Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Simon Tong and The Verve

It began with adrenalin in Sheffield, and ended with Robbie Williams in a castle in County Meath.

 Aged 11, I moved from Bolton to a strange new town called Skelmersdale. On my first morning at school I sat in an English class. Someone behind started throwing rubbers at me and whispering “Is your name Simon, ha ha, are you Simon Le Bon? ” Over a decade later I was doing my very first gig with The Verve, and the same rubber thrower, Richard Ashcroft, was The Verve’s frontman.
Me, Richard and Simon [Jones, bass] and Pete [Salisbury, drums] had all kind of learnt music together, pissing around as teenagers in different bands. They started the Verve with Nick [McCabe, guitar] after sixth form, but we always kept in touch.
They’d kind of split up, as they had done many times, after A Northern Soul in 1995. I was at college in Leeds, and Richard came over for a couple of nights and banged out these songs – Sonnet, The Drugs Don’t Work – on an acoustic guitar. You could tell they were great songs, just from that. Originally he was going to do a solo album, so I was brought in and we worked with Pete and Simon. I think they missed Nick’s ear and his musicality, and his sonic-ness, and when he came back in they decided to carry on as The Verve.
My first gig was a packed Sheffield Leadmill. I was the second guitar/ keyboard player, absolutely shitting myself. The last gig of any kind I’d done was years before playing to about 10 people in Wigan. The Verve were about to go massive, Bitter Sweet Symphony had been getting played all over the radio and was going to be the climax of the set. In the days before laptops and stress-free syncing, I had the nerveracking job of manually triggering the ‘litigious’ Andