Sunday, April 16, 2000

Richard Ashcroft's 'Bittersweet' Post-Verve Dilemma

Quick. Name the guy who sang "Bittersweet Symphony."

You can hear the strings riff, pounded into your head from its use in a shoe commercial and the song's 1998 radio omnipresence.

You remember the group, the Verve, and maybe can picture the singer--his face was even on the cover of Calendar!

But his name?

That's the problem facing Virgin Records with the summer release of the solo debut of Richard Ashcroft. (Right! That's the guy.) The fact is that even many of the 1.1 million U.S. purchasers of the Verve's "Urban Hymns"--which contained "Bittersweet"--don't have much awareness of Ashcroft himself.

So will they care about his album?

"It's always difficult to know what the core market is after you sell so many records on the basis of one hit single," says Ray Cooper, co-president of Virgin's North American operations.

Before "Bittersweet," the core of U.S. Verve fans was somewhere in the vicinity of 150,000--the number who bought the band's previous album, "A Northern Soul."

"Our challenge lies in the education of the 1.1 million consumers who bought 'Urban Hymns,' " Cooper says.

But how to reach them? Radio may prove tough, especially at modern-rock radio stations (including L.A.'s KROQ-FM [106.7]), which were instrumental in launching "Bittersweet" before it crossed to pop playlists. Back then, though, modern rock was friendly to pensive Brit-pop, with Oasis and Radiohead having paved the way. Today, dominated by such snarling Americans as Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine and Korn, it's less accommodating.

"If you look at KROQ's playlist right now, how many male solo artists do you see?" says Bob Bell, new releases buyer for the Wherehouse retail chain. "They added one last week in Ben Harper, so the total is one. That's a challenge."

Cooper believes Ashcroft and the label are up to the challenge, with or without immediate radio aid. This is the formal launch of Ashcroft as a solo artist, after the end of the Verve a year ago. Though "Urban Hymns" was the group's commercial peak, the album's success heightened internal tensions (which had led to a temporary breakup a few years earlier), and when guitarist Nick McCabe quit again, Ashcroft declared the Verve over last April.

Plans call for Ashcroft to precede the album's expected late June release with an early May U.S. round of media sessions and solo acoustic showcase concerts. Various Internet strategies are also being planned to supplement that pre-release exposure. But first and foremost in the campaign will be the music.

A preview listen to the nearly finished, still-untitled collection reveals connections to the Verve's hit--the first track, "A Song for the Lovers," starts with strings and carries a rather bittersweet tone. But it also introduces a sense of positivity amid the lush sounds, a vibe that builds and carries throughout the album.

"He has proven himself to be the kind of guy who could be a star," says Rolling Stone magazine senior editor Jason Fine, who has not heard the new music yet. "He has a certain demeanor and attitude and edge to him that makes him a good rock star, and as everyone knows, we're looking for rock stars today. If he's made a great rock song, the world will be ready for it."

UNEASY RIDER: In his upcoming autobiography, "Hell's Angel," notorious Hells Angels leader Ralph "Sonny" Barger spares no disdain for the Rolling Stones in his account of the motorcycle gang's role in the 1969 Altamont Speedway concert debacle. That's no surprise. Barger has long maintained that the bikers were set up by the Stones to help add an edge of danger to the show, a vibe that proved all too real when concertgoer Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death.

Barger describes the Stones as "sissy, marble-mouthed prima donnas" and adds a couple of things to the Altamont legend, including the claim that Hunter, who in the documentary "Gimme Shelter" appears to be brandishing a gun before he is attacked, had actually shot toward the stage and grazed one of the Angels. In another colorful passage, he says that when Keith Richards threatened to stop the show if the violence continued, "I stood next to him and stuck my pistol into his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead."

Through a spokeswoman, Richards denied that the incident occured.

The Stones aren't the only music figures Barger expresses opinions on in the book, which will be published June 1 by William Morrow.

* "[At a meeting with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg] the beer and the drugs came out and we listened to Bob Dylan's 'Gates of Eden' and 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,' which was OK even though the guy couldn't sing. But I dug that skinny little Joan Baez and even liked her music."

* "It seemed like I'd known Jerry Garcia all my life. He was that type of guy. I miss him. He also loved and respected the Hells Angels. If you were a Hells Angel and if you ever showed up at a Grateful Dead concert, you never paid."

* "Dick Clark Productions contacted us about making a film. A nice guy, Clark came to Oakland to try to negotiate a movie deal. When we met, I was driving a modified blue-black Corvette. . . . Clark drove a remake of a Cord. I remember him wanting to trade cars because he really liked my 'vette."

GUITAR SUMMIT: Doyle Bramhall II was understandably thrilled when Eric Clapton asked him if he could record two songs featured on Bramhall's 1999 album "Jellycream." But the thrill was just beginning.

"He invited me down to the studio and invited me in, and the first scene I see is B.B. King sitting there with Eric and his band, and they were playing 'I Wanna Be' and it was surreal, B.B. playing his great stuff on my song," says Bramhall, who also ended up playing on the sessions for a Clapton-King duets album due out this summer.

"For the most part it's a blues record, but it has a bit of everything," says the Texas-born guitarist, who is also working these days in former Pink Floyd guitarist Roger Waters' band. "It's songs they've always wanted to do together, for the most part blues songs, but some contemporary songs that are amazing. It's like what B.B. did with U2, it shows that if you're that dedicated to music, there are no boundaries."
  • Los Angeles Times, written by Steve Hochman