This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, 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, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #123: Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve.
I am going to do something today that I have never done before in this countdown. The story of “Bittersweet Symphony” involves a legal situation that, as it played out, ended up involving some of the biggest names in the music business, stretching back to the very beginnings of Rock n’ Roll. It is a story that is “Watergate”-esque, in calibre and speaks to the very organizational structure of the Music Industry, as a whole. But, just like how ‘Watergate” started with a petty break-in but, was never just about that break-in, the story of “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve was about a four-second sample of some violin music but, in the end, it went everywhere and touched everyone. So, in order to do this story justice, I am going to tell the tale in two parts: in Part #1, I will talk about the song and the band, as I normally would in a regular music post. In Part #2, I will lay out the historical significance of what happened to the band as a result of that four-second sample. It is, truly, an amazing story. Buckle up, my beauties! It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The Verve were a British band that formed in the early 1990s. They were fronted by a charismatic frontman named Richard Ashcroft, who sang lead and who wrote and composed the majority of their songs. In the mid 90s, the band released an album called, “Urban Hymns”, which turned out to be one of the biggest selling albums of that decade. Because of their success, The Verve were included, by the UK Music Press, in that movement called BritPop, along with bands such as Oasis, Blur and Pulp. As it turned out, the manufactured BritPop Movement (which was the UK response to the Grunge Movement in the US) was, also, meant to spark some sort of competition between the bands at home. While Oasis and Blur took the bait and had many public battles in the Press, Richard Ashcroft of The Verve was actually quite chummy with most of the other bands and did not actually play much of a role in any contrived feuds. The album, “Urban Hymns” yielded several hits, including “Lucky Man”, “When the Drugs Don’t Work” (which went all the way to #1) and their most famous song, “Bittersweet Symphony” which is listed at the #3 top BritPop song, after “Love of the Common People” by Pulp and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis.
The lyrics to “Bittersweet Symphony” talk about Life and how it can be both, a blessing and a curse at the same time. The song title and the video that accompanied the song, were both inspired by Trip-Hop stars, Massive Attack and their big hit a few years earlier, “Unfinished Sympathy”. In the video for Massive Attack’s song, the lead singer walks down a publc street, oblivious to the on-lookers watching her. The video was shot all in one take and set a standard that was copied by a number of other artists such as Elliott Smith, Phoebe Bridgers and, as well, The Verve. In the video for “Bittersweet Symphony”, Richard Ashcroft really became a figure of note in the public eye because of how he managed to walk down a public street in London. Ashcroft’s demeanour in the video perfectly captured the sense of bewilderment and distain that the song was speaking of. Ashcroft is totally “in his zone”, as the song states, as he knocks into his fellow pedestrians and almost gets hit by a car. Ashcroft is a tall, boney individual so his loping gait made for a very distinctive look at he ambled off down the road while singing “Bittersweet Symphony” aloud.
In the end, “Bittersweet Symphony” was noted for its video but, also, for the use of violins throughout the song. The violins lent “Bittersweet Symphony” a sweeping sound quality that gave it an air of epicness which set it apart from much of the other music fare of the time. The song was originally written without strings but Ashcroft remained ambivalent about it while the song was in that state. But, when the studio producer suggested adding the strings, the song became the wonderful song that it is. And, that is where the trouble began. “Bittersweet Symphony” was a huge hit when it was released; making it all the way to #2 on the charts. However, when it was nominated for the Songwriting Award at The Grammys the following year, the nature of the weird trap that the band had stumbled into was revealed for all to see. Because, when the list of Songwriting nominees was read aloud, it was not Richard Ashcroft’s name that was spoken. Instead, the presenter said, “Bittersweet Symphony….songwriters, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards”. Why were The Rolling Stones getting the Grammy nomination for a song they had nothing to do for? Let’s find out in Part #2!
For now, here is the award-winning video for “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve. In the comments below, I will, also, re-post the original video by Massive Attack that inspired Ashcroft as he took his own walk through town. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, can be found here.
The link to the official website of The Verve, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Unfinished Sympathy” by Massive Attack, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Massive Attack, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Miss Misery” by Elliott Smith, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Elliott Smith, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Motion Sickness: by Phoebe Bridgers, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Phoebe Bridgers, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.