How Richard Ashcroft and The Verve turned eight hard drug-soaked years of battles and breakdowns into rock & roll salvation.
Even if he wasn't the singer, lyricist and unmistakable face of the Number One rock band in England, Richard Ashcroft would still be the kind of guy who could turn heads, melt hearts, freeze rush-hour traffic and stop conversation in a vacuum-packed pub without lifting an eyebrow.
His features are an arresting collision of the classic rock-star archetypes and the dark, consumptive sensuality of the poet-barfly; the gaunt magnetism of the wasted warrior; the cocky, insouciant charm of a jumpin' jack flash and further distinguished by a heat-ray stare and long concave cheeks that look as though they've been dug out with a shovel. Cut like a telephone pole, with only the barest suggestion of hips, Ashcroft's body is long and lean, all sinew and insect grace, the frame of an elegant ascetic. And when he walks down the street, through the spacious marbled lobby of a ritzy London hotel, barefoot across the living-room floor of his home in a quiet southwestern suburb of the city, Ashcroft moves with a fluid, cocksure swagger that doesn't say "Get out of my way" so much as "I fucking dare you to keep up."
The glare, the gait, the flair; Ashcroft, 26, is star time on a stick. He is also a vivid physical advertisement for the explosive oceanic-guitar majesty of The Verve's breakthrough album, Urban Hymns, and it's hit single, the radiant pocket concerto "Bitter Sweet Symphony." Which is why when Ashcroft went to the Vatican as a tourist the other week during a brief holiday in Rome, he became the main attraction for a flock of Verve-mad school kids who just happened to be there when he walked in the door.
"I had the full paparazzi treatment," Ashcroft says with righteous irritation as he takes late-afternoon tea and shares hand-rolled cigarettes with bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury in a London hotel suite. "Hundreds of people following me, like the Pied Piper. I'm running into different shops, because they can't go into the shops with their cameras. And being penned in the shop."
At one point, Ashcroft and his wife, Kate Radley, who played keyboards in the British band Spiritualized, tore through Rome in a taxi, chased by two girls on a scooter. "Insane," Ashcroft sighs. "I saw the Vatican for fifteen minutes. I was saying to these people, 'You come halfway around the world to see this place and you're looking at me! Get a fuckin' life! Come on, you're in the Vatican!'" Before he and Radley even got back to London, their Rome vacation was plastered all over Britain's most notorious tabloid, The Sun.
Jones confesses that the whole mess was partly his fault. "I'd just been to Rome a few days before," he explains. "I'd rung him up saying, 'Richard, you've got to go to Rome, it's beautiful.' Because I didn't get bothered once.
"But I'm not on the front page of all the magazines," Jones adds, wincing sheepishly. "I bought The Sun, and there was his picture. I thought, 'Oh, fuckin' hell, I didn't even think about that.'"
That's just the way things are going to be for a while. A native of the small Northern English city of Wigan, a committed rock & roll dreamer whose late father was a part-time clerical worker and whose mother still works as a hairdresser, Ashcroft is the 'Man of the Moment' in the 'Band of the Year,' a fitting title for a young man who once told his career counsellor in school that he wanted to be a singer in a rock band. (The counsellor offered him a position as a trainee lifeguard.) In England, Urban Hymns, The Verve's third album, has gone five times platinum, selling more than 1.9 million copies and spawning two Number One singles: the sweet, sad diamond "The Drugs Don't Work" and the stately love song "Lucky Man." Worldwide sales of Urban Hymns, which was released last September, are above the 4 million mark.
In the US, Urban Hymns has sold nearly 900,000 copies on the strength of the band's brief club tour last fall and the unstoppable modern-rock airplay of "Bitter Sweet Symphony." With "Lucky Man" just out as a single on radio and MTV, and with a summer arena tour in the works, including a probable show at New York's Madison Square Garden, multiplatinum is all but a foregone conclusion.
