Richard Ashcroft’s manager reveals how The Rolling Stones returned the rights to The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’

Manager John Kennedy tells ‘Billboard’ how Ashcroft got out of “one of the toughest deals in music history”

A manager of The Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft has revealed how the songwriter managed to win back the rights to ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ from The Rolling Stones.

Speaking to Billboard in an interview published yesterday (June 24), John Kennedy – one of two managers Ashcroft hired last year – shone a light on the process of approaching Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for the return of the publishing rights of the ‘Urban Hymns’ classic.

“Songwriters often talk about their songs as if they are their children and to have one of your children taken away from you has been brutal for Richard,” Kennedy said. “He has endured it, not always patiently or in silence, but it has been terrible for him.”

The Stones won the publishing rights to The Verve’s hit song in 1997, when the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein – who controls all Stones material from 1963 to 1971 – sued the Britrock band over their sample of an orchestral recording by Andrew Loog Oldham. That snippet came from an orchestral version of The Stones’ 1965 song ‘The Last Time’, which Oldham recorded for the album ‘The Rolling Stones Songbook’.

Though The Verve had gotten permission to sample four seconds of Oldham’s recording from rights holder Decca Records, Klein contended that they had not obtained publishing clearance for the original composition by Jagger and Richards. The suit was settled out of court, with all of the publishing rights and royalties from ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ going to Klein’s company, ABKCO. Jagger and Richards also received songwriting credits.

That was “one of the toughest deals in music history”, Kennedy said. Billboard revealed that Ashcroft has only ever received $1,000 in publishing money from ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, which was paid as part of the settlement deal. Billboard estimates the song’s total publishing revenue over the years at almost $5 million.

At the beginning of 2019, Kennedy and Ashcroft’s other manager, Steve Kutner, approached current ABKCO head Jody Klein – son of Allen Klein, who died in 2009 – on the matter of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. At the younger Klein’s suggestion, they met with Joyce Smyth, the Rolling Stones’ manager, who agreed to personally speak to Jagger and Richards.

Kennedy thought “the most likely outcome was that nothing would happen”. But in April, he and Kutner received a call from Smyth relaying Jagger and Richards’ agreement to return the rights and their share of the royalties to Ashcroft, and to have their names struck from the song’s writing credits.

“Steve and I nearly cried because we knew what this would mean: absolute affirmation that ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ was wholly Richard’s creative work,” said Kennedy. “Without [Smyth] this simply would not have happened.”

Ashcroft made the news public at the Ivor Novello Awards in May, where he was recognised for outstanding contributions to British music. “This remarkable and life-affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith, who have also agreed that they are happy for the writing credit to exclude their names and all their royalties derived from the song they will now pass to me,” he said in a statement.