CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR
The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
From: Urban Hymns
This is probably the hardest “Confessions” post I’ve had to write yet in that I’m a huge Verve fan, the proud owner of each of Richard Ashcroft’s solo albums and I rate Urban Hymns as one of the five greatest albums of all time. Trying to put what I consider to be one of the finest songs of the decade in the same category as I did with songs by the Backstreet Boys and Barenaked Ladies seems to tread a bit too close to sacrilege, but hey, my whole appreciation of the Verve started the first time I heard “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”
As a rabid Anglophile in 1997, it didn’t take much to tip me headlong into the Verve’s back catalogue, and the fact that the band was Oasis-approved only made my investigation of earlier albums such as A Northern Soul that much more enjoyable.
But not everyone was as obsessive as I was in the latter half of the ’90s. For a lot of people, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was simply a great slice of fist-in-the-air bravado that seemed nicely tailored to temporarily serve as a personal creed, whether you were working out, stuck in traffic or watching the end of a melodramatic teen movie.
And don’t tell me the song’s testosterone-laced video didn’t give you a bit of inspiration as you trudged down your own neighborhood sidewalks or high school hallways. Ramming your shoulders into those of a passerby, hopping on the hood of a car and/or completely ignoring a woman giving you a face-to-face verbal undressing didn’t make you any less of an as*hole in 1997, but at the very least it put things into context. Didn’t matter where you were headed, the point was to not let anyone get in your way or intimidate you (and yes, Chumbawamba will also address this topic at a later point in this series).
To describe exactly why or how the sampled strings combined with Pete Salisbury’s militant drumming stirred up triumphant emotions in people is beyond me. The simple answer, I suppose, is that’s the power of a good song. Some tunes makes you want to nod your head, others make you want to sing along. Songs like “Bitter Sweet Symphony” are enough to make you want to take over the world for the few minutes it’s on. And if you think that’s hyperbole, I might ask you why Nike incorporated it for seemingly that very reason.
You also had to give the band credit for building a monster out of such an obscure sample. While Puff Daddy was establishing himself as alpha male by rhyming over 1980s hits and identifying samples had become the dominant theme in hip-hop culture, the Verve decided to transpose the formula on rock and roll. Instead of taking the Noel Gallagher-like easy road of lifting an identifiable riff for your own purposes however, the Verve raided the vinyl shops and uncovered an album of early 1960s Rolling Stones hits symphonically arranged under the moniker of the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestra.
But while Marc Bolan’s estate never phoned up Noel Gallagher to inquire about “Cigarettes & Alcohol,” Mick and Keef got a bit pissy that six notes from an orchestrational interpretation of their hit had been pinched for one of the biggest songs of 1997. As a result, Richard Ashcroft shared co-writing credits with Jagger and Richards and all the royalties from the Verve’s biggest song had to go to the Stones’ former publishing company, ABKCO. Oldham also sued the Verve in 1999 to try to get a cut of the profits the song continued to turn in.
Pushing the injustice a little further still, Mick and Keef really had no standing whatsoever to get so protective in the first place.
But of course all that lawyer business was only interesting to the people that were wound up enough by the song in the first place to wrap themselves up in the Verve’s musical output. Urban Hymns shifted a lot of copies, and I’m sure 75 percent of the people in the world that own A Northern Soul or A Storm in Heaven only made the purchase because they believed Urban Hymns was so powerful.
For a major sect of society, though, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was enough. The single would do, or the video… or the edited version that continually popped up on radio throughout 1997 and 1998. As all popular songs in the 1990s did, its time came and went and relegated a band capable of producing one of the greatest albums of all time to “one-hit wonder” status.
Of course, the song’s sheer musical force also gave it a better degree of staying power than, say, “I Want it That Way” or “Tha Crossroads.” The Verve coasted through a decent-enough reunion run in 2008 that produced an album of entirely new material but still was powered by the public’s lasting reverence for “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The song is now a touchstone for any 1990s montage sequences and even found itself at the center of the most heated debate about 2005’s Live8 benefit.
2000s survivors love it. 1990s survivors that remember the video and what that song first meant detest it.
Did Richard Ashcroft sell out? Did Coldplay just unapologetically jump on the coattails of a song far better than anything in their own catalogue? F*ck all the lawsuits surrounding the song — this still seems like its gravest injustice.
But it’s a bitter sweet symphony. That’s life.