Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Battle of the Bands: "The Last Time"

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

Your Vote

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:

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!


  1. WOW, Chris! This is a lot of food for thought for this one song. Okay, I will admit I am not a Stones fan. I gave the original a listen and thought, "Oh, hum...nothing too special." Then I listened to The Verve and The Andrew Oldham Orchestra both new-to-me groups. I definitely liked both of their renditions better than the Stones version. Do either of them knock my socks off? Nah, it's just an okay song. However someone has to get my vote, right? I guess The Verve's cover wins over the others. Why? I think it's just a combination of their voices and music arrangement that I liked better in the end. Thanks for the introduction to a new song on BOTB!

    1. You're welcome! Getting a reader to think a bit is always one of my goals when I blog and when I create music or writing. I just hope that they aren't thinking thoughts aren't along the lines of "Wow, this guy is an untalented jerk!" ;)

      And OK, so that's one vote for The Verve, but due to the out-of-court settlement and licensing ownership laws, that vote technically belongs to ABKCO records, so...

      Just kidding!!!

      -- The Verve 1; The Stones 0

  2. Interesting bit of history, but the legalities of all this irks me. Greed is what it comes down to. There has been a long historical precedent of composers borrowing from other works and expounding in themes and variations. That what I see here. It a matter of a derivative rock song being further derived into a tepid 90's song.

    The version by Verve is mildly entertaining to me, but it gets boring. The instrumental version is just that and doesn't really enter into my judgement in this match-up.

    For me the Stones win this contest with their version. It's the one I heard first and liked then and now.

    Tossing It Out

    1. I agree it can be irksome. And greed is certainly a part of it, but it also touches heavily on that basic human "Hey! That's Mine!" instinct, the same as if one of our neighbors decided to cut down a tree that we felt was on our property line.

      Plagiarism can be intentional or unintentional, subtle or blatant, and often-times subconscious. Artists are always "influenced" by other artists, and there can be a fine line between "influence" and "plagiarism."

      A saying attributed to Pablo Picasso is "Good artists copy; great artists steal." But I think it should be modified to include, "The wisest artists steal only from those who can't fight back in court!"

      And a vote for thse Stones:

      -- The Verve 1, The Stones 1

  3. The one thing everyone forgets when they hear about these deals where the artist signs their rights away and has a big hit and those "evil corporate bloodsuckers" get rich because they took advantage of them...

    The record labels also give out a lot of money to artists who never go anywhere. Of course, in those cases, it's those "evil corporate bloodsuckers" not doing a good job of promotion.

    A lot was made of Bruce Springsteen being cheated by his first manager...what got lost is that Bruce signed a contract without reading it because he was desperate to be signed. He didn't wake up with a horse's head in his bed, or have a gun to his head...he signed it willingly and happily. Shame on him for not reading it.

    So yes, there is corporate greed at play, but there is plenty of artist greed to go around. I am sure the Stones made up for the lack of royalties on this cover by charging $1,000 for seats to their last tour.

    As for the song, as much as I am a fan of Ashcroft, I have to give this one to the Stones. Ashcroft is really covering the cover, and this is supposed to be a rock song.


    1. Oh, I get it. And to be fair, in this case, I don't think there were really any big corporations involved. It mainly boiled down to individuals -- Klein and Oldham, not corporate giants like Sony or Time-Warner.

      Any artist signing a contract needs to be aware of what that contract entails. In most cases, it seems very fair at the time of signing -- offering future rights to songs that may never be successful seems like a fair trade for upfront investment and opportunities given to that artist.

      As an artist, I'd be wiling to do a deal based on some form of that basic arrangement. It's typically only after success does the "value" of those rights to songs seem "unfairly" signed away. But even then, the artist HAS gotten something of value -- exposure, promotion, and the opportunity to capitalize on that initial success with future works that they DO own the rights to.

      In the same way -- if The Verve's song had not been a hit, would it even have mattered to Klein and Oldham? Maybe, maybe not. Or, if The Verve had managed to create more successful work based on the success of "The Bitter Sweet Symphony" would it have seemed as unfair? Who knows....

      -- The Verve 1, The Stones 2

  4. 'The price of an education.' Ouch!

