Music | May 24, 2019 11:09 am

The Rolling Stones Give Back Royalty Rights to “Bitter Sweet Symphony”

The legal dispute with the Verve's Richard Ashcroft took 22 years to resolve

Bitter Sweet Symphony
Richard Ashcroft and his old band the Verve regain the royalties for "Bittersweet Symphony" (Hut Recordings)

You can’t even call it a bittersweet victory, but two-plus decades after it hit, singer Richard Ashcroft will finally start earning royalties for “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

The song has a long and complicated history: Ashcroft and his former band, the Verve, sampled an orchestral version of the The Rolling Stones track “The Last Time” for their 1997 hit, although the lyrics were all Ashcroft (and there’s more musically to the song than the sample).

As Rolling Stone reported, the Verve initially licensed a five-note segment of Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s take on the Stones classic in exchange for 50 percent of the royalties; however, Ashcroft’s band was accused of using a larger section of the song. A suit was filed by late Stones manager Allen Klein and eventually the entire song credit and all songwriting royalties were given over to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who were credited with writing the original tune (and who both later somehow received a Best Song Grammy nomination out of the mess).

You can quibble about the Verve’s sample usage, but the Stones never looked good after the verdict, even as they tried to pawn the decision off on their legal team. “I’m out of whack here, this is serious lawyer [stuff],” said Richards back in 1999, adding “If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”

Maybe the Rolling Stones guitarist should have thrown some cash to “The Last Time” orchestra arranger David Whitaker, who never received any credit or royalties for his contributions. Or maybe Richards should have credited the writers of the gospel song “This May Be the Last Time,” which inspired the Stones track. “[Our song] was basically re-adapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time,” said Richards in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones.

Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed; Ashcroft credits a new negotiation with Klein’s son and current Rolling Stones manager Joyce Smyth. “I never had a personal beef with the Stones,” the Verve singer told the BBC at the Ivor Novello Awards, which recognizes (irony alert!) songwriting and where Ashcroft was receiving a lifetime achievement award. “They’ve always have been the greatest rock and roll band in the world.”