The Verve - "Bitter sweet symphony"
If you believe the credits in the CD booklet of "Urban Hymns" (on which you can find the song), the Verve neither wrote nor played on "Bitter Sweet Symphony". The composition is credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (though there is a little line that concedes : "Lyrics be Richard Ashcroft") and the song is "performed by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra". ABKCO Music, which controls the copyrights to the biggest hits in the Rolling Stones' Sixties song catalog, owns 100 per cent of the publishing rights to "Bitter Sweet Symphony."
Jagger and Richards did write part of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" – the guitar and vocal riffs in "The Last Time" that were rearranged in marginally recognisable, shlocko form for a mid-sixties Stone-on-strings album speciously credited to Oldham, the band's early manager. Ashcroft admits that, when he bought a copy of the original Oldham record a few years ago, he knew that the orchestrated "Last Time" lick could be "turned into something outrageous".
Ashcroft has paid dearly for his inspiration. Just as "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was about to be issued as a single, ABKCO Music head Allen Klein refused clearance of the sample. Jazz Summers, the Verve's co-manager, went to top Virgin Records brass in the US for help. Virgin vice chairman Nancy Berry played "Bitter Sweet Symphony" for Jagger and Richards, who reportedly liked the track but declined to get involved in the fracas.
Summers also sent a cassette of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" to Oldham, who now lives in Bogota. Summers : "Andrew Oldham sent me this fabulous note. He said, 'Fair cop ! Absolute total pinch ! You can see why ABKCO are rolling up their sleeves'". Klein finally approved clearance in what Summers now describes as "a fifty-fifty deal – fifty per cent Keith Richards and fifty per cent Mick Jagger".
"We sampled four bars" Ashcroft says of the Oldham-record riff. "That was on one track. Then we did forty-seven tracks of music beyond that little piece. We've got our own string players, our own percussion on it. Guitars. We're talking about a four-bar sample turning into "Bitter Sweet Symphony" – and they're still claiming it's the same song".
Nevertheless, Ashcroft has learned to live with the fact that "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is no longer his – legally anyway. He's called it the best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years." And he talks, keenly and at great length, about the genesis of "Bitter Sweet Symphony", about what he means by outrageous. "I wanted something that opened up into a prairie-music kind of sound, a modern day Ennio Morricone kind of thing. Then after a while, the song started morphing into this wall of sound. There are three or four vocals in there. It's like an outro to a Temptations record, except I'm the four guys in a row: the rhythm one underneath, the sex and violence voices, like a doo-wop thing".
Chris Potter (sound engineer for the album) on the whole process of recording the song : "It started with the infamous Andrew Loog Oldham loop which Peter (Salisbury, drums) and Simon (Jones, bass) played over the top of. That loop, just for the record, is very little. It's a basic chord progression and a couple of bongos, it's not the string riff. It's no big deal. Then we started laying down guitars and vocals and things. I remember we used quite a lot of loops. I think some of the guitars were looped guitars that start at the beginning of the track and end at the end of the track. We didn't have too much of a musical arrangement for it until quite late on. It hadn't been set in stone. A lot of things on this track go from beginning to end, playing all the way through on the tape, so we muted things in and out in order to get the musical arrangement. There are Nick (McCabe, guitars)'s guitar noises at the beginning. It was one of the first things he played on. He gets amazing things out of guitar feedback, that you've never heard before. He seems to be able to control it and when you think about what guitar feedback is, it's a really difficult thing to keep a rein on and make the tones and noises that you want to. He's really incredibly good at it, so that's what those swirly, seagull noises are. He also plays some Coral (electric) Sitar on this. I still hear things in this record and I can't quite put my finger what they are, and I know exactly what's on it, I mixed the bloody thing. You can hear the way that some things mingle against each other and some sounds sort of intertwine producing some other sound as a result. There's a lot of stuff on it, it was a bit of a kitchen sink job sometimes, this record. Some of the sounds only come in for odd moments here and there, the odd bar".
"It was the right first single from the album but when it was first talked about as first single I was quite surprised. We hadn't finished it at that point and it developed much further until in the end there wasn't really any other choice. The first single couldn't have been anything else".
Ashcroft: "It's beyond hiphop. With hiphop now, the trend is to leave the thing they've sampled as the hook, to sell more records. This song was old-school hiphop – take something but twist it into something else. Take it and use your imagination".
Available on the album "Urban Hymns"