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Bittersweet Victory: Why The Rolling Stones owned 100% of a song they didn’t write and how the writer got it back.

At the 2019 Ivor Novello Awards, Richard Ashcroft announced that after 22 years the dispute over his song, “Bittersweet Symphony” was over. The Rolling Stones would no longer be listed as songwriters or collect any royalties from the song.

Many people are applauding Keith Richards and Mick Jagger for doing this, I’m not so quick to give them credit (pun intended!). At the time the message coming from The Rolling Stones camp was they were entitled to every penny from the track.

In a 1999 interview with Q magazine, Keith Richards said: “If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money”. Also in 1999, Andrew Oldham (The Rolling Stones former producer) said of Ashcroft “…he thinks he wrote something. He didn’t. I hope he’s got over it.”

Don’t jump to any conclusions yet though, this story is far more complex than you can imagine.

So why did The Rolling Stones have a claim to the song in the first place?

The Verve’s 1996 recording of “Bittersweet Symphony” contained a 4 second sample of “The Last Time” released under the name The Andrew Oldham Orchestra.

Andrew Loog Oldham was The Rolling Stones’ manager and producer between 1963 and 1967. In 1966 he released an instrumental album of The Rolling Stones songs using members of the band and an array of session musicians.

The Orchestral Version of the song sounds very little, if at all, like The Rolling Stones version. However, as it is officially released as a cover version, and credits Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as the writers, it is established as a derivative work based on existing copyright material.

Clearing the Sample

Prior to releasing “Bittersweet Symphony” and the accompanying album “Urban Hymns”, The Verve had contacted Decca Records for permission to use the 4-second sample. They intended to give 50% of the composition of “Bittersweet Symphony” to Richards and Jagger for the sample with Ashcroft retaining the other 50% for his lyrics.

Now, within that 4-second sample, there are 2 distinct copyrights. The sound recording of the song, and the composition of the song itself. In this case, Decca Records owned the sound recording of the orchestral version. The Rolling Stones recording and publishing rights of the original version were both owned by ABKCO Records, the company of their former manager Allen Klein.

The Verve had cleared the use of the Decca owned sound recording but had not specifically agreed a deal with ABKCO for use of the composition. Which is where the problem begins.

Despite this oversight, the song was released and quickly became the band’s most successful single. It entered the UK chart at number 2 and stayed in the top 40 for 3 months.

The joy was short lived. Obviously inspired by the songs meteoric success Allen Klein sued The Verve over the rights to what was now a huge hit.

“They rung up and said, we want 100% or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice!”

Klein demanded 100% of the rights for the track and that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger be listed as sole composers of “Bittersweet Symphony”. He threatened to force the band to pull all the copies of the album from the shops, which would have been devasting financially to the group.

Meanwhile, the second single from the album, “The Drugs Don’t Work”, became the band’s first number 1 hit. They bowed to the pressure and felt their only option was to agree to Klein’s terms rather than risk losing an expensive legal battle and having to pull an album that now contained the bands 2 biggest hits in their history.

The Verve settled the case out of court and signed over 100% of the rights to ABKCO, with Richard Ashcroft reportedly receiving just $1000 in return.

Before we get into how Richard Ashcroft got back his rights, let’s look at a few details that are sometimes overlooked in this case.

Was “Last Time” the first time?

Firstly, The Rolling Stones version isn’t exactly an original work itself. It’s clearly based heavily on “This could be the last time” a traditional gospel song made famous by The Staple Singers….have a listen to the chorus.

If you need any more convincing, in 2003 Keith Richards confirmed the influence of The Staple Singers song. “…we came up with ‘The Last Time’, which 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.”

The lifetime of the copyright in a composition is currently 70 years after the composer/author’s death. So folk songs and other traditional songs that have been around far longer than that are not protected by copyright. Instead, they are considered “public domain” meaning you can create a new song based on the traditional song and then copyright that. Which is what The Rolling Stones did with “The Last Time”

The sample wasn’t in the early versions of the song

It’s hard to imagine “Bitter Sweet Symphony” without the strings but actually before recording the now iconic version Richard Ashcroft recorded the song with producer John Leckie, without the sample. From a legal standpoint, this proves that Richard Ashcroft wrote the song with no influence whatsoever from the Rolling Stones (or The Staple Singers) songs.

New Strings Attached!

On The Verve’s recording, the strings you hear at the start are not from the sample, they follow the same chords as the strings in the sample but the riff itself was written by string arranger Wil Malone. It’s worth noting that chord progressions are not protected by copyright so the fact that Malone’s riff follows the progression is irrelevant.

Ghost Writer…

The actual part of the orchestral version that was sampled wasn’t written by Keith Richards, Mick Jagger or even Andrew Oldham. It was written by string arranger David Whitaker who rarely gets mentioned and isn’t credited on any of the recordings.

With all that taken into consideration, it’s hard not to rank this as one of the biggest injustices in the music industry. Especially when you think about the fact the song was nominated for a Grammy in 1999 and the ballot named Jagger and Richards.

Who’s to blame?

