The Verve. It's taken 15 years, a split, a nervous breakdown, and a death, but now they're shining.
Spice Girls: there is no getting away from them? Not in this life - not even if you're a rock star yourself, as The Verve are discovering this late July afternoon. In an airtight beige bunker beneath the Metropolis recording complex in sunny, suburban Chiswick, west London, disembodied and textless bits of Verve music leak through a studio blast door: The Verve are finishing the album they were supposed to have finished a year ago. Upstairs, meanwhile, in the carpark of the neighbouring London Transport garage, a double decker bus painted with an all-over Union Jack is surrounded by cameramen, lighting technicians, brisk women clipping about with clipboards, and five very masculine looking tranvestites who represent Britain's Hottest Pop Fivesome: Spice: The Movie is in lively production. It is sort of a walk-through pun on the us-and-them nature of the British music industry - Upstairs, Downstairs - and it's doing The Verve's heads in. The contrast between this and their own hermetic world could not be starker. As he returns from the toilet, The Verve's lanky and amiable bass player Simon Jones flashes an amused, well-what-are-you-going-to-do expression at the occupants of the studio's ante-room. Then he starts skinning up.
Nowadays even the most paltry LP can flag itself as "long-awaited", but the one The Verve are finishing - their third - really is. Not so much because Verve patron Noel Gallagher proclaimed it's predecessor "A Northern Soul" as runner-up only to his own "Morning Glory" and Paul Weller's "Stanley Road" as the best album of 1995, and dedicated a song - "Cast No Shadow" - to The Verve's singer Richard Ashcroft. Nor because The Verve were actually supposed to have split up in August of that year, just as the gorgeous string-driven "History" was about to become their first big hit.
No, the real reason is "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and everything that peculiar, direct, heart-filling song promised. Having emerged in the middle of the same 1992 indie boom that produced Suede, The Verve had gone on about the power of music to transform and renew your private world long before such things were fashionable. Their own music, though, always consisted of shapeless groove-based wig-outs, a Shamanistic psychedelia that was just too weird to play on the big stage. The Verve were dismissed as Northern nutters from a town (Wigan) with no rock'n'roll pedigree. Their singer - this character with extravagant, not-of-this-earth good looks and the build of a twig with metabolic problems - talked so much mysticism that he became known as "Mad" Richard. He was probably on drugs. It was said that The Verve would be dangerous if they ever wrote a song. Then they did.
No one expected The Verve to connect now, of all times, yet with hindsight you could have seen it building. James Lavelle reckoned that the Verve record would be the only British rock record worth hearing of the year. Mike D was interested (even the copyright notice on one issue of Grand Royal magazine read "This our magazine, or to paraphrase Mad Richard of The Verve - This is magazine"). Noel Gallagher wouldn't shut up about them. The young and on-it Scot novelist Alan Warner placed references to The Verve in his books, for no apparent reason other than that the band seemed to be about to matter is some unspecified way. There is no reason why these people's opinions should matter more than those of any other punter, except that this time they seemed to be following the mood of the people, rather than trying to influence or impress them. Slowly, impossibly, The Verve were coming into sync. When "Bitter Sweet Symphony" , there was a strong sense of a "Firestarter" or a "Live Forever" - the moment when a band goes over the heads of the press and the tastemakers to truly find it's audience, and in doing so forges a relationship which is going to change things. Richard Ashcroft's rhetoric began to make sense. His music is about to mean a lot to a lot of people.
Typically, now that he's about to get it, Richard realises he might not want it after all. "Over the year we've been away, bands have been perceived in a very superficial manner," he declares, while he sprawls on the studio couch. "The idea of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" being number two scares me a bit. I don't want loads of little kids listening to our tracks. It's not right. There is a loss of innocence in our music that I don't want them to hear."
Richard turns to examine a swatch of potential sleeves for The Verve's new single "The Drug Don't Work" with the band's long-time designer - and now Oasis's - Brian Cannon while Simon skins up again. Unless specifically mentioned otherwise, The Verve are always skinning up.
