01 May 2005

Bitter Sweet Symphony: the controversy


Bitter Sweet Symphony
Single Release - 16 June 1997 - UK
In 1997, The Verve achieved a major worldwide hit with “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The band negotiated a license to use a five-note sample from an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones' “The Last Time,” and received clearance from Decca Records.

After “Bitter Sweet Symphony” became a hit single, the group was sued by former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, and later, former Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.

This well-known legal controversy in The Verve's history is a curiosity among fans and lovers of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" alike.

The video below combines both history and audio samples to help the viewer understand what happened, and why "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is, according to Richard Ashcroft, the biggest Rolling Stones hit since "Brown Sugar."


In Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity, Kembrew McLeod writes that current copyright law has been taken over by corporate types and instead of promoting the creation of new work, it stifles it. 

Below is an excerpt from the section on The Verve:
By caving in to the demands of overzealous copyright bozos, you could end up like The Verve, a popular British band that scored a major worldwide hit in 1997 with “Bittersweet Symphony.” The Verve negotiated a license to use a five-note sample from an orchestral version of one of the Rolling Stones’ lesser hits, “The Last Time,” and received clearance from Decca Records (sound comparison here).

After “Bittersweet Symphony” became a hit single, the group was sued by former Stones manager Allen Klein (who owns the copyrights to the band’s pre-1970 songs because of aggressive business practices). He claimed the Verve broke the agreement when they supposedly used a larger portion than was covered in the license, something the group vehemently disputed.

The Verve layered nearly fifty tracks of instrumentation, including novel string arrangements, to create a distinctly new song. In fact, the song’s signature swirling orchestral melody was recorded and arranged by the Verve; the sample from the instrumental record is largely buried under other tracks in the chorus.

The band 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. As if things couldn’t have gotten worse, they were then sued by another old Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. Klein went after the Verve for infringing on the songwriting copyright, which he owned, but Oldham possessed the copyright on the sampled sound recording. They totally lost everything.

Not only couldn’t the Verve earn money from their biggest hit, they were stripped of control of their song. For instance, after the group refused Nike’s request to use “Bittersweet Symphony” in an ad, the shoe manufacturer aired the song after it purchased a license from Allen Klein.

“The last thing in the world I wanted was for one of my songs to be used in a commercial,” the despondent lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft said. “I’m still sick about it.” In one final kick in the groin, “Bittersweet Symphony” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Song category, which honors songwriters. Because the unfavorable settlement transferred the Verve’s copyright and songwriting credit to Klein and the Rolling Stones, the Grammy nomination went to “Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.”

Ashcroft quipped that it was “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years.” He then suffered from a nervous breakdown and the group eventually broke up.


David Whitaker: arranger of the Rolling Stones' Songbook

David Whitaker (left) and Andrew Loog Oldham (right) recording in 1964

David Whitaker wrote the original orchestral piece for "The Last Time," and received absolutely no credit during the legal challenge. If anyone, he, not Jagger/Richards, nor Andrew Loog Oldham, and certainly not Allen Klein, should have received credit for "Bitter Sweet Symphony."


Below is an excerpt from the 2015 book Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll by Fred Goodman (2015). Original link here. 

How Allen Klein Made the Rolling Stones Millions From "Bitter Sweet Symphony": Excerpt

Ever wonder how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got songwriting credit – and, more lucratively, full publishing rights – for the Verve’s massive 1997 hit "Bitter Sweet Symphony?"

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones and Transformed Rock and Roll, author Fred Goodman explains how the hard-nosed and controversial business manager negotiated “one final kill” on behalf of the Rolling Stones:

Klein had another odd win practically fall into his lap courtesy of the British rock band The Verve.

As Allen’s constant companion and longtime employee, Iris Keitel didn’t have to guess how he would react to a particular proposition or problem. When Jazz Summers, the manager of the British group the Verve, called in early 1997 to say the band wanted to get publishing clearance for a sample, Iris handled the situation. She told Summers that someone from the record company had already phoned and tried to low-ball ABKCO with an offer of 15 percent. “I’ve told him to f— off, Jazz,” she said. “We don’t like people stealing our music. I’ve spoken to Allen. We’re not going to agree to this.”

Indeed, Klein was ultraprotective. ABKCO was happy to support writers who wanted to collaborate with other artists, but he saw sampling as a dilution of a work’s viability and didn’t want to encourage people to use samples and then negotiate retroactively.

That was precisely what the Verve’s musicians were trying to do. In this case, the sample, used in a song entitled “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” was taken from an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” that had appeared on an album by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. The Verve had cleared the rights to sample the recording from Decca Records, but they hadn’t thought about getting permission for the underlying composition until after the fact. The irony was that the segment lifted from the Oldham recording didn’t sound a bit like the original Stones song, and the arranger who’d written the riff, David Whitaker, wasn’t even listed as a composer. As it stood, the credits for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” were shared between Verve vocalist Richard Ashcroft and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But the record couldn’t be released without the permission of Jagger and Richards’s publisher, ABKCO Music.

At a loss, Summers let his record company take a whack at it. Ken Berry, the head of EMI Records, came to New York and called on Klein. He played Klein the completed Verve album, Urban Hymns, which EMI’s Virgin label was betting would be a big hit. And “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was its obvious lead single. So Allen could appreciate how imperative it was that he grant a license.

“There’s no sampling of our music,” he said. “We just don’t believe in it.”

“Oh, f—,” said the head of EMI Records.

