Bitter Sweet Symphony

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"Bitter Sweet Symphony"
A man looking through a lens
Single by The Verve
from the album Urban Hymns
B-side
  • "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know"
  • "Country Song"
Released16 June 1997 (1997-06-16)
Format
RecordedJanuary–March 1997
StudioOlympic Studios, London[1]
Genre
Length
  • 5:58 (album version)
  • 4:33 (radio edit and video version)
LabelHut
Songwriter(s)Richard Ashcroft[3]
Producer(s)
The Verve singles chronology
"History"
(1995)
"Bitter Sweet Symphony"
(1997)
"The Drugs Don't Work"
(1997)
Music video
"Bitter Sweet Symphony" on YouTube
Audio sample

"Bitter Sweet Symphony" is a song by English alternative rock band the Verve. It is the lead track on their third studio album, Urban Hymns (1997). It is based on a sample it uses from the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time", and involved some legal controversy surrounding a plagiarism charge. As a result, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were added to the songwriting credits. In April 2019, Jagger and Richards signed over all their publishing for the song to The Verve.[3] "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was released in June 1997 by Hut Recordings as the first single from the album, reaching number two on the UK Singles Chart and stayed in the chart for three months.[4]

Acclaimed in music publications, it was named Rolling Stone and NME Single of the Year for 1997, and is considered one of the defining songs of the Britpop era. The accompanying music video features lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft walking down a busy London pavement – in Hoxton Street, Hoxton – oblivious to what is going on around and refusing to change his stride or direction throughout.[5][6] At the 1998 Brit Awards, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was nominated for Best British Single. The song was released in the US as a single in March 1998 by Virgin Records America, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100,[7] and the music video was nominated for Video of the Year, Best Group Video, and Best Alternative Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.[8][9] In 1999, the song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song.[10]

Production[edit]

Producer Youth said: "This was certainly the most successful track I've done. I think Richard had actually cut a version with John Leckie but, by the time I came on board, he didn't want to do the song. I persuaded him to have a go at cutting a version but at first he wasn't really into it. It was only once we'd put strings on it that he started getting excited. Then, towards the end, Richard wanted to chuck all the album away and start again. What was my reaction? Horror. Sheer horror. All I could say was, I really think you should reconsider."[11]

Credits dispute[edit]

The opening strings are sampled from the 1965 Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of the Rolling Stones song "The Last Time", arranged and written by David Whitaker.[12][13] The Verve negotiated rights to use a six-note sample from the recording from the recording's copyright holder Decca Records; however, they did not obtain permission from former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, who owned the copyrights to the band’s pre-1970 songs, including "The Last Time".[14][15][16] Although "Bitter Sweet Symphony" had already been released, Klein refused to grant a license for the sample.[14] This led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, Klein's holding company, which was settled out of court. The Verve relinquished all royalties to Klein, and the songwriting credits were changed to Jagger/Richards, with Ashcroft receiving $1,000 for completely relinquishing rights.[17][14]

Verve bassist Simon Jones said, "We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don't have much choice."[18] Ashcroft sarcastically said, "This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years",[19] noting it was their biggest UK hit since "Brown Sugar".[18]

In a 1999 interview with Q, asked whether he believed the result was fair, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said: "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money."[20][21] In 1999, Andrew Oldham sued for royalties after failing to receive the mechanical royalties he claimed he was owed.[22] After receiving his royalties, Oldham joked that he bought "a pretty presentable watch strap" compared to the watch Jagger and Richards would get with the money. In an interview with Uncut, he said: "As for Richard Ashcroft, well, I don't know how an artist can be severely damaged by that experience. Songwriters have learned to call songs their children, and he thinks he wrote something. He didn't. I hope he's got over it. It takes a while."[23]

In May 2019, Ashcroft received the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors. Ashcroft announced that the dispute was over following negotiations with Klein's son, Jody, and the Rolling Stones' manager Joyce Smith.[3] He said:

As of last month, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing for Bittersweet 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.[3]

Music video[edit]

A screenshot at the beginning of the music video showing vocalist Richard Ashcroft standing on a pavement in Hoxton, east London

The music video (directed by Walter A. Stern) is a homage to the single continuous shot docu-fiction music video for Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy". It focuses on Ashcroft singing while walking down a busy London pavement, without changing his stride or direction throughout, except for one instance where he is forced to stop for a moving car and a reflection is seen of him standing stationary in the car's tinted window.[6] He narrowly avoids being hit by a car as he starts his walk, repeatedly bumping into passers-by (causing one young woman to lose balance and fall), and he also jumps on top of the bonnet of another vehicle stopped in his path (the driver gets out of her car and proceeds to confront him, while he continues unflinchingly). At the end of the video, the rest of the Verve join Ashcroft, and the final shot sees them walking down the street into the distance. This then leads into the beginning of the video for "The Drugs Don't Work".[24] The music video received heavy rotation on music channels and it was nominated for a number of awards, including three MTV Awards at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.[9]

