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How Allen Klein Made the Rolling Stones Millions From ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony': Exclusive Excerpt

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Ever wonder how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got songwriting credit – and, more lucratively, full publishing rights – for the Verve’s massive 1997 hit ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony?’

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book ‘Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones and Transformed Rock and Roll,’ author Fred Goodman explains how the hard-nosed and controversial business manager negotiated “one final kill” on behalf of the Rolling Stones:

Klein had another odd win practically fall into his lap courtesy of the British rock band the Verve.

As Allen’s constant companion and longtime employee, Iris Keitel didn’t have to guess how he would react to a particular proposition or problem. When Jazz Summers, the manager of the British group the Verve, called in early 1997 to say the band wanted to get publishing clearance for a sample, Iris handled the situation. She told Summers that someone from the record company had already phoned and tried to low-ball ABKCO with an offer of 15 percent. “I’ve told him to f— off, Jazz,” she said. “We don’t like people stealing our music. I’ve spoken to Allen. We’re not going to agree to this.”

Indeed, Klein was ultraprotective. ABKCO was happy to support writers who wanted to collaborate with other artists, but he saw sampling as a dilution of a work’s viability and didn’t want to encourage people to use samples and then negotiate retroactively.

That was precisely what the Verve’s musicians were trying to do. In this case, the sample, used in a song entitled “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” was taken from an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” that had appeared on an album by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. The Verve had cleared the rights to sample the recording from Decca Records, but they hadn’t thought about getting permission for the underlying composition until after the fact. The irony was that the segment lifted from the Oldham recording didn’t sound a bit like the original Stones song, and the arranger who’d written the riff, David Whitaker, wasn’t even listed as a composer. As it stood, the credits for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” were shared between Verve vocalist Richard Ashcroft and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But the record couldn’t be released without the permission of Jagger and Richards’s publisher, ABKCO Music.

At a loss, Summers let his record company take a whack at it. Ken Berry, the head of EMI Records, came to New York and called on Klein. He played Klein the completed Verve album, Urban Hymns, which EMI’s Virgin label was betting would be a big hit. And “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was its obvious lead single. So Allen could appreciate how imperative it was that he grant a license.

“There’s no sampling of our music,” he said. “We just don’t believe in it.”

“Oh, f—,” said the head of EMI Records.

Klein let a day or two pass before calling Berry. He realized EMI and the band were in a bind, he said, and he was willing to make an exception to his rule and grant a license — if Ashcroft sold ABKCO his rights as lyricist and the company became the sole publisher of “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The bargain was made; Richard Ashcroft was paid a thousand dollars.

The deal was as unsparing as any in Klein’s career; he held all the cards, played them, and raked in the pot. When music photographer Mick Rock happened to call Klein that day to see how he was, it was obvious to him that Allen was enjoying himself. “I was very bad today,” he said.

The album did, in fact, become a hit, and the sampled riff in “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was a stadium-ready crowd pleaser that would prove extremely popular for use at sporting events. ABKCO actively exploited the composition, licensing it to be used in commercials around the world for various products, including Nike shoes and Opel automobiles. When the band decided the song was being overexposed and overused, they declined to license the original recording for any more commercials. As the publisher, ABKCO instead commissioned its own recordings for commercial use. To date, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” remains one of ABKCO’s best-earning compositions. For Klein, the old lion, it was the chance to linger over one last big kill. For Jagger and Richards, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” produced both a payday and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year — pretty good, considering they had nothing to do with it and it didn’t sound anything like what they’d actually written.

Excerpted from Allen Klein © 2015 by Fred Goodman. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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