This is the tale of some Northern souls.
Floating like a butterfly across a storm in Heaven.
Singing urban hymns.
Heading forth because they were not prepared to simply sit and wonder.
Born without a silver spoon.
This were The Verve.
Wigan is the home to one of the most unusual youth subcultures in British history.
Northern Soul was a strange mix of trainspotter obsession, hedonism, dancing and, most important, a belief in the power of music to transport you from the humdrum town where the rain, seemingly, falls hard every day.
The Wigan Casino was the Mecca of this movement…coaches filled with kids armed with talcum powder, speed, patches and dance moves inspired by Bruce Lee as opposed to Fred Astaire would dance from the moment the needle dropped on the first single until the needle lifted from the last many, many hours later.
It put Wigan at the very heart of a scene that would take inspiration from Mod and be the inspiration for the rave culture of the 1990’s. Wigan burned bright in those days…a beacon to kids from all across the country who just wanted to be free, to have a good time and to get loaded.
By the time the 1990’s arrived Wigan, like so many towns across the North of England, was in the grip of seemingly never ending economic decline with unemployment, crime and social exclusion having replaced the good times, good tunes and giddy highs of those Northern Soul years.
Oscar Wilde said that “Nothing should be beyond hope…life is hope.”
Hope was in short supply in the North…replaced with something much more troubling and, potentially, fatal; hopelessness.
When Richard Ashcroft was eleven years old his father, Frank, died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. The death of a parent in childhood is a traumatic event which can have several negative impacts on the child including; increased likelihood of substance abuse, higher risk of unemployment, school underachievement and greater vulnerability to depression. Of course there are things that can help to reduce such negative outcomes such as family support and any previous experience of loss. It’s not too fanciful to see some aspects of the person we “know” as Richard Ashcroft as being shaped by this childhood experience.
At some point following this trauma his mother, Louise, remarried and Richard was introduced to the ideas of Rosicrucianism…a form of spiritual, esoteric thinking and belief that has its origins in the early 17th century. According to one writer, Carl Lindgren, the doctrine of the movement is built on “esoteric truths” that “…provide insight…into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm”, all of which sounds exactly like the sort of thing Richard Ashcroft was talking about in interviews in the 1990’s.
When he reached Winstanley Sixth Form College Ashcroft started a band called Verve with Nick McCabe, Simon Jones and Peter Salisbury. That incarnation of the band played their first gig at an 18th birthday party at the Honeysuckle in Wigan. Soon after that they were signed by Hut and release their first offerings to the public in the shape of “All in the Mind”, “She’s a Superstar” and “Gravity”. They were psychedelic, experimental and highlighted the considerable talents of McCabe as a musician and Ashcroft as a strange, compelling and shamanic lead singer. All three of those singles made it to the top of the independent charts and “She’s a Superstar” made it into the top 75 singles chart.
The scene was set for their debut album. “A Storm in Heaven” arrived in 1993 and enjoyed not inconsiderable success, reaching number twenty-seven in the charts. These were the very earliest moments of Britpop so it wasn’t surprising to see the lead single from the album, “Blue”, only reaching number 69 in the charts. The real success of the album though came in the fact that it led to support slots, here in the UK, with another relatively unknown Northern band called Oasis. Additionally they supported Smashing Pumpkins on their “Siamese Dreams” European tour which exposed them to a much wider audience…although having to spend time with Billy Corgan is a heavy price to pay for that.
I was reading the NME and Melody Maker every week at this point in time and I was buying a lot of records but, for reasons I can’t explain, The Verve had simply passed me by. I feel like I really missed out on something. “A Storm in Heaven” is a really great record, it’s full of swirling guitars, heartfelt vocals, and enigmatic lyrics and oozes a confidence that is matched by the music. I think I could have become a bit evangelical about The Verve at that point. “Blue” is a record that would have broken the stylus on my turntable through multiple plays…seriously, go and listen to it now and then tell me honestly if you managed to resist the temptation to play it again as soon as it was finished.