    The previous comments present some interesting sides to this type of story. While it's easy to feel sorry for the fact that none of the writers of performers of these few notes seemed to profit from it, it is important to 'look before you leap'. I think a lot of creative people are very trusting and believe that 'what is mine' will always be 'mine', regardless of what they sign away. It seems to be an all too familiar story for many who were starting out in any creative field.

    Love that Picasso quote, BTW.

    Now, back to the BATTLE at hand. Another most interesting and informative post. Without all of this background I don't think I ever would have put two and three together on this tune. I admit the instrumental version that is supposed to be a cover of The Stones original, sure does sound an awful lot like Bitter Sweet Symphony, but still very different from Mick and the Boys.

    I'm not sure how to vote. All three versions are a bit boring in their repetitive five, seven or whatever notes (maybe it's just my headache), so, none of them really excite me. I do like a lot of The Rolling Stones stuff, both old and new, but again this one never really did it for me in any special way.

    I think I'll give my vote to Mick and the Boys simply for the reason that they did it first. Or should that vote really go the The Staple Singers?

    1. Interesting points, FAE. I think it gets even more blurry when discussing "ownership" of artistic works. A combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm can sound 'similar' to a lot of other works, and the question of where the line between "similar" and "stolen" can be fuzzy and subjective. Here, it's clear that the Verve used a definite "sample" of the orchestrated version of "Last Time" -- the question then comes down to "how much" were they authorized to use, who actually owned the rights to using the sample (Klein owned the songwriting and publishing rights, but Oldham owned the rights for the use of the actual recording sampled), and that the Verve didn't do "enough" to make their song a "new" one. It can get very dicey....

      But I also find it interesting that you were the second person to call their song "boring." IT is a bit repetitive -- if the Verve had actually broken it up and only used that sample occasionally in the song, the whole issue might never had arisen.

      Another vote for the Stones:

      -- The Verve 1; The Stones 3

  5. That's guts, what the Verve did. And it's obviously a gamble that paid off.

    Still, being more or less a classic girl, myself, I'm still gonna go with the Stones on this one.

    1. Well, it depends -- if the Verve thought they had actually obtained the rights fairly and legally, there might not have been much guts involved. And while it did pay off in the sense that the song became successful and well-known, it didn't in the sense that in the end, the Verve got no money from it and had a lot of hassle and stress over the lawsuits.

      And another vote for the Stones:

      -- The Verve 1; The Stones 4

  6. CHRIS ~
    First thing I want to say is: I sure hope this will NOT be "The Last Time" you participate in 'BOTB'!

    Hokey-Smoke! What an interesting twist on 'BOTB'. I really enjoyed this one. (Of course it reminds me of the time George Harrison was sued and lost over the origin of the melody for 'My Sweet Lord'.)

    Used to like The Stones in my youth but grew tired of them over time. I still like the song 'GIMME SHELTER' a lot. And sorta kinda like a few other songs also, but just got sick and tired of hearing 'Satisfaction' and 'Paint It Black', etc.

    I was very familiar with 'The Last Time' and still like it somewhat (mainly due to the energy, I guess, and because it wasn't quite as overplayed as 'Satisfaction' et al.)

    It's certainly much easier to hear the connection between The Verve version and the instrumental Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording, than it is between The Stones and The Verve. And I think that's mostly due to the drastic change in tempo. However, despite the tempo difference, I CAN hear shades of that melody in all three recordings. Was it enough to sue over and win in or out of court? In my opinion, no, not really. But then I ain't a lawyer or a judge (praise God!)

    As far as my vote goes...
    As I said, I do like the energy of The Rolling Stones version, but the song doesn't exactly knock me out. And The Verve is OK except that the vocals don't do much for me. I think I would have liked The Verve version better if they had left out the vocals and made it an instrumental. Ah-Ha! In other words, I would have liked The Verve version better if it sounded very much like The Andrew Oldham Orchestra version.

    You know what this means, right, CHRIS?

    Yup. Give my vote to old man Oldham.

    Very cool and informative 'BOTB' blog bit.

    What will you give us on October 15th?...
    'MY SWEET LORD' Versus 'HE'S SO FINE'?

