A good discussion was had this week over at Vox Day’s site concerning the music that defines Generation X. For the record I am pure Gen X having come into this world in 1971. Vox’s list is good, and his defining song most worthy of the title, being Epic by Faith no More. But for me there is another song that I feel is the anthem of my generation.
Before we get to that it is important to establish who Gen Xers are. We were the latchkey generation, who came home from school to an empty house. Thus, we are the forgotten generation. We are still forgotten today as our demographic is too small for any real attention from marketers. The reason for the pitiful size of Gen X is that are parents were too busy focusing on themselves rather than having large families, (and as always, this discussion focuses on the Macro issues, not your Micro example of your 9 brothers and sisters which none of us care about so don’t bother bringing it up.)
But we have come to terms with our ostracism. And that is largely because the defining feature of Gen Xers is that we really don’t give a shit. That does not imply that we are deliberately rude or antisocial. It is simply the reality of being left to our own devices during our formative years. And it wasn’t just our parents who forgot about us. It was everyone. Our teachers, our employers, our coaches, our uncles; anybody that could have been a mentor for us abstained from the task. They didn’t give a shit about us so don’t be surprised that we don’t give a shit in general. We are the don’t give a shit generation.
So our anthem has to embrace this reality. Which means that it’s not just about the song itself, the music and the lyrics. It is about the music video, (a Gen X thing) and the history of the song. So here we go.
The song is about fatalistic acceptance of our lot in life; that we will try to change but the odds are against us; that we were dealt a hand that we didn’t want; that we didn’t complain but got on with it, and the reason that we didn’t complain was that this was all that we knew and nobody ever listened to us anyway.
That itself is almost enough to justify the status of Gen X anthem. But now we add the music video which is important in context. Richard Ashcroft walks down an East London road without pausing or breaking stride. He does not give a shit about what is around him, he just walks and does his own thing because he has no other choice. He is cool and he is a geek at the same time, and he does not care. He is surrounded by a changing culture; it is not the East London docks that stood up to the bombing in the Second World War. It is blacks and asians and whites now. It is what he has but it is not what he grew up with, but he was never asked if he wanted his culture to be changed in that way. That four minute walk epitomizes the attitude of fatalistic acceptance to what our reality is.
And now to the history of the song.
The opening strings are sampled from the 1965 Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of the Rolling Stones’ song “The Last Time”, arranged and written by David Whitaker. The Rolling Stones’ song was itself strongly inspired by “This May Be the Last Time” by the Staple Singers. The Verve negotiated rights to use a six-note sample from the recording from the recording’s copyright holder, Decca Records, but they did not obtain permission from former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, who owned the copyrights to the band’s pre-1970 songs, including “The Last Time”. Although “Bitter Sweet Symphony” had already been released, Klein refused to grant a licence for the sample. This led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, Klein’s holding company, which was settled out of court. The Verve relinquished all royalties to Klein, and the songwriting credits were changed to Jagger–Richards, and Ashcroft received $1,000 for completely relinquishing rights.
Verve bassist Simon Jones explained, “We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice.” Ashcroft sarcastically said, “This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years,” noting it was the Rolling Stones’ biggest UK hit since “Brown Sugar”.
So one of the quintessential Boomer bands screwed the group once they saw how big the song was getting. Which is a perfect summation of the feelings of Gen X towards Boomers. Of course you’ll find yet another way to fuck us over while making it be all about yourselves. How silly of us, what were we thinking.
And then we just get back to getting on with it.
The song was released in 1997 which is in our time frame for Gen X. There are two main parts to Gen X music: the eighties, which could be summed up by a song such as Don’t you forget about me; and the nineties which is nicely encapsulated with the aforementioned Epic. But Bittersweet Symphony doesn’t sit in either of those two camps. It is, rather, its own thing. As are Gen X.