The Verve's astonishing eight-year pilgrimage has been littered with drugs, dehydration, mental breakdown and six-month lasagne binges. Now, somewhere over the rainbow, the world belongs to them. For the first time, the full frank tale of their journey from trauma to triumph.
Picture this. You're young, anything but dumb, and full of promise. You've realised your initial dream - forming a band that you truly believe is turning into the best in the world. You've won a deal, escaped the confines of your home town., and things are starting to fly. Literally, in fact, as you find yourself on a plane to New York City. The occasion is the annual CMJ convention, a showcase and workshop for alternative music, with myriad gigs around the city, including three of your own.
The American wing of your record company has booked you into the Chelsea Hotel, where star-sailors like Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin drank, and Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend. Your friends have flown over with you to share the laugh. And there, waiting outside, is a flatbed truck with your equipment on it, ready to transport you around the city while a film crew follow behind.
"For all of us, it was the height of everything," recalls Dave Halliwell, one of The Verve's closest friends and their manager through those early years. "Can you imagine what it was like? A blast. Hilarious. They got on the truck and played 'A Man Called Sun' for over two hours - a 45-minute version, then a half-hour version. All of a sudden, it just seemed real. You're in a band and you can actually do things. And someone is paying you."
But if Richard Ashcroft and the rest of The Verve were perched close to the top of the world, then they were eventually to know what it felt like at the bottom. After their New York debut in 1992 they were to endure five years of mental overload, broken relationships, extended walkabouts... and the temporary end of the band. "Sometimes you just have to go through these things to taste the extremes," Ashcroft reflected in 1995, just before the future went pear-shaped.
Back then, the comeback of the decade seemed a long way away.
Richard Ashcroft entered the world on 11 September 1971 in Billinge, a nondescript suburb of Wigan. Nestled between Manchester and Liverpool, Wigan could lay claim to a venerated Northern Soul scene, a soaring rugby league team and the memory of musical-hall comedian and ukulele virtuoso George Formby. Ashcroft's view of the town has long been damning: "If you wore patent leather shoes and drank 19 pints of lager, you could have the time of your life."
The pre teen Richard was pipe-cleaner thin with the lung power of a collapsed flea. A doctor told him that he'd probably endure a cold for the rest of his life - "So you'd better get used to it." That didn't stop him from growing; Dave Halliwell, whose mother knew Richard's, remembers him as "always the biggest around - and the cockiest".
Photos from Up Holland High School reveal those now-famous wide eyes, big lips and self-confessed big nose, reputedly inherited from his father Frank. An opinionated, jovial man at home and disaffected office clerk at work, Frank died unexpectedly when a dormant blood clot on his brain - the result of a teenage car crash - suddenly expanded. Richard was 11, his sisters Victoria and Laura just toddlers.
The school photos hide depths to which Richard was irrevocably changed by the loss. "Other kids were playing with their Action Men and I was questioning life and society," he noted bitterly. "He worked nine to five and got nowhere. I immediately realised that wasn't the life for me... That one moment of realisation made a mockery of any authority from then on. I gained an awareness of how quickly people can leave you and how little time you've got to enjoy yourself and show yourself off and have relationships with people... I thought 'Fuck this, I'm gonna make something special of myself.'"
In a Sun exclusive once The Verve had made the tabloid grade, school pal Michael Newton revealed that Richard's nickname was Jesus because "he loved being the centre of attention". Additional to his talent for stealing the limelight was a natural inclination for football: at 14 he was playing for the local pub team as well as Up Holland FC. He was spindly but hardly weak - he managed to break the ankle of another aspiring Up Hollander, one Pete 'Sobbo' Salisbury, as well as breaking his own nose more than once.
But he willed himself to believe he cloud go all the way and turn professional. A visit to Bobby Charlton's Soccer School ended in disillusionment when Richard was told that George Best was a prick. In the end, Up Holland's manager hung up Richard's boots for him - "I had a weedy frame and a big mouth and that got me into trouble".
Off the pitch, Richard's cocky persona was accentuated by a different haircut whenever he fancied it (his mother Margaret was a hairdresser) - bleach, streaks, perms, the football mullet. His confidence grew further under the influence of his stepfather, who was a Rosicrucian which, according to the Webster's dictionary, means he was "an adherent of a 17th and 18th movement devoted to esoteric wisdom with emphasis on psychic and spiritual enlightenment". He was a keen exponent of meditation and telekinesis: Richard firmly believed his stepdad could bend light rays around people to make them disappear, or raise the temperature in the room by thought alone.
When he was 16, Richard, Sobbo and their friend Simon Jones left Up Holland High for Winstanley Sixth Form College. Richard had managed to get a few O-levels. "He was bright," remembers Dave Halliwell, "and if you have natural intelligence you can get through."
Jonathan "Chas" Chandler, who was a year above them remembers Richard and his gang as "a lively crowd, having a laugh and doing as little work as possible, like everybody else. They were into their music, though. They listened to Can and Funkadelic even then, to Zeppelin and the Stones, and, of course, The Stone Roses, everyone's favourite."
"Seeing them play Warrington in 1989 basically changed my life," Richard said of the Roses. "These guys looked and dressed like me and they were from the same background, yet they were onstage, being adored. Seeing them made me realise that I could do that as well. I could do better."
The prime reason why Richard flew so high was Nick McCabe, the John Squire to his Ian Brown. From neighbouring St Helens, McCabe was a year above the others at Winstanley. Even though Nick's introvert nature clashed with Richard's exuberance they quickly bonded.
"I could tell Richard was pretty much out of place like I was," Nick noted. "Although he's almost the exact opposite to me, we got on really well." He was already an unusually thoughtful, imaginative guitarist: after hearing him play in a college practice room Richard described his sound as like "aa whole other universe to me"
Another fellow student, Simon Tong, also played guitar and taught Simon Jones and Richard their first chords (Sobbo was already drumming in a college marching band). The two Simons were in a band alternately known as Laughing Gravy and Applecart: Sobbo drummed for The Comedians, while a band comprising Richard, Nick, a drum machine and a bassist whose name no one seems to recall were known as both The Butterfly Effect and Raingarden. They'd play Winstanley's canteen at lunch time. "It was pretty guitar-based stuff, that much I remember," recalls Halliwell. "Nick was always a step ahead as far as music went."
Their singer was a bit of a stand-out too. "At the end of one show." Richard later confessed "I just completely freaked out and started rolling on the floor. These kids were staring at me going 'What a wanker - what the fuck is he doing?' My friends thought I'd cracked. But I just couldn't help it.
After walking out of an A-Level exam in philosophy and religion in 1989, Richard had precious little idea about where he was heading. One night's aimless driving around with Simon Jones was the turning point. "Looking at all the lights, I thought to myself that out of those millions of lights, not one of them knows me and we're just fucking rotting away on the dole doing nothing. That was the first spark."
He called Sobbo, who was studying a ceramics and geology degree at Stoke Poly, and Nick, a trainee quantity surveyor in Liverpool, and the four of them started a band. They christened it Verve. "A goof name," Richard reckoned. "'Verve' means excitement, emotion. I don't want to talk about going to sign on - people have that rammed into their faces everyday."
The personalities balanced - between Richard's excitability and Nick's reclusivity, Simon was the happy-go-lucky one and Sobbo the salt-of-the-earth representative - and the music clicked. Inspired by the Roses and Can's metronomic, loping rhythms, they'd jam for hours, a method that became Verve's signature trademark.
The band's public debut was on 15 August 1990 at The Honeysuckle Pub in Poolstock, just outside Wigan, for the birthday of Richard's then flatmate Paul Frodsham (the Ashcroft family had moved to Stroud in the Cotswolds when he was 18). Verve played just two songs, 'The Sun, The Sea' and the strangely titled 'Your Back'. "They gave it a go, and had a laugh, but really they were fantastic," Halliwell claims.
