"Bitter Sweet Symphony" is a song by English alternative rock band The Verve. It is the lead track on their third album Urban Hymns (1997). It was released on 16 June 1997 as the first single from the album, reaching number two on the UK Singles Chart. The single was released in the United States in early 1998, where it reached number twelve on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also became famous for the legal controversy surrounding plagiarism charges.
Rolling Stone ranked "Bitter Sweet Symphony" as the 382nd best song of all time. In May 2007, NME magazine placed "Bitter Sweet Symphony" at number 18 in its list of the "50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever". In September 2007, Q published a list of "Top 10 Tracks" as selected via a poll of 50 songwriters; "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is included. In the Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time, 2009 (an online music poll conducted by the Australian radio station Triple J) the track was voted the 14th best song of all time.
Although the song's lyrics were written by Verve vocalist Richard Ashcroft, it has been credited to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger after charges by the original copyright owners that the song was plagiarized from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of The Rolling Stones' 1965 song "The Last Time".
Originally, The Verve had negotiated a licence to use a sample from the Oldham recording, but it was successfully argued that the Verve had used 'too much' of the sample. Despite having original lyrics, the music of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is partially based on the Oldham track, which led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, Allen Klein's company that owns the rights to the Rolling Stones material of the 1960s. The matter was eventually settled, with copyright of the song reverting to ABKCO and songwriting credits to Jagger and Richards.
"We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing," says band member Simon Jones. "They rung up and said 'we want 100 per cent or take it out of the shops', you don't have much choice."
After losing the composer credits to the song, Richard Ashcroft commented, "This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years."
The song was later used, against the will of the band, by Nike in a shoe commercial. As a result, it was on the Illegal Art CD from the magazine Stay Free!. The song was also used in a Vauxhall Motors advertisement and several of Opel, prompting Ashcroft to declare onstage, "Don't buy Vauxhall cars, they're shit." However, the band were able to stop further use of the song by employing the European legal concept of moral rights.
On Ashcroft's return to touring, the song traditionally ended the set list. Ashcroft also reworked the single for 'VH2 Live' for the music channel VH1, stripping the song of its strings. Ashcroft is quoted as saying during the show: "Despite all the legal angles and the bullshit, strip down to the chords and the lyrics and the melody and you realise there is such a good song there."
He also dedicated the song to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at a gig at the Sage Gateshead in Gateshead. After several audience members booed, Ashcroft exclaimed, "Don't boo, man. As long as I can play this song I'm happy to pay a few of those guys' bills."
In a Cash For Questions interview with Q magazine published in January 1999, Keith Richards was asked if he thought it was harsh taking all The Verve's royalties from "Bitter Sweet Symphony" to which he replied, "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money."
The video for "Bitter Sweet Symphony" features Ashcroft lip-synching the song while walking down a busy street; Ashcroft refuses to change his stride or direction throughout, apparently oblivious to what is going on around him. He repeatedly bumps into passers-by (causing at least one to trip and fall), narrowly avoids being hit by a car, and jumps on top of the bonnet of another vehicle stopped in his path (the owner proceeds to shout at him while he seems to be unaware). At the end of the video, the rest of The Verve join Ashcroft, and the final shot sees them walking down the street into the distance. This then leads into the beginning of the video for "The Drugs Don't Work".
Ashcroft starts walking from the southeast corner of the intersection of Hoxton and Falkirk Streets in Hoxton, north London, subsequently proceeding north along the east side of Hoxton Street. The "pavement journey" format was inspired by the music video for the Massive Attack song "Unfinished Sympathy", in which Shara Nelson sings while walking through a Los Angeles neighbourhood. The British comedy band Fat Les would later release a direct parody for their 1998 song "Vindaloo"; Paul Kaye takes the role of an Ashcroft look-alike who is mocked by a growing group of passers-by as the video progresses.