April 4 – Happy Ending To Verve’s Bittersweet Story

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.

October 11 – A Rival To Oasis For Kings Of ’90s Manchester Sound

Blimey, people fancied a bit o’ Cool Britannia 24 years ago, wot? In the UK, one of the decade’s biggest albums hit #1 this day in 1997Urban Hymns by The Verve. It had only been out two weeks at the time. Doing so, it knocked the biggest of the “Britpop” bands out of the top spot (Oasis with their third album, Be Here Now) before being displaced itself by perhaps the quintessential British sensation of the decade, the Spice Girls, five weeks later.

The Verve, like Oasis, were a Manchester band formed around the beginning of the decade. It was largely the musical vehicle for singer/songwriter and sometimes guitarist Richard Ashcroft, who blended bits of straight ahead Beatle-sque pop with elements of psychedelia and soul to fashion their own sound. They’d had modest success at home with their first two albums, A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul, but nothing had prepared them, or the music world, for the breakout success Urban Hymns would enjoy. However, given the popularity of Britpop at the time, and the strength of about half the songs on the lengthy (13 songs, 75 minutes) album, maybe it shouldn’t have surprised anybody.

They had added in a fifth member for the album, guitarist Simon Tong, giving them three different guitarists, surprising for a band that was far from a head-banger one. And they had well-respected producer Youth (aka Martin Glover of Killing joke) come in to help them produce the record. Singles “The Drugs Don’t Work”, “Sonnet” and “Lucky Man” all were great pieces, but it was really the lead single that kicked the record into the musical stratosphere.

They can thank – and curse – Youth for that. “Bittersweet Symphony”, which became a massive worldwide hit was a song Ashcroft had written but didn’t really like. But the producer did, and convinced him to keep the recording. He also made the fateful decision to add a little bit of orchestral strings to the sound. “It was only once we’d put the strings on it that (Ashcroft) started getting excited,” Youth recalled. They really added another dimension to the already classy-sounding song, but the problem was, they were samples of Andrew Oldham’s orchestra playing an old Rolling Stones song. Even though they thought they had a legal agreement in place both Oldham and Stones’ manager Allen Klein would end up suing The Verve for plagiarism. It was a long and complicated case, but in the end, The Verve got very little money for the hit single and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were added to the song as songwriters, even though they wanted no part of the lawsuit.

Money-maker of not, “Bittersweet Symphony” got the band attention, and the whole album won good reviews upon release. The Guardian at the time gave them a 5-star rating and Melody Maker called it “an album of unparalleled beauty”. Over here, Entertainment Weekly – not one to sing the praises of Britpop readily – gave it a “B+”, saying it was “surprising – and stunning…crooner Richard Ashcroft makes it all sound like church-worthy gospel!”.

It won over the masses, particularly the home ones. The album got to #15 in Canada and #23 in the U.S., hitting platinum in both countries on the strength of the hit single. However, in the UK, that song and “Lucky Man” were both top 10 hits and “The Drugs Don’t Work” was a #1. Ashcroft told journalists at the time that song was largely confessional. “That’s how I’m feeling…they make me worse, man. But I still take ’em out of boredom.” Boredom wasn’t something the fans were feeling listening to Urban Hymns. After the Spice Girls briefly topped it on the charts, it would return to #1 for seven more weeks in 1998. Eventually it won them the Brit Award for Album of the Year and Ashcroft an Ivor Novello Award for best songwriter. It sold well past three million copies in the UK, going 11X platinum, making it the second-most popular “Britpop” release ever, behind the cross-town lads What’s the Story, Morning Glory? And ranking it among the 20 biggest-sellers there of all-time.

The stint on top of the world was brief for them though; they’d split up within a couple more years and after a few short reunions and one later, modestly popular album, they split up for good in 2009.

March 3 – The Bittersweet Story Of A Number 1 Smash

A song with a “bittersweet” backstory involving lawsuits. The Verve release their biggest single by far, “Bittersweet Symphony” in North America (a few months after it was out in the UK) this day in 1998. In Britain, where they were already popular, it was massive. In North America, where they’d been unknown, the song hit top 5 in charts, helped the Urban Hymns album it came off be certified platinum in the U.S. while it went on to be huge in their homeland. In fact the album topped the Brit charts for twelve weeks in total and is among the 20 biggest-sellers of all-time.