Verve didn't play again for a year, needing more than two songs and anyway Sobbo and Nick were studying. As 1989 ended, Richard rang them. 'Are we in a band or what?' he asked, and both dutifully chucked in their non-musical careers.
With Halliwell performing basic managerial tasks and funds provided by the DHSS and selling rehearsal tapes to friends, Verve's second show was at Manchester's Boardwalk on 3 February 1991. Word had spread about this neo-psychedelic trip-rock band with the outlandish singer, and the Wigan Reporter was in attendance. "By their second number," their correspondent wrote, "they were cooking on gas... Singer Richard had the crowd of over 200 eating out of the palm of his hand."
Daytime jams at Splash Studios rehearsal rooms continued, as did sporadic gigs. Post-gig celebrations were spent with friends at Beacon hilltop, overlooking Skelmersdale, or at Dean Wood, tripping on acid around bonfires with the ghetto-blaster turned up to 11. But Richard was too ambitious to let it drift, and a demo ('All In The Mind', 'The Sun, The Sea', 'Slide Away' and the psychedelic instrumental 'Verve Arising'), financed by Norwich-based Backs label, was recorded in the Jones family living room. Some major labels started sniffing around (Sony and Polydor sent rejection letters) but Virgin's newly established offshoot Hut were a lot more enthusiastic.
"Their demo was so much better than anything else I was hearing," Hut scout Miles Leonard remembers. "I saw then at The Boardwalk and Richard was already a complete star. The band was so innovative."
Boosted by a second Verve demo, he arranged for Verve to make their London debut so that the Virgin bigwigs could attend. It was their tenth gig, on 3 July - third on the bill to a jazz-funk band whose name, like that bassist, has been eradicated from Verve history, to an audience of roughly 20.
Hut's founder Dave Boyd was among them. He'd already heard their demo through his contacts at Backs. "I smelt and heard Verve rather than just seeing them," he says. "Richard was climbing the monitors... It was classic rock'n'roll, like, 'What's going to happen next, will he break his neck or what?' I saw within two songs what their potential was."
The band signed to Hut in September 1991, but Leonard remembers Virgin still being lackadaisical about them. "They probably thought it was the new guy's little band, and they didn't see the potential. When the band would come down for meetings, Virgin wouldn't even pay for hotel rooms. I lived off Ladbroke Grove and I managed to break into a squat, and they'd sleep on the floor-boards in their sleeping bags and walk up the road in the morning for the meeting. It's ludicrous to think of it now."
Armed with his share of Hut's advance, Richard treated himself, initiating "the most ridiculously indulgent, decadent six months", which amounted to a takeaway delivery of a lasagne every day until the money ran out.
Their second London show, supporting shoegazey hopefuls Whirlpool on 7 December, was at the tiny Camden Falcon. Another convert that night was John Leckie, producer of the Stone Roses debut album. "I'd gone to see Whirlpool but got completely blown away by Verve. They were unlike anything I'd heard before, this incredibly intense but sensitive sound - quite overwhelming but, at the same time, incredibly touching. I started following them around as a fan."
By the time they played Tufnell Park Dome, Verve had sight of the holy grail they'd built up in their minds. The planned debut single, the thunderous 'All In The Mind', encapsulated Richard's unfettered self-belief. "She said 'You were born to fly my son.'/I said 'Hey I already know.'" Everything seemed possible.
But it was never going to be that easy. For a start, Richard's booming confidence extended to opening his mouth. A year later, the press would only refer to him as 'Mad Richard", a man whose on-stage persona was mirrored by off-stage echoes of Rosicrucian belief: it people put their mind to it, he told one interviewer, they could fly. That he meant astral travel didn't prevent journalists sending him up - 1992 was the year in which Suede were christened 'The Best New Band In Britain' and council-estate sleaze and the back-to basics pop values that culminated in Britpop were the winning ticket.
Anyway, Verve were on another journey, no matter how wobbly. The sense of struggle began as early as their first studio session, at Impact Studios, a converted barn in Canterbury, with Stone Roses engineer Paul Schroeder producing. "I didn't want someone too overpowering because I wanted the band's ideas to come through," says Miles Leonard. "It being their first time, they got frustrated with the sound they were getting as opposed to what they visualised."
It didn't help that the band attempted a take of 'All In The Mind' under the influence of acid, a version that was quickly scrapped. "They got there in the end," Leonard says, but both band and Hut were a little disappointed with the result. "I don't think they ever played the track again," ventures Dave Boyd.
Yet the B-sides, the surging, rambling 'One Way To Go', and especially the 'Riders On The Storm'-tainted 'Man Called Sun' Were stunning. "'Man Called Sun' was much more uptempo to begin with, which was the real problem," recalls Leonard. "As they settled down , they started blissing out and it became an epic. They could let loose on the B-sides because they could experiment.
Verve A-sides were soon to go the same way and their live shows provided ample evidence of their wayward spirit. Supporting Spiritualized in Norwich, they left the stage after two songs, despite having driven six hours from Wigan ("We'd be cheating people by going through the motions of being 'Verve' when, in truth, it just wasn't happening," Richard explained). Later on the same tour, at London's Town &Country Club, they ended with a 25-minute jam. Phil Savidge, the co-chief of verve's ex-PR and management firm Savage & Best, had mixed feelings. "They basically out-Spiritualized Spiritualized . I couldn't work out if it had gone all too far or was absolutely fantastic. Both I'd say."
Verve's next two singles, overseen by Spiritualized producer/engineer Barry Clempson, were miles from the spirit of 1992. 'She's A Superstar', released in June, broke the nine-minute barrier, and 'Gravity Grave' was almost as long. Their respective B-sides 'Feel' - recorded on the lawn of the Manor Studios - and 'Endless Life', were even longer. As Dave Boyd saw it, "they were trying to contain a musical landscape on a postcard."
'Superstar' charted at 66 and 'Gravity Grave' didn't even breach the Top 75. Still, Hut didn't despair. "When I heard 'Gravity Grave'," says Boyd, "I told them they were making music six months ahead of their time. I didn't realise that it was more like two years. To be honest, I didn't expect people to get it."
After the aforementioned trip to New York, they prepared for their debut album. They played two dates at London's Brixton Academy with The Black Crowes in late November before decamping to Sawmills Studio in Cornwall with John Leckie, who the band embraced as their first 'name' producer. Experimentation was the key, and bottling the spirit of their jam sessions and live performances the aim, so they wrote in the studio. Jason Pierce and Kate Radley of Spiritualized were among visitors to the sessions.
Of the material they recorded, only 'Blue', 'Slide Away' and 'The Sun, The Sea' could be labelled traditionally-structured songs. The rest - lyrics included - continued the star-sailing. One subsequent review nailed it when describing the record, titled 'A Storm In Heaven' (from a book chronicling the effect LSD had on America), as a "gigantic rudderless air balloon of kaleidoscopic beauty".
Once again band and producer weren't totally ecstatic. "We were searching for things and waiting for things, and waiting for it to rain down on us," John Leckie recalls. "We came close but neither they nor I thought they managed it. It lacked the overwhelming effect of the verve experience, maybe as there was no audience to feed off."
Excepting the March-released official bootleg 'Voyager 1', 1993 didn't kick into gear until 'Blue' was released on 10 May. It was their most radio-playable single, yet it only charted at 69. The album released in June reached 27. Everyone was disappointed and to cap it they had to play their Glastonbury debut with borrowed gear after thieves stole four guitars from their van. As Radio 1's festival broadcast began, Nick's amp blew up. Gigs were also cancelled due to Richard's and Nick's respective throat and kidney infections.
