It's October 1st, time once again for the "Battle of the Bands (BOTB)," the blogging event originally started by Stephen T. McCarthy and FarAwayEyes back in August of 2013. It occurs twice every month -- on the 1st and the 15th -- and is a fun way to share and discuss music. Each of the bloggers taking part offers their readers a choice of two (or occasionally more) versions of the same song, performed by different recording artists. And the readers get to vote for their favorite rendition.
Last time, I featured a controversial musician in Henry Kaiser; Now I'm choosing a different type of controversy for this Last Time.
Let the Battle Begin!
In 1965, The Rolling Stones released their first single in the UK written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger -- The Last Time (Note this wasn't the case in the US. The band's version of the blues standard, Little Red Rooster, was a #1 hit in the UK but had not been released as a single in the US -- Heart of Stone, also written by Jagger/Richards, had been released in the US in 1964 instead).
The Last Time became the group's third #1 hit in the UK. Take a listen to the Stones' original version:
In 1997, the band The Verve released a cover of The Last Time, but named the song Bitter Sweet Symphony. It became a hit and is pretty well-known. Take a listen to their version of the song and see what you think:
Wait -- what? You don't think this is the same song as The Last Time???
Well, I can see why you might think that, but legally it IS the same song, or at least it's close enough to be able to determine who wrote and owns the song: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are given credit as songwriters, and ABKCO Records, the firm started by Allen Klein, the manager of the Rolling Stones from 1965 - 1970, owns the publishing rights.
To help you understand this, and to hear how these radically different-sounding tunes might be considered "the same song," let me offer you the all-important missing piece:
Andrew Loog Oldham was the original manager and producer of the Rolling Stones from 1963 to 1967, and during that time he also created "The Andrew Oldham Orchestra" to develop studio talent. They made various instrumental and cover recordings, with most of them being orchestral versions of Stones songs. Here's their instrumental cover of The Last Time from 1965:
Ah-hah! There it is -- you hear it? That five-note repeating line in the strings? Or is it seven notes? Or more? Perhaps even a whole song's worth?
Exactly how many notes of this orchestration did The Verve use in Bitter Sweet Symphony?
It matters. A lot. Millions and millions of dollars worth of "a lot."
Accusations over the use of the samples from this orchestrated cover of The Last Time degenerated into very messy in- and out-of-court battles and -- as frequently is the case when lawyers, egos, and huge amounts of money collide -- accounts differ. A few accounts say that the Verve did not have any permission to use any samples of the strings in Bitter Sweet Symphony, but many more accounts say that there was a 50%-50% licensing arrangement in place for "five notes" and that Klein and Oldham felt the Verve ended up using "too much" of the song, voiding that license.
The fact that the song was an international hit may have influenced the opinions as to "how much" of a sample was acceptable to use. Big money tends to muddy these kinds of questions.
Ultimately, pressured by the lawyers of both Klein and Oldham, the Verve settled out of court (twice) and relinquished 100% of both their rights to the songwriting royalties of Bitter Sweet Symphony as well as all of the publishing rights. The song was the biggest (and only) hit by the group, and they received no money from its sales, or from it being licensed by to Nike for use in their commercials, or from any of the many other times you may have heard it at sporting events, on TV, or elsewhere.
In fact, none of the musicians who might be considered "writers" of this song likely receives any money from it at all:
- Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote the original song The Last Time, and even though they're credited as songwriters on Bitter Sweet Symphony, they've received no money from it, having signed the rights to all of their early songs over to Klein and ABKCO Records as part of a 1970 deal that may or may not have been entirely upfront on Klein's part (again -- accounts differ). Keith Richards called the deal, "the price of an education."
- David Whitaker was actually the composer who wrote, arranged, and orchestrated the music for the version of The Last Time for the Andrew Oldham Orchestra, but he likely received no money from Bitter Sweet Symphony. I can't find any documentation to verify it, but odds are very good he was paid to do the work in 1965 on a single-time basis, with no rights to any future use of the music.
- Richard Ashcroft from the Verve wrote all new lyrics, and the band added over 50 tracks of new music to the string sample used in Bitter Sweet Symphony, but thanks to the out-of-court settlements, he and the band have gotten to keep no money from the song either. In 1999, when the song was nominated for a Grammy, Jagger and Richards were listed as nominees, and Ashcroft quipped that "it was the best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years."
- It's interesting also that back during those early days, songwriting was entirely new to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. All their previous hits had been covers (Not Fade Away, Time is on my Side, It's All Over Now, etc), and in trying to write songs for themselves, they also tended to "sample" from older songs as well. Keith Richards admitted in the 2003 book, "According to the Rolling Stones" that, 'we came up with The Last Time, which was basically re-adapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers." I'm pretty sure the Staple Singers never got any money from Bitter Sweet Symphony either.
I guess it's a good thing for the Stones that the Staple Singers didn't have aggressive ex-mangers with powerful lawyers, too...
'Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life
Try to make ends meet
You're a slave to money then you die
Try to make ends meet
You're a slave to money then you die
So now it's your turn: Do YOU think that The Last Time and Bitter Sweet Symphony are the same song? And which "version" of the song do you like best? The "original" reworking of an old gospel song by The Rolling Stones or the "sampled" reworking by The Verve? Or maybe you prefer the 1965 orchestral version by David Whitaker and the Andrew Oldham Orchestra.
Also -- be sure to add your thoughts on the whole issue of "whose song" this is -- did the Verve rip-off the Stones and get caught? Or did they get bullied by lawyers and unfairly give up the rights to their original work?
I invite you to listen to each version and give them a chance. And try not to focus on the video images too much (close your eyes if you must) -- the battle is about the music, not the video production.
After listening, please vote in the comments as to which version you think is best, or which speaks to you the deepest. Feel free to also share as much as you would like about how any of the above recordings strike you, even if it's less than positive.
Then -- afterwards, check out the other BOTB bloggers to vote on their battles:
- Far Away Series (FarAwayEyes)
- Stephen T. McCarthy's Battle of the Bands Blog
- Tossing it Out (Arlee Bird)
- Your Daily Dose (Robin)
- DiscConnected (DiscConnected)
- Mike's Ramblings (Mike Pain)
- Curious as a Cathy (Cathy Kennedy)
- John Hilton (The Sound of One Hand Typing)
- And even Alex J. Cavanaugh sometimes...
Thank you very much for listening and for voting -- come back and visit again next week to find out how the voting has gone. I'll make a post then with my own vote and also announce the winner.
And in the meantime -- May today not be The Last Time you get to enjoy this Bitter Sweet Symphony of life, but always be sure to cherish every minute you have!