ve got to see it as a product of our times, that no one has any respect for anything anyone makes or does.’”
In the story, Ashcroft told Cherry that he gave his share of the royalties from the Nike deal to charity. Cherry hints that maybe the universe is paying the singer back in ways completely unheard of in the music business. “The fact that Mick and Keith have finally made this gesture—showing respect for the artistry—is genuinely touching, and suggests some interesting character development at this late stage in their careers.”