CMU Opinion

Richard Ashcroft says he’s coming for his Bitter Sweet money

By | Published on Friday 30 November 2018

Richard Ashcroft

It’s only a month since Richard Ashcroft last featured in this column. Who would have thought the promotional cycle for his latest solo album, ‘Natural Rebel’, would prove so fruitful?

Appearing on the podcast of US radio presenter and journalist Kyle Meredith this week, Ashcroft let rip into ABKCO, the company that grabbed the publishing rights in The Verve’s biggest hit, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, in 1997. Delivering a message direct to the company’s current boss, Jody Klein, he says: “I’m coming for my money, man”.

The story of what happened to ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and the copyright in the song is complicated and the various different accounts of what occurred behind the scenes don’t entirely line up. However, the outcome is that ABKCO ended up with all the money generated by the publishing rights in the song, due to the distinctive strings sampled on its recorded version.

Those strings were taken from an instrumental version of ‘The Last Time’ by The Rolling Stones, recorded by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. Former Stones manager and ABKCO founder Allen Klein owned the publishing rights for all of the Stones’ early songs, of which this was one.

With a licence already in place on the recording side, ABKCO was approached to clear the publishing rights. However, Klein, who was vehemently against sampling, was not in a mood to play ball. Eventually, he agreed to grant a licence if Ashcroft sold his company his portion of the publishing rights in ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, which he’d already had to split with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

The song, of course, became The Verve’s biggest hit and ABKCO reaped the benefits, licensing use of the track as much as possible. When the band felt the song had become overused and stopped granting licences for the recording rights, ABKCO recorded its own version and licensed that instead. Ashcroft reckons this has earned the company tens of millions of dollars and now he wants what he sees as rightfully his.

That, by the way, is a fairly simplified version of the whole ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ copyright story from the song’s original creation up to the present day, which I hope was pretty clear and easy to understand. Because Ashcroft’s interview with Meredith is not so easy to follow.

Throughout the 20 minute chat, Ashcroft speaks at speed, in extremely long sentences, answering questions that haven’t been asked, changing topic mid-flow and rarely giving much context for what he’s talking about. When Meredith does manage to get a word in, he rarely gets as far as actually asking a question before Ashcroft tears off again. Transcribing all this gave me a massive headache and left me feeling quite nauseous, so you’d better enjoy it.

The rant about Klein comes midway through a response to Meredith asking about a line in the closing track on the new record – called ‘Money Money’ – which goes: “Your riffs do nothing at all”.

For several minutes, Ashcroft goes on a tirade about modern rock acts, proclaiming them to have nothing to say and no knowledge of rock history, explaining that the song is “a direct message … that you’re fucking fantastically boring, you are pale imitations, you don’t even deserve to be given that mantel”.

“I can’t even be arsed starting with an acoustic guitar sometimes”, he adds, because all the mediocre modern music makers have set such a terrible precedent.

“It’s like, fucking hell man”, he says, “I’m just another guy starting a tune with acoustic guitar. I might come and shoot myself if I’m not careful, because the other ones have done it so boringly that they’ve made it tough for me to do it, because they’ve done it so bad. I know I’m going to do it well, I know I’m better than everyone, I know all that crap, but you’ve done such a bad job I’m semi-ashamed”.

Anyway, that’s fun, but it’s not what we were here to talk about. It’s relevant though, because Ashcroft says he does know his own place in the world of music. He knows where his influences come from and, with ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, he was trying to push rock somewhere new.

“I was saying to myself, ‘look, rock n roll is a spirit, and if I want to sample something and make it into a hip hop/rock n roll anthem, it’s still rock n roll”, he says of the song. “And it’s even more rock n roll because it’s another white English kid, influenced by hip hop, sampling some fucking white English guys, influenced by black blues guys, and it goes on and on and on. But sonically what I’m saying at the end with ‘Money Money’ is that you lot are just a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of Xerox of a Xerox”.

If you want to read between the lines there – and, hey, you might as well – it does seem like he’s saying that no one should have been able to take the publishing rights in his biggest hit away from him, because the earlier artists’ work was already influenced by someone else.

This gets us – in a far more direct route than in the actual interview – to ABKCO. Allen Klein died in 2009 and the company had already been run by his son Jody for a number of years prior to that. Still, Ashcroft sees Jody as a soft touch compared to his dad, and reckons that he can get him to hand over all the money his company earned from ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.

“Fucking Mr Junior now has taken over that company”, he tells Meredith. “And I’m saying man, I’m coming for that money. Someone stole god knows how many million dollars off me in 1997, and they’ve still got it. In terms, in normal basic terms, I don’t care where you come from, that’s a serious matter. So I’m telling him, I’m telling Allen Klein Jr, I’m coming for my money, man”.

He then goes on to imply that Klein Snr used dubious methods to grab the song’s publishing rights two decades ago, saying: “When his dad was around, people could intimidate people by being a gangster in the music industry. But basically, we’re now living in a world where anyone can be a gangster. Anyone could be a virtual gangster. You could be a gangster in whatever way you want. You could phone two phone calls and find a gangster. Everyone’s a gangster. So … there’s no fear with this shit with some big figure”.

He rambles on: “You know, you’re making me laugh when I hear about these big managers from the 70s and stuff, and it’s like get out of here, you wouldn’t last five minutes … Because it’s a different world now, and anyone who would work for that company would know that, that obviously once this thing starts resolving or doesn’t, this is what [‘Money Money’ is] about”.

Like I said, this was a real struggle to transcribe. And if you thought that bit there was tough, try this actual thing that he said: “It’s part of my life story. Good. Because it’s part of this epic story, which starts with The Staple Singers, which starts with the story of music, and the story of manipulations, and the story of outright diluting of the spirit, the capturing of the spirit, the marketing of the spirit, the death of the spirit, the reawakening of the spirit – not only personally but as a genre, as a community, that we are no longer going to be used as little pawns in some pathetic little political bullshit game, because we hold the keys to something way more powerful, it’s just if you don’t realise you’ve got the keys, you don’t realise you’ve got the keys, you know what I mean?” And now breathe.

Anyway, back to ABKCO. Ashcroft thinks that the company’s reckoning is coming and that the people who work there know it. “You don’t even put the song on your website you’re so damn ashamed of it”, he says at one point. And he’s right, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is not mentioned on the company’s website – except in an aside in an article about a dance track that uses the same sample and was granted a licence. Although, the website only lists its signed songwriters, rather than all the songs it controls, so that’s probably the reason.

He still remembers the day he had to give up his copyright, though. He goes on: “Anyone, unless you are mentally ill, would always remember the day when $50 million was stolen off them. It doesn’t matter if it was 20 years later, or five, or 50. It’s the concept of ‘gangster’. I had something of mine which was worth 50 million … it’ll go on forever. It was taken from me by a guy from New York, that’s all I know”.

It’s all going to kick off soon though, make no mistake. And Ashcroft has an idea for how the company can make one last bit of money from his song before he swoops in: “Basically, if I was them, I would sign for a real life TV show at ABKCO over the next few years, because it’s going to be so funny – some of their internal meetings on how they’re gonna handle this shit. Because at the end of the day they’re just people going to work, ultimately. Most of the people they work with are dead anyway”.

Summarising, he says: “I filtered it down to what happened back in 97, I filtered it down to its raw essence – a gangster stole 50% of something that’s worth at least a hundred million dollars already, at least. So, you know, I’m never going to forget that”.

This isn’t actually the first time this has come up recently. Ashcroft also mentioned his big plan regarding the ‘Bitter Sweet’ rights on Soccer AM back in September, but we were all distracted by whatever it was he dropped on the floor.

Asked on that show about supporting the Rolling Stones in Manchester back in June, he said: “The Rolling Stones will live forever. It was an honour for me to play with them no matter what went on with ‘Bitter Sweet’. ABKCO Music out there I’m coming for you. What’s his name? Allen Klein Jr, I know you live in New York. I’m going to disturb one of your yoga sessions and ask for that 50 million back you owe me. But apart from that, no sweat with The Stones”.

So, good news for Mick and Keith, I guess.