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

    1. Glad you liked it, StevieMacDaddy! I thought it would be an interesting discussion about "Are the songs really the same? Is this really a 'cover' song?" but so far, no-one's really even commented on that aspect of the battle. Although there have been lots of interesting discussion about other aspects -- just like in predicting how people will vote, I never have a clue what people will focus on in their comments, LOL!

      Some great thoughts, Mr Mc. And as far as I know, this won't be the last time for my BOTB posts... ;)

      And a first vote for the Orchestra version!

      -- The Verve 1; The Stones 4; Oldham Orchestra 1

    2. Well, I would argue that The Verve version is DEFINITELY a cover (or rip-off, depending upon the person's viewpoint) of the Oldham instrumental version. It seems less like a cover of The Stones' 'The Last Time' even though the Oldham rendition is meant as an instrumental cover of The Stones' song (and slowed down).

      So, again, I think much depends upon the tempo, even though those similar notes can be found in the melody of all three versions.

      It's just an interesting thing to ponder.

      ~ D-FensDogg

    3. I think it's interesting also. It touches on a lot of aspects of creativity -- how much can "influences" be used in "original" work? Where is the line between an acceptable sample used and "too much" used? How much does it take to turn a "cover" into an original work? Not to mention all the legal issues related to "ownership" of a created work.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. I have to give it to The Verve. Very smooth.

    1. Thanks, Alex!

      -- The Verve 2; The Stones 4; Oldham Orchestra 1

  8. Have to go with the Rolling Stones

    1. And another vote for the "original!"

      -- The Verve 2; The Stones 5; Oldham Orchestra 1

  9. I am going to first comment on non-battle issues (and licensing)... It sounds to me like The Verve made an agreement Klein & Oldham for that five note sequence, which I clearly hear in both versions (and, of course, the instrumental). I think they stuck to that agreement. Those five notes are dominant in both versions, but they are not the same song. I think The Verve got rolled over by old money. Of course, it sounds like Klein & Oldham screwed everyone on this deal (from the Staple Singers, to the Stones, to the orchestra dude... so it isn't surprising they went after The Verve).

    I don't think this song is that great (worth all of this argument and contention, that is). I like The Stones version and The Verve's version. But, to me, they are different songs. The Verve's song is different enough that I don't consider it a cover. Give my vote to The Verve, but by a slim margin. I like the lyrics better:)

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Robin! I think your opinions are pretty-widely held. But also -- if the Verve had added like a unique chorus and other breaks, and only used those five-notes intermittently in the song the issue might never had arisen. It's pretty clear that even with all the new tracks added, those same notes form the repeating foundation of the whole song and I think that's what led to trouble. I don't have this album (but I did actually buy an earlier album when it came out), but a lot of the Verve's music is based on that long, spacey drone type of feel -- there aren't that many changes in basic structure during their pieces. It's all variations in instrumentation and counter-point snippets coming and going during that long trance-y basic vibe. So maybe adding all that kind of stuff and the extra tracks meant they really DID make a lot of unique changes to the sample. The new lyrics definitely were different. So perhaps they might have actually won in court if they'd had the resolve and resources to go through the protracted legal battles. Who knows?

      And I'll put you down for the Verve:

      -- The Verve 3; The Stones 5; Oldham Orchestra 1

  10. This is very interesting. I had no idea there was so much stink over the verve song. Does it sound familiar...yes. Did they ask for the rights to the notes...yup. Do the powers that be always win...yup. That being said, I like the Verve song better. The Stones are classic and this song is classic but I love the violins and the whole atmosphere of the music. It seemed more poetic where the Stones version one can clearly hear a blues vibe.

    1. Glad you found it interesting! And I understand your point of view about the songs.

      -- The Verve 4; The Stones 5; Oldham Orchestra 1

  11. There are some differences between the versions by the Stones and Verve. I think I'll go with Verve's version here, because I like the sound of it better.

    John Holton
    The Sound Of One Hand Typing

    1. Thank you for your thoughts and vote, John. You've made it a tie. Now I'll have to be the tiebreaker! See my new post...

      -- The Verve 5; The Stones 5; Oldham Orchestra 1


Don't be shy -- feel free to comment. I really appreciate your thoughts.