Tuesday, February 1, 1994

B-Side Magazine - The Verve

With the guerrilla tactics of mass media, the manifestation of MTV, and the quick heave ho by record labels, music has become so formulaic that it doesn't give artists time nor inclination to take flight from the norm. The developmental implications of A & R has morphed from "Artists and Repertoire" to "Aggregates and Revenues."

"I don't want to be cool," states Verve's lanky frontman Richard Ashcroft. "I just want to do my own thing and look the way I look, play the way we play." It's hard to do your own thing when you don't know what that is. Needless to say, if all artists stuck so close to the wing, there would be no Hendrix and Morrison or Beatles and Rolling Stones for that matter. Just when you were starting to think today's bands don't try to get off the ground anymore, along comes Verve. Complete abandon fused with mature music sensibilities in a band so young echo the innovations of '60s artists. Psychedelia is sent on a moon mission that orbits for ions before coming home to roost.

"There have been bands that redo psychedelia but they take it in the sense of lyrics about flowers," notes Richard. "You can be a lot more subtle. It's psychedelic in the mind also. I think we are a psychedelic band but not in the plastic sense. There's still a darker side to the whole affair." The looming space psychedelia of Verve offer a viable alternative to the cheery chime factory of Manic click Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, and Charlatans UK as not all is sweetness and light. Its lush aerial strings loll over dark chunks of melody forging a bittersweet palette of virtual moods and textures not heard before on this side of the heavens.

The outfit hails from Wigan, a small town situated between the fertile crescent of Manchester and Liverpool. Life in Wigan consisted of Richard rising at about 2 o'clock, getting stoned, and going back to bed. It's the kind of culture where one must sit quietly in one's room after a certain hour for lack of better things to do, where the artier side of life gets drowned in factory sweat and piss. "My youth has been strangulated there," states Richard. "That's the main reason why we started a band - to enjoy our youth whilst we've got it, seeing places whilst we're fit and whilst we're living." Hence, the music's celebration of sensuality.

Spawned by the need to "hang loose" in a way it never could before, Verve achieved in two years what others accomplish in five years. Could the sprawls of urban have missed the boat in some way? The irony should be noted: industrial working-class towns hatch a brilliant brood of bands seemingly as an act of sheer defiance. With that defiance comes a tiger trap of energy and soulful craving that's hard to dismiss.

The band's 1992 EP on UK indie Hut, snapped the heads of Virgin Record's execs. However with all its success, Verve is quite aware how wildfire beginnings don't necessarily lead to a secure future. Therefore, each song revels in the moment knowing it might well evaporate. Nothing is taken for granted. It's a way of breaking out of the day-to-day mediocrity the band knows too well.

That's what I'm trying to get at when we're playing," Richard describes, "just letting loose the animal instinct. It's been nullified for ten hours of the day then I get a chance to wild. And I'm not going to abuse the right I've been given to let it all hang loose."

The why Richard goes "wild" is by tailoring various personas to each song whether they be sexual, androgynous, aggressive or mild. Whatever mood Richard finds himself in, there's an air of flamboyance sparkling in the background. No wonder why larger-than-life performers James Brown, Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone, and Iggy Pop are among his favourites.

As the energetic singer states, "They're not aware that people are staring at them or ridiculing them when they're on stage. It doesn't matter because that's what they want to do. I think it's about time people be allowed to express themselves without being seen as crazy. It's not about blasting inner pain for an hour. It's about entertainment. And I think the exhibitionist is being lost in the rock world."

The problem is what passes for entertainment. Usually it's just mere self-indulgence. This is where the performer and the audience divide. It's precisely the point where the performer divides from himself. What starts off being organic exhibitionism becomes contrived: Guns & Roses, need I say more? Once there is that division, the audience can no longer relate though they may still gape: Guns & Roses again.

The willowy vocalist just does what comes naturally on stage: poised hip sway, lofty knee-bends, and undulating arms which serve a grateful reminder that showmanship is still alive and kicking. After viewing a preponderance of camped-up mass market flamboyance, audiences might be shocked by the real thing. For it's one thing to act eccentric and another to be. One object is clear: these long-time friends were born to play live.

Above all, Verve is a band that takes risks rather than plays it safe. And many of those risks pay off. "When you're going off on a bent you could be incredible, and we're not afraid to fall flat on our faces or look stupid," Richard remarks. "It's worth it because one night you're going to take a song so far that everyone feels elated and ecstatic. That's what it's all about."

Could it be that today's bands have forgotten that? To push the envelope into the vast environs of who knows where. If one can imagine it, one can get there. As rock and roll celebrates middle-age, it's more and more tempting to retread the past but to what end? '60s musicians knew that without a future you can have no past.

Verve may not be the newest thing since sliced bread but a careful listener will discern their efforts to move the medium along. The only risk it runs is being self-indulgent at times like stretching one song out to 20 minutes when it should be 5. But if that were the only crime, all would be forgiven, for good music still is good music.

On the band's first visit to New York City back in 1992, Verve decided to meander unknown territory: the Times Square district. Richard and the crew gave a mini concert on the back of their truck while passing through filming the first video for their initial EP. Most jaded New Yorkers usually slog on at despite the traumas and dramas before them but Richard had a different experience. "It was amazing! Everyone was dancing from the pimps to the prostitutes to the tourists," he describes. "Everywhere we went, people got into this rhythm and started dancing."

Virgin's new umbrella label Vernon Yard seems as content as Verve on taking chances. The label saw fit to grant the first band under its aegis the privilege of navigating its own course. Perhaps as a test, Verve came into the recording studio with only two complete songs and winged the rest.

"It's a very loose arrangement which probably made the producer have a nervous breakdown," relays Richard," but in the end it turned out fine. The songs are a hundred times better when we play live because we had time to fiddle with them. We're just trying to capture the spirit of a great record without sounding like anybody else."

Their debut album 'A Storm In Heaven' does manage to sound unique, particularly in light of the clone babies and media whores that dominate the market. While the warm bath of guitars simply soar into a tranquil plume, it's never so spacey you don't know where you are. Unlike Spiritualized or say My Bloody Valentine, Verve does not get caught up in synthesizers or feedback but rather glides along the bluesy and soulful roots of guitar, the culmination of which tows a line between retro and futuristic styles.

Although homage is paid to predecessors Led Zeplin, Doors, and Can, it's the blend of old and new that often cancels each other out. Perhaps that's what makes the music worth listening to - it rings familiar but remains an outlander at the same time. Somehow, the music encompasses a colossal-ness that is approached in a minimalist setting.

Richard looks forward to paving new paths, especially since completing his first American tour. At present, Verve has the where-with-all to push us into cyberspace, and for that we must be grateful. When millennial man has a monster groove this good, who knows what the future holds in store.

  • B-Side Magazine (February/March 1994)