1994 saw the band build on the modest success of “A Storm in Heaven” with a slot on the Lollapalooza tour in the U.S.A. It was here that the first signs of the troubles that lay at the heart of Richard Ashcroft and The Verve as a whole begin to seep into the wider world. Ashcroft was treated for dehydration following a lengthy drinking session, Pete Salisbury was arrested for trashing a hotel room while under the influence of drugs and later Richard remembered; “…America nearly killed us”.
Out of the madness and turmoil though came a set of songs that, despite not being as commercially successful as the later “Urban Hymns”, are the very best that The Verve ever recorded. Those songs were gathered together as “A Northern Soul”, which is one of the greatest albums by a British band of all time…it deserves its place alongside the very best of British popular music. It arrived in 1995 to a world that was ready, willing and able to receive it.
The album opens with “A New Decade” and it is instantly clear that we are not dealing with the pop thrills of the brighter side of the nascent Britpop scene. “Well I’ve seen things that scarred and bruised and left me blind” is a line that reveals the demons that haunted Ashcroft at this time. It’s the sort of brutal honesty that is lacking in so much music. There is no desire by Ashcroft to hide behind carefully constructed and clever lyrical tricks…he simply lays himself bare and does so with an air of confidence that suggests he really doesn’t care what you, or anyone else, might think of him. A few years earlier this sort of song would have been wrapped up in jingling, jangling guitars and would have been sung by someone for whom the description “fey and winsome” would have been the only option. Not here, instead the music swirls and swells, roars at times and the vocal is forceful, wilful and assured.
The first record I ever owned by The Verve was “This is Music”. I bought it on C.D single from an HMV in the Wellgate Shopping Centre in Dundee when I should have been hawking Coca-Cola to shopkeepers on the Lochee Road.
Them was rotten days.
When I got back to my little Vauxhall Combo van (which I had named Brian because the last three parts of the registration plate were EN0) I put the single into the CD player and waited to hear what the fuss was all about.
Three and a half minutes later I understood entirely what the fuss was about.
A tambourine shakes and shimmies, a bass line that threatens to pulp your bones pulses, a guitar that howls with more rage than Ginsberg and then, again, that voice…punching itself into your ears before it shatters your brain.
“I stand accused, just like you…of being born without a silver spoon”
The final word on the British class system.
In a better world than this one “This is Music” would sit at the top table along with the likes of “Live Forever”, “Girls and Boys” and “Common People” as one of the defining singles of the times…there’s no real reason why it doesn’t, at least there is no good reason. It’s possibly too real…too serious…too heavy…too intense to capture the prevailing mood of the times but what it does capture is the righteous indignation of a band feverishly grabbing at their chance to be heard.
The second single off the album was “On Your Own” a song that is a hymn to the pain of loneliness, an ode to the fragility and temporary nature of this thing we call life and a plea for someone or something to fill the hole in our soul.
“Lies, I’ve got to get rid of this hole inside.”
“”Life seems so obscene, until it’s over.”
“You come in on your own…and you leave on your own.”
At the risk of sounding…soft?
I cried the first time I listened to this.
I cried the second time too.
I’ve cried at other times when I’ve heard it.
I’m listening to it as I write this and I can feel the tears welling.
I’m not ashamed.
Sometimes I feel very lonely.
I worry about my place in this world.
I feel sure I’m not doing things right.
What if I’m not doing “husband” right?
What if I’m not doing “dad” right?
I’m all too familiar with the terrifying prospect of this life being all there is…a fleeting series of moments that, if we get them wrong, can have terrible and terrifying consequences for others long after we have gone.
I’ve got to get rid of this hole inside.
You know right?
It’s not just me.
I’m not alone of course.
I am loved.
It’s good to have a song that understands those moments of doubt, fear and worry. Good to feel that someone, somewhere, sometime has felt the same way…and survived.
