Bitter Sweet Symphony

"Bitter Sweet Symphony" is a song by English alternative rock band the Verve. It is the lead track on their third studio album, Urban Hymns (1997). It is based on a sample it uses from the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time", and involved some legal controversy surrounding a plagiarism charge. As a result, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were added to the songwriting credits, and all royalties from the song went to former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein. In April 2019, Jagger and Richards signed over all their publishing for the song to Richard Ashcroft. The song was released in June 1997 by Hut Recordings as the first single from the album, reaching number two on the UK Singles Chart and remaining in the chart for three months.

Acclaimed in music publications, it was named Rolling Stone and NME Single of the Year for 1997, and is considered one of the defining songs of the Britpop era. The accompanying music video features lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft walking down a busy London pavement – in Hoxton Street, Hoxton – oblivious to what is going on around and refusing to change his stride or direction throughout. At the 1998 Brit Awards, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was nominated for Best British Single. The song was released in the US as a single in March 1998 by Virgin Records America, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the music video was nominated for Video of the Year, Best Group Video, and Best Alternative Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. In 1999, the song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song.


Producer Youth said: "This was certainly the most successful track I've done. I think Richard had actually cut a version with John Leckie but, by the time I came on board, he didn't want to do the song. I persuaded him to have a go at cutting a version but at first he wasn't really into it. It was only once we'd put strings on it that he started getting excited. Then, towards the end, Richard wanted to chuck all the album away and start again. What was my reaction? Horror. Sheer horror. All I could say was, I really think you should reconsider."

Credits dispute

The opening strings are sampled from the 1965 Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time", arranged and written by David Whitaker. The Rolling Stones' song was itself strongly inspired by "This May Be the Last Time" from the Staple Singers. The Verve negotiated rights to use a six-note sample from the recording from the recording's copyright holder Decca Records; however, they did not obtain permission from former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, who owned the copyrights to the band's pre-1970 songs, including "The Last Time". Although "Bitter Sweet Symphony" had already been released, Klein refused to grant a licence for the sample. This led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, Klein's holding company, which was settled out of court. The Verve relinquished all royalties to Klein, and the songwriting credits were changed to Jagger/Richards, with Ashcroft receiving $1,000 for completely relinquishing rights.

Verve bassist Simon Jones said, "We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don't have much choice." Ashcroft sarcastically said, "This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years", noting it was their biggest UK hit since "Brown Sugar".

In a 1999 interview with Q, asked whether he believed the result was fair, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said: "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money." In 1999, Andrew Oldham sued for royalties after failing to receive the mechanical royalties he claimed he was owed. After receiving his royalties, Oldham joked that he bought "a pretty presentable watch strap" compared to the watch Jagger and Richards would get with the money. In an interview with Uncut, he said: "As for Richard Ashcroft, well, I don't know how an artist can be severely damaged by that experience. Songwriters have learned to call songs their children, and he thinks he wrote something. He didn't. I hope he's got over it. It takes a while."

In May 2019, Ashcroft received the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors. Ashcroft announced that the dispute was over following negotiations with Klein's son, Jody, and the Rolling Stones' manager Joyce Smith. Ashcroft thanked Jagger and Richards "for acknowledging me as the writer of a fucking masterpiece!" He added:

As of last month, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing for Bittersweet Symphony, which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do. I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They've always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It's been a fantastic development. It's life-affirming in a way.

Music video

The music video (directed by Walter A. Stern) is a homage to the single continuous shot docu-fiction music video for Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy". It focuses on Ashcroft singing while walking down a busy London pavement, without changing his stride or direction throughout, except for one instance where he is forced to stop for a moving car and a reflection is seen of him standing stationary in the car's tinted window. He narrowly avoids being hit by a car as he starts his walk, repeatedly bumping into passers-by (causing one young woman to lose balance and fall), and he also jumps on top of the bonnet of another vehicle stopped in his path (the driver gets out of her car and proceeds to confront him, while he continues unflinchingly). At the end of the video, the rest of the Verve join Ashcroft, and the final shot sees them walking down the street into the distance. This then leads into the beginning of the video for "The Drugs Don't Work". The music video received heavy rotation on music channels and it was nominated for a number of awards, including three MTV Awards at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.

] Ashcroft starts walking from the southeast corner of the intersection of Hoxton and Falkirk Streets in Hoxton in the East End of London, subsequently proceeding north along the east side of Hoxton Street until he reaches Hoxton Gardens. He then crosses to the corner of Purcell Street and walks back the way he came, before being joined by the rest of the band at the corner of Crondall Street, opposite where he started. The British comedy band Fat Les would later release a direct parody for their 1998 song "Vindaloo", an alternative anthem for England at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, where Paul Kaye takes the role of an Ashcroft look-alike who is mocked by a growing group of passers by as the video progresses. In 2016, The Telegraph named Hoxton Street in their list of the 54 locations that defined the Britpop era.

