The Bittersweet History of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era — and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 68 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right — we’re breaking down the Verve and their controversial Stones-sampling classic, “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

So there’s an old gospel spiritual called “This May Be the Last Time,” or sometimes you see it as “This May Be My Last Time.” Hang out in the right church long enough and you’ll hear it, and you’ll love it. Here’s a YouTube video of a Baptist church in Georgia doing it in 2010. Very few people in this video are sitting down, obviously, and if you are sitting down, huh, look at that, now you’re not sitting down.

The most famous recorded version of this song is brought to us by the Staple Singers, outta Chicago, one of the most adored soul / R & B / gospel groups in recorded history. Their 45-RPM single version of “This May Be My Last Time” initially comes out in 1954. Pops Staples, his son Pervis, and his daughters Cleotha and Mavis; his daughter Yyvone will later join the fold as well. Mavis Staples is the only member of the group still alive; she turns 83 in July, and she is in fact touring this summer, summer 2022, with Bonnie Raitt. You’re gonna wanna go ahead and go see that. Here we have the Staple Singers doing “This May Be the Last Time” in the ’50s.

And then, look out: Here come the Rolling Stones.

Yes, it’s the archetypal Mr. Cheekbones Frontman Vs. Mr. Guitar God faceoff: Mick Jagger vs. Keith Richards. “The Last Time,” by the Rolling Stones — written by Mick and Keith — comes out in 1965. In his autobiography, called Life, from 2010, Keith Richards writes of the early ’60s, “Mick and I knew by now that really our job was to write songs for the Stones. It took us eight, nine months before we came up with ‘The Last Time,’ which is the first one we felt we could give to the rest of the guys without being sent out of the room. ” He adds, “The song has the first recognizable Stones riff or guitar figure in it; the chorus is from the Staple Singers version, ‘This May Be the Last Time.’ We could work with this hook; now we had to find the verse. ” When Mick and Keith did find the verse, Keith describes the result as “a song about going on the road and dumping some chick.” End quote.

Rock ‘n’ roll. The Stones have never tried to erase the Staple Singers from the equation, that would be perverse — in another book from 2003 called According to the Rolling Stones, Keith says, “We came up with ‘The Last Time,’ which was basically readapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time.” End quote. What he means is that the song’s so old that as far as songwriting credit goes, he and Mick do not have to share the credit, or the money, with anybody. Rock ‘n’ roll.

And then, look out: Here comes Andrew Loog Oldham.

Yes, Andrew Oldham, famous ’60s Rolling Stones manager, famous’ 60s Rolling Stones producer. In 1966, a group called the Andrew Oldham Orchestra puts out an album called The Rolling Stones Songbook. That, of course, was their version of “The Last Time,” but that, of course, was not the part of their version of “The Last Time” that you are most familiar with.

And 30 years later or so, our boy Richard Ashcroft gets ahold of that record, and hears that riff, and as he’ll later tell Rolling Stone, he knows immediately that that riff can be, “turned into something outrageous.” And it’s just that simple.

This part of this story is so agonizing and so well-known that let’s just get it out of the way, shall we? “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is the first song on the Verve’s third full-length album, Urban Hymns, released in 1997; if you’d opened up the Urban Hymns CD booklet in 1997, the liner notes, you would be informed that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and performed by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. Lyrics by Richard Ashcroft. That was nice, to let him have that, now wasn’t it? Buncha lawsuits behind this shit. Officially, the Verve got screwed primarily infamous rock ‘n’ roll supermanager Allen Klein, who worked with and / or battled in court with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It’s Allen Klein who controlled much of the Rolling Stones’ catalog at this time, and as this song was already becoming a runaway hit, it’s Allen Klein who refused to clear the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” sample unless Mick and Keith got all the credit, and the money. Or, more likely, the guy who handled the money for Mick and Keith, who got all the money. In private, reportedly, Mick and Keith both liked “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” but they declined to get involved in this fracas, or advocate on Richard’s behalf. Rock ‘n’ roll.

I do not remember a time when “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was popular but not everybody knew the sordid backroom history of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” yet. In my memory, everyone knew about this always. Or knew the broad strokes of it. The fact that Richard Ashcroft looped four bars of a cheesy orchestral cover of a Rolling Stones semi-cover of a definitive Staple Singers version of a gospel standard, and then dumped 500 tons of transcendent ennui on top of that sample along with his band, and then lost all the credit and all the money because of that original four-bar sample — this fiasco is an essential component of “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The song is about what happened to the guy who wrote the song after he wrote the song. The song is about the guy losing the song even as he’s singing it.

Richard Ashcroft’s big line at the time, about this whole tragic legal fracas, was that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years.” That’s a great line. Honestly. That’s as good a line as any line he wrote in this song.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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