Still Richard confidently predicted that the Verve "will be the biggest group in the world. It's only reasonable that we should be playing in front of 40,000 people. Minimum. When we play those little gigs now, I see some bloke kind of looking on indifferently. I think, 'Just wait. In two years time you'll be boasting about how you saw verve in a little club and you were freaking out down the front... History has a place for us. It may take three albums, but we'll get there."
The Verve were never ones to let events hold them back. They'd overcome the loss of Dave Halliwell, who agreed that he was too inexperienced to deal with their escalating status (he now manages The Beta Band). "Dave was so much one of them, so on board, and so devoted," Dave Boyd. "He was the one that pulled them together, who got them up and gigging. It was a hell of a big decision for them."
With Phil Savidge's partner John Best taking over the reins, the band cast aside the disappointment of Glastonbury, briefly joined the Lollapalooza tour and then toured Europe with Smashing Pumpkins. In the midst of all this activity, bad luck struck again, when the American jazz label Verve began a legal kerfuffle that culminated in the addition of those three letters to the band's name. There was initially talk of adopting the name Verv and thereby "dropping and 'E' for America", but it came to nought.
'Slide Away' was released as a single in September, and near the end of the year they headlined a UK tour. Their support was a Manchester quintet newly signed to Creation, whose demo had touched something in Richard. Oasis and The Verve immediately bonded - Richard had found "soul brothers", who came from a proper music-loving background". When the power cut out in Glasgow, Richard Noel and Nick performed an a cappela version of 'She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain', with Bonehead on spoons.
Two new songs, 'Black and Blue' and 'Mover' were aired for the first time on the subsequent European tour and primed by constant gigging, they looked forward to playing Glastonbury again. Unfortunately, Sobbo fell while walking into a kitchen for a glass of water and burst his ankle. They cancelled not just the festival but a London headline show.
Summer 1994 saw The Verve at Lollapalooza again, this time for the full six-week haul; they were the only British band on the bill and, by the end, easily the most notorious. On 11 July, after playing Kansas City Sandstone Ampitheatre, a drunken Sobbo threw $450 worth of furniture out of his 15th-floor hotel window, and got arrested. The same day, Richard collapsed after a vicious drinking bout and started convulsing. The paramedics discovered he was suffering from heat exhaustion and missing seven litres of fluid from his metabolism. "It was every day of the past six years catching up with me," he ruminated. "Still, time of our lives, this."
Dropping the irony, Richard later admitted that "America nearly killed us". The photo included in 1995's 'A Northern Soul' album, taken in their tour bus, indicated their level of burn-out, all four looking either knackered or wall-eyed. Their fuse was growing ever-shorter. In Sweden, they and Oasis gleefully trashed a hotel room and made the Swedish front pages. Noel, clearly impressed, called The Verve "a bunch of space cadets, led by Captain Rock. They're all bonkers".
For all the hi-jinx, the band began rehearsals for the next album in downcast spirits. For reasons unknown, they chose an industrial warehouse in Wigan, "a black room, a claustrophobic pit", which Richard admitted had some effect on their sound - "that, mixed with the effects of industrial-strength speed".
In truth, Richard was on a massive downer. He'd just split with Sarah, his girlfriend of six years (she appeared on the cover of the American 'The Verve EP'). In one interview, Richard hinted she'd gone off with a mutual friend - "One and one is two but three is company" went 'History' a song about their split.
Under this cloud, the band moved into Rockfield Studios in Wales. Their chosen producer was Owen Morris, whose raw, visceral production on Oasis' debut 'Definitely Maybe' debut had smitten The Verve. Young and extreme by nature, he suited their current mood and both parties were to egg each other on over the following three months.
"There was something in the stars around that time," says Dave Boyd. "It was a turning point in everyone's lives, people growing up, changing. Plus they were taking a lot of E. It was a recipe for emotional shutdown." The band jammed incessantly, and sometimes they had to wait for days for the magic to flow. They'd stay up for days to get in the right inspired mood, and both band and producer took E every day for three weeks. In this state, no wonder Morris, a piss-taker by trade, clashed with an already delicate Nick, whose relationship with his girlfriend, pregnant with their child, was floundering. Nick slowly sunk into depression. "He was building up a huge dose of paranoia," recalls Hut staffer Ken Marshall. "He thought everyone was against him. No amount of praised registered either."
