2020 is now, finally, crawling towards the finish line.

As it does so, a raft of things good and bad go with it. The Trump presidency has officially exhausted itself, (even if Trump himself may not have), and while Australia remains a pariah, other countries are making progress towards easing the suicidal addiction to fossil fuels. A vaccine is coming, for some. Meanwhile, there appears to be no prospect of Australian governments correcting any of their 2020 avarice and corruption.

Things are bad and getting worse, and in some ways are getting better.

Christmas is always a time for reflection every year, and 2020 lasted a decade.

And so for this fortnight’s playlist, we end the year with songs about decay, renewal and fragile optimism. For the most part, they speak for themselves (or they don’t, in which case… sorry), so I’m going to focus in on the story behind just one.

First there’s the sound; expansive, exultant, thumping. There’s its hardscrabble philosophy, the happy/sad lyric pitched somewhere between everyday drudgery and the possibility of something more. Since 2008 it has been the theme music for coverage of England’s international football team.

To the extent that the Britpop as a genre had any particular goals, practical or aesthetic, The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” achieved them — it might well be the genre’s defining statement.

The song heavily samples the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s glowing version of The Rolling Stones’ hit “The Last Time”, making it the one example of that distinctly 1960s trend — whole albums of pop hits, jazzily covered by full orchestras — to transcend its status as kitsch ephemera.

Allen Klein, a ruthless, fearsome and decidedly shady businessman who at one time managed The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, owned the rights to the Stones’ pre-1970 material at the time.

The Verve had gotten permission for the sample from Decca, who owned The Andrew Oldham Orchestra version, but neglected to consult Klein, who owned the songs.

Once the song became a huge hit, Klein sued The Verve for all the song’s royalties and won. The Stones themselves were always slightly equivocal — while doing nothing to stop or reverse what had happened, even after Klein’s death in 2009 — until last year, when they signed the rights back over to The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft.

Thanks to the changes arranger David Whitaker made, the orchestral version is barely recognisable as the The Stones’ song that gives it it’s name, but the same cannot be said of “This May be the Last Time” by The Staple Singers, which predates The Stones by a couple of years.

The whole saga illustrates just who copyright (like defamation) law was designed to protect. In all cases, a group of musicians took existing ideas and built them into something new. The echoes that link them only make the songs richer.

“It points to the fact that copyright law is a very inadequate way to regulate the concepts of composition and performance,” Margie Borschke, senior lecturer at Macquarie University, told Crikey in a different context. “Which in reality, as we know, involves a lot of collaboration and improvisation — it’s very rarely the product of a sole author.”

Rock ‘n’ roll as much as any genre is built on these exchanges of ideas. Which is fine, but copyright resolutely failed to protect the IP or incomes of the raft of blues singer that gave us, say, Led Zepplin. Nor until recently was credit (let alone money) given to the foundational ideas of black women. This kind of thing happened all around the world; this could have just as easily be applied to the journey of Solomon Linda and “Mbube”.

Similarly, Britpop was a genre built largely by working class young people who grew up in the receding wave that was Thatcher’s Britain. They took the promise and hope that a handful of great bands had left for them a generation earlier, and built something new (…ish).

Whether you think it was beautiful and vital or derivative toss, Britpop was probably the last real gasp of rock ‘n’ roll as genuine mass culture, producing songs that you and your parents and everyone else you knew could sing along with.

So when one of the sources of that hope dragged The Verve through the courts, as Britpop’s brief period as a dominant form of pop music ground to a halt in the background, it felt like the death of more than just a genre.

You can find the playlist here or below.

Peter Fray

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