|"Bitter Sweet Symphony"|
|Single by the Verve|
|from the album Urban Hymns|
|Released||16 June 1997|
|the Verve singles chronology|
A sample from "Bitter Sweet Symphony" by the Verve
"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. "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.
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. Considered one of the defining songs of the Britpop era, at the 1998 Brit Awards, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was nominated for Best British Single. The song was released in the US as a CD single on 3 March 1998 by Virgin Records America, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, 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. In 1999, the song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song.
Although the song's lyrics were written by Verve vocalist Richard Ashcroft, its distinctive passage for strings was sampled from the 1965 Andrew Oldham Orchestra symphonic recording of "The Last Time", arranged and written by David Whitaker, inspired by the 1965 Rolling Stones' song of the same title. The Rolling Stones' song was itself strongly inspired by "This May Be the Last Time" from the Staple Singers.
Originally, the Verve had negotiated a licence to use a six-note sample from the Oldham recording, but former Stones manager Allen Klein (who owned the copyrights to the band's pre-1970 songs) claimed that the Verve broke the agreement and used a larger portion. Despite its original lyrics and string intro on the album version (by Wil Malone and Ashcroft), the music of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was sampled from the Oldham track, which led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, Klein's holding company, and eventually settled out of court. The Verve relinquished all of their royalties to Klein, owner of ABKCO Records, whilst songwriting credits were changed to Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft.
The 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." After losing the composer credits to the song, Ashcroft commented, "This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years", noting it was their biggest UK hit since "Brown Sugar". On Ashcroft's return to touring, the song traditionally ended the set list. Ashcroft also reworked the single for VH2 Live for the music channel VH1, stripping the song of its strings. Ashcroft is quoted as saying during the show: "It's very interesting stripping that song down and actually taking away all the strings, and just taking it down to the chords and my lyrics and my melody, and doing that kinda version it becomes much more bluesy. Also shows that ultimately take away the dressing, take away the strings, take away the sample, there's an actual song there."
In a 1999 interview with Q magazine, when asked whether he believed the result was fair, Keith Richards replied, "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money."
In 1999, Andrew Oldham also sued for royalties after failing to receive the mechanical royalties he claimed he was owed. 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 magazine, Oldham stated, "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."
"This was certainly the most successful track I've done," noted producer Youth. "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."
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" and 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. 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". 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.
Ashcroft starts walking from the southeast corner of the intersection of Hoxton and Falkirk Streets in Hoxton in the East End of London, 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. In 2016, The Telegraph named Hoxton Street in their list of the 54 locations that defined the Britpop era.
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 Chris Martin 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.
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 polls; in 1998, BBC Radio 1 listeners voted it the third Best Track Ever. The same year, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was named the third-best single of 1997 by New York City weekly The Village Voices Pazz & Jop annual critics' poll. In 2007, NME magazine placed the song at number 18 in its list of the "50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever". In September 2007, a poll of 50 songwriters in Q magazine placed it in a list of the "Top 10 Greatest Tracks". In the Australian Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time, 2009, the track was voted the 14th best song of all time.Pitchfork Media included the song at number 29 on their "Top 200 Tracks of the 90s" list. The publication also included "Bitter Sweet Symphony" in its collection of The Pitchfork 500. In 2011, NME placed it at number 9 on its list "150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years". 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". In 2015, Rolling Stone readers voted it the third greatest Britpop song in a poll, and in 2004, it was ranked at number 392 on their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".
CD 1 HUTDG 82
CD 2 HUTDX 82
Cassette HUTC 82
7" HUTLH 82
12" HUTT 82
Promo CD HUTCDP 82
Promo 12" HUTTP 82
Remix 12" HUTTR 82
On 10 March 1998 Bitter Sweet Symphony was released in the United States. The single was distributed by Virgin Records. CD V25D-38634
Promo CD DPRO-12727
Promo 12" SPRO-12775
|United Kingdom (BPI)||2× Platinum||1,200,000|
|United States (RIAA)||Gold||500,000^|
*sales figures based on certification alone