Klein let a day or two pass before calling Berry. He realized EMI and the band were in a bind, he said, and he was willing to make an exception to his rule and grant a license — if Ashcroft sold ABKCO his rights as lyricist and the company became the sole publisher of “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The bargain was made; Richard Ashcroft was paid a thousand dollars.

The deal was as unsparing as any in Klein’s career; he held all the cards, played them, and raked in the pot. When music photographer Mick Rock happened to call Klein that day to see how he was, it was obvious to him that Allen was enjoying himself. “I was very bad today,” he said.

The album did, in fact, become a hit, and the sampled riff in “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was a stadium-ready crowd pleaser that would prove extremely popular for use at sporting events. ABKCO actively exploited the composition, licensing it to be used in commercials around the world for various products, including Nike shoes and Opel automobiles. When the band decided the song was being overexposed and overused, they declined to license the original recording for any more commercials. As the publisher, ABKCO instead commissioned its own recordings for commercial use. To date, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” remains one of ABKCO’s best-earning compositions. For Klein, the old lion, it was the chance to linger over one last big kill. For Jagger and Richards, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” produced both a payday and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year — pretty good, considering they had nothing to do with it and it didn’t sound anything like what they’d actually written.


Songs on Trial: 10 Landmark Music Copyright Cases
for Rolling Stone, by Jordan Runtagh
June 8, 2016

The Verve vs. The Rolling Stones (1997)

"Bitter Sweet Symphony," by the Verve (1997) vs. "The Last Time," by the Rolling Stones (written by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) (1965)

The Case: The Verve had a major smash with their dreamy "Bittersweet Symphony." Vocalist Richard Ashcroft penned the song's lyrics, but the instrumental backing was partially sampled from a symphonic version of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time," recorded in 1965 by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. The band had originally agreed to license a five-note segment of the recording in exchange for 50 percent of the royalties, but former Rolling Stones' manager Allen Klein claimed the Verve voided the agreement by using a larger section than they agreed to use. ABKCO Records, Klein's holding company, filed a plagiarism suit on behalf of himself and "The Last Time" songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

The Verdict: The Verve forfeited all of the songwriting royalties and publishing rights to ABKCO, and the song credit reverted to Jagger and Richards. "We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split," recalled Verve bassist Simon Jones. "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."

Andrew Loog Oldham, another former Stones manager who owned the actual recording that was sampled, sued the band in 1999 for $1.7 million in mechanical royalties. In the end, the Verve lost all control of their biggest hit. It was used in a Nike commercial against their wishes, earning them no money and crushing their sense of artistic integrity. "I'm still sick about it," Ashcroft said in later years. The final insult came when "Bittersweet Symphony" was nominated for a "Best Song" Grammy – with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named on the ballot.

Why It Matters: The saga of "Bittersweet Symphony" can either be viewed as a cautionary tale or one of the most unjust chapters in musical copyright history. Though the Verve sampled a cover of a Rolling Stones' song, it was a portion written by orchestra arranger David Whitaker – who was not credited on any of the recordings.

Nike Experience Bittersweet For Verve

The Verve, Hollywood Records & More
Published: Feb 16, 1998 - Rolling Stone Online

If it were up to the Verve, Nike never would have received permission to use the band's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" as the cornerstone of the company's new multimillion-dollar ad campaign. But thanks to a tangled web of music-publishing rights, the Verve claim that the decision wasn't really theirs to make.

"The Verve are a rock band, and they don't think their music should be used to endorse things," says the group's manager, Jazz Summers.

Problems for the Verve arose, however, because the band does not control publishing rights to "Bitter Sweet Symphony." Since the song includes a sample of the Andrew Oldham Orchestra's version of the Rolling Stones song "The Last Time," ABKCO, which owns the copyrights to many early Stones tracks, took control of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" last year. That meant ABKCO could sell the song's rights to any advertiser willing to pay for it, and that the advertiser could then -- without the Verve's permission -- hire studio musicians to re-record a sound-alike.

Rather than allow that to happen, the band members decided to license their actual recording of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" to one major advertiser in the hopes that this would deter others from wanting to buy the publishing rights. In the end, Nike beat out Budweiser, Coca-Cola, General Motors and others for the sweeping hit single.

Nike's sixty-second spot -- a stylish, cinematic salute to athletic determination -- is just the latest in a cascade of commercials utilizing pop music to sell everything from shoes to cars to computers. Among others in heavy rotation: Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" (Toyota), David Bowie's "Heroes" (Microsoft), the Who's "I Can't Explain" (Ford), Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Our House" (Chase Bank) and Erykah Badu's "On and On" (Levi's).

And the price to license these songs isn't cheap; most hits go for $250,000 or more. Nike paid $700,000 for "Bitter Sweet Symphony," but the band received only $175,000, while ABKCO pocketed $350,000. (The Verve are donating their share to the Red Cross Land Mine Appeal; they're asking ABKCO to do the same.)

Not that the Verve haven't benefited from the ads. Two weeks after the Nike commercial debuted, during the NFL playoffs, the Verve's Urban Hymns jumped thirty-four spots on the Billboard 200, hitting Number Thirty-six, the album's highest point since its release last September. Summers concedes that the ad may help generate the Verve's U.S. breakthrough: "If this music is being played during football games and 20 million people are listening to it for a minute, it's going to have an effect."

And a higher chart position is not all they got. "In our final negotiations with the band's manager, he was asking if [the Verve] could get tickets for the World Cup," says Nike's Mark Thomashow. So the band will be heading to Paris this summer for some soccer matches? "I said, 'Whatever it takes,' " says Thomashow.
  • For more on the legal controversy and all related news click here.
  • Updated: January 7, 2018