Meaning of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve
The “Bitter Sweet Symphony” which The Verve’s lead singer, Richard Ashcroft, is referring to is life itself. He considers the whole experience to be “bittersweet” because he perceives it as one where you ceaselessly toil to make “ends meet” only to die in the end.
Moreover the singer feels that he is cast in a framework that has relegated him to a life of “sex and violence, melody and silence”. So this combined with his reluctance to the idea of being “a slave to money” has caused Ashcroft to take an ideological stance against the system.
However, turning this belief into concrete action is what truly lies at the center of the singer’s dilemma. This finds him stuck in a state of mental flux where he believes he “can change”. Yet being “here in (his) mold” is preventing him from doing so. And on a macrocosmic level, he sees “a million different people” going through the same conflict he is experiencing.
So in conclusion, this is a track in which the singer has decided that life is “bittersweet” since it is highlighted by toil leading to eventual death. And while he finds himself on the same course, he has no desire to share in such a fate. Owing to this, he has decided to “change”. However, actually changing seems impossible as he is stuck in his “mold”.
Inspiration for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
Ashcroft was inspired to pen this song after becoming disenfranchised with societal norms (the sentiment expressed throughout this track). He watched his father “work 9 to 5” his entire life and achieve nothing.
The success of this track has proven to be a bittersweet experience for The Verve (especially Richard Ashcroft). Although it is hands down their signature song, all of the songwriting royalties went to The Rolling Stones due to a six-second sample The Verve used from a Stones’ track entitled “The Last Time” (1965). The rendition they used for the sample was actually an instrumental cover of the original by The Andrew Oldham Orchestra, from a 1966 album of theirs entitled The Rolling Stone Songbook. However, while they obtained permission from the owner of the cover, the executives behind the publication of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” did not do so with the original owners.
By virtue of this, Ashcroft (who wrote the song) was forced to give up all the royalties generated from the song. All royalties to the song therefore went to The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (who wrote “The Last Time”).
NOTE: In April 2019, Jagger and Richards ended the copyright dispute when they granted Ashcroft access to future royalties from “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Ashcroft himself announced this during his appearance at 2019’s Ivor Novello Awards.
A Truly Successful Song
As aforementioned this is The Verve’s signature song. It reached the number 2 spot on the UK Singles Chart as well as number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also topped the charts in Canada (Rock/Alternative) and Scotland and was certified double-platinum in the UK, platinum in Italy, gold in Australia, Germany and the United States and silver in France. Moreover “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was placed at number 392 on Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was also nominated for a BRIT Award (1998) and a Grammy Award (1999), as well as its music video being nominated for three MTV Video Music Awards.
Usage of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” in Media
This track has been used extensively in pop media, including being featured on the following:
- “The Simpsons” (season 19, episode 11)
- “Riverdale” (season 2, episode 12)
Who wrote “Bitter Sweet Symphony”?
Richard Ashcroft is recognized as the writer of this track. However, officially, songwriting credits also go to Rolling Stones’ members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
When did “Bitter Sweet Symphony” come out?
The song was officially released by Hut Recordings on 16 June 1997. It was featured on The Verve’s third album, Urban Hymns.
The Verve and the Rolling Stones Settle “Bittersweet Symphony” Royalties’ Dispute
More About the Copyright Issues
A few days after we first published this article, The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, while receiving an Ivor Novello Award, announced that he and the Rolling Stones settled the royalties’ controversy surrounding “Bitter Sweet Symphony”.
More precisely Keith Richards and Mick Jagger signed their publishing rights to the song over to Ashcroft, meaning that they are no longer listed as co-writers. But even more importantly, this move entails that they forsook entitlement to royalties generated from this hit, which leading up to this point Ashcroft himself has described as “God-knows-how-many millions of dollars” that were “stolen” from him.
Indeed claiming all of the royalties from “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was an unethical move on the part of Richards and Jagger in the first place – what the BBC for instance termed as “one of rock music’s most famous injustices”. But ultimately setting things right in such a manner speaks well of the Rolling Stones, as Ashcroft has noted. Or put otherwise, even if their consciousness were bothering them, nobody forced the pair to sign over a solid 100% of the song back to Ashcroft, who by the way still fronts the Verve well into the 2020s.