Today in music history: 20 years of The Verve’s “Urban Hymns”

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The 1990s was a decade of growth for alternative music. Stepping away from its college rock aesthetic, the genre evolved and the resulting popularity made bands like The Verve household names and award winners.

The Verve and “Bittersweet Symphony”

In 1997, The Verve released its seminal album, “Urban Hymns.” Even people who never bought the recording can remember the song “Bittersweet Symphony.” With its symphonic soundscape and sardonic lyrics, “Bittersweet Symphony” proved alluring enough to listeners to crack Billboard’s alternative chart, reaching No. 4, and hitting No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Bitters legal battle

Ironically, “Bittersweet Symphony” and its subsequent success was the source of a legal fight between The Verve and The Rolling Stones’ former manager, Allen Klein. According to RollingStone.com and Billboard.com, that catchy symphonic sound characteristic of “Bittersweet Symphony” is an orchestral arrangement of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” (1965).

According to reports,The Rolling Stones won, and initially settled for 50 percent of the profits, until the song’s popularity exceeded expectations, and The Rolling Stones received all of the song’s profits. When “Bittersweet Symphony” was nominated for a Grammy in 1998, RollingStone.com explains, Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richard’s names were on the ballot.

The irony is the part of “The Last Time” that the band used had been written by a then-uncredited orchestra arranger by the name of David Whitaker. Whitaker’s contributions to music were well-documented before his death in 2012.

There are numerous books about copyright law, and at least one covers the legal battle between The Rolling Stones’ manager and The Verve. In the particularly scathing “Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity” by Kembrew McLeod, the author asserts that if anyone should have received credit and money from “Bittersweet Symphony” it should have been Whitaker. However, McLeod also points out that “The Verve layered nearly fifty tracks of instrumentation, including novel string arrangements to create a distinctly new song.”

Sadly, McLeod also explains that after the legal battles and other upsetting events related to the loss of control of “Bittersweet Symphony,” The Verve’s lead singer, Richard Ashcroft¬† had a “nervous breakdown and the band eventually broke up.”

Why “Bittersweet Symphony” matters

The song matters because it captures the spirit of the times. Generation X was still young, some were in high school, others¬† college, and a few beginning careers. Lyrics about the near-futile pursuit of money in the shadow of an inevitable death, rang true to listeners. “It’s just sex and violence melody and silence,” the lyrics lament.

Further, the lyrics define what the band categorizes as a “Bittersweet Symphony” which is life. There are good and bad elements to life, and if people are to survive, they have to cope with the bitter and the sweet. In addition, what some find especially poignant is the singer’s need to find sounds that “recognize the pain in me.” The call was made for depth and resonance. This signaled a generation’s dissatisfaction with empty songs that had nothing to do with listeners’ lives. And that was the initial pull of alternative music. The songs were about unusual situations and people. The voice of the fringe had been set to music. And the song’s sentiment is clear.

While “Bittersweet Symphony” has been the subject of legal examination and scholarly inquiry, it remains what it has always been, a song that makes art out of a generation’s observations, in part by setting them to an almost-dreamlike soundscape.

 

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