Bitter Sweet Symphony original
What is the Bitter Sweet original?
The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a defining songs from one of my favourite music periods, the Britpop era. In the late 90s, you could hear this song everywhere. It was in indie clubs, on the Cruel Intentions soundtrack, on Nike commercials and every time England played international football matches. The “Bitter Sweet Symphony” melody is based on a sample from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “The Last Time”. Legal controversy meant that the Verve only received token royalties for one of the most popular 90s songs. But what is the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original?
“The Last Time” itself is heavily inspired by the Staple Singers’ “This May Be the Last Time”. Also, it is the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording that features those distinctive string passages heard in “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. That’s why I wonder if “The Last Time” really can be considered the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original.
The Last Time and This May Be the Last Time
“The Last Time” was the Rolling Stones’ first single written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was band’s third single to reach number one on the UK singles chart. It spent three weeks there in early 1965. The refrain from “The Last Time” is pretty much identical to “This May Be the Last Time“. The Staple Singers recorded this traditional gospel song in 1954. Maybe because their song is considered traditional, the Staple Singers were not credited on the “The Last Time”. At any rate, the main melody and riff are completely different on the Stones’ song.
The Andrew Oldham Orchestra
Andrew Loog Oldham was the Stones’ manager and record producer who formed his orchestra as a side project. He enlisted various session musicians and arranger David Whitaker to create orchestral versions of Rolling Stones songs. In 1966, the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recorded “The Last Time” for the album The Rolling Stones Songbook. Whitaker wrote and arranged the song.
David Whitaker’s prolific music career
Whitaker was born in 1931 in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. He provided the music for the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s “audio homages” to the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. Whitaker arranged sessions for the likes of Nico and Vashti Bunyan. He spent much of the 60s working in the Parisian yé-yé scene with artists like Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Vartan, Claude François, France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg.
In the 70s, Whitaker wrote the music scores for horror films like Scream and Scream Again, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Vampira. In later years he arranged recordings for Kenickie, Air, Natalie Imbruglia, S Club 7, Simply Red and Eurythmics.
Is the Orchestra version the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original?
The Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time” sounds more like “Bitter Sweet Symphony” than the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”. It’s all about the strings. And tubular bells. Neither of which feature in the “The Last Time” original. But if you strip back the strings and increase the tempo of the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version, you’ll hear “The Last Time”. Still, I can’t find a musical link between “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and the Stones’ “The Last Time”. I’d be more inclined to say that the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version is the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original.
“You’re a slave to money, then you die”
In 1997 the Verve released “Bitter Sweet Symphony” as the lead track from their third studio album, Urban Hymns. The song examines the drudgery and boredom of everyday life. It was written by the band’s lead singer, Richard Ashcroft. Ashcroft’s father had a dissatisfying job as an office clerk before dying of a brain hemorrhage when Ashcroft was a child. So that’s the inspiration for the song.
A 90s anthem
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” shot to number two on the UK singles chart and stayed there for three months. It paved the way for the Verve’s next single, “The Drugs Don’t Work”, which went to number one. In 1997 Rolling Stone and NME named “Bitter Sweet Symphony” Single of the Year. It was also nominated British Single of the Year for the 1998 Brit Awards. Alas, All Saints’ “Never Ever” won.
In the US “Bitter Sweet Symphony” went to number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Verve’s only American hit. In 1999, it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Song. Instead, “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette won. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” also featured in the final scene of 1999 movie Cruel Intentions. In 2019, Ashcroft won the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music.
Continuous shot video clip
The “Bitter Sweet Symphony” video clip is equally memorable. Ashcroft walks down a busy footpath in Hoxton, London oblivious to what is going on around him, bumping into people as he refuses to break his stride. It’s a homage to Massive Attack’s music video for “Unfinished Sympathy” which features vocalist Shara Nelson walking down a street in Los Angeles, oblivious to the needy people around her. The “Bitter Sweet Symphony” video was nominated for Video of the Year, Best Group Video and Best Alternative Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.
Losing the rights to the Verve’s own song
The Verve negotiated rights to use a six-second sample of the string melody from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time”. The recording’s copyright holder, Decca Records, granted these rights in exchange for half the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” royalties.
What got the Verve in trouble was that they didn’t obtain permission from former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, who owned the copyright to the band’s pre-1970 songs, including “The Last Time”. Early in their career the Stones signed a lopsided contract with Klein. They later had to make big concessions to get out of it. Hence, Klein gained publishing rights to all Rolling Stones songs recorded before 1970.
Victory for Allen Klein and not many others
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was already released. But Klein refused to grant the Verve rights to use the sample from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s “The Last Time”. Indeed, he claimed that the string section amounted to more than just a small sample and said it infringed the songwriters’ copyright. This is where I’m confused. Whitaker wrote the string section of the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time” – not Jagger and Richards. And if we do go down this route, what about the Staple Singers’ rights? And Whitaker’s?
Anyway, a lawsuit with Klein’s holding company, ABKCO Records, was settled out of court. This resulted in the Verve relinquishing all “Bitter Sweet Symphony” royalties to Klein. The songwriting credits were changed to Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft, with Ashcroft receiving a flat fee of just $1,000.
I was put under duress to sign away one of the greatest songs of all time.”Richard Ashcroft
In 1999, Oldham also sued for royalties. He joked that he bought “a pretty presentable watch strap” with what he received.
Getting their song back
Finally in 2019 Jagger and Richards signed over their publishing rights for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to Ashcroft.
As of last month, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do. I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It’s been a fantastic development. It’s life-affirming in a way.”Richard Ashcroft
Interestingly, had the Verve retained publishing rights to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” it’s unlikely they would have agreed to its use on a Nike commercial. This commercial introduced the song to the US and lead to its success over there.
The “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original is probably “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
The opening to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” isn’t exactly a sample of the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s “The Last Time”. Although based on the same notes, it was arranged by British music producer Wil Malone. Despite that, the music clearly comes from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording. But there’s so much more to “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Ashcroft wrote the lyrics and sings in a completely different vocal style. I reckon the song is his. It just uses a sample from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of what may or may not be considered the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original.
Read about more 90s songs and their unknown originals here.