But The Verve's immense good fortune, and Ashcroft's coronation as the rock star he always knew he could be, have been a long time blooming; eight hard, drug-drenched, emotionally distressed years, to be exact. Ashcroft, Jones, Salisbury and guitarist Nick McCabe were still in their teens; schoolmates with a fondness for psychedelics and with precocious record collections heavy on The Beatles, Funkadelic and Seventies German avant-rock, when they made their debut, at a friend's birthday party in a Wigan pub in August 1991. Within a year Verve (as they were called before the US record label of the same name insisted on a 'the') signed with Hut Recordings, a UK subsidiary of the Virgin label, and started putting their strange liquid sound, a molten-groove thang enriched by McCabe's echo-soaked guitar hosannas and Ashcroft's incantatory singing on record.
Success was not immediate. The early elastic-jam singles "She's a Superstar", "All in the Mind" and "Gravity Grave" were hit radio suicide, each running eight to ten minutes in length. Hut Recordings chief Dave Boyd recalls being at the last mixing session for "Gravity Grave", in 1992: "I remember turning to the band and saying, 'Guys, you're making music that's at least six months ahead of the pack. I don't think people are really gonna get it right now.' Little did I know it was going to take four to five years."
Those years were nearly the Verve's undoing. The manic ambition encoded in the band's first two albums, 1993's A Storm In Heaven and 1995's A Northern Soul spun out of control off-record. During The Verve's second-stage stint on Lollapalooza '94, Salisbury was arrested for trashing a hotel room and Ashcroft was hospitalized with severe dehydration. The recording sessions for A Northern Soul, fueled by the group's massive ingestion of the hallucinatory drug ecstasy, were a nightmare combination of creative intensity and fraternal estrangement. Three month's after the album's release, Ashcroft quit, effectively breaking up the band.
Just weeks after that, Ashcroft was back in rehearsals with Jones, Salisbury, and guitarist and keyboard player Simon Tong, another Wigan school pal. But it would take more than a year of recording and the reconciliation of Ashcroft and McCabe to finish Urban Hymns and bring the Verve now a quintet with the addition of Tong, back from the near-dead and on to their just reward.
"People always say about us that we take the difficult route around everything," says Salisbury, 26. "That we have to make things difficult for ourselves, to do them right. But we don't know why we do it. We really can't explain it."
In fact, The Verve so wounded by their past that they hesitate to talk about it. McCabe (Jones calls him "our quiet-genius guitar player") declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Tong. Even Ashcroft refuses to talk at length about the breakup or his renewed friendship with McCabe.
"It's an exercise in humanity," Ashcroft says of success. "And for sensitive heads, that can be a difficult transition. It takes a sensitive head to make a great fucking record. Let's face it: We don't get that many great records from cold, unfeeling people, do we?"
If you believe the credits in the CD booklet of Urban Hymns, The Verve neither wrote nor played on "Bitter Sweet Symphony". The composition is credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (there is a little line that concedes, "Lyrics be Richard Ashcroft") and the song is "performed by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra." ABKCO Music which controls the copyrights to the biggest hits in the Rolling Stones' Sixties song catalog, owns 100 per cent of the publishing rights to "Bitter Sweet Symphony."
Jagger and Richards did write part of "Bitter Sweet Symphony," the guitar and vocal riffs in "The Last Time" that were rearranged in marginally recognisable, shlocko form for a mid-sixties Stone-on-strings album speciously credited to Oldham, the band's early manager. Ashcroft admits that when he bought a copy of the original Oldham record a few years ago, he knew that the orchestrated "The Last Time" lick could be "turned into something outrageous," as he put it. Ashcroft looped four bars from the track and went to work.
Ashcroft has paid dearly for his inspiration. Just as "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was about to be issued as a single in England last June, ABKCO Music head Allen Klein refused clearance of the sample. Jazz Summers, the Verve's co-manager, went to top Virgin Records brass in the US for help. Virgin vice chairman Nancy Berry played "Bitter Sweet Symphony" for Jagger and Richards, who reportedly liked the track but declined to get involved in the fracas.
Summers also sent a cassette of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" to Oldham, who now lives in Bogota, Columbia. "Andrew sent me this fabulous note," Summers says. "He said, 'Fair cop! Absolute total pinch! You can see why [ABKCO are] rolling up their sleeves .'" Klein finally approved clearance in what Summers drolly describes as "a fifty-fifty deal, fifty per cent Keith Richards and fifty per cent Mick Jagger."