Despite Keith Richards’ comments at the time “Bittersweet Symphony” was released, neither Richards or Jagger was actually directly involved in the dispute between The Verve and ABKCO Records.

Allen Klein

The instigator of the dispute was notorious music mogul Allen Klein. He was so influential in the music industry that at one point he managed both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the 2 biggest bands on the planet, simultaneously. He’s credited with both saving rock ‘n’ roll and blamed for breaking up The Beatles.

His bullish business practices earned as many fans as it did enemies, John Lennon loved him, Paul McCartney hated him. Richards and Jagger were impressed at first, not least of all because Klein renegotiated their record deal to guarantee them $2.6million and make them higher earners than The Beatles. They soon came to distrust him though, as it seemed he was making much more out of the band than a manager should.

The original music industry disruptor?

I could fill an entire blog with accounts of his business dealings, and maybe I will at some point, but here’s a brief outline of his management model.

Klein set up ABKCO Records and when signing artists their recording and publishing rights were transferred to his company, or to a newly formed holding company. He would then license the works to labels. In itself, there is nothing wrong with the model. At first, it seemed to really work well for the artists.

For example, he set up a holding company for Sam Cooke that produced and owned his music. He then licensed the recordings to RCA Victor in a deal that gave RCA distribution rights for just 30 years (rather than forever as was common at the time) in return for 6% of the royalties and a minimum of $500,000 in advances paid to Cooke over 3 years.

The nature of the deals he did was unheard of at the time and certainly went a long way to shifting the distribution of power, and money, more in favour of the artists. However, he always managed to insert himself in the deals in such a way that he was able to make huge amounts of money for himself, but not without raising suspicions.

Rolling the Stones

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Allen Klein leave court.

In 1968, just 3 years after becoming their manager, The Rolling Stones had become so distrustful of Klein they hired London law firm Berger Oliver & Co to look into their financial affairs and Jagger hired the band’s future manager Prince Rupert Loewenstein as his personal financial adviser.

Jagger and the band discovered that buried in the small print of their deals with Klein were clauses that allowed ABKCO to withhold millions of dollars from them. This included a $1.25million advance paid by Decca in 1965 that ABKCO did not legally have to pass on to the band for 20 years!

In 1970 Klein was replaced by Loewenstein and the band spent more than 20 years sueing ABKCO to get their rights back and recover unpaid royalties. However, they were unable to break the terms of their management deal with Klein.

This meant that in the midst of the dispute and despite numerous legal battles ABKCO was able to release 4 albums by The Rolling Stones after the band had moved on to new management.

As well as owning the songs released during his time as manager, ABKCO had also purchased the rights held by the previous manager Andrew Oldham for $750,000. This included “The Last Time”. Which bring us back to “Bittersweet Symphony”

Back to 1997…

Given his past practices, it was inevitable that Allen Klein would take advantage of his rights in The Rolling Stones works. That same track record means we can never be sure how much, if any, of the money from “Bittersweet Symphony” actually made it into the hands of Jagger and Richards.

We can be fairly certain that Klein was acting solely in his own interest when he initiated legal proceedings back in 1997. That doesn’t explain Keith Richards’ comments in the Q Magazine interview, which seem to assert his belief that they have a claim to The Verve’s track. For now, I will put that down to Rock ‘n’ Roll hyperbole.

The fight for rights.

So how did they get the rights back? Most people’s go to tactic in these type of situations is to sue. Their lawyer calls the other persons lawyer and the two lawyers argue it out, clocking up countless billable hours of legal work.

Often a lawyers main objective is to shield their client from these disputes, on many occasions they will try to settle it with as little involvement from their client as possible. Sometimes they even initiate cases without consulting their client, like the time Metallica’s attorney issued a 41 page cease and desist notification to a tribute band.

So you can’t assume an artist or band is involved in legal cases initiated in their name. Likewise, you can’t assume you are dealing with the artist when trying to negotiate via a lawyer, manager or another intermediary.

Instead of suing Jagger and Richards, they made the sensible first step of just asking them to give back the rights before getting litigious.

It worked. According to Richard Ashcroft’s management, “Mick and Keith immediately, unhesitatingly and unconditionally agreed to this request. Incredibly generously and as an indication of what great artists and men they are they have agreed that to the extent it is within their power they have given Richard his song back.”

Follow the money…

So all future royalties earnings of the song will now go to Ashcroft, but what about the 22 years of royalties that have already been paid? Will they be given back too?

Allen Klein died in 2007 and his son Jody has been managing ABKCO since 2005, so any negotiations about retroactive payments from the money received by ABKCO will have to go through him.

Perhaps Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will “unhesitatingly” and “generously” repay the money they received if asked? It’s hard to estimate how much that would be but if you take into account the airplay it received (which attracts a licensing fee paid by the broadcaster), and the movies and TV shows it has been in, the amount is likely to be in the 10’s of millions.

It’s fantastic that one of the biggest injustices in music has been corrected and that the true writer will be credited but the huge financial losses and emotional strain caused by the dispute make this a bittersweet victory.