The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”: Why copyright laws need to be updated and honed for the digital age

How many readers remember what happened to songwriter Richard Ashcroft?  Ashcroft was the leader of the UK based band The Verve back in the 1990s. They had a monster hit in 1997 with the song “Bittersweet Symphony“, a song that continues to be considered a radio “gold standard”, getting airplay on thousands of stations around the world every week. A song which used a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time”. There was a HUGE brouhaha over whether or not the sample was licensed, and so Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were added to the songwriting credits.  And longtime rights troll extraordinaire Allen Klein caused even more issues. Now it has come out that the Stones did not in fact write their own song..and Ashcroft,  after over TWENTY YEARS of having his royalties confiscated, is finally being paid again. And this is a story which completely points out WHY we need COMPLETE and TOTAL copyright reform, including, IMHO, complete rules for Fair Use as LAW, not just theoretical doctrine. Here’s the full story from TechDirt’s Mike Masnick:


For all of the traditional recording industry’s claims of how important copyright is for “supporting artists,” the most egregious examples of legacy industry folks screwing artists over tend to involve copyright — and especially cases involving sampling. The law around sampling is particularly stupid, and has been for decades. Musicians can pay a compulsory license to cover a song, but if you just want to sample a bit, that’s a whole different story. And even if you try to do it right… well, copyright will fuck you over. Perhaps the most egregious example is what happened with the Verve’s hit song Bittersweet Symphony. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past two decades, you’ve heard this song. And you may have heard variations on the story of how it used a sample from the Rolling Stones, who were then credited as co-songwriters, giving them a cut of the publishing (which has become a common practice these days when songs are sampled). At least that was the story I initially heard years back. But the full story is truly despicable, and it’s back in the news now because, more than two decades later (also, two decades too late), the Rolling Stones have given back the rights. We’ll get to that in a second. Because the background here is worth understanding.

There are a few different versions of the story floating around — and not all of the details match. But at the very least, the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft wrote the song Bittersweet Symphony, and the recording used a barely noticeable sample of a recording by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. That recording was an orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones’ song The Last Time. Andrew Oldham had been an early manager of the Stones, and the Andrew Oldham Orchestra was a side project (that sometimes involved the Stones themselves). The sample that the Verve wanted for Bittersweet Symphony wasn’t even the same as the Rolling Stones song. It was part of the original arrangement for the Oldham Orchestra, apparently done by composer David Whitaker, who is credited in none of this. Also, the opening violin solo that is so iconic and so identified with Bittersweet Symphony is not actually from that sample. It was done by the Verve themselves, designed to flow right into it the part with the sample.

Oh, and here’s the real kicker: the Rolling Stones totally copied the song “The Last Time” in the first place — from a 1955 gospel track by the Staple Singers, called This May Be The Last Time, which itself was based on some traditional gospel songs. The Rolling Stones nowadays totally admit they copied the Staple Singers song. Keith Richards said:

“We didn’t find it difficult to write pop songs, but it was VERY difficult – and I think Mick will agree – to write one for the Stones. It seemed to us it took months and months and in the end we came up with The Last Time, which was basically re-adapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time. I think I was trying to learn it on the guitar just to get the chords, sitting there playing along with the record, no gigs, nothing else to do. At least we put our own stamp on it, as the Staple Singers had done, and as many other people have before and since: they’re still singing it in churches today. It gave us something to build on to create the first song that we felt we could decently present to the band to play…”

So… the Stones copy a recorded version of a traditional song, and then their manager makes an orchestral version of that song, arranged by David Whitaker. A few decades later, the Verve comes up with Bittersweet Symphony, and correctly licenses the sound recording from Decca Records. However, as the song was coming out, another former Rolling Stones manager, Allen Klein, who owned all the publishing rights on early Stones’ recordings, insisted that they needed to license the composition as well, which he controlled. But, of course, remember, the “composition” that Klein controlled was basically a cover of a public domain gospel song (and the Stones’ lyrics). But none of that was what the Verve was using. It was using Whitaker’s arrangement and Oldham’s recording (properly licensed from Decca).

Klein claimed that he hated sampling and basically refused to do a deal. Klein completely brushed off the Verve’s manager, and then the head of EMI went to try to convince Klein to cut some sort of deal. From a book about Klein

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.”

It actually gets worse. The initial deal was a 50/50 split on royalties with Richard Ashcroft. But soon after the song was released and was clearly becoming a huge megahit, Klein insisted that the sample was actually longer than what the band had licensed (the band has always insisted this was false). Klein said the deal for the license was voided, and sued for copyright infringement. Facing a huge expensive legal fight, the band caved and agreed to hand over all of the publishing royalties.

And it gets worse. After watching all of this go down, Andrew Oldham (the other former Stones’ manager who had recorded the track that was actually sampled) also sued the band, insisting that while they had licensed the sample, they hadn’t paid the mechanical licenses. As we’ve discussed before, with music there are many, many different licenses at play. The band settled with him as well and, years later, Oldham was still mocking the Verve and Ashcroft for the whole thing.

“As for Richard Ashcroft, well, I don’t know how an artist can be severely damaged by that experience. Songwriters have learned to call songs their children, and he thinks he wrote something. He didn’t. I hope he’s got over it. It takes a while,” Loog Oldham added.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

As for Klein, he also seemed to get perverse pleasure in screwing the Verve and Ashcroft:

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.

And then, he too decided to add insult to injury. When Ashcroft didn’t want the song used in TV commercials, Klein took matters into his own hands:

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.

So, yes, it’s “great” that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have now agreed to voluntarily hand over their share of the royalties on the song to Ashcroft, decades too late. But this whole story is a total travesty and a demonstration of how copyright is not just used corruptly, but to lock up the public domain and to steal from actual creators.


This story originally appeared on Techdirt,com under the title “A True Story Of ‘Copyright Piracy’: Why The Verve Will Only Start Getting Royalties Now For Bittersweet Symphony”, May 28 2019

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