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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Bitter Sweet Symphony" is a Britpop hit unlike any other

Between its sampling dispute, its distinctive vocal elements, and its point of view, the Verve's enduring anthem leaves a unique impression.

There is so much I can say about today's song, from its unmistakable sound to its sampling controversy to why it resonates with me so much. I'll be touching on all of those as I look at the act and song I believe to be the greatest "one-hit wonder" of all time, especially when it comes to their success in the United States.

That little preface, if not for the title already naming the song, likely would have cued you into my selection for the 150th (!!!) entry in my Senior Year Soundtrack being the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony." The 90s may be my weak spot when it comes to my musical knowledge, but this track has transcended the boundaries of decade and genre. I still hear it in myriad contexts, to the point that I become even more impressed with frontman and songwriter Richard Ashcroft for how he created such an enduring anthem. I also wonder, whenever I hear "Bitter Sweet Symphony," whether the sample around which the song is based is the foremost contributor to its timelessness.

The string melody is where it all begins for "Bitter Sweet Symphony," both in terms of the song's unique sound and its sampling controversy. The string melody comes from an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time," as arranged and directed by the Stones' then-manager and producer, Andrew Loog Oldham. Richard Ashcroft and the Verve had gotten permission from the Stones' label, Decca, to use a short sample of the orchestral version, but they did not get permission from later Stones manager Allen Klein, who held the copyrights to "The Last Time." A legal dispute ensued, and ultimately the songwriting credits were signed over to Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for two decades, during which time Klein received the royalties through his holding company. Finally, in 2019, Jagger and Richards they signed the rights back over to Ashcroft in 2019, allowing him and his band to receive writing royalties for their unrivaled biggest song.

"Bitter Sweet Symphony" may sound little like the original version of "The Last Time," but it clearly has its similarities to the half-time orchestral version, and I wonder if these similarities contribute to the song's feeling of timelessness. Maybe that's the case, or maybe it's something about the classy, symphonic feeling that comes from hearing strings that makes the track so evergreen. I have to think it's something involving the strings that makes me feel this way, considering that the song's other elements strike me as being similar to their Britpop bedfellows of the late 90s. Peter Salisbury's snare-heavy beat propels the song forward, while Nick McCabe and Simon Tong' guitar work guitar work alternates between playing alongside the catchy string melody and adding to the song's atmosphere through reverb- and feedback-heavy motifs. All the while, Simon Jones grounds the track with his ever-steady bass playing.

However, what makes "Bitter Sweet Symphony" sound so unique to me, even more than the strings in all their glory, is Richard Ashcroft's voice. More than his Manchester-like accent — owing to his Wigan origin — the uniqueness comes from the constant presence of a lower harmony beneath his lead vocal. This lower harmony is always somewhat of a distance of a way, rarely if ever getting as close as a third, and so it always feels slightly disconnected, but in a way that never detracts from the main vocal or any other harmony. If anything, it augments the lyrical narrative that Ashcroft embodies, as he sings of not being able to live as he wants to because he has to conform to others' ideas of what he needs to be. This is the crux of both his verse lyrics ("Try to make ends meet / You're a slave to the money, then you die") and his repetitive chorus ("No change, I can change, I can change, I can change / But I'm here in my mold / I am here in my mold"). The song suggests that he has the ability to break the mold in which he's found himself — and maybe if he did, his two vocal lines could come together in a closer harmony — but he never does, even as he strives for an emotional connection at the literal heart of it all, "the place where all the veins meet."

With all of the above considered, the overwhelming feeling I get from "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is that life's bittersweetness comes from the constant battle between the desire to live as one's true self and the constant need to conform in order to please others and register material gains. People so often preach about being yourself and living the way you want to live, but that's not where we tend to find success. It's a sordid perspective that I see as mirroring the song's writing credits dispute... up until Jagger and Richards' commendable, magnanimous ceding of the rights to Ashcroft. That small, but noticeable wrinkle puzzles me as to its place in my view of the song. Maybe it suggests that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that being yourself and following your passions may ultimately pay dividends. I can't say for sure, given my lack of life experience at age 21, but I hope that's the case as I and others look toward a hopefully brighter and opportunity-filled future.


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