However, the lush strings that open the single cost the band – big time! They sampled them from a version of a Rolling Stones song played by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. Oldman had been a manager of the Rolling Stones and even though The Verve thought they’d legally bought the rights to the song for use in “Bittersweet Symphony”, Oldham’s successor with the Stones, Allen Klein sued. Courts agreed and credited the Rolling Stones as a co-writer and unbelievably, gave Klein all the royalties for the song save for $1000 to the band for playing it! Oldham quipped “if the Verve can write a bigger song, they can keep the money.” Keith Richards joked it was his biggest hit since “Brown Sugar” and went out of his way to note it wasn’t him or Mick suing the much-less-wealthy band. Something singer Richard Ashcroft of the Verve acknowledged. “I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock & roll band in the world.”

But as for Klein, he sniped “someone stole God knows how many million dollars from me in 1997, and they’ve still got it.” Like the band says in the song “It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life/try to make ends meet/ you’re a slave to the money then you die!”  However, there is a bit of a happy postscript to the story. In 2019, when Ashcroft picked up an Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement in Britain he announced “Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing rights to ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do.” So it would seem the estate of the late Allen Klein won’t continue to get richer courtesy of The Verve. It isn’t clear however if the band will be able to collect any of the royalties they lost over the past twenty years. Bittersweet indeed.

March 3 – The Verve Learned A Bittersweet Lesson

Today  is the 20th anniversary of one of the great singles of the ’90s – and a lesson in irony as a song about being bittersweet and money became a bittersweet mixed blessing for The Verve. “Bittersweet Symphony”, by far the band’s biggest hit, was released as a single in the US on this day in 1998, several months after it had already taken Britain (and American TV, courtesy MTV) by storm.

It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life/ Try to make ends meet/ You’re a slave

to the money then you die”

Strangely prophetic, the words that begin the song which is one of the most enduring hits of the decade. While the song made the band famous, it earned them very little money and while it didn’t literally kill them, it played a part in killing off the band.

Singer-songwriter Richard Ashcroft met bassist Simon Jones, guitarist Nick McCabe and drummer Peter Salisbury at college in Wigan, a Manchester suburb and formed the band, Verve, in 1990. Later on they added keyboardist Simon Tong and a “The” to their name to avoid legal problems with Verve Records. It wouldn’t be their only brush with copyright law.

After signing with Hut Records in ’91 (a label distributed by Virgin Records in most places), they had modest success in their native land, scoring critical acclaim and three #1 hits on the Indie charts in 1992. Their sound fit in well with the Manchester sound of that era, and was variously described as New Psychedelia, Britpop or Shoe-gazer. Their first album, A Storm In Heaven came out the following year and made it into the British Top 30, scored them their fourth Indie chart-topping single and earned them a spot at the Glastonbury festival that year. Around the same time, they became friends with another up-and-coming Manchester band- Oasis. They opened for the Brothers Gallagher a number of times.

In 1994, they attempted to build upon the minor following they had in select areas of North America (mainly New York and Toronto) by playing Lollapalooza, which was at the height of its popularity. It was the year Nirvana had been scheduled to headline the festival, but well… we know how that turned out. Instead Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys , and in some cities Green Day, were the banner names on the main stage while The Verve joined a diverse set of acts including Black Crowes, Cypress Hill and Japan’s Shonen Knife on the side stage. While their profile was increased, over-drinking, heavy drug use and skirmishes with the law took their toll on the band. As Ashcroft remembers, “It was an adventure but America nearly killed us.” It did help their next album, the slightly less psychedelic sounding A Northern Soul, make minor inroads in North America and give them their first mainstream success in Britain. Their friendship with Oasis grew and Ashcroft dedicated the album’s title track to Noel Gallagher; he in turn responded by dedicating “Cast No Shadow” from What’s the Story, Morning Glory? to Richard.

After a very brief breakup of the band, they got together once again in late ’96 to begin working on their next album, the one which would end up making them a household name. No expense was spared to get it right; they were booked into the famous Olympic Studios in London for periods of time over the fall and winter. Olympic, a century-old cinema had been used as a recording studio for a bevy of important records including The Beatles “Baby you’re a Rich Man”, Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced?, several Led Zeppelin albums and Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” They brought in well-known producer Chris Potter to work on the record; he won the Brit Award for Producer of the Year in ’98 because of it. While Potter put together most of the album, they also brought in Martin Glover, aka “Youth”, formerly of Killing Joke, to work on some of the record, including “Bittersweet Symphony.” While he was best known for house and techno music in the studio, he’d worked with a diverse range of artists including Kate Bush, Wet Wet Wet and U2. It was apparently his doing to put in the rich strings on the song, and he recalls “only once we’d put strings on it that (Ashcroft) started getting excited.” It came to be both the making of, and the downfall

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