SELECT JUNE 1995Wigan Athletic
They fought the Suede, and the Suede won. America ate them alive. But times change. Being northern, narky and cool is back in again. Noel Gallagher thinks theyíve made this yearís third best LP. Is it all about to come off for The Verve?
Kansas City, July 11, 1994: Nick McCabe and Simon Jones are in the bar of the West Inn Crown Center Hotel, escaping mounting, Lollapalooza-induced stress via a stiff drink. Looking up, they see a familiar face, Pete Salisbury marching across the marble lobby, flanked by hotel security. They are confused but not unduly concerned. Anyway theyíve made a new friend at the bar. His nameís Eddie and heís a drug dealer and phone sex-line operator. Eddie invites them back to his flat. Heís crammed it with alcohol to celebrate the fact that his wife has just left him, and refuses to let the duo leave until all the booze has been drunk. Simon slips out as inebriated confusion ensues. Eddie leaves too, locking Nick inside. Pete Salisbury, meanwhile, is being hauled off to the local nick facing charges for trashing his hotel room. Back at the hotel, Richard Ashcroft collapses from dehydration after drinking himself towards oblivion. He is rushed to hospital. The next afternoon The Verve take the stage. Nick has been rescued and Pete released from jail. Richard should still be in bed. He can barely move. The track marks from the hospital drip are still visible on his right arm. Welcome to the everyday adventures of The Verve.
"Nearly everyone in the band has had something mad or big happen to them since the last record," confesses Richard Ashcroft. Trashing hotel rooms on two continents, getting married, having kids and going completely off the rails - The Verve are an unpredictable blend of hard living and great records. The bandís scrapes and traumas are bound up in their astonishing new album, ĎA Northern Soulí, which Oasisí Noel Gallagher has already called "the third best album this year" behind his own and Paul Wellerís of course.
Pete Salisbury, The Verveís usually reticent drummer, proclaims it" one of the best albums in the last 10 or 15 years. As good as Nirvanaís or the Roses." Guitarist Nick McCabe is even more convinced of itís stature. "This album contains some of the best music I have ever heard," he says. "By anyone."
The Verve have never exactly been low-key. They emerged from Wigan in 1992, hyped to the eyeballs and touted, alongside Suede, as dramatic antidotes to shoegazing and the dregs of Manchester. 1992ís hectic debut single ĎAll in the Mindí was quickly replaced by the elongated mantras that were a trademark by the time their debut LP, ĎStorm in Heavení, was released two years ago. That record was about as far from the concise Britpop of Suede and Blur as you could go without being Spiritualized. ĎA Northern Soulí increases the distance even further. Itís as urgent as ĎDefinitely Maybeí, as musically extravagant as ĎPure Phaseí, and dewy-eyed enough to clean you out of Kleenex.
"We know itís a special record," urges Richard, banging his Marlboro light on the pub table. "Itís not throwaway, itís got soul, itís come from us and what weíve been through. We will be put up there with The Stone Roses and other greats.
"Itís too easy to form a band these days, too easy to don the latest fashion and get a record deal. Menswear are shit. Theyíre fuckin shit. That record is crap, it sounds like a Charlatanís demo. But it doesnít really matter, ícos we all have to look back on what weíve done. When Iím old and sat in the garden shed with my second album on, Iíll feel a lot more satisfied than if there was some Mod suit hanging in the cupboard."
Wigan 1984: 13-year-old Richard Ashcroft has decided he no longer wants to play for Manchester United. Now his wish is to be a singer in a band, and heís told his careers teacher. He wants to make something of himself, having realised that lifeís too short to sit about - thoughts inspired by the sudden death of his unemployed father from a blood-clot on the brain, two years earlier.
At this point Richardís band has no other members, nor can he play a single note on guitar. At school his teachers regard him as "the cancer of the class". His lack of scholarly application culminates in him walking out of a philosophy and religion exam. The school is so concerned for his safety they consider dredging the local canals. They tell Richard they have a psychiatrist he can see if he has any problems...
Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury, The Verveís rhythm section, were also subjected to that very same philosophy and religion test... It was Richard who inspired Simon to pick up a guitar, by telling him of his own burning desire to be a singer. Pete, however, wanted to punch Richard when they met - an argument on his first day at school. ("It was him on one side of the playground with his mates, me on the other side with mine.") Thankfully, a shared obsession with football and music healed the rift.
The three of them found guitarist Nick McCabe at sixth-form college. His band needed a singer ("I could tell Richard was pretty much out of place like I was. Although heís almost the exact opposite to me, we got on really well) That band disintegrated, Simon and Pete joining them as Verve. Nickís always been the responsible one in the band. His brother Paul was a bit of a maniac, the classic hardman, so Nick went the other way.
"He was in prison by the time he was 14," says Nick. "He ran away from home - stole three cars to get to Birmingham and was being chased by Range Rovers down the M6. But I never got picked on at school."
One man changed Richardís life even more than his band-mates - his step-father. He bought Richard a motorbike at 16, realised what music meant to him, and gave him his freedom. In the past Richard has claimed the former teacher - now writing a biography of Alfred Bestall, author of the Rupert Bear stories - is telekinetic, that he can raise the temperature of a room just by thinking about it. Richard regards him as a genius, almost as his guru. But he could never replace his natural father. "I can never balance out what Iíve lost," says Richard quietly. But in the end you are on your own. You can be in love, or married or feel really attached to something, but in the end you are on your own. I believe that."
Verve began happening so fast that Pete quit his ceramics-and-geology degree at Stoke poly in favour of the approaching bacchanalia. The band left sixth-form college in 1990 and started honing their skills on the dole. (Pete: "It wouldnít happen now with that jobseekerís allowance stuff and newstart schemes.") They were signed within a year, putting their debut single, ĎAll in the Mindí, out less than a year after that, in March 1992...