They're also drinking champagne, because today is guitarist Nick McCabe's birthday. Simon and chunky drummer Peter "Sobbo" Salisbury vie with each other to keep Nick's glass full, and there are birthday cards on the table. They are about the only pieces of card in the room that haven't been cannibalised for roach material. If the atmosphere of jolly camaraderie seems a little forced, it's with some reason. The Verve now privately admit that their not-very-convincing split was just a way to get rid of their guitarist. Always vulnerable, Nick was worn down by the band's sprawling regime, which mixed touring, writing, recording and hardcore partying with an awful lot of waiting around, all according to Richard's whim. When it drove Nick to near clinical-depression, the band fired him. They replaced him with their school friend Simon Tong, Nick and Richard didn't speak Between the phone call that ended the band and the one 18 months later, when Richard invited him to rejoin it. Chastened, The Verve are now doing their best to keep Nick happy. People who know the band say that in the past Richard's big, forceful personality dominated the shyer, more sensitive Nick, and some wonder if their relationship can work again in the long-term. Certainly it won't be easier with the pressures which will come with success they will now have. But time will tell.
If Richard Ashcroft has one core talent, it's his ability to strip away the clichedness from a cliche, and find the truth inside it. It's there in his songwriting - in the simple minor-key magnificence of songs like "On Your Own" and now "The Drug Don't Work" - because it's there in his life. Richard has always believed in the rock'n'roll ethic with a disarming intensity that makes even Bobby Gillespie look like a hardened cynic. He has no problems with using the phrase "the world's greatest rock'n'roll band". When Richard had his careers interview at school, he really did tell the advisor that he was going to be in a rock'n'roll band. The advisor looked down his list and then assigned young Richard the most appropriate work experience he could find: trainee lifeguard at the local swimming baths. When he turned up, they found out he didn't have his 25 metres badge, so Richard spent the day cleaning the toilets.
The young Ashcroft was a serial waster but a talented footballer. He played for Upholland Boys, lived for Man Utd and even attended Bobby Charlton's Soccer School. As is as scripted, he was too much of a maverick to stick with it. "All the teams I was in started playing in grid systems, and I'm form the George Best school, where you get the ball and do what you want," he says. "English people don't appreciate that."
Richard played a hard game, He broke one lads ankle in a tackle - the victim of this reckless bites-yer-legs incident went on to be the drummer in The Verve. Sobbo also reckons that he and Richard had a fist fight on the first day of school, because Sobbo had been running around proclaiming himself to be cock of the year and then he'd run into Richard, who was a foot taller, and "looked exactly like he does now". Richard, Sobbo and the two Simons all met at Upholland High School, and they formed bands almost without thinking about it. There was never any doubt that Richard would be the singer: "It was set in stone when I left that school that I would be in a band and I would make it."
A pop-psychology reason why Richard Ashcroft wanted to be a rock'n'roll star so very badly: when he was 11 years old his father died of a blood-clot on the brain. Frank Ashcroft had been in and out of work for some years, and in and out of good health. His death didn't just change Richard's perspective on the future, or destroy any faith in the set path from school to nine-to-five, or turn him into a nightmare student. It seems to have made him believe from then on in decisive moments which come along for no reason at all, but which must be respected. He still sees his past in terms of turning points like these. Leave Wigan. Split the band. It made Richard believe in belief, because now he had nothing else.
"He was good, my old man," says Richard. "He was all right. Kind of a strict geezer. About five stone heavier than me. Big feller. I loved him. But I wouldn't be here now if he hadn't died. God knows what I would be doing. That's the only thing death gives you isn't it? That one moment of realisation, that makes a mockery of any authority from then on. Because you know from there on that it's all fucking bullshit. None of it makes sense. None of it. You have to go out there ans see what happens.
"The thing is, if you're happy with your lot and your happy to go into Wigan and get bladdered every night and just work your life away, then fair enough. But if you're scared of going back to where you came from, like we were, then you'll make it happen. I was around eleven years old when I decided that I was never, ever going to get locked in a day-to-day existence. It sounds like a cliche but that is how I felt."
Is Richard like his father?
"I've probably got a temper like him, yeah. He was a bit of an entertainer in his own way too. He used to hold court at the end of the bar when he'd had a few. And I look like him. I've got his big Bloody lips, big nose and
Richard, the Simons and Sobbo scraped into Winstanley Sixth Form College with a handful of Cs between them, mainly because the college had a fully equipped practice room. Richard's "attitude problem" persisted: after he stomped out half way through an exam, the college authorities were so worried about him that "they were up for dragging the lake for me". They did enough work to keep from being thrown out, and lived a life that will be familiar to anyone brought up outside London - searching for something to do in a town that offered nothing. They and their mates would gather at the Beacon, the high point overlooking Skelmersdale, and get wasted on snakebite, Special Brew and Thunderbird. They also had a new guitarist, Nick McCabe, whom Richard had heard playing in the college practice room (Nick's playing just sounded like "a whole other universe" to him).
