85. The Verve - Bittersweet Symphony

Usually when you talk about sampling and music, you're talking about rap and hip-hop artists and what they do with other people's music. With this song, however, it's a British pop band sampling another British rock band. There's a lot of controversy about the sampling used and how much of it was used and who should get the songwriting credit and, more importantly, the money. It's a much more complicated story than I ever thought.

For "Bittersweet Symphony," The Verve used a Rolling Stones song called "The Last Time." I'm a research nut sometimes, so I went through my Rolling Stones albums and sure enough, found this song among what I had. Since I wasn't familiar with this one, I gave it a listen. Then I listened to it again. I get that the chord progression in the two songs is the same, but the Rolling Stones version has a twangy, bluesy feel and sounds nothing like The Verve's version. I couldn't understand what all the hoopla was about.

Then, in doing more research, the hoopla is not about the Stones version of "The Last Time." It's about a cover that the Andrew Oldham Orchestra did of "The Last Time." This song was a bit harder to track down, but I found it and gave it a listen. A-ha! Now I see what the problem may be. It's really close to The Verve's version instrumentally. The Verve took a major section and then added sonic layers to give it a more complex feel, but it really is stunningly similar. Now the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version is an instrumental, so you've got to give Richard Ashcroft, the lead singer and writer of the lyrical melody for "Bittersweet Symphony," credit for the work he did to take this obscure Rolling Stones song to an entire new level, musically and in popularity.

The musical changes The Verve made really do add a depth of sound as well as a cleaner feel to the version that they were sampling. And since I'm always a fan of good, clean production, it's nice to see how they took something that sounded throwaway (no offense to your production values, Andrew) and made it sound really good. It also shows talent to take something like this and transform it into something else, making it your own in the process. So I guess that's where I stand on this one. Yeah, The Verve sampled something pretty hardcore, but they made it so much better than the original that it completely eclipses it, and that is no easy task.

It's a bittersweet symphony, that's life
Trying to make ends meet
You're a slave to money then you die

Those lyrics are pretty grim. Most of the lyrics in the song are. It's an attitude that has been around middle and lower class Britain for decades. The feeling of grinding and grinding your whole life just to get somewhere and finding out that you're still pretty much in the starting blocks. There's a desperation to the lyrics that really brings another level of depth to the song. Ashcroft also has the "harmony" to the song be an almost atonal monotone, echoing the lyrics that are being sung. The lyrics try to get more positive, but it's a constant battle of "I can change/I can't change." It's also interesting to see the lyrics become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the band ended up having to give all of their publishing income to Jagger/Richards, even though their song sounds nothing like the Stones' version.

But songwriting controversy/credit aside, this is still a great song. In 2005's Live 8 concert, Coldplay was doing their own set when they started playing "Bittersweet Symphony." Chris Martin called Richard Ashcroft "the best singer and the world" and said the song "was probably the greatest song ever written." So who am I to disagree?

(There are two videos for this one. The first is just the regular song, and the second is Coldplay's Live8 performance.)

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