Ashcroft has learned to live with the fact that "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is no longer his, legally anyway. He's called it the best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years." Asked whether he's seen the Nike commercial featuring the track, Ashcroft cooly replies that he was sent two videocassettes on the spot: "They didn't work." (The Verve are donating their performance royalties from the ad to the British Red Cross Landmines Appeal and to Youth 2000, a charity benefiting the homeless in London.) But he talks, keenly and at great length, about the genesis of "Bitter Sweet Symphony", about what he means by outrageous.
"I wanted something that opened up into a prairie-music kind of sound, a modern day Ennio Morricone kind of thing," Ashcroft says, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his living-room, a sparsely furnished space bathed in grey light of an English late-winter afternoon and the warm soul of the Staple Singers CD playing in the background. "Then after a while, the song started morphing into this wall of sound, a concise piece of incredible pop music.
"There are three or four vocals in there," he continues. "It's like an outro to a Temptations record, except I'm the four guys in a row: the rhythm one underneath, the sex and violence voices, like a doo-wop thing. You can hear that a lot on Urban Hymns; two, three, four voices.
"We sampled four bars." Ashcroft says of the Oldham-record riff. "That was on one track. Then we did forty-seven tracks of music beyond that little piece. We've got our own string players, our own percussion on it. Guitars. We're talking about a four-bar sample turning into "Bitter Sweet Symphony," and they're still claiming it's the same song.
"It's beyond hip hop, what we've done. With hip hop now, the trend is to leave the thing they've sampled as the hook, to sell more records. This was old-school hip hop; take something, but we really twist it and fuck it up into something else. Take it and use your imagination." Imagination was all The Verve had to go on in 1990 and '91, before they started making records, when they would play from sunset to sunup for nothing more than their own amusement and exhilaration in a small, dank rehearsal space at Splash Studios, in Wigan. "It had black curtains on all four walls; a low Seventies-polystyrene ceiling; a damp, tatty carpet," Jones, 25, says of that room, which the band members paid for with contributions from their unemployment cheques. "It stunk; it was freezing. We tried taking heaters down there, but it never helped much.
"We'd just pick up our instruments," he says, "and without saying a word, just play what came out. Jamming. I can honestly say we never sat down and said, 'We want to be a cross between The Beatles and whatever, with a bit of this and a bit of that.' We've never done covers. We only played what came out."
Ashcroft, describes those amateur space-out sessions as "our Hamburg period," an allusion to The Beatles' character-building German club days. "Just jamming on intensity," he declares, "being our own DJ's with our own instruments." But even as beginners The Verve possessed a bulldog confidence. One of the six songs on their first demo tape was titled "Verve Is Rising." In McCabe, the band had someone who could make six strings sound like five guitar players at once, creating heavy air with whiplash swirls of distortion and reverb. Ashcroft, who dropped out of his college studies in philosophy and religion to pursue music full time, then persuaded the others to pack in their jobs and university classes as well, contributed focused rock-star assurance and suicide-ride stage theatre.
The band's first London show, a showcase gig for Virgin Records in July 1992, "had a feeling of watching U2 really early on, like their second or third gig," says Hut chief Dave Boyd. "There were about twenty people there, five or six form Virgin and the rest just punters in for a bit of a drink. In front of nobody, Richard was climbing the PA speakers.
"He was frantic," Boyd raves of Ashcroft's early stage antics. "Half the time he was singing on mike; half the time he was three feet back screaming. He pulled the ceiling down at a club in New York. He would find it hard to do videos and TV performances. If it wasn't live and he wasn't getting lost in the music, it was very difficult for him to deal with.
"This is the real deal here," Boyd contends. "If Richard wasn't doing this, I don't know what he would be doing. This is what he was put on this Earth to do. And he fully appreciates it."
As a young boy growing up in Billinge, a suburb of Wigan, Richard Ashcroft, the oldest of three children, could not afford to buy many records. His father, who died of a blood clot on the brain when Richard was eleven, was often unemployed. His mother, who later remarried, struggled to support the family on her income as a hairdresser. So Ashcroft taped songs from the radio.