Ashcroft starts walking from the southeast corner of the intersection of Hoxton and Falkirk Streets in Hoxton in the East End of London,[25] subsequently proceeding north along the east side of Hoxton Street until he reaches Hoxton Gardens. He then crosses to the corner of Purcell Street and walks back the way he came, before being joined by the rest of the band at the corner of Crondall Street, opposite where he started. The British comedy band Fat Les would later release a direct parody for their 1998 song "Vindaloo", an alternative anthem for England at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, where Paul Kaye takes the role of an Ashcroft look-alike who is mocked by a growing group of passers by as the video progresses.[26] In 2016, The Telegraph named Hoxton Street in their list of the 54 locations that defined the Britpop era.[27]

Live 8[edit]

On 2 July 2005, at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London, Coldplay invited Ashcroft to perform the song with them in their set. They played it after only one rehearsal in Crystal Palace. Ashcroft was introduced by Youth as "the best singer in the world" and he described the song as "the best song ever written". On 25 December 2005, a documentary entitled Live 8: A Bitter Sweet Symphony was aired reliving moments of the day featuring a portion of Ashcroft's performance as the music for the show's opening soundtrack.[28]

Accolades and legacy[edit]

“Bitter Sweet Symphony" is built on a slow-rolling fat beat, a pomp and circumstance violin loop and singer "Mad" Richard Ashcroft's elliptical, snake-swallowing-its-tail lyrics. It is an infectious, glorious piece of pop music.

—Gil Kaufman writing for MTV, September 1997[29]

Regarded as the band's signature song and one of the defining tracks and music videos of the Britpop era, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" has featured in best ever song lists and polls. It was named Rolling Stone and NME Single of the Year for 1997. In 1998, BBC Radio 1 listeners voted it the third Best Track Ever.[30] The same year, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was named the third-best single of 1997 by New York City weekly The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop annual critics' poll. In a 2005 Channel 4 poll, the music video was ranked eighth on their list of the 100 Greatest Pop Videos.[31]

In 2007, NME magazine placed the song at number 18 in its list of the "50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever".[32] In September 2007, a poll of 50 songwriters in Q magazine placed it in a list of the "Top 10 Greatest Tracks".[33] In the Australian Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time, 2009, the track was voted the 14th best song of all time.[34] Pitchfork Media included the song at number 29 on their "Top 200 Tracks of the 90s" list.[35] The publication also included it in its collection of The Pitchfork 500.[36] In 2011, NME placed it at number 9 on its list "150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years".[37] Despite the band having half a dozen hits, the song featured at number one in Paste magazine's poll of its 25 "awesome one-hit wonders of the 1990s".[38] In 2015, Rolling Stone readers voted it the third greatest Britpop song in a poll,[39] and in 2004, it was ranked at number 392 on their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".[40]

Cover versions[edit]

Beyoncé performing a mash-up of "If I Were a Boy" and "Bitter Sweet Symphony" during The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, 2013

In popular culture[edit]

Track listings[edit]

CD 1 HUTDG 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 6:00
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51
  3. "Country Song" – 7:50
  4. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35

CD 2 HUTDX 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (extended version) – 7:52
  2. "So Sister" – 4:11
  3. "Echo Bass" – 6:39

Cassette HUTC 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51

7" HUTLH 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51

12" HUTT 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony (original) – 6:00
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51
  3. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Remix)
  4. "Country Song" – 7:50

Promo CD HUTCDP 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35

Promo 12" HUTTP 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (alt version)
  2. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (MSG)

Remix 12" HUTTR 82

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Remix)
  2. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Instrumental Remix)

US version[edit]

CD V25D-38634

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 5:58
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:52
  3. "So Sister" – 4:11
  4. "Echo Bass" – 6:39

Cassette 4KM-38634

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 5:58
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:52

Promo CD DPRO-12727

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:16
  2. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 5:57
  3. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (Call Out Research Hook 1 Vocal) – 0:12
  4. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (Call Out Research Hook 2 Instrumental) – 0:11

Promo 12" SPRO-12775

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Remix) - 5:50
  2. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (album version) – 5:57
  3. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Instrumental Remix) - 5:50

Japanese version[edit]

CD VJCP-12077

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 6:00
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51
  3. "Country Song" – 7:50
  4. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35

Dutch version[edit]

CD 8943752

  1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 6:00
  2. "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51
  3. "Country Song" – 7:50
  4. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35

Charts[edit]

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/Sales
Australia (ARIA)[88] Gold 35,000^
France (SNEP)[89] Silver 125,000*
Germany (BVMI)[90] Gold 250,000^
Italy (FIMI)[91] Platinum 50,000double-dagger
United Kingdom (BPI)[92] 2× Platinum 1,200,000double-dagger
United States (RIAA)[93] Gold 500,000^

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone
double-daggersales+streaming figures based on certification alone

References[edit]

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External links[edit]