Nick left his job as a trainee quantity surveyor in Liverpool, and Verve signed to Hut records in 1992 after financing show in London by selling rehearsal tapes to their mates. In the press interviews for their early singles, the character of "Mad: Richard was born: an anachronistic paranormal pundit woh believed in spirits, the unknown and the ability of humans to fly if they really wanted to. He attracted some attention but the band failed to take off as some had expected them to: their first album, "A Storm In Heaven", sounded like drug-drenched jamming in some private purgatory, and their Lollapalooza gigs began to drive a wedge between the band and Nick McCabe, whose relationship with the mother of his daughter was foundering. In those days only their support band on the "Storm In Heaven" tour had a good word for them. "They're the second best band in Britain, a bunch of space cadets led by Captain Rock," said Noel Gallagher, guitarist-songwriter with an up and coming Mancunian rock band. When asked for a further observation, he added: "They're all bonkers."
The lives of Verve and Oasis began to entwine. Oasis borrowed Brian Cannon, and his hallucinatory yet photo-realistic tableaux for Verve releases began to be echoed on Oasis singles - the grainy cobalt blue on the back of Verve's "A Storm In Heaven" appeared on his sleeves for "Live Forever" and "Cigarettes and Alcohol". Verve borrowed Oasis's producer Owen Morris, formerly Johnny Marr's engineer in Electronic.
That produced a great record, but broke the band. In the best North-western tradition, Owen Morris was a piss-taker. It could bring out the best in some bands, but the sensitive Nick felt ground down. The sessions for "A Northern Soul" also brought out the best and the worst in Richard Ashcroft. There were real songs at last, in "History," "On Your Own" and the boiling Verve manifesto "This is Music", but worse rock'n'roll method acting than ever before. There was perhaps more drug-taking than was wise. Richard had broken up with his long-term girlfriend in Wigan and seemed to take it as another decisive moment - a full break with the past and an acceptance of rock'n'rool as vocation. One day he span a hire car in circles on the studio lawn over and over until a wheel came off, and then kept going. he kept different hours to Nick. Nick was clearly depressed - he and Richard would disappear from the studio for days at a time. No one was talking.
"I was a total emotional wreck," says Nick. "It got to the point that all I had in common with the rest of them was the music. My home life was a disaster and I didn't feel comfortable anywhere. Even when I went back to Wigan, I stayed in my room all the time. My mum was telling me I was psychotic and I needed help from the doctor. She'd be shouting 'What's wrong with you? What's wrong with you?' Then she'd go out and I'd be throwing chairs around, smashing things up. It hit me how fucked up I was. All I could do was blather emotional bollocks."
He straightens himself up and seems to adopt the unspoken rationale without which he couldn't have rejoined the band. "I think I made a prick out of myself, really."
"A Northern Soul" came out to puzzlement in July 1995 - how did they get to this point? - but general acclaim. The band, who were now "The" Verve after the American jazz label had threatened to sue them, played a brief and stressful American tour and then returned to play T in the Park. The next day Richard phoned Nick McCabe and told him that the band was not working to his satisfaction, and that he was splitting The Verve.
Richard Ashcroft: "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."
Nick McCabe: "I just thought: 'You fucking bastards.'"
There is some element of revisionism in the Verve. Even now, Richard will talk about the "split" as if it were final and painful and irrevocable, another decisive moment after which you should never look back.. But he, Simon Jones and Peter Salisbury were back in the studio and working together within two weeks.
Simon Tong joined a few days later. Nick McCabe went back to Wigan where he worked on doodly techno and electronica ("It was like keeping a diary really"), and played Mr Mum to his daughter Ellie.
"I thought, yeah, this could be my life now," he says. "Just sign on, relax, not worry. It did eat me up a bit about the band, especially when they got Simon Tong in, but then I got so burnt up that I just decided to forget about them. I thought it was all over. It was like my family had collapsed, but I was big enough to cope with it now."