"I used to know when a song would be on the radio," he claims. "I'd have the tape player lined up. It may not have been a song around at the moment. It might have been a song done five years earlier. But I seemed to have a knack to find it straightaway when it came on the radio."
Ashcroft calls that knack "visualisation, being able to construct the future, to somehow have an influence over the future." Visualisation is a term he got form his stepfather, who at one time had been a member of the ancient secular order of the Rosicrucians. When Ashcroft was a teenager, his stepfather frequently conducted what Ashcroft describes as "experiments with his mind, experiments in healing." Still reeling from the death of his father and lacking direction after outgrowing his boyhood ambition to be a professional soccer player. Ashcroft eagerly took part.
"It's difficult for people to understand that, they doubt it, calling you a lunatic," he says with a dismissive snort. Indeed, for a time, Ashcroft was referred to in the English music press as Mad Richard.
"He used to talk about his stepfather," says Simon Jones, "and it blew people's minds. I think the quote that did it was he said, 'If I wanted to, If I put my mind to it, I believe people can fly.' All he was basically saying was, you can do whatever you believe in."
Ashcroft stands by those beliefs. "People are afraid to use the word spiritual," he states flatly. "I'm a firm believer in songs coming from an unlimited pool, and you have to be in a certain state of mind to get them. You don't know why you're in that state of mind. Sometimes it's a dangerous state of mind. But I know where my influence comes form." Ashcroft laughs, then affects a cockney pub-stool philosopher's accent: "It comes from the universal mind, mate."
Born in Liverpool, Jones was thirteen when he moved to Wigan and enrolled in Upholland Comprehensive School, where Ashcroft, Salisbury and Tong were also students. "He wouldn't take any shit of the teachers," Jones says, smiling, of Ashcroft. "He would always break girls' hearts. He was always good at football, and a bit of a showoff, to be honest. And he'd admit that himself.
"He's always been so sure of himself," Jones adds. When Ashcroft's mother and stepfather left Wigan to settle in the Cotswolds, Ashcroft, still in school, stayed behind rooming with friends. He actually lived at Jones' house for a year while the two attended Winstanley College.
Nick McCabe's decision not to talk for this story ("He won't talk to anybody, don't take it personally," says Jazz Summers) leaves one with the impression of a brilliant guitarist with a fragile, reclusive personality. Since rejoining the Verve in early '97, McCabe, who was born in St. Helen's, near Wigan, and who was a year ahead of Ashcroft and Jones at Winstanley, has kept his distance from the music industry at large. McCabe, 26, Hasn't spoken to the press since last summer. "If Richard doesn't like the business," says Dave Boyd, "Nick definitely detests it."
As for fragile, "Nick's a lot happier and confident with himself than he was," Jones insists. "In the past, he had difficulty accepting that he had to go onstage in front of people. He's really shy and always thought he was shit. No matter how much you told Nick he was doing the greatest thing, 'Fuck that's the best guitar playing I've ever heard,' he thought, 'Are you taking the piss?'"
The tumultuous recording sessions for A Northern Soul took their toll on the band as a whole but especially on McCabe. Working in virtual isolation in Wales and taking too much ecstasy, The Verve were paired with Oasis producer Owen Morris, an exuberant character who legend has it, smashed a studio window in celebration after the group finished recording the gorgeous ballad "History."
"Nick is a very quiet, personal guy" says Boyd. "And maybe some of that exuberance was misinterpreted as laddish behaviour, which he doesn't like. Where he comes from, the mentality is very much Northern England: short hair, Ben Sherman shirts, going out on Saturday night and getting absolutely pissed, maybe into a bit of a fight. And when that reared it's head, he took ten steps back."
It was Ashcroft, also suffering from exhaustion and frustration, who ultimately broke up the group after a major festival appearance in Scotland in August '95. "But if any other member of the band had quit, it would have had the same effect," claims Boyd. "If you take away one member of the band, they're not The Verve anymore."
