Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bittersweet Symphony

It's hard to know where to begin with this song.  It is at once profound, uplifting, depressing, and significant in a way that gets into your head and under your skin, never quite leaving.  Its also been the subject of controversy.  The story of Bittersweet Symphony can be somewhat hard to piece together, because it doesn't quite have an end, and doesn't quite have a beginning.

It started with the band- The Verve.  The Verve formed in England in 1990 and was originally made up of Richard Ashcroft (lead singer), Nick McCabe (guitar), Peter Salisbury (drummer), and Simon Jones (bass).  By the time Urban Hymns was released, they'd already recorded and released three prior albums.   Originally, The Verve was just known as "Verve".   Due to an already existing jazz label called "Verve', however, a name change was in order, at which point they added the "The".  

The song itself is where the real story lies.  I first noticed years ago when I randomly looked up in iTunes  under "composer" and was surprised to see "M. Jagger, K. Richards, Lyrics- R. Ashcroft."  After some digging, all I could find at the time was some info claiming that The Verve sampled The Stones, who then sued and gained all rights (or so I, and many others, thought).   The Stones song in question was "The Last Time."

Take a listen and see what you hear:

Its kind of a stretch, to say the least. So how did this happen?

Turns out, The Verve did NOT sample the Rolling Stones version of "The Last Time"- they sampled a piece of music that was composed by Andrew Loog Oldham.  Andrew Loog Oldham was once the manager of the Rolling Stones who also had a musical side project called the Andrew Oldham Orchestra.  The Andrew Oldham Orchestra recorded orchestral versions of songs, including "The Last Time."

Here is the Andrew Oldham Orchestra's version of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time":

Ah. And there we have it.

But how did Andrew Loog Oldham take "The Last Time" and turn it into this orchestral piece?  How does one take "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones and transpose it into something that, to the naked ear, sounds completely different?  I am not sure.  And I am not sure we will ever know.  But it is because of this piece that the story has taken on a life of itself.

Most people believe The Rolling Stones sued The Verve, but it was actually a man named Allen Klein.  Allen Klein was a one-time manager of the Stones, and it was his company, ABKCO, that owned the rights to the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral arrangement that The Verve sampled from.  The Verve got permission to sample from this arrangement, however legal battles ensued, and it was determined that The Verve had simply used too much.  As a result, The Verve settled with Allen Klein's company.  The settlement required The Verve to fork over the copyrights of the song, as well as relinquish songwriting credits to the songwriters of the original- Jagger and Richards (although Ashcroft retained credit for writing the lyrics).

To add an additional element of intrigue to the saga, there are rumors that The Stones drew inspiration for "The Last Time" from a 1950's gospel recording by The Staples Singers, called "This May Be The Last Time":

While The Stones song was supposedly based on The Staples Singers version of this song (most likely copyrighted by The Staples Singers), the song itself is an old traditional song.  In addition to this, its also mentioned on a Bittersweet Symphony forum that, while its a bit of a stretch, there is a traditional Lithuanian folk dance with some (slight) remnants of the strings:

This folk dance, and the old gospel song The Staples singers drew inspiration from are both considered traditional music, which means simply that no one owns the rights.  In other words, these traditional songs that possibly served as the birthing place for what eventually evolved into Bittersweet Symphony are a matter of public domain, owned by us all.

Another thread of Bittersweet Symphony is the video.  The video The Verve shot for Bittersweet Symphony got its inspiration from a video by Massive Attack- for a song called, appropriately, "Unfinished Symphony".

Despite it all, the song gets into your conscience not just because of the sampled strings, but because of the brilliant poetry in the lyrics.  I think Richard Ashcroft says it best.  Check it out here, stripped down to its core:

If this whole story is indeed true- that The Verve sampled ALO, who was inspired by The Stones, who were inspired by The Staples Singers, who were inspired by traditional music, which NO ONE owns, then it is fitting, because this song is truly everyman's song.  People are inexplicably drawn to this song and this is the only path it could have possibly taken to get where it is today- still living, breathing and existing in our current consciousness.

Simply put, it has a visceral meaning to those that love it.  What's it mean to you?

Noteworthy Performances and Covers:

Richard Ashcroft with Coldplay at Live8:

The Verve Live at Glastonbury:

John Mayer cover Live at the Hollywood Bowl

Live acoustic by Richard Ashcroft:

Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Cover

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