At Last! Richard Ashcroft will start earning royalties for his 1997 song Bitter Sweet Symphony. You know the video with the guy walking carelessly down the street? It was so well known that for a few years afterwards I could get a slight chuckle from folk by just saying “I bumped into Richard Ashcroft the other day”.
He had agreed with the owner of the Rolling Stones’ publishing to use a sample, basically 6 notes of The Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s interpretation of The Stones’ classic The Last Time. They would split the royalties 50:50.
Richard/The Verve had not understood that they were dealing with a devil lawyer with little sympathy for artists. The person in control of the song was Allen Klein, the Rolling Stones ex-manager. His company ABKCO owned the rights. ABKCO is the Allen and Betty Kline Company which sounds like a nice family business but he was notoriously ruthless and he crops up in all the autobiographies of artists of the period. He would get you out of a bad deal, get you a load of money, then get you into a bad deal with his company instead.
He argued that the Verve had used too much of the sample and sued for 100% of the royalties. They caved in without it being contested in court and every time the song has been played on the radio, they have been paid nothing and Richard Ashcroft got a little flick on the nuts. ABKCO and Jagger & Richards get it all. Oh, and the Stones ex-ex-manager Andrew Loog Oldham of the old days got a wee bit too.
It is the righting of a moral if not exactly legal injustice and this is great for Richard Ashcroft who will get some money for his work. Keith, Mick and Allen Klein’s son have agreed to not backdate the royalties earned as that would be the kindest thing to do and cost a small fortune that they can easily afford, but to allow all future royalties to go to Richard Ashcroft as the recognised composer of the song. This is over Allen Klein’s dead body as he died a few years ago of Alzheimer’s disease. He will definitely be birling in his grave as he never gave an inch in life so well done to his son. It has been a bitter and difficult 20 years for Wigan’s finest.
“It’s the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years” said Richard Ashcroft at the time.
Keith retorted with a sentence that could knock you out of your coconut tree “If he writes a better song, he can keep the money”. Whaaat?
Asked about it, Andrew Loog Oldham said he got a very presentable watch strap while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both got very nice watches. Andrew had actually earlier lost a fight to get the lion’s share of the royalties for the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s Rolling Stones based songs from ABKCO.
“He’d have done the same to me” Said Allen Klein; which is a sociopathic way of viewing the world but all the same may be true. It is a murky business.
Let’s go back a bit. What even was the Andrew Oldham Orchestra? It was a bunch of session composers, musicians and arrangers put together by Andrew Oldham that knocked out instrumental easy-listening style interpretations of Stones hits. Well, it was also, I think, a way for him to make some money by getting a writing credit. James Last was selling millions of records of instrumental cover versions at the time so the market for this kind of thing was huge. He talks about this honestly in his fantastic autobiographies, Stoned and 2Stoned. He admits to learning a lot of tricks from the great gun toting, wife kidnapping, actress killing, Wall of Sound, BACK TO MONO producer Phil Spector.
For example, when a single is released, the writer of the B-side gets the same as the writer of the A-side on every disc sold. So when Andrew Loog Oldham discovered Marianne Faithfull and released her debut single, the first Jagger/Richards composition; the written while locked in the kitchen by Andrew until you write a song song. As Tears Go By was the result. Like sitting on the wall looking into a convent. He put Greensleeves on the B-side with a writing credit “Arr. Oldham”.
So he got half the money on all of the singles sold even though the song he “wrote” wasn’t even that good. Spector would also put much poorer songs on the B-sides to prevent radio stations playing the other side. That seems odd but I definitely read that somewhere.
Back to the past and Bitter Sweet Symphony.
Andrew Loog Oldham commissioned the recording but the Bitter Sweet Symphony riff itself was composed in my view by a guy called David Whitaker. He is rightly credited as the ‘Arranger’ of the song as he reinterpreted the original work composed by Jagger and Richards.
Oldham himself got a composing credit of some sort along with Jagger and Richards. Presumably he said okay or nokay to a few notes -that could technically make him a composer. As he commissioned it, it certainly wouldn’t exist without him but that doesn’t make him the composer really in my view. Hey lackey! I want to write a song. So write me a song while I’m out for lunch.
The reinterpreted song is virtually unrecognisable from the original and I would like to think that Richard Ashcroft after celebrating the righting of a wrong might send David Whitaker a bunch of flowers.
To put on his grave as alas he died in 2012. He did alright though, contributing behind the scenes on countless records over a lifetime of work in the music business. He lived to 81 and had a great career composing and arranging recordings by some of the greats like Nico, Vashti Bunyan, Lee Hazlewood, Serge Gainsbourg and loads of others and became well regarded in France for his work with artists based there in the 1960s and latterly with the band Air. He had a nice obituary in the Guardian after he died in 2012.
Jagger and Richards have been notoriously stingy with writing credits in the past. Just ask Mick Taylor who powered the Rolling Stones through a gloriously creative period in the early 1070s but Mick and Keith couldn’t hear him knocking when he popped round to ask for a song-writing credit. He got I think one credit over 5 albums despite mind bending guitar work. Hear the last half of this:
Mick Taylor sued in the 1980s after they released Tattoo You with 2 uncredited Mick Taylor tracks: Waiting For A Friend and Tops. Taylor sued the band for unpaid royalties and this was presumably settled out of court.
This was just something that I wanted to mention and put on to the internet to help set the record straight. And also to remind bassists and drummers everywhere that the funky riff and masterly beat won’t earn you radio royalties unless your name is on the label with your, let’s face it, more handsome and charismatic frontman. So try to negotiate a fair deal early on.
In memory of David Whitaker and with a fondness for the session guys.