Saturday, June 20, 1992

NME: Astral Freaks

Dismissive of 'scenes', VERVE are literally 'out there', surfing the higher planes of pop on seven-minutelong hyper-neuron space rambles- with a little help from their 'friends', natch. ROGER MORTON relishes the prospect of singer Richard Ashcroft's anus on the Chart Show. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for take-off. It's time to fly. It is time to ride the stellar breeze into the fiery heart of the distant sun.

It is time to break on through, dance with Jumpin' Jack flashforward and get experienced. If ever there was a band to restore shine to a hundred trippy clich├ęs, it's Verve.

I knew there was something the first time I saw them. They were the support band to a bunch of efficient pop clangers at The Camden Falcon last summer, and they blew the place apart. None of the 25 or so casual observers knew what had hit them. The three fresh-featured players, bassist Simon Jones, drummer Pete Salisbury and guitarist Nick McCabe, were sculpting a fluid, paced, mind flash rock of a scale that just did not fit in a scuzzy pub back room.

It was ludicrous, audacious and brilliant - and so was the singer. Richard Ashcroft looked like a scarecrow Mick Jagger, threw himself into the waves of unhinged melody like an oil-soaked cormorant on fire, and sang like his sanity depended on it. They came from Wigan, apparently, and it sounded like they'd fallen off the pier at the end of the universe.

The second time I knew there was something up with Verve was when it became apparent that a normally sanguine friend was incapable of listening to 'A Man Called Sun', the flip side to theirs first Hut Records 12'', 'All In The Mind', without tears welling up. There was something in their drifting, gravity-defying, synapse-popping hippyheart gush songs that got to places a hundred harmonised, grunge-spurts couldn't touch.

Now that there's a second Verve single in the shops, it's becoming clearer what it is. You can hear it in the yearning effects blast of A-side 'She's A Superstar' (eight minutes, 51 seconds). You can hear it in the undulating quietude of B-side 'Feel' (ten minutes 40 seconds). There are levels of sentiment, shades of dreaming and flights of brain fancy in Verve rock that have been edged out of the zone of acceptability for years, and for good reasons. If it's done badly, it's prog rock, it's overblown psychedelia and its embarrassing. If done well, it might be Primal Scream doing 'Higher Than The Sun' or The Stone Roses doing 'Don't Stop'. But Verve do it well, and , in Ashcroft, they have a frontman in a padded cell all of his own.

"For 20 years I've been suppressed," says Ashcroft, his eyes flashing blackly, «And when you've had all these feelings suppressed for 20 years, and you're given a chance to show yourself, you want to explode»

"People may look at me and think, 'What a prick' or they may thing 'F---in' hell, he's really into it'. It's something that never enters my mind. I just get lost in it. It's like I'm on strings. It's like I'm washing myself. It's like I'm cleansing myself of all that crap that I've gone through."

Richard Ashcroft is gaunt, good looking, friendly and has a Lancashire accent not quite as broad as his mind. A school years day dreamer with a comprehensive knowledge of the history of The Beatles and The Stones, he drifted straight from school into the band. He saw The Stone Roses and The Charlatans while Verve were still writing early songs and decided he wanted some of that. Only bigger, wilder and really free-er. At just past 20, he's already a persuasive conversationalist. While the other three Verves nod in agreement, it's Ashcroft who holds court. There is a self-assurance to Verve which some have already tried to interpret as a reaction to the apologetic bands of the late '80s. But, according to Ashcroft, there's a lot more going on than attention-grabbing.

"It's not a reaction to anyone else," he says. "I don't care what's gone before this band. There's too many bands engrossed with what other bands think and do, and I don't live like that. This is a totally personal thing, there's no brackets. It's all coming from inside."

"If we're successful, the roots of our success will be people knowing that we don't give a shit, people seeing that we can let ourselves go and be what we want. People like it if they can see that you're not self-conscious and you're not restricted by business considerations, and people need it at the moment. They don't want just another set of lads on the f---in meat market."

"People don't understand that there's bigger things than charts. There's more at stake. If I can move a person emotionally, and take them to another place, it would mean more to me than being on Top Of the Pops or seeing us in the Top Ten. It's a big world out there and none of those things compare to touching someone with your music."