Live 8

On 2 July 2005, at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London, Coldplay invited Ashcroft to perform the song with them in their set. They played it after only one rehearsal in Crystal Palace. Ashcroft was introduced by Chris Martin as "the best singer in the world" and he described the song as "the best song ever written". On 25 December 2005, a documentary entitled Live 8: A Bitter Sweet Symphony was aired reliving moments of the day featuring a portion of Ashcroft's performance as the music for the show's opening soundtrack.

Accolades and legacy

Regarded as the band's signature song and one of the defining tracks and music videos of the Britpop era, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" has been featured in a number of best ever song lists and polls. It was named Rolling Stone and NME Single of the Year for 1997. In 1998, BBC Radio 1 listeners voted it the third Best Track Ever. The same year, it was named the third-best single of 1997 by New York City weekly The Village Voices Pazz & Jop annual critics' poll. In a 2005 Channel 4 poll, the music video was ranked eighth on their list of the 100 Greatest Pop Videos.

In 2007, NME magazine placed the song at number 18 in its list of the "50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever". In September 2007, a poll of 50 songwriters in Q magazine placed it in a list of the "Top 10 Greatest Tracks". In the Australian Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time, 2009, the track was voted the 14th best song of all time. Pitchfork Media included the song at number 29 on their "Top 200 Tracks of the 90s" list. The publication also included it in its collection of The Pitchfork 500. In 2011, NME placed it at number 9 on its list "150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years". Despite the band having half a dozen hits, the song featured at number one in Paste magazine's poll of its 25 "awesome one-hit wonders of the 1990s". In 2015, Rolling Stone readers voted it the third greatest Britpop song in a poll (after "Common People" by Pulp and "Don't Look Back in Anger" by Oasis). In 2004, it was ranked at number 392 on Rolling Stones list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". According to Acclaimed Music, it is the 63rd most celebrated song in popular music history.

Cover versions

  • American recording artist Beyoncé mashed the song with her own "If I Were a Boy" during the set list of her The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour (2013). The string motif of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was used during the performances.
  • Nu metal band Limp Bizkit also mashed this with their cover of "Home Sweet Home" by Mötley Crüe, with "Home Sweet Home/Bittersweet Symphony".
  • A version recorded at the BBC by London Grammar appears on the deluxe version of the album Truth Is a Beautiful Thing (2017).

    In popular culture

  • The song played on The Simpsons episode "That '90s Show".
  • The song was used at the end of the film Cruel Intentions and was included on the soundtrack''.
  • Since 2008, the song has been used by ITV as the background music to the opening sequence for England's international football matches; including the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup. In 2019, following the settling of the songwriting dispute with the Stones, Ashcroft stated, "I can sit back and watch England... and finally just enjoy the moment."
  • The song was covered by Ashleigh Murray and Camila Mendes for the Riverdale season 2 episode "Chapter Twenty-Five: The Wicked and the Divine".
  • The song was used during the final scene and outro credits of My Dinner with Hervé.
  • "Bitter Sweet Symphony" serves as the title theme for the Investigation Discovery series The 1990s: The Deadliest Decade.
  • The song was used at the end of the film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan by Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan.

    Track listings

    CD 1 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 6:00 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51 #"Country Song" – 7:50 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35

    CD 2 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (extended version) – 7:52 #"So Sister" – 4:11 #"Echo Bass" – 6:39

    Cassette #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51

    7" #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51

    12" #"Bitter Sweet Symphony (original) – 6:00 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Remix) #"Country Song" – 7:50

    Promo CD #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35

    Promo 12" #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (alt version) #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (MSG)

    Remix 12" #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Remix) #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Instrumental Remix)

    US version

    CD #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 5:58 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:52 #"So Sister" – 4:11 #"Echo Bass" – 6:39

    Cassette #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 5:58 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:52

    Promo CD #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:16 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 5:57 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (Call Out Research Hook 1 Vocal) – 0:12 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (Call Out Research Hook 2 Instrumental) – 0:11

    Promo 12" #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Remix) - 5:50 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (album version) – 5:57 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (James Lavelle Instrumental Remix) - 5:50

    Japanese version

    CD #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 6:00 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51 #"Country Song" – 7:50 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35

    Dutch version

    CD #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (original) – 6:00 #"Lord I Guess I'll Never Know" – 4:51 #"Country Song" – 7:50 #"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (radio edit) – 4:35


    Weekly charts

    Year-end charts