|At the Cricketers in Richmond. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer|
“The way we and our mates were living back then was crazy,” says Richard Ashcroft, remembering the days he was on the precipice of fame before the Verve’s third album, Urban Hymns, made them ubiquitous in 1997. “A scene in This is England brought it home. Shane Meadows faded in on this girl’s retina. It’s five in the morning, she’s watching some lads play a video game. She’s obviously wasted, and that shot just sums that period up. I feel lucky I got out alive.”
The Verve had blazed out of the north-west, a product of both rave culture and psychedelia. Ashcroft, wild-eyed and shaggy-haired, was a man prone to ridiculous pronouncements who inspired incredible loyalty. Noel Gallager wrote the Oasis song "Cast No Shadow" about him and Chris Martin introduced him at Live 8 as “the best singer in the world” while the music mags nicknamed him “Mad Richard” after he claimed he could fly. If there’s an image of Ashcroft fixed in the public mind, it comes from the video for the Verve’s breakthrough single, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" which featured Ashcroft walking down a street, while everyone else walks the other way, his eyes fixed on the camera refusing to be pushed from his path. “Try to make ends meet / You’re a slave to the money / Then you die,” he sang.
It’s hard, now, to reconcile the cheerful, chatty, 44-year-old sipping water in a Richmond pub with the Ashcroft of two decades ago, the “Pete Townshend character, a northern soul, who could star in a musical, who’s still within me”. Richmond is where he has lived for the past 15 years, in unpsychedelic domesticity. “People wanted me to become this cliched Keith Richards, Iggy Pop character,” he says. “I wasn’t expected to marry a beautiful wife and have kids.”
Ashcroft has always sought to confound expectations. When he was a young man, while his peers went to work in factories or offices, he formed the Verve – and it is worth remembering how out of time a band they were, performing long, freeform jams when they began to make an impression in the early 90s. They released two albums before truly crossing over with Urban Hymns, which sold 10m copies worldwide and became the 17th bestselling album ever in the UK.
Yet Ashcroft walked away repeatedly, splitting the Verve three times. “I don’t want to be onstage when I feel like I’m cheating the audience,” he explains. He launched a solo career in 2000 with a hit album, Alone With Everybody, but began to falter with the 2002 followup Human Conditions. Then, while touring in 2010, he contracted pneumonia and felt himself mentally broken. He walked away from music again, seemingly for ever.
“There’s no point writing a suicide note like Kurt Cobain,” he says. “If you haven’t got it, take a break.”
The big conundrum, he says, has been how to tame his old creative “desire to smash things up” to suit life as an adult with children. He’s spent the past six years “breaking myself down and building myself up again,” a process that he says has been painful. He stopped using the internet and threw away his mobile phone. Ashcroft isn’t known for humility, but says he asked himself: “Have I got anything to offer or am I just adding more shit to the pile?” Gradually, he regained the desire to make music. “All those stabs in the back and ceilings that have been put on me in my life started building up again, so I’ve come back fighting,” he says.
Ashcroft’s new album, These People, reunites him with the Urban Hymns’ strings arranger Wil Malone, and has what he calls an “ancient and modern” sound. Several of the songs reflect his fears about the way society is going: “Privacy. We’re all being divided, set upon each other. Fear is being pumped daily on news channels. Everyone’s on edge. I feel it just like everybody else.”
The album concludes with four songs influenced by the deaths of people including his long-time guitar tech, Rex, and his manager, Jazz Summers. “That was another reason for the long break. I didn’t want to put an album out while he was dying. I got very close to him in the end.”
Ashcroft’s best songs are the result of extremes of emotion. When his long-standing girlfriend ran off with his childhood friend, he wrote the Verve’s sublime, strings-soaked "History" “all in one go, this seven-minute outpouring with a bit of William Blake thrown in”. Around the time that the band first imploded, in 1995, he penned "The Drugs Don’t Work" as his wife’s father lay dying in hospital.
Some years ago, Ashcroft was diagnosed with depression and prescribed Prozac but he is scathing about the modern rush to diagnosis. “You have a few bad days and suddenly it’s a ‘condition.' It’s a multibillion business with the meds. But I’m fortunate that instead of brooding and going downhill, there is an outlet. It’s not primal-scream therapy but get in a room with a guitar and two chords, pour out the poisons and you’ll feel a whole lot better.”
When Ashcroft was 11 his father died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, which he says, “opened a door that will never be closed.” When his own eldest son – now 16 – turned 11, it brought those memories home again. Ashcroft remembers being a young boy, sitting miserably in his metalwork class, thinking: “You’re not supposed to feel this bad as a kid.”
He threw his emotions into the Verve – formed in 1990 with friends from Winstanley sixth form college in Wigan – playing pubs as if they were stadiums and telling anyone who would listen that they would be massive by their third album. “It was portrayed as arrogance – Mad Richard! – but I was trying to get across how much power you need to smash that ceiling.”
After he collapsed from dehydration on tour in Kansas City in 1994, he posed for photographers backstage with a drip in his arm, and he now speaks about the band’s tours like an army general recalling tactical errors in past campaigns.
