Was Richard Ashcroft Right About the Rolling Stones?

Way back in 1997, the Verve released a single that launched them into the commercial stratosphere. The band were already well known in their native Britain by this time, having released two dynamic albums that mixed their innate gift for sonic exploration with a knack for composing anthemic songs in the rock medium.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was the band’s first salvo since reuniting after a two-year hiatus, and it was a good one. But while it was good enough to earn the band a worldwide chart smash (including #2 in the UK, and #12 in the US), the song as released was built upon a sample of a tune by the Rolling Stones, both of which can be heard at the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” Wikipedia page.

Actually, while the song in question was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the sample itself was taken from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time”, recorded in 1966. The Verve licensed a sample of the song in advance, but had apparently bitten off more than they were allowed to chew. When “Bitter Sweet Symphony” became a hit, the Stones’ lawyers came calling.

Even if you’re against the notion of sampling, it’s hard to stomach the Verve being robbed entirely of songwriting credits for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. The band’s frontman Richard Ashcroft penned the iconic lyrics, which included at least one minor bit of irony: “You’re a slave to the money, then you die.”

While the incident itself ultimately became an odd footnote in the annals of rock and/or roll, it did produce a memorable quote from Ashcroft that led me to where I am now, about to take an unenviable journey through two spotty decades of the Rolling Stones’ recorded output.

“The best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years.” — Richard Ashcroft

In order to conduct this ultimately meaningless experiment in opinion and sarcasm with a minimum of actual research, it’s important to note a few things…

  • As Ashcroft’s quote came in the thick of the legal furor, we’re left to assume a two-decade survey of the Rolling Stones’ material stretches back to 1977.
  • Also, as trying to figure out when certain songs were actually written by Jagger and Richards seems needlessly complicated if not downright impossible, we’ll go with actual release dates as means of providing a beginning and end.
  • Furthermore, so as to avoid having to listen to anything too recent, the only albums under consideration will have been studio efforts released between 1977-1997. Sadly, my excitement over being spared a litany of cranky re-hashes of old Keef riffs was short-lived, as the formerly prolific Rolling Stones have released just one studio album of new material — 2005’s A Bigger Bang — since 1998. The scoundrels!

Between 1977 and 1997, the Rolling Stones dropped eight studio albums, beginning with 1978’s Some Girls, a collection already laying waste to Ashcroft’s plucky bravado. While it’s certainly not all killer and no filler, Some Girls boasts numerous hoary chestnuts worth embedding into one’s iPod, including “Miss You”, one of the band’s great singles of any era. It’s also got “Beast of Burden”, a song so good it can’t even be ruined by the memory of the ghastly Jagger-approved Bette Midler version.

“Shattered” is also pretty good stuff, though on Some Girls it’s also one of an alarmingly high quantity of by rote rifftastic tunes that sort of sees the Stones settle back in cruise control. “Lies” and “Respectable” might be the most glaring offenders in this regard, while “Far Away Eyes” is in itself a pastiche, hearkening back to the faux hillbilly shuffle the band first adopted years earlier while recording at Muscle Shoals.

Released two years after Some Girls, Emotional Rescue took the success of the disco-friendly “Miss You” and milked half an album out of it. The title track is a corny gem, as is album opener “Dance, Pt. 1”. But the Stones slipped too easily into lazy habits, with “She Was Hot” an almost identical remake of “Shattered”, and “Summer Romance”, “Let Me Go” and “Where the Boys Go” near-identical remakes of one another.

1981’s Tattoo You has long been heralded as a return to form for the band, and it’s not an unreasonable claim, even for hyperbolic rock scribes and frothy Stones enthusiasts. “Start Me Up” is more than just the five second lick played to signal the kickoff at every single college and pro football game played in the past million years; it’s also an all-too-brief reminder that the Rolling Stones were at the time still capable of churning out a fantastic rock tune when they put their minds to it.

Another indication there was still life in the old guard yet was “Waiting on a Friend”, a sentimental tune that never got close enough to shmaltz to became intolerable, even after watcing Jagger and Richards pretend they both had street cred and could stand one another while pawing at one another in the cloying, low-rent video.

Yes, the Stones-by-numbers up-tempo tracks were still the rage, as on “Neighbors” and “Hang Fire”. At least “Little T&A” (yes, it’s about what you probably think it is) changed up the formula slightly by allowing Richards to croak out the vocals for a change, but when there’s a song like the glorious “Tops” in the mix, all other missteps can be forgiven.

As a whole, 1983’s Undercover may stink, but at least the Stones were still trying. “Undercover of the Night” — like “Miss You” before it — remains one of the Rolling Stones’ best singles, even when compared to some of their more recognized classics. There’s a bite in the lyrics and music that one might not have expected from this band at this point. “Tie You Up (the Pain of Love)” is sort of embarrassing, but it could have been worse; It could have been “She Was Hot”, which is gawdawful, and may well be what Ashcroft was thinking of when he made his grand statement.

Look, give me a little credit for making it this far into my exercise. Be kind when I tell you I just don’t have the stomach to make it through 1986’s Dirty Work again, an album as formulaic and flavorless as its dated cover. Let me down gently when I say that I can’t even bother with its eventual follow-up, Steel Wheels, which when it’s good isn’t half bad, but when it’s bad it’s horrendous. Steel Wheels wasn’t always so lousy, was it? But Bridges to Babylon, released in 1997, sure was. And maybe that’s what Ashcroft meant.

The Verve were rightfully feeling put upon by the Rolling Stones, and Ashcroft’s notorious frontman’s syndrome produced an excellent soundbite. But at its core, his claim isn’t nearly as cut and dry as it might have seemed in the heat of the moment. Remove the squabble over songwriting and samples, and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a fantastic song, but better than the best of the Rolling Stones between ’77 and ’97? Probably not.

Obviously making this particular comparison requires one to ignore the dreck the Stones released during that 20-year stretch, which given the huge family-size Dreck Brand tubs of dreck they cranked out at the time is no small feat. But if what you’re left with is “Miss You” or “Tops” or “Undercover of the Night”, it’s worth at least giving it a shot.