It was one of Britpop’s finest moments…and one of music legal bureaucrats worst. The Verve hit #12 in the U.S. on the Billboard singles chart this day in 1998 with the wonderful “Bittersweet Symphony.”
While “Britpop” is rather an undefined and arguably irrelevant category, it’s been widely applied to just about any British pop band or artist of the ’90s who weren’t straight-forward rock nor easy listening. It was the defining movement of the decade there, but in the States, it took a back seat to grunge among other things, and by getting to #12, “Bittersweet Symphony” ranks as the penultimate Britpop single, behind only Oasis’ “Wonderwall”.
The song was one that had widespread and obvious appeal; as The Guardian term it, “a moody, existential anthem driven forward by a distinctive string motif.” Or, as allmusic put it, “astonishing.” It was helped along by a memorable video consisting of one camera watching the band’s singer, Richard Ashcroft as he walked along a London street for the full four-and-a-half minutes (about a minute and a half shorter than the album cut, by the way.) It was a highlight off the great album Urban Hymns, which allmusic rate a rare perfect 5-stars and which remains in the all-time top 20 sellers in their native land. After two albums and seven years, they’d clearly found their stride with it. The song would get nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Song (it lost to Alanis Morrissette) and a Brit Award for Single of the Year. It lost that too, to a ditty by All Saints, but they did take home trophies there for Best Album and Best Group.
Strangely, at the time they were recording, Ashcroft wasn’t crazy about it. Luckily, producer Youth (Martin Glover) was, and more or less demanded they keep it…and had the genius moment of adding something more to it. “It was only after we’d put strings on it that he started getting excited,” he recalls. Ahh, yes the strings.
The string bit he inserted was a little bit of Andrew Oldham’s orchestra playing the Rolling Stones “The Last Time.” The Verve and their record company thought they’d reached an appropriate and legal agreement to sample it, but Allen Klein jumped out of the woodwork and sued them. Klein had been the Stones’ manager around the time the original came out, and owned publishing rights to it. Now famously, he won the lawsuit, getting Keith Richards and Mick Jagger added to the writing credits and taking the lion’s share of the royalties from the smash. Richards’ joked it was the biggest hit he’d written since “Brown Sugar.”
Finally, in 2019, the “Glimmer Twins” over-ruled their one time boss, and Ashcroft announced “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 they are very happy for the writing credit to exclude them and all their royalties derived from the song they will pass to me.” There’s no report on how Mick and Keith managed to get Klein or his estate to agree, but as the manager had died years earlier, we must assume his descendants weren’t as greedy as he had been. Either way, Ashcroft is right calling the Stones’ duo “magnanimous.”
Those royalties will probably serve him well. Because The Verve were already considering splitting up while making Urban Hymns, the legal mess was likely the final straw that caused them to go their own ways. Ashcroft’s had a solo career since, which has been moderately popular but never coming close the popularity of this record.
While it missed the top 10 by a bit in the U.S., it managed to get to #5 in Canada, #3 in Ireland and #2 in the UK… remarkably it somehow missed being a weekly #1, but it still went 3X platinum there. Critically it was picked as the Song of the Year by both the NME and Rolling Stone. And maybe now, after all that legal stuff, people will get to be able to just enjoy it for what it was – one of the ’90s more majestic and timeless works.