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Rolling Stones give Richard Ashcroft back his Bitter Sweet Symphony

By | Published on Friday 24 May 2019

Richard Ashcroft

Last year, Richard Ashcroft said in an interview that he planned to claw back the song royalties for Verve song ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, which he’d have to give up in the 1990s when the licensing of the string sample in the recording didn’t go his way. At the time it just seemed like the latest outlandish and unlikely thing he’d said in a run of bizarre interviews around the release of his latest solo album. But, you know what, he’s actually gone and done it.

In a statement yesterday, Ashcroft said: “It gives me great pleasure to announce as of last month Mick Jagger and Keith Richards agreed to give me their share of the song ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. This remarkable and life affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith, who have also agreed that they are happy for the writing credit to exclude their names and all their royalties derived from the song they will now pass to me”.

How Ashcroft came to lose the publishing rights in his most successful song when it was released in 1997 is quite complicated. But basically, it relates to the four second string sample on his band’s recording of it, which was lifted from an instrumental version of ‘The Last Time’ by The Rolling Stones, recorded by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra.

The publishing rights for that song were owned by the company of former Stones manager Allen Klein, aka ABKCO. Klein – who was vehemently against sampling – eventually agreed to grant a licence on the songs side for the Verve release (a licence for the recording already being in place) on the condition that Ashcroft sign over all of his publishing rights in ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.

Unfortunately this all happened after CD copies of the album had been pressed and Ashcroft’s negotiating position was not good. Once the deal was done and the song a hit, ABKCO made sure it exploited these rights as much as possible – much to the annoyance of The Verve, who felt it was becoming over played.

Speaking last year, Ashcroft said: “I’m coming for that money. Someone stole god knows how many million dollars off me in 1997, and they’ve still got it. In terms, in normal basic terms, I don’t care where you come from, that’s a serious matter”.

Subsequently, Ashcroft’s management decided to attempt to appeal to Jagger and Richards’ better nature and secure the return of the rights in the song.

Despite having been told by those in the know that there was no chance of this plan succeeding, a press release says that the Stones duo actually “immediately, unhesitantly and unconditionally agreed”. They have also agreed to drop their writing credits on the hit, “kindly acknowledging that as far as they are concerned it is Richard’s song”.

Quite what this means specifically regarding the ownership of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ as of now isn’t clear. This is partly because of the complexities of song copyright ownership, partly because of Ashcroft’s slightly ambiguous comment, and partly because of an accompanying statement that said that Jagger and Richards had “agreed that – to the extent it is within their power – [to give Ashcroft] his song back”.

That may well mean that ABKCO will still have its stake in and earn from the song, but all and any writer share royalties – whether due through the collective licensing system or via the publisher – will go to Ashcroft. A request for more clarity has so far not been answered, possibly because we’re the only people in the world who are actually interested in precise copyright technicalities of this kind.

Continuing his statement yesterday, Ashcroft said: “I would like to thank the main players in this, my management Steve Kutner and John Kennedy, the Stones manager Joyce Smyth and Jody Klein – for actually taking the call – [and] lastly a huge unreserved heartfelt thanks and respect to Mick and Keith. Music is power”.

The announcement coincided with Ashcroft receiving the Outstanding Contribution To British Music prize at yesterday’s Ivor Novello Awards. Must have been nice not to have to share that with Mick and Keith.