When Photos of Verve first came through to the NME, there were those who suggested they were a bit too cute to be true. Richard doesn't think it's a problem. He thinks it's a fine idea to get through to "some 15-year old girl, getting her mind blown, blowing away her Shakespears Sister album." He reckons that's what classic pop's about and he might have a point. Verve's relative isolation in Wigan has kept them free of 'scene' considerations. They have an attitude slant that sets them apart. They are small town boys looking to flame into being, not just trying to get higher festival bills than the Senseless Things. Their dippy ideals, loosening up, opening senses, flying too close to the sun, might sound a bit, erm, 'far out' in the weary '90s. But they mean it man.

"The guy who's going to make a video for us, he's got one of those internal cameras,» says Richard. «You can shove it down your throat. It's amazing. I'll do the anal shots. That'll be beautiful on The Chart Show on a Saturday morning, Richard Ashcroft's anus!"

He's joking (I hope), but there's a genuine exploratory impulse in Verve which, on a supra-musical level puts them more in the tradition of Floyd than Suede. And that brings us to d--gs. The last time Richard went to the movies, it was to see Jacob's Ladder, the post-Vietnam psychological drama. He was, it has to be noted, tripping off his face. «It's a good experience, acid in the cinema,» he says. Sort of what you'd expect from a member of a band who do seven minute-long hyper neuron rambles called 'Space'. But Verve claim that it isn't an indulgent retreat into private landscapes, more a rocket launch in the brighter courses of, bloody hell, beyond.

"It's not a classic case of getting wasted to write music,» he points out. «It's not that sort of thing. For me, with the words, a lot of them seem to incorporate things like the sun and flying. It's something I was feeling all the time. I always wanted to fly. I always wanted to get away from where I was. I always wanted to feel warmer. But the lyrics do seem to be a bit sort of acid-tinged."

So you wouldn't deny that drug experiences have been useful?

"Of course they have, because if you're living a shallow life where your boundaries are really tight, and you're writing music, there's no room. There's no other place you can go to. If you're experiencing acid, it's the classic thing of your boundaries being taken away so you can see things you never thought you'd see. And you want to relate that to what you're saying. You want to relate to bigger things than chips and Co-ops and Tetleys Bitter. You want to relate to suns and flying.»
«But it's not all of it. It's just another tool, I'd put travelling and seeing another country on a par with it. Because when it comes down to it, you still wake up the next morning, and you're still in Wigan, and you're still looking out of the same window at the same view."

Do you believe in astral travel?

"Yes. I believe that you can do anything. I believe you can fly and I believe in astral travel, because, if I thought I was just going to walk around this place for the next 50 years, I don't think I could exist."

These are weird times for Verve, and they're happy with it that way. They're space-hopping into pop with their antennae up and tentacles out, looking for a reaction and getting one. Already, they're getting serious devotion from their new, wise, flower generation audiences. Already. they're drawing the nutter contingent too. Some Scottish psycho came up to Ashcroft on a ferry to Amsterdam and predicted that he was going to die young. And, after a particularly fine gig in Reading, someone came up to him and called him a 'c---'. They must be doing something very right.

"People have been mutated by the last two decades," says Ashcroft. «People have lost that ability to get swept away by something, to let their hair down. Perhaps it doesn't seem like we're saying anything new, bit it's just what I feel. Say you discover some new wonder drug, and you're the only one who knows about it. Say you're on the Magic Bus with The Merry Pranksters and you want to share your experiences. It's like that. It's like getting 400 people in a room and saying, 'Lose Everything You've Ever Earned And Get Lost In This'.

"I mean, I'm just a guy from Wigan who's into music and into what we're doing. I don't want to become some sort of spokesperson. But I just want people to enjoy themselves, and I don't really care if it sounds like some statement that Timothy Leary made in 1965. I don't care.

"It's more important now that people start rolling with life and losing their inhibitions. At the moment, everything's one big circle and everyone's going round in it. But the more people that break out of it, the better it's going to be. I just want people to ... feel."

Seconds after I turn off the tape, a friend who has never heard of Verve walks into the bar and opens an envelope. By a weird twist of psychic synchronicity, it contains a leaflet on 'smart drugs' which Verve immediately grab and pore over. "You've introduced Verve to smart drugs!» laughs Ashcroft. «We'll be on Mastermind in two months' time!" And flying by the end of the year.
  • Source: New Musical Express, June 20, 1992, written by Roger Morton