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Why ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ Keeps Hitting

One of the best-known samples reveals that music is a flat circle

In 1995, there was “Wonderwall” by Oasis. In 1997, it was the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The Britpop craze of that decade spawned many other massive songs and albums, but you might say the peak of this catchy alt-rock sound had these singles for parentheses. And if you were, say, a jaded 12-year-old white kid when “Bitter Sweet Symphony” dominated radio waves and MTV alike, you prized it as a crucial anthem.

Nothing could be cooler, I thought at the time, than the music video of a pale, shaggy, stone-faced Richard Ashcroft, the Verve’s frontman, walking through London toward the camera in a single continuous shot, refusing to break his stride, even when he slammed into a person going the other way.

As I listened to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” on my Sony Discman — it was the first track on the album, and I rarely got past it — I tried to emulate Ashcroft’s indifferent swagger. I knew the future held disappointment in store, as the song effectively said so: “‘Cause it’s a bitter sweet symphony this life / Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.” But if I faced this truth head-on, unafraid, with that soaring orchestral loop in my ears, I would know beauty.

Years later, in college and beyond, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” wasn’t quite the mood. It was a little earnest, a little corny — we’d gotten hooked on Radiohead in the meantime — and did the Verve really title a record Urban Hymns? Embarrassing.

But the DNA of the song, that hypnotic string sample, would not fade away. We came to prefer it embedded in the mashups of the era: Limewire MP3s that layered it under Jay Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” Girl Talk’s cheeky pairing with a filthy line from the Ying Yang Twins (“Wait till you see my dick”), and eventually, the demo mix of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo,” in which the riff is unmistakable. Derulo, however, hadn’t cleared this usage, meaning the official track features different, electronic instrumentation.

This was, in fact, yet another chapter in the long legal saga of that simple musical pattern, a story that drives to the heart of the melody’s enduring influence and triumphant sorrow. For the Verve had borrowed it from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s 1965 arrangement of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” itself an homage to (or, some would say, a blatant ripoff of) the Staple Singers’ gospel take on the traditional song “This May Be the Last Time.”  

If you saw the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” video on VH1’s Pop-Up Video, you knew that it triggered a lawsuit, and that, in the end, the band made essentially nothing off their biggest hit. Songwriting credits reverted to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who collected royalties along with manager and copyright holder Allen Klein. (Oldham took his cut through a separate filing.)

All of which made the track into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy — the sweetness of a chart-topping, era-defining single, combined with the bitter taste of industry giants pocketing the profit on charges of plagiarism, even though the chain of artistic thievery had kicked off in the 1960s. The feud didn’t truly end until 2019, a decade after Klein, the plaintiff of the original suit, passed away: Ashcroft announced that Jagger and Richards had signed the rights back to him, guaranteeing future royalties on the song, “a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do.”  

With all that baggage, it’s no wonder “Bitter Sweet Symphony” continues to strike a nerve for people currently on their way toward middle age. Not only is it a nostalgia wormhole to a time when we were over it all, but had barely achieved sentience; it’s also an ode to the truth of banal cliché: Money does rule the world, it’s impossible to change who you are and there’s no such thing as “originality” — all of culture derives from something previous. We spend early adulthood rolling our eyes at the cheap wisdom of this sentiment, since it seems so obvious, hardly suspecting that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is about the acceptance of it, which we’re still holding at arm’s length.   

Not for nothing is my current favorite lyric, one I never registered as a kid: “I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now.” Inevitably, a sonic experience that gives you goosebumps will transcend any of the woe and heartache it may have caused, synchronizing with the very atmosphere. This particular phrase, dear to melodramatic white dorks like me for decades now, has recently shown up in the work of black artists, where its effect is stronger than ever — Young Thug’s “Magnolia” manipulates the sample to suspend it in the uncanny gap between the familiar and the strange, and the result is just as addictive as “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” In the heredity of Oldham’s swooning strings, we have a through line for pop music, and therefore history.            

Don’t beat yourself up, then, for turning to the Verve when you want to let a wistful and serene emotion wash over you. There’s no resisting it, and plenty of us are in the same boat. Neither can surrendering to this melancholy air again and again ever bring a resolution — the cycle of notes insinuates their eternal echo, the undying repeat. Maybe that’s why musicians and producers keep picking it up — to add their piece to a thread. Any aliens who picked up radio signals from the 1990s have probably done the same.

Ownership? Copyright? None of it counts in the journey on the only road I’ve ever been down. You know, the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet. Yeah.