That became plain to Ashcroft as he went back to work, rehearsing in a rented apartment in the city of Bath with Jones, Salisbury and Tong. Ashcroft had a batch of sterling songs, including "The Drugs Don't Work" and "Sonnet", both of which he played at a surprise solo appearance in New York, opening for Oasis in March 1996. (The Verve's long, brotherly association with Oasis goes back to '93, when Oasis were booked, on the strength of a demo tape, as The Verve's opening act on a UK tour.) But when the sessions for Urban Hymns began in fall '96 with producer Youth, Ashcroft still didn't know whether he was making a solo record or a new Verve album.
"I kept calling it The Verve," says Youth. "That's what I kept writing on the studio board. But Richard was more sentimental about the split. He wanted to remember the band the way it was before it broke up.
"With Nick it wasn't just a musical thing," he notes. "Nick had been a sounding board for Richard, a foil. He was Richard's alter ego in many ways. And Richard really needed that."
During a Christmas break in recording, Ashcroft finally called McCabe in Wigan. When McCabe joined the album sessions in London, he recorded his ravishing guitar parts for "Sonnet" and "The Drugs Don't Work" in first takes.
"Me and Nick are more alike than anyone knows," says Ashcroft. That's about all he'll say regarding McCabe, out of respect and friendship. When told how hard it will be to write about the guitarist without meeting and knowing him, Ashcroft replies protectively, "Well maybe you just don't ever get to know him."
To Jones, The Verve's breakup has been blown way out of proportion. "It's just growing up," he insists. "We'd gone from being teenagers to adults, in a band, for everyone to see. Look at what Fleetwood Mac went through. They were fucking each other, doing all sorts of coke, whatever. All we did was have a communication problem. End of story."
Ask Ashcroft about success in America, and what it takes to achieve it, and he'll sock you with a bold, provocative proclamation like "We wasted a lot of time there." In fact what he really means is that The Verve, who played in New York in 1992, before they even had an album out, and toured the US extensively in '93 and '94 to support A Storm In Heaven - have wasted a lot of time in America doing dumb shit.
There have been great days playing "Gravity Grave" on a flatbed truck in Times Square in '92 and mind-blowing gigs, like the night in July 1993 when masonry rained down on band and audience alike at Anshe Slonim Synagogue, a deteriorated house of worship turned arts centre on New York's Lower East Side. Ashcroft's fondest memory of Lollapalooza is playing soccer with a group of Tibetan monks. He also remembers playing on Lollapalooza's second stage every day at two in the afternoon, in oppressive heat, for dispiritingly small crowds. And everything he despises about record-biz corn is summed up in the phrase "Hot dogs with CEMA."
During a tour stop in Houston in 1993, the Verve were booked at a reception for Virgin's distribution company, CEMA. "God bless all those people, whoever they are," says Ashcroft, denying any personal malice. "But it was, 'What the fuck do you think we are? Even with our meagre fans, we're past that.' I get onstage and in front of me are just five women with name tags on, with hot dogs, mouthing the words to the songs but slightly out of time and totally wrong. I thought, 'What the fuck is going on over here?'"
That sounds like classic British-rock colonialism. It isn't. Ashcroft is that rare bird in English pop, a big mouth with the heart to back it up, a rock & roll believer who feels that the war on convention and clich was never over, never won. He laments that a mere song title like "The Drugs Don't Work" could potentially spook Top Forty programmers in the US (Attention, radio guys: The key word in the title is Don't.) He's outraged by what he calls "DNA testing" at pop radio. "Every single they play has a certain DNA, and if your single is too long, they can actually cut large sections of it," Ashcroft complains. "They can doctor it."
"I was walking around the studio steaming about this," he says, the temperature and volume of his voice rising. "People are going, 'Chill out man.' But I felt like, 'We've lost the fucking power. You don't understand!'"
But Ashcroft is in it for the long haul. And if he can be defensive about going over old ground, about exposing private tensions behind the Verve's public troubles, it's mostly because he doesn't think that anything his band went through is out of the ordinary.
"At the end of the day, all great bands have problems," Ashcroft says, laughing and flashing a bright smile of hard-won triumph. "It's the ones who are fucking happy, the ones that are always laughing on TV all the time, the ones too eager, too desperate, they're the ones to worry about."
- Rolling Stone Magazine, April 1998 issue