The third single from the album is “History” which is a confident, fragile, swaggering, tender, heart-breaking and heartfelt song of love and the loss of love. It’s also a song that returns, again, to the transient nature of life and, indeed, love.
“Living is for other men”
“But you were weak and so am I”
Brothers and sisters…he’s a poet, a lyricist to match any other that we place on pedestals and hail as genius.
The difference between Richard Ashcroft and certain other Northern writers who have addressed the human condition as he has is that they were art school sorts…or the sorts that art school sorts liked…pale faced, wan, convinced that there was nothing more to life than books you know. Ashcroft sang songs like this like a rock star, he looked like a rock star, he had more confidence than a room full of Liam Gallagher’s, he was threatening and, gasp, he took loads of drugs. The heart of Morrissey, the appetite of Richards.
“A Northern Soul” broke into the top twenty, peaking at number 13, and eventually went Gold. If “A Storm in Heaven” had hinted at a band to pay attention to then “A Northern Soul” put the niceties to one side and demanded you pay attention and then, when you had, that you bent the knee in supplication.
The Verve were here.
Except they were actually…not.
A few weeks before “History” had been released the band had split…for the first, but not the last, time. Ashcroft later explained that he had wanted to break the band up at an earlier point having felt unhappy. Despite the fact that “History” took the band higher and further than anything else up to that point and despite the fact that no longer existing at that point may well have cost them their “shot” he remains convinced it was the right decision…
“I knew that I had to do it earlier on, but I just wouldn’t face it. Once you’re not happy in anything, there’s no point living in it, is there? But my addiction to playing and writing and being in this band was so great that I wouldn’t do anything about it. It felt awful because it could have been the greatest time of our lives, with “History” doing well, but I still think I can look myself in the mirror in 30 years’ time and say, ‘Yeah man, you did the right thing.’ The others had been through the same thing. It was a mixture of sadness and regret, and relief that we would have some time away.”
The split lasted only a few weeks but when they reunited it was without Nick McCabe. A short experiment with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler lasted only a few days before finally they recruited former school friend Simon Tong and set about writing and recording new material. Eventually, in 1997, McCabe returned to the fold and the stage was set for their first new album in 2 years…
1997 was the peak moment in Britpop history…which also means that it was the beginning of the end. By the time 1998 would arrive the entire movement and moment would be crumbling under the weight of bored record companies looking for the next big thing, cocaine, the horror of “Cool Britannia” and the dawning realisation that the tidal wave of joy that we all thought we were riding like Bodhi in “Point Break” was, in fact, a splash in the bathtub of popular culture.
Never mind though because for 12 months in 1997 we were able to enjoy the “New” Labour election victory, Dolly the sheep, the launch of Channel 5, the first Harry Potter book, the IRA declaring a ceasefire, Candle in the Wind being at number one forever, the Queen’s fiftieth wedding anniversary and Tom Finney getting a knighthood…and The Verve released “Urban Hymns”.
June 1997 brought a brand new single from The Verve and, once again, a subtle change in the style, feel and sound of the music. From the psychedelic rock of “A Storm in Heaven” to the alternative rock of “A Northern Soul” they had modified, moderated and moulded their sound and now, again, they were doing things slightly differently…yet still recognisably them.
The single was “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and is, arguably, the song by The Verve that elevated them from a band on the fringes of mainstream success and mass adoration to a band who were destined to fill stadiums and take their place alongside Oasis as one of the great rock ‘n’ roll acts of the 20th century…and possibly beyond. Built around a sample of the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral version of The Rolling Drones “The Last Time” the song is a perfect moment in rock and pop history.