Verveís initial bouts of tour madness occurred shortly after, while supporting that May. In Norwich the band walked off after two songs. At the final date at Londonís Town & Country club, in front of an unresponsive audience, their last song mutated into a petulant 25 minute jam. If the audience couldnít be bothered , neither could they.
Ashcroftís extreme, committed onstage behaviour gained him the nickname ĎMad Richardí, much to his annoyance. It has stuck with him ever since. He leaps across the boards with a lack of self-consciousness found only in the very drunk or totally crackers. This, he says, is no big deal.
"Everyone else is mad, not me. Thereís just people who are too up-tight. People have been blackmailed into believing certain bands are the real thing, and when it actually arrives they have to question it. And I am the real thing. I walk onstage and I perform - in the way Ian Curtis performed, in the way Iggy Pop performed. Itís real, you donít know what youíre doing. Itís not madness, itís something that should be embraced."
Summer 1992 saw Verve get their first hotel ban. They invited a posse of friends from Wigan to join them in Londonís Columbia Hotel. The bar manager agreed to open the bar all night, just for them, if they bought him a drink every time they got one for themselves. He was discovered unconsciousness later that evening, and relieved of the hotelís masterkeys. The Verve party duly occupied the most ostentatious suites they could find.
Recording the stretched, fluid jams that made up their debut album, "Storm in Heavení, took up the bulk of The Verveís 1993, the record emerging that summer. But the ensuing promotional merry-go-round was lightened by new friends. A then unknown Manchester five-piece were supporting The Verve on their December tour - Oasis. Much male-bonding occurred and the two bands formed a mutual appreciation society. Following a power-cut in Glasgow, Richard, Noel Gallagher and Nick performed an impromptu acappella version ĎSheíll Be Coming Round The Mountainí, with Bonehead on spoons. The Verve could see that Oasis would go supernova even then, and it didnít bother them in the slightest - they were just glad theyíd found a band with as much ambition and hotel-wasting zest for life as them.
The bands remained in touch, Oasisí career taking off beyond their control and The Verve laying low, psyching themselves up in preparation for their shot at America - joining Lollapaloozaís travelling roadshow in June. They didnít train hard enough. Kansas was just the apex of a two month combination of murderous work schedule and taking full advantage of American hospitality.
"I was in bits by the end," recalls Richard. "I couldnít even look at the place as we left from New York." The following August, the Oasis/Verve double team reconvened at Swedenís Hultsfred Pop Festival. Foolishly, the hotel both bands were staying in left only a teenage girl defending the drinking facilities. The bar was subsequently wrecked. Ejected from the hotel, an alcohol hungry Richard and Noel broke into a church in search of communion wine, although their attempted burglary proved fruitless. It was rumoured that both bands would be banned from Sweden for life for such misdemeanours, but the event only stoked their enthusiasm for each other. "Weíre kindred spirits," declares Richard. Noel is similarly enthusiastic, calling The Verve "the second best band in Britain, a bunch os space cadets led by Captain Rock. Theyíre all bonkers."
Between Sweden and today The Verve seemed to settle down. Simon married his American girlfriend Myra, on Valentineís Day. Pete tried to forget all the objects heíd hurled around hotels. Nick became a dad. He played his baby, Eleanor, Steve Reich records while he was still in his girlfriend Monicaís womb. Now she stops dead whenever she hears that music.
Still, events during the making of ĎA Northern Soulí showed The Verve hadnít jacked in their extreme tendencies. Owe Morris, who also produced ĎDefinitely Maybeí, trashed the studioís speakers and one of itís windows during the albums creation. And for Richard things move from mad to worse.
April 4, 1995, Brockwell Park, South London. Grinding out his cigarette, Richard explains his new love of William Blakeís book of poems. Blake was the 18th century libertarian beloved of Aldous Huxley and famous for his Songs Of Innocence And Experience. Several lines from his poem London have found their way onto ĎHistoryí on ĎA Northern Soulí (which also features Liam Gallagher on handclaps). Lighting up another Marlboro, Richard says the poem reminds him of time spent wandering London, getting his head together after recent, difficult events.
He admits that for the first time his lyrics are entirely personal. He also says, through the bottom of a half-empty pint glass, that heís single for the first time in six years. His girlfriend left last year and heís having trouble adjusting to bachelor life, functioning in mono instead of stereo.
"Thereís anew track Iíve just written," he says, nervously avoiding eye contact. "It goes Ďthe drugs donít work, they just make me worse, and I know Iíll see your face againí. Thatís how Iím feeling at the moment. They make me worse, man. But I still take íem. Out of boredom and frustration you turn to something else to escape."
He stops to gulp down the remains of his pint. "Sometimes youíve got to go through these things to taste the extremes... Iím attracted to it in a macabre sort of way... But whenever I pick up a guitar and write now, Iím automatically tapping into the darker side of my nature, I canít help it, it just happens like that. I wonder that if Iím still stuck in this rut a while from now, Iíll be really messed up. I wonder if Iíll be able to sing these songs every night on tour. I have to feel the songs when we play. I donít know if I can relive the last six months for another year."
So youíre not on the up given the catharsis of making this album?
"Sort of...sort of on the up. I know Iíll meet someone else and things will change. I do need someone else to stabilise me. Like the song says (ĎThis Is Musicí, the new single) Iíve been on the shelf too long."
Richardís expression softens from the customary pop star bluster he wears so well, to one of palpable discomfort. Then he whisper, almost to himself.
"Fuck it. To be frank, Iím emotionally fucked. But arenít we all?