“They were my lads, but a lot of the problem in this industry is we don’t look after our young people,” he says. “We don’t realize that six or seven weeks together in a chrome bus with people that have just about managed to keep it together in their home town is too much. We send them off to that environment and they don’t come back the same people.”
The rifts in the band deepened when Ashcroft began writing songs alone, forsaking their earlier collaborative jams. They held it together to play a triumphant homecoming gig in 1998 to 33,000 people at Haigh Hall, their local stately home. “It was like the peasants had invaded the palace,” he says. “You should have seen it backstage, all the lads that didn’t have tickets ramming the fences down. It’s reversing that cap-in-hand shit. Yeah man, brilliant.”
He’s particularly proud of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" but it still rankles that the song’s distinctive string hook cost him both the songwriting credit and all the royalties. The Verve had licensed a five-note sample from a version of the Rolling Stones’ "The Last Time," performed by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, with a string arrangement by David Whitaker. The Stones’ former manager, Allen Klein, who owned their pre-1970 catalog, claimed the Verve had used more than they were permitted to and sued. He won, pocketing all the royalties from "Bitter Sweet Symphony," while the songwriting was recredited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Has Ashcroft ever bumped into Jagger around Richmond? “I’ve never seen him. I’ve seen Pete Townshend. He’s a great guy. He gave me an email of what the breakdown would be if we sampled one of his songs, the way it should be. That was really cool. I got a dollar for "Bitter Sweet Symphony.”" When the Verve received $175,000 for the song’s use in an advert, against their wishes, they gave the money to charity.
He’s hardly skint but making money made him a target for the tabloids. When he bought the 17th-century pile Taynton House in Gloucestershire, he says he was treated by the press like a “northern lottery winner. They even tried to get the local farmers to complain about my management of the building.”
Then there was the vintage Mercedes, one of only 68 in the world. “I love that pink Cadillac shit, Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls-Royce and all that,” he says. “Don’t expect me to be some indie schmindie embarrassed about my success. I like pulling up next to those guys with their golf clubs and their slacks, who’ve spent their whole lives obsessed with their BMWs, and they’re looking at me thinking: ‘Where did it go wrong?’ It’s smashing through that ceiling and saying that the establishment doesn’t own everything. Brilliant. But it’s not paradise. You’re still carrying your history, genes, scars, idiosyncrasies, the bullshit education. You’re never free of it. And if you’re a slave to money, what happens then?”
You die. He roars with laughter. Ashcroft isn’t short of a sense of humor. Take, for instance, his recollection of a bizarre incident in 2006, when he was fined £80 after reportedly turning up at a youth center in Chippenham with £10,000 in cash, demanding to teach music to the kids. “There was no 10 grand,” he says, “but I’d played a huge gig in Manchester the night before and 24 hours later I was still buzzing. I glimpsed this shabby-looking building and before I knew it I was in this room going: ‘Kids, get in a circle and I’ll teach you some songs.’ There was a dinner lady looking at me as if to say, ‘Who are you?’ and it just snowballed. Some bloke told me to do one, as I would have had it been my kids, and called the police.”
He does a wonderful impression of his grinning self being led away in handcuffs. “Sometimes I don’t understand how life is,” he says. “Innocence gets turned into something else, and that gets my back up because I’ve always been anti-authority anyway. I don’t like being told what to do.” He sang "Bitter Sweet Symphony" in the police car.
We probably won’t hear him singing it again with the Verve. The band’s 2008 comeback fizzled out after one album, Forth, because Aschcroft realized they couldn’t be a mirror of who they were in their 20s. “I’m not going to down two bottles of vodka and dance on the tables now. There’s no hatred on my part, but we headlined all the big festivals and I’m relieved it’s over.”
Haven’t you ever looked at Coldplay and thought: “That should have been us”?
“I wouldn’t trade what Coldplay have achieved for any of my songs,” he declares. “I know Chris would probably give up a certain amount of his kingdom for "Bitter Sweet Symphony."”
Although they shared the stage at Live 8, Ashcroft barely knows Martin and shuns the showbiz hangouts of “stars all going round together like one big elongated head”. Instead, he’s been re-energized by the vast numbers of ordinary people for whom his songs mean the world. “I’ve had tons of incredible conversations with people who say they got married or buried relatives to my songs. My mission now is to reconnect with that sleeping audience and get us all to congregate in one place, cos I’ve seen what happens when we release that valve."
“You know, I set the bar pretty high, but I want to reach the summit again and enjoy it more this time. I believe there are moments on this album that will make people feel, and are exhilarating. Hearing This Is How It Feels on the radio was an amazing feeling, like starting again. But I believe that in the end my name will be bigger then the Verve because of all those great tunes and the power of what I stand for.”
He sounds like the old Mad Richard. What advice would he give his 23-year-old self, the one who used to go hurtling around the lanes of Lancashire in his mate’s Mini Cooper, driving at 85 on roads more suited to 40.
“Get a crash helmet immediately and buy lots of emotional body armor,” he says, “because it won’t be a bed of roses, but you’re on the right path. Keep believing in things that people tell you are impossible, and dream on.”
- Source: The Guardian, by Dave Simpson