This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #123: Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve.
The story of what happened to The Verve in 1997 actually begins waaaay back in 1955 with a movie called, “Marty” which won four Academy Awards that year, including the Oscar for Best Picture. “Marty” starred actor Ernest Borgnine and was a great movie that deserved its’ Oscar win. However, the mere fact that this movie even survived the nomination process is the real story here. “Marty” was a very unique movie at the time because it was an independently-produced movie. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, movie making in Hollywood was strictly controlled by the motion picture studios in a way that has been called, “The Studio System”. At that time, actors held few rights. Their personal and professional lives were, essentially, the property of the studios that employed them. This form of indentured servitude gave rise to the creation of The Screen Actors Guild in the mid-1930s. Needless to say, the studio heads did not cotton to the actors forming a union; demanding health and safety regulations be followed and them getting a greater share of the profits from their films. It took awhile for the union to make inroads but, when “Marty” won the Best Picture Oscar, it was a moment that broke the Studio System wide open for good. Because of “Marty”, which was produced by Burt Lancaster, independent film-making became a more lucrative and viable way for actors to take control of their creative affairs.
So, what does this have to do with “Bittersweet Symphony”? Let me start to connect the dots for you.
On the legal team of the production company that Burt Lancaster headed during the filming of “Marty” was a young, bulldog of a lawyer called Allan Klein. In legal circles, Klein was known as a “predatory litigator”, meaning he was very aggressive and combative when it came to contract law, which was his specialty. Klein gained a reputation as being a fighter who wielded the threat of lawsuits as a weapon to get his foes to knuckle under to his demands. That Klein was involved in a movie that helped break open The Studio System and helped gain greater rights and profits for actors, would make it seem like he was a hero to those in the Labour Movement. But, as it turned out, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The actual truth was that Allan Klein was possessed by dreams of great power and wealth. His campaign to break through the iron-fisted control being exercised by the movie studios had little to do with securing better working conditions for actors. Instead, his motivation was that he felt he would have an easier time getting his share of the profits from films if he negotiated contracts directly with the actors, instead of the legal teams employed by the studios. He felt that actors, being creative-types, probably had little knowledge of how contracts worked, what language to include in them and so on and, as such, they would be easy marks for his plans of being a rich and powerful broker in the entertainment business. So, Klein’s involvement in “Marty” was merely step #1 in a plan that had, as its foundation, unbridled personal greed.
As mentioned, “Marty” took place in 1955. That time period also coincided with the launch of Rock n’ Roll. Klein figured that if he could help break open the Studio System in Hollywood then, why not get in on the ground floor of this new music craze? So, because he had big dreams, Klein went after the biggest prize of the all at the time, “The Beatles”. *(Elvis already had his version of Klein, in the form of Col. Tom Parker so, Klein left Elvis alone). Just as Beatlemania was erupting in the UK, Klein approached Brian Epstein the manager of The Beatles and offered to buy him out and re-write the contract that the band had with EMI. Epstein was an honourable man and felt that a deal was something one kept and so, he turned Klein down. *(As it turned out, the deal Epstein had signed with EMI was one that served the interest of EMI far more than it did The Beatles for the early part of their career. This would become evident to the band as the sixties rolled on and would become one of the main factors behind their eventual breakup).
However, Epstein’s rejection of Klein did not deter him. Klein immediately went after the next biggest band on the market, “The Rolling Stones” and found a much more receptive audience there. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, along with The Beatles, were the first UK acts to write and record their own songs; thus breaking open the studio system that existed in the music business at the time. So, Jagger and Richards were already of the mindset that they should be as in control of their own affairs as possible. Klein sensed that this was his opening. He approached the boys and told them that their current contract was laughable but, if they followed his advice, he would get them the best contract in History….even bigger than The Beatles. Jagger and Richards decided that they liked Klein’s chutzpah and signed him as their new manager. As promised, he demanded Decca Records re-work the Stones contract and, as a result, the band members had access to more money and promotional support than they could have ever dreamed. Little did they realize that the contracts they were signing with Klein included clauses signing away their publishing rights to their entire song catalogue to a new company that Klein created for his own purposes. In essence, Klein created a money-laundering scheme that was funded by hit songs such as “Satisfaction”. While Jagger and Richards had access to more money than they ever had had before, they had no idea how much more money they should have had that, instead, was flowing into Klein’s coffers.
Even though The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were competitors, members of both bands were also friends. In particular, John Lennon and Keith Richards got on very well and often vacationed together. It was because of time spent with Richards than Lennon began to get a sense of how badly served The Beatles had been under Epstein’s leadership. So, when Brian Epstein died unexpectedly at age 32, Lennon and the rest of The Beatles decided to take control of their own affairs. They formed a company that ended up becoming Apple Corp., which included Abbey Road Studios. They began signing a roster of talent to produce songs for them, such as James Taylor. These new business pressures were one of the many reasons why The Beatles stopped touring and became a more studio-centric band in the second half of their career. The unfortunate thing was that they soon came to learn that their business skills were not as good as their musical skills were and, as such, they found themselves in over the heads.
