Once upon a time, Richard Ashcroft wrote a song called “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” He and his band attempted recording it but found themselves unhappy with the results and moved on. When a new producer came in to work on The Verve’s third album, Urban Hymns, he suggested having another go at the track, and although Ashcroft wasn’t particularly enthused, he agreed to try again.
Ashcroft remained unenthused.
But the producer sensed a potential hit and kept pushing to finish it. He took Ashcroft’s idea of sampling a small string motif from an obscure 1965 album comprised of orchestral arrangements of songs by The Rolling Stones and used that motif as a riff to transform “Bitter Sweet Symphony” into a sweeping, majestic, epic of a track.
Ashcroft loved it. Rights were secured for the sample. Everything was grand.
For about five minutes.
Here’s where things get murky, as these things often do. Accounts vary, but basically, either a few weeks before or a few weeks after the release of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” as a single in 1997, the copyright owner suddenly refused permission to use the sample unless given 100% of the publishing royalties. The Verve had little choice but to accept the conditions. Ashcroft received a flat fee of $1000 for a song which proceeded to sell millions all over the world, reaching #2 in the UK and just missing the Top 10 in the US, their only hit in America and a staple on the radio.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards also benefited by receiving songwriting credits and royalties — since the sample was ostensibly taken from one of their songs — despite the fact that the string arrangements from the orchestral album were written by someone else and the motif used no part of their original melody.
Business is business, of course, and fair play is a rare commodity in the music industry. In the wake of the whole mess, Ashcroft’s lyrics — “you’re a slave to money then you die” — gained another level of meaning. A bittersweet ending, indeed.
So let the melody shine, let it cleanse your mind … with The Verve.
[Update: In May of 2019, all rights to the song were given back to Ashcroft.]