The band, meanwhile, cast around for a replacement lead guitarist. Ashcroft approached John Squire at a party for Eddie Izzard and was politely turned down. Their management suggested Bernard Butler. Simon Jones was enthusiastic but Richard had to be cajoled into meeting him. They played together at Bernard's house but Richard's first reaction that Butler was perfect, that the new Verve would be the greatest rock'n'roll band in creation typically changed after a week or so. Bernard had his own songs. The Verve was Richard's band. There would be too many egos involved. Life is not a rehearsal.
The night before Richard called Nick to ask him to join the band again, Nick had a dream. He was back in the quantity surveyor's office in Liverpool. He was enjoying his work. People made him endless cups of tea. They were nice to him. In the few moments before he woke, he remembers thinking how happy he was to have a path in life again.
Richard rang the next day. Nick says that he didn't apologise at first, or try to explain what he'd done, or try to sell Nick on his new songs or on a bright future in the world's greatest rock'n'roll band. Instead, he told Nick that if he did not rejoin The Verve, Richard was quitting music forever. "He had to eat shit," says Nick. "I told him, 'I ought to tell you to fuck off but I'm glad to hear from you.'" He pauses and fiddles with a bottle of water. "It's good now, you know. They asked me back, so they can't complain. I get to do what the fuck I want now."
In the studio again, a week later, Simon Jones tells me about Verve Voodoo, the band's term for all the bad luck that has befallen them. "It' from meddling with the dark forces," says Sobbo. Richard blames it on Simon for talking about it all the time, and Simon Tong doesn't blame anybody because he hardly says anything at all. He just sits there looking like Syd Barrett. Nick doesn't believe in it.
Verve Voodoo is good at breaking bones. It fractured Sobbo's ankle before one British tour (the right one not the one Richard broke). It also broke nick's hand or rather a French bouncer did thus preventing The Verve from supporting Oasis in Sheffield. Verve Voodoo blew up Nick's amp at Glastonbury one year, and also took the TV feed off-line for the duration of The Verve's set.
And Verve Voodoo struck "Bitter Sweet Symphony" too. Embedded in the tune, down where you can hardly hear it, is a sample from Andrew Loog Oldham's orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time". Everything else that skipping string motif, the melody, everything is The Verve's. The band thought they would have to pay a maximum of fifty per cent of publishing with Allen Klein, who administers the Stones catalogue. Then the record hit, and a letter demanding one hundred per cent of the money and a change to the writing credit arrived. The Verve had no choice but to pay up. Simon says their wondering whether to leave the single off the album. "Don't tell him!" shouts Richard.
Then he invites me into the sound room to hear the new Verve music. He plays me "The Drugs Don't Work", "Sonnet" and half-a-dozen others. Some of the songs were recorded two years ago. But there's denying that they seem fuller, stronger and closer to the real world than The Verve have been before. Perhaps the reasons are ordinary, prosaic things, like the band's newfound stability. Nick knows he's wanted. Richard has a close relationship with Kate Radley of Spiritualized. The rest of the band aren't caught between their singer and their guitarist. Or maybe time had just brought The Verve in sync with themselves. Something connects anyway.
Richard and I wander into the carpark in search of sunlight, and play quickfire questions, Smash Hits style. He'll have to get used to it sooner or later. I ask him what makes him laugh ("Peter Cook"), what makes him cry ("Nothing. We all cry but some people have better tear ducts, don't they? You don't have to see the tears) and what's his worst personal habit ("Smoking while I eat. Not between courses, smoking while I eat"). Richard says that he and Noel Gallagher never get into City vs United talk because when Oasis start talking about football it gets violent, but he knows what the lyric of "Cast No Shadow" is about. "It means I'm like Dracula."
I ask him to name his favourite childhood possession.
"I've lost all my possessions," he says quickly. "I owed a geezer three grand back rent in Wigan, and when I came back from doing the first album he'd changed all the locks and kept all the stuff."
What was in there?
"My dad's rings. Watches. All my records, all my clothes. Everything. Since then I've just had a bag. I've not even caught up. When you've bought the same record or book for the third time, all those Vanilla Fudges and H P Lovecrafts, it gets a bit depressing, you know? But at the end of the day I owed the geezer three grand. I hope his son had a good laugh with it."
Richard tilts his head up to the first sun he's seen today.
"Sometimes it's good to lose everything"