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Not Bitter, Just Sweet: The Rolling Stones Give Royalties To The Verve

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 8:25 am

After more than 20 years, the Rolling Stones and The Verve have resolved a sour dispute over the authorship of the song "Bitter Sweet Symphony." The Verve's frontman and co-founder, Richard Ashcroft, announced on Wednesday that the situation has finally been laid to rest.

Ashcroft explained the change as he received a lifetime achievement honor — an Ivor Novello Award, a British prize for songwriting and composition. "As of last month," Ashcroft said in comments reported by the BBC, "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." A rep for the Rolling Stones confirmed the change to NPR.

Last November, however, Ashcroft struck a clangingly different chord about the financial dispute in an interview for the Consequence of Sound podcast Kyle Meredith With.... At the time he said, "I'm coming for that money. Someone stole God-knows-how-many million dollars off me in 1997, and they've still got it."

While being interviewed on the Ivor Novello Awards red carpet, Ashcroft referenced Mick Jagger and Keith Richards relinquishing their credits on "Bitter Sweet Symphony."
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The Verve, a Britpop band that has broken up and reunited several times but gave its last performance in 2008, first became famous in 1997 on the strength of "Bitter Sweet Symphony," which became a hit in the U.K. and the U.S. and across Europe.

Nearly from the get-go, however, the tune's authorship was challenged: The Verve's lead singer, Ashcroft, wrote the lyrics, but the song's instrumentals leaned heavily on a version of the Stones' "The Last Time" — specifically, on an orchestral arrangement recorded in 1965 by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra, a side project from Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones' manager and record producer, who enlisted various session musicians and arranger David Whitaker to create symphonic versions of Stones songs.

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The Verve received permission from Decca, the record label that had released the orchestral album, to use a few notes of the string melody from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra instrumentals in exchange for half of The Verve's royalties on "Bitter Sweet Symphony."

But Allen Klein, who managed the Stones in the late 1960s and who controlled the band's song copyrights through 1970, sued The Verve for plagiarism shortly after "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was released, saying that the younger Brits had used far more of "The Last Time" than was mutually agreed upon and that The Verve's use was not just a small sample but infringed on the songwriters' rights.

In late 1997, The Verve settled with Klein; the band gave Jagger and Richards songwriter credits on "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and gave its publishing royalties to ABKCO Records, Klein's company.

Oldham, meanwhile, separately sued The Verve in 1999 for about $1.7 million in mechanical — that is, songwriter — royalties. As a result of the two suits against The Verve, all royalty payments on "Bitter Sweet Symphony" went to Oldham, Jagger and Richards for many years. It's not clear how much money that represented in the years since The Verve hit it big, but in 2008, Oldham joked to British magazine Uncut that he had purchased "a pretty presentable watch strap" with his share of the song.

Ashcroft told the BBC after Wednesday's ceremony that he found the agreement "life affirming" and added that there is at least one ancillary benefit: He can watch international soccer tournaments again.

"They play ['Bitter Sweet Symphony'] before England plays," he observed. "So I can sit back and watch England ... and finally just enjoy the moment."

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The Verve VEVO / YouTube

NOEL KING, HOST:

Two British bands, the Rolling Stones and The Verve, have finally resolved a songwriting dispute that went on for more than 20 years. Here's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VERVE SONG, "BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY")

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was the song that made The Verve back in 1997.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VERVE SONG, "BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY")

TSIOULCAS: It became an international hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY")

THE VERVE: (Singing) Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life.

TSIOULCAS: But shortly after it was released, The Verve was sued for plagiarism by the Rolling Stones. Those lush, hypnotic strings leaned very heavily on an instrumental version of the Stones' song, "The Last Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "THE LAST TIME")

TSIOULCAS: And this is where the story gets complicated. This version of "The Last Time" is an arrangement, recorded in 1965, by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. That was a side project with session musicians created by the Stones' manager and record producer. And the Rolling Stones got the songwriting credits.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "THE LAST TIME")

TSIOULCAS: Spin forward about 30 years. The Verve got permission to use a few notes of the string melody. The deal was that The Verve would pass over half of the royalties. Once "Bitter Sweet Symphony" dropped, the Stones said that the younger musicians had used far more of "The Last Time" than had been agreed upon. So The Verve settled. They gave Mick Jagger and Keith Richards songwriter credits and handed over all the publishing royalties.

And it stayed that way until last week. Verve singer Richard Ashcroft announced in London on Wednesday that finally, Jagger and Richards were giving the credit and royalties back. Ironically, "The Last Time" has an even longer history if you work your way backwards. The Rolling Stones released their version in 1965...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST TIME")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Well, this could be the last time. This could be the last time.

TSIOULCAS: But about a decade earlier, gospel legends The Staple Singers put out this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MAY BE THE LAST TIME")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) This may be my last time. May be my last time.

TSIOULCAS: In a 2003 interview, Keith Richards acknowledged the Staple Singers version but he claimed, quote, "luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MAY BE THE LAST TIME")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) This may be my last time.

TSIOULCAS: Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.