At the time, Paul McCartney had begun dating Linda Eastman. Her father ran the Eastman-Kodak Company and was well-versed in running multi-million dollar entities. So, Paul approached the band and suggested Eastman become their financial officer and help manage their affairs. Unfortunately, that was seen as a power grab by the other members of the band. John Lennon, who was already thinking about leaving the band, began promoting Allan Klein in reply. *(In the Disney + documentary now airing, there are several scenes in which John can be seen arranging meetings with Klein, all the while the “Let It Be” album was being created). In the end, to make a long, complex story short, Lennon, Harrison and Ringo Starr all sided against Paul McCartney and entered into an agreement with Klein. This move caused Paul to officially leave the band, making him the villain for awhile because he was the one who “broke up” The Beatles. McCartney retained his future father-in-law to broker a dissolution agreement with the other members of the band. It was a messy affair, to say the least. On the other end of things, Klein now found himself managing the two biggest bands in the world at the very same time. His deal with The Beatles mirrored those he had with The Rolling Stones and just as quickly as the ink dried on those new contracts, Beatles revenue began flowing into numbered companies created by Klein.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s. As we have seen over the course of these posts, as the 1990s progressed, a new form of music creation took place called sampling. Sampling is when an artist uses a short snippet of another artist’s previously recorded vocal or instrumental track, in their own work. In the early days of sampling, it was a bit of the old Wild West out there, as musicians plundered the works of others with abandon. Eventually, sanity returned to the music business in the form of copyright lawsuits. Soon rules were enacted that allowed for sampling, provided that the musician requesting a sample paid for it in the form of money, a share of royalties or even, in some cases, simply crediting the original source of the sample. As long as the copyrght protection afforded the original artist was being honoured in some agreed-upon way, all was good and the music business moved forward.
So, when Richard Ashcroft and his producer decided to use a sample of violin music on “Bittersweet Symphony” they went through, what they thought, were the proper channels. As it turned out, the sampled piece was from an instrumental version of a Rolling Stones song, “The Last Time”. This song was from the time period that the band was signed with Decca Records so, Ashcroft reached out to Decca and obtained permission to use the sample in exchange for giving Jagger and Richards a songwriting share on “Bittersweet Symphony”. With that little bit of legal paperwork complete, Ashcroft recorded the song, released it to much acclaim and then, the trouble began. The trouble began in the form of a letter from Allan Klein claiming copyright infringement and threatening The Verve with a massive lawsuit that included pulling their album, “Urban Hymns” off of the sales racks completely. What had actually happened was that, as part of Klein’s original re-working of the Decca deal for The Rolling Stones, his numbered company also got a share of all publishing rights to the back catalogue of The Rolling Stones so, unbeknownst to Ashcroft, he had neglected to ask Klein for permission to use the sample. Klein had Ashcroft over a legal barrel and both sides knew it. An out-of-court settlement was reached that forced Ashcroft to relinquish all publishing rights to “Bittersweet Symphony” to Klein and, through Klein, to Jagger and Richards, as songwriters of “The Last Time”, from which the offending sample was taken. So, as “Bittersweet Symphony” climbed the charts and made millions of dollars in sales and was nominated for numerous awards, Ashcroft was excluded from all of it. And yet, it was expected that he and his band would happily perform their hit song everywhere. It must have been a horrible situation for a young band to find themselves in.
Well, in 2019, at the Ivor Novello Awards (for songwriting in the UK), Richard Ashcroft was given, what amounted to, a Lifetime Achievement Award. Just prior to the award show, representatives of his legal team approached Jagger and Richards directly and asked them to personally right the wrong that had befallen Ashcroft. Both men agreed to that request. The song was long since out of circulation so, they had already made as much money from it as they probably were going to anyway so, they ceded all publishing rights back to Ashcroft. At the Ivor Novello Awards, Ashcroft was able to announce that the rights to “Bittersweet Symphony” were his once more. There are still lawsuits in play that are aimed at helping Ashcroft recoup the income he lost from losing his song rights for all those years to Jagger and Richards, through Allan Klein. If there is ever an update to this situation, I will let you know.
For now, let this story be a cautionary tale about the dangers of copyright infringement but, more than that, let it serve as a reminder that the songs we love are Art, to a degree but, more than that, they are part of a big business machine that cares not one whit about creativity or the well-being of the artists who create the content that we call music. Whether it is iron-fisted studio heads, greedy money managers or today, streaming services that pay only pennies per download to artists, the fight for fairness for all content creators continues unabated. As Pete Townsend so aptly wrote, “Meet the new Boss, same as the old Boss“.
I will share two videos with you. The first is an interview with John Lennon, held after the band had realized how shady Allan Klein was. In this interview he acknowledges that Paul McCartney may have been right to have promoted Mr. Eastman and to have been wary of Klein. As well, the second video is an overview of what happened to The Verve. It is a good re-cap of all that I have written. As always….enjoy.
The link to the video of the interview with John Lennon about Allan Klein, can be found here.
The link to the video for the “Bittersweet Symphony” Overview saga, can be found here.