As strings begin to swell with that now impossible not to recognise coda, electronic tweets join in, drums begin to gently beat and then the voice and the words. Once again Ashcroft returns to the theme of isolation and heartache…”I need to hear some sounds that recognise the pain in me”, “I’m a million different people from one day to the next”, “I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change”, “I can’t change my mold…no, no, no” and “It’s just sex and violence, melody and silence” proved, again, that Ashcroft was more than the “Mad Richard” of the press with his claims of flight and his pseudo-spiritual musings. He was, and lets just be honest, a genius.
The song was everywhere.
Helped by a video that is really an instruction manual on how to be a star…with Ashcroft walking down any street in any town, eyes set forward on some unseen, unobtainable prize, leather jacket, ploughing through obstacles with scant regard for anyone or anything else…his eyes fixed, resolutely, on the prize. You don’t get to where he was by being like everybody else. Stars can be born or they can be made…Ashcroft, I have no doubt, was born a star.
Now The Verve were top ten, Top of the Pops, front cover of the NME, rock stars…exactly where they wanted to be. Actually, they were one step away from where they wanted to be, because “Bitter Sweet Symphony” only made it to number two in the charts.
Yet so far away.
Thankfully they had a response to that…they released a second single from the, as yet unreleased, third album in the shape of “The Drugs Don’t Work” which made it to number one and confirmed their status as one of the biggest bands in the country. That they made it there with a single as fragile, emotionally and musically, as this makes their success all the more remarkable. Most bands would have released some “monster” rock song to cash in on the momentum that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” had given them…not The Verve, they decided to do what they had always done; their own thing, their own way.
“Urban Hymns” couldn’t fail.
“Urban Hymns” didn’t fail.
Eventually it would go platinum…eleven times in the UK.
It was an enormous hit everywhere in the world, including in the USA where it sold over one million copies and where the singles were on near constant rotation on alternative “rock” stations throughout the year.
Then it all began to unravel again.
After the highs of reaching number one and the massive gig at Haigh Hall in front of over thirty thousand people they found themselves touring Europe where, after a gig in Germany, there was what is politely referred to as an “incident” involving Nick McCabe and Richard Ashcroft. That incident left McCabe with a broken hand and Tricky Dicky with a sore face!
McCabe left…and it’s very difficult not to feel some amount of understanding over that decision. Drink and drugs were a big part of The Verve “experience” and wherever you find those things you inevitably find chaos. McCabe had had enough of the chaos and the madness…who could blame him?
The band carried on…but it wasn’t the same band. Not just because of the departure of McCabe but because the chaos had replaced the fire. Madness had taken over from inspiration. They were a shadow of what they had been and, inevitably, things came to an end in April of 1999. A sad end to something that had been, briefly, so magnificent.
In 2007 they returned, without Simon Tong, and reunited for a series of sold out shows across the UK and a new album “Forth” which, while a fine collection of songs, failed to do anything to heal the wounds of the past. McCabe and Jones felt that Ashcroft had used the whole exercise to promote and reinvigorate his own solo aspirations and, once again, the band were over within a year. While there has been no official split announcement it was obvious that The Verve, as any meaningful entity, were over…again.
The story of The Verve is full of all the elements that feature in most rock ‘n’ roll stories…grandiose claims of brilliance, arrogance, swagger, cool clothes, drink and drug fuelled excess, big hits, open warfare between members and blah, blah, blah but what sets The Verve apart from being, as Scoobius Pip would have it, “just a band” is Ashcroft as a writer. Few, if any, of the bands who really hit big in the nineties dealt with the issues he did with…and those that did didn’t do so with the same level of naked, brutal honesty that he did. He was more than a songwriter…he was a man who was documenting the bitterness of life, the pain in our hearts, the emptiness in our souls.
A little bit of me hopes that there is one last attempt to make it work. Ashcroft remains a fine lyricist as a solo artist, the other members continue to make interesting music with other projects but…but…the magic of their combined efforts isn’t there.
I’d sell my own hollow soul to the devil to be in a room where The Verve were playing the songs from those first three albums one more time…could I be so lucky, man?