The resulting stories have become the stuff of Verve folklore. Richard spinning a hire car in circles on the lawn until the wheels came off. The band playing three-hour versions of songs. Richard disappearing for five days. Morris chucking a chair through a plate-glass window in glee when the band laid down the stunning 'History' at five in the morning, immediately after Richard had first played it. The whole experience, Richard recalled "was really insane in ways that only good music, bad drugs and mixed emotions can make".
But what a magnificent record they made out of it. On 'A Northern Soul', all Richard's frustrations - from his childhood, through the band's setbacks to his broken relationship - were dealt with. The music was focused and anything but blissed out. Moreover, 'History' and 'On Your Own', two outrageously beautiful ballads, showed Richard coming into his own as a classic songwriter.
By the time 'This Is Music' made the Top 40 in May 1995, events had moved on. Simon Jones had married his American girlfriend Myra, and Nick had a daughter but was separated from the mother. Richard, unknown to all but those closest to him had started seeing Kate Radley of Spiritualized ("I think he fell in love with her the day he met her," Dave Boyd suggests) as the session drew to an end and her relationship with Jason Pierce finished.
The Verve's first gig of 1995, at London's Raw Club in June, saw them struggle to hit top gear and Richard looked unusually wired. Just in case bad luck (it had a name now: The Verve Voodoo) was feeling neglected, disaster was to strike a month later. Playing the Bataclan in Paris with Oasis, Nick, facing a security guard after losing his backstage pass, was punched and kicked sown some steps, the resultant finger scuppering more dates, including support with Oasis at Sheffield Arena.
Later in June, Richard had reason to lose it completely. Returning from tour, owing £3000 in rent, he found the locks on his flat changed and all his possessions including his records and bits and pieces of his fathers swiped by the landlord. But he just walked away: Possessions, so what?" he said.
After the release of 'On Your Own' and another messed-up Glastonbury (Nick McCabe's amp blew up again), 'A Northern Soul' came out on 3 July. It reached number 13 but never caught the mass market's imagination. The Verve subsequently set off on an American tour, but not before - as the media discovered over two years later - Richard and Kate had got married on 11 July in Stroud (he was 23, she 28), even though he was still referring to bachelor life in interviews. In any case, two months later, journalists had got wind of the real news: namely that, after a T In The Park show on 6 August, Richard had told John Best that he wanted to split the band.
The news broke a month later. "I don't think there is any one reason why he left," said Best. "Richard is very tempestuous and I think that has a lot to do with his sense of conviction. He couldn't fake it if he didn't feel it."
By this point Richard and Nick were barely talking. "Looking back, something clearly had to give," says Dave Boyd. "They'd been together since they were 18. They were young men with lives of their own, and they needed time alone to find out who they were."
There was one final, choking irony. The sleeve of the forthcoming single, 'History' had been shot in New York, and sleeve designer Brian Cannon couldn't believe his luck when he discovered an abandoned cinema-turned-art-space, where the sign outside read 'All Farewells Should Be Sudden'. Instead of documenting Richard and Sarah's split, 'History' an epitaph for The Verve itself.
Though he caused it, the split had still been a massive shock to Richard. He instantly fled to Cornwall, where he recalled sitting in a hotel room, hearing 'History' played on radio 1 and being "more choked than I've ever been in my life... I was sure that if we'd toured after 'History' we'd have taken off."
He drifted between hotel rooms, his mum's house and friends' floors. Contrary to rumour, he didn't succumb to heroin or plan a suicide pact with Simon and Sobbo ("That's as far from the truth as you can get," snorts Brian Cannon). Phil Savidge recalls that Richard would turn up at their offices, "with a spliff and a hip flask of whisky, saying he was going to work with this person and that person".
Actually, only weeks after the split he decided he still wanted to work with Simon and Sobbo, who readily agreed. Knowing he needed a guitarist, Richard called on their old friend Simon Tong, who could also add keyboards to his new, as yet untitled venture. One thing he felt sure about was that this was not The Verve. It couldn't be without Nick.
The rejected guitarist meanwhile, had no choice to return to Wigan. Miles Leonard, who'd left Hut by then, knew that no one at Virgin could easily maintain contact with Nick, so made sure he did. "He'd lost what was dearest to him too. He'd hit rock bottom." Nick eventually started recording electronic, program-based stuff, ("Like a sort of diary") and played dad to his daughter Ellie.
Richard surfaced in Bath, where he and Kate rented a flat near her parents. Sobbo and the two Simons, meanwhile, moved to London. The intensity of events ensured Richard had a surfeit of inspiration for new songs and on hearing rough demos. Dave Boyd recognised their enormous potential. As Brian Cannon remembers, "It was the most creative period Richard had ever had. There was no fighting or tension. All he had to do was get the songs together."
Recording them was the tricky part. When John Leckie, working at real World studios in Bath, visited Richard and heard his new songs, the producer suggested immediately recording them. "Just to get them down," Leckie recollects. "We recorded more tow months later, this time with Simon Tong, and ended up demoing about 32 tracks."
'Sonnet', 'The Drugs Don't Work', 'One Day' and 'Space And Time' were among them, as was 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'. Various tracks ended up as B-sides while others have yet to surface - "Like Misty Morning Dew', 'Don't Blame It On The Father', 'Come On People', 'Song For The Lovers' and 'A Little Bit Of Love', plus numerous instrumentals named after cities ('Jerusalem', 'Monte Carlo', 'New York').
"Those ones were crazy jams with stuff like Wurlitzer's through FX boxes," says Leckie. "But we never got anything finished. Richard was looking for his Keith Richards. We also knew each other too well. It was a shame, because there was an amazing maturity to the new songs and a literary quality to the lyrics that they never had before."
When Richard agreed to Noel Gallagher's request to support Oasis at Madison Square Garden (he performed acoustic versions of 'The Drugs Don't Work', 'Sonnet' and 'Space And Time'), the experience proved that he wasn't a solo artist. "It charged the batteries," he said, "but I felt so alone up there."
The band subsequently tried Owen Morris again but the spark was still missing. Richard accepted that he needed an instrumental foil, and he finally took up John Best's suggestion of Bernard Butler. A major Verve fan, Butler eagerly agreed. But despite a week's rehearsal when, in Butler's words, it sounded "absolutely amazing", Richard felt uncomfortable about accommodating Butler's songs and withdrew.
Richard also approached John Squire at an Eddie Izzard party but, like Richard, Squire was putting his own plans first. He decided to soldier on regardless and set about resolving the question of who was going to be the producer. Best suggested Youth, one-time Orb associate turned producer/remixer. Richard admired hi work and though Youth wasn't a fervent Verve fan, he liked "their big, visionary picture." The pair gelled, with youth pinpointing that Richard should surrender the jam-based, night-time recording methods of old. "I veered him away from wearing old influences like the Roses on his sleeve and toward a more universal, classic approach," says Youth.
Entering West London's Olympic Studios in mid-'96, Youth, aided by engineer Chris Potter, established a disciplined routine - start at 10am, home at night. "Richard was relieved to hear someone say that," Youth recalls. "It gave him the chance to have a breather."
Things went swimmingly: even 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', which Richard had considered abandoning, was knocked into shape when Youth insisted they'd found the first single. Richard didn't have a name for the new band - 'The Verve' was out of the question - but he had an album title, 'Urban Hymns'. The start times grew later, with all-night sessions thrown in, but the physical and mental extravagances of the past were curtailed.
Richard, as Brian Cannon says, "was determined that under no circumstances would anything possibly go wrong this time". He eventually voiced the opinion that a change of management may best serve the next stage of his life. Youth casually told his own manager, industry heavyweight Jazz Summers (a man who can count Wham! And Yazz among his previous charges), who Richard met and approved of ("he's a maverick like me"). "When I heard 'The Drugs Don't Work' I stood there with a lump in my throat," Summers recalled. "At times like those, you know why you're in the music business."
As 1996 turned into 1997, however, there was one piece of the jigsaw missing - that elusive guitarist. Though he told no one outside the band, Richard thinking about Nick again.
"I got to the point where nothing other then The Verve would do for me," he recalled. "I let that fester inside of me for a few months, but I knew it was going to happen. I love Nick McCabe, and I never want to be in a band if he's not playing guitar. I hope he feels the same about me. We just needed time to realise it."
From the day the band split, Richard and Nick hadn't spoken. The day before Richard called him, Nick dreamt he was back at the surveyor's office, "and glad to have a direction in life again". When Richard called, he threatened to quit music if Nick didn't rejoin.
"I wasn't surprised," says Youth. "Richard was always going on about what a great player Nick was. Nick rejoining could have meant re-recording the album, but Richard had to do something radical. He put himself aside and did what was best for the songs."
With Simon Tong augmenting the original four, Richard admitted that playing in the Verve format was like "slipping into a pair of old corduroys". Nick played what he liked over the existing recordings: "Everything he did just sounded right," Chris Potter enthuses.
Even now, Youth recognised that Richard still felt the old jamming spark was missing. "I think he felt claustrophobic about recording 15 tracks in that disciplined way. The new stuff they ended up doing was a balance to the tracks I'd done."
In the old Verve manner, the quintet squeezed out another six songs. 'Catching the Butterfly was instigated purely by one of Nick's FX figures, and snipped out in a half-hour jam. The sessions done, the first UK dates in almost two years were booked to start on 14 June at Sheffield Leadmill, two days before the release of 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'.
Clearly feeling left out, The Verve Voodoo ensured the tour was delayed. A virus took hold, Richard kept collapsing in rehearsals and was ordered to rest. There was more to come. The weekend before 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' was to hit the shops, Dave Boyd received a fax saying that Allen Klein, who owned the copyright on the Rolling Stones' '60s and '70s back catalogue, was threatening an injunction due to the song's samples from an orchestral version of 'The Last Time'. Richard claimed he'd only taken a bit of strings and bongos, but a distinctive string melody was enough of a 'steal' for Klein to get his way.
Whatever, 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' was undeniable. It went in the charts at number two and stayed in the charts for 15 weeks. Recognition at last. The big bang.
The rest is history. How 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' went to number two in Saudi Arabia, and went Top Ten in Thailand and Turkey. How the return show at Sheffield Leadmill, on 9 August , was an emotive triumph. How The Verve blew away the Reading Festival's second stage: "Imagine watching the main stage when you could be here! COME ON!"
How 'The Drugs Don't Work' went straight in at Number One and was played 1200 times a week on UK radio. How 'Urban Hymns' became the fifth fastest selling album in the UK ever. How the tabloids wrote words like "Heart-throb rock idol Richard Ashcroft of The Verve is having a wild affair with rock babe Kate Radley", two years after they got married.
As to the immediate future, there will be no more singles off 'Urban Hymns'. They'll continue touring in America , where the album is holding steady in the Top 75. The summer might see some verve shows in the abandoned airfields or dry docks - they've already approached the Ministry Of Defence (George Robertson, the Defence Secretary said, "I'm not too familiar with their music", but his special adviser Alasdair McGowan apparently is). Richard is to star on James Lavelle's UNKLE project - "a nine-minute masterpiece," according to Dave Boyd. Oh, and Winstanley College, after an absence of two years has reinstigated the lunchtime gigs where the previous incarnations of The Verve used to play.
"Richard always felt it would take three albums," says Dave Boyd. "He just didn't take into account the stuff in between."