Friday, 31 May 2019

Unfinished Symphony

Three years ago to the day I was writing about the Verve’s 1997 song ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, searching for the author who had been most deprived. Famously, the composition has been attributed to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as a result of the inclusion of a looped sample of their song ‘The Last Time’, as recorded by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra in 1965.
            There have been developments. Richard Ashcroft, the singer of the Verve who wrote the main body of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ (i.e the 'unsampled' parts of the song) has become increasingly outraged at his lack of royalties. In November last year he declared, ‘I’m coming for that money. Someone stole god knows how many million dollars off me in 1997, and they’ve still got it’. He was pointing towards Jody Klein, the son of Allen Klein and inheritor of his publishing company, ABKCO. It is ABKCO who control the Rolling Stones' early repertoire and who had demanded 100% of the publishing royalties for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.
There are reasons for Ashcroft’s intensified fury. Firstly, he was promoting his new album, Natural Rebel and this publicity was good publicity. Secondly, as I pointed out in my original blog entry, in the days of physical products he would not, ultimately, have been deprived. He may not have had the publishing for the Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, but he did write the majority of the songs on its parent album, Urban Hymns, and would have received nearly 70% of the songwriting royalties each time a copy was sold. Urban Hymns is a platinum selling record in America and it is the 17th best-selling album of all time in the UK. Unfortunately for Ashcroft, streaming has taken us to a world where it is singles rather than albums that rule. ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ is his most successful song and he receives nothing for it when it stands on its own. He suggests that it is worth $50 million and that this money has been stolen from him.
            Jagger and Richards appear to have listened. Last week Ashcroft received the Outstanding Contribution to British Music prize at the Ivor Novello Awards. He used the occasion to announce:
As of last month Mick Jagger and Keith Richards agreed to give me their share of the song ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. This remarkable and life affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith, who have also agreed that they are happy for the writing credit to exclude their names and all their royalties derived from the song they will now pass to me.
I’m not sure if this is a happy ending. In the first instance, the copyright details for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ have not yet been changed. The money, at present, is still going ABKCO. In addition, if the song is to be credited to Ashcroft, this might ruffle feathers elsewhere. Ashcroft believes he should have the sole credit for the song and has justified this as follows:
I was saying to myself, ‘look, rock n roll is a spirit, and if I want to sample something and make it into a hip hop/rock n roll anthem, it’s still rock n roll. And it’s even more rock n roll because it’s another white English kid, influenced by hip hop, sampling some fucking white English guys, influenced by black blues guys, and it goes on and on and on. But sonically what I’m saying at the end with “Money Money” is that you lot are just a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of Xerox of a Xerox’.
What he’s attempting to state here is that, while the Rolling Stones took much of the inspiration for their song from the Staple Singers’ ‘This May Be the Last Time’, the Staple Singers in turn had drawn upon traditional music of no fixed authorship. It is only Ashcroft who is an originating author.
            This is dubious enough in itself, but what Ashcroft fails to mention is that the riff in the Andrew Oldham Orchestra sample does have an author and that it is not Jagger or Richards. The motif in the sample is only loosely based on Keith Richards' guitar playing. The main credit for it should instead reside with David Whitaker, who composed and arranged the orchestral score.
            One of things about rethinks is that they prompt further rethinks. Popular music has always had multiple authors – writers, arrangers, musicians, singers, producers, engineers, mixers – and it has always been unfair with its attributions of credits and royalties. Traditionally, many songwriting disputes have been settled out of court. This has suited publishers, as they do not want legal precedents to be set. It has also suited the victorious authors, as they have not want it known who is receiving shares of income and who is being deprived. Ashcroft might wish he had been quieter. If he has been successful in his pursuit of stolen dollars, then it might prompt the Staple Singers and the estate of David Whitaker to think about the money that is being taken from them.