The converse is also true, when you hear a song you haven’t heard in some time and think, “Hey, this kind of really, really blows.” Such was the case this morning when I walked into the convenience store for my pre-work cup of coffee. (There will be many more cups of coffee as the day progresses, of course. Keurig is a harsh mistress wearing leiderhosen and strategically-placed K-cups.)
As I looked down upon the lid I was carefully affixing to the cup, I heard it. It was that string section pattern that broke a band and made the Rolling Stones rich…uh, richer. It was Andrew Loog Oldham’s fiery loogie spat in the eyes of The Verve (not to be mistaken with The Verve Pipe, or the Verve record label). And you know what? It’s not that good of a song anyway.
The band’s big hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony” contains that unauthorized sample of Oldham’s symphonic rendition of the Stones song, “The Last Time.”
We were coming to the end of a very creative time in popular music where inventive sampling was making wild new creations from the DNA of old ones. Part of the thrill of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique is hearing the chop-socky happening with the backing beats, but what that was being replaced with was the financial equivalent with rooting for change in the couch cushions. An artist licensed a single sample and used it ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Sean Puffy Combs made himself very, very rich with this technique.
But he also got blessed. The Verve did not, and even if they had spoken to the right people and greased the right palms, they shouldn’t have made “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” It’s not a song. It’s a song fragment with Alzheimer’s, repeating itself over and over, having forgotten it already did that. There is no real chorus to speak of, as the chorus sounds exactly like the verse. Many — myself included — really didn’t key into how dully repetitious it actually is back when it stumbled cross-eyed across our cultural Persian rugs back in 1997, when the band’s third album Urban Hymns came out. But now, as I’m trying to get my coffee and be on my way? Holy cow.
Repetition is not, in itself, the musical sin. Many ancient cultures based their music on endlessly-repeated patterns, and in terms of pop music, there is a far bigger hit than “Bitter Sweet Symphony” that got by doing more with less. If you break down America’s “A Horse With No Name,” it is based on the repeating pattern of just two chords. It doesn’t feel like only two chords because of how the chorus and instrumental bridge are costumed, with a ‘la-la’ sing-along and an acoustic solo, respectively. If you alternate E minor with Dadd6add9 (known to guitar players as the “Yabba Dabba!” (Editor: No, it isn’t.)), you have the rhythm part for the entire song. Be the life of the party!
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” uses a four-chord progression as its sole sample, so it has already doubled that of “A Horse With No Name,” and yet it sounds like it has much less variety and complexity. The band isn’t doing much over top of the bed to separate out the purported bits. Even Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” — a song built on just one measly chord! — sounds like more is going on than “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”
Oldham took the band to task, and to court. Now Jagger and Richards get co-writing credits on the cover art, and get a cut every time it is played. None of this really harmed them all that much. All the parties involved get some money from this track whenever Muzak chooses to toss it out there, just as much dirty baby with dirty bathwater. Matter of fact, Keith Richards (paraphrased) has said Verve writer Richard Ashcroft can “keep the money. I know The Verve can write a better song.”
Actually, they have. Several of them. Ashcroft has done better with solo efforts, too. The Verve could easily stand with their Britpop peers Blur and Oasis, on the basis of their other material, and not be out of place. But “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is what they will be saddled with as their legacy for the interminable future.