Hearing the legend, it sounded like the rock’n’roll version of the end of The Sting. The Verve’s manager is in discussion with Allen Klein, the man in charge of business affairs for The Rolling Stones, discussing the royalty split of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, which uses a sample of an orchestral version of a Stones song called ‘The Last Time’. “Don’t worry,” says Klein, “it’ll be 50-50.” The Verve guy hangs up, relieved, only to receive the offer through via fax later on. ’50 per cent Jagger’, it reads, ’50 per cent Richards’.
It’s probably as apocryphal as Ozzy’s line of ants or the bellyful of sailor semen pumped from any number of major names of the ‘70s. But the fact remains that The Rolling Stones claiming full ownership of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is one of the most heinous pieces of rock’n’roll skullduggery of our times, up there with Fyre Festival and The Brits Critics’ Choice Award.
It’s said that The Stones themselves didn’t have a say in the deal and it was all Klein’s doing – the official line goes that Klein demanded full royalties when the song started making waves, claiming the band had used more of the sample than agreed. Mick’n’Keef themselves probably blew the cash on lipbalm and hair twigs without even noticing it. But nonetheless it’s been something of a stain on their reputation for decades. If someone taking a chunk of a cover of a 30-year-old song of yours and rewriting it into a relevant, era-defining behemoth, and your response is to swoop in like Richard Branson on the NHS budget without even leaving a crumb of a co-write behind, you’re not merely stifling the natural ebb and flow of rock’n’roll through the ages like some cackling cultural water baron, you’ve exposed the grasping Martin Shkreli in your black, black soul. I mean, it’s not like the Stones chucked Howlin’ Wolf a quid every time they wrote a tune. Cut a Wigan lad some slack.
So when, after 22 years, The Stones gave Richard Ashcroft his song royalties back last week, it felt like a travesty of justice finally set right. I imagine I’ll feel the same as Ashcroft does today when Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle gets recommissioned or James Bay gets dropped.
You see, rock music relies on a certain level of creative honour. You sample a song, you get it cleared. You get sued for ripping off Wire eight or nine times, you stump up their fair cut. The music industry has always been a wild west of rip-off artists, snake oil salesmen and manipulative profiteers but the plagiarism lawyers have beaten some sort of gentlemanly practices into it over the decades. Talent borrows, genius steals, previous genius sends legal letter outlining their cut. There’s a knowing give-and-take to it, like watching a middle-class fare dodger get caught and quietly pay up, blaming a deeply traumatic, near-fatal case of card-clash.
But it also relies on magnanimity from the injured party, a recognition that chords and notes can’t really belong to anybody, that no art is truly new, music flows unchanneled through time and sometimes just an acknowledgement (and a point or two on the album) is enough. There’s, like, 26 million songs out there, maybe Coldplay really didn’t hear that Santana track, keep a bit for yourself – that sort of thing.
The Stones’ belated move also chimed refreshingly against the times. Now, I love watching bandmates try to decapitate each other with kazoos onstage, rappers make mincemeat of each other in Twitter catfights and rival bands call each other’s mums middle-class actually as much as the next gawping ghoul. But when Brexit has set brother against brother and turned social media into the digital equivalent of chucking out time in a Bolton Wetherspoons, maybe music needs to be setting a compassionate example, just for a bit. So when news reaches us that Noel Gallagher is refusing to let Liam use Oasis music in his new self-made documentary, you just want to urge him to be the better man and show the fans some love. After all, no-one wants to watch Liam waxing lyrical about his maddest ferrit days to the sounds of The Mike Flowers Pops, The Bonzo Dog Band and ‘All The Young Dudes’.
In fact, in honour of Mick ‘n’ Keef’s long-overdue royalty repentance, let’s make May 28 National Bitter-Free Symphony Day. One day a year when we can ditch all our gripes and grievances and just celebrate the music. When Kanye West can sit silently in his award show seat, applauding. When Jack White can find Black Keys records pleasantly flattering. When we can listen to ‘Vauxhall & I’ again. Or is this all a bit, y’know, Florence? I mean, how long before Bastille realise it’s the best day to release new albums to the press and we’re severely tested? Forget I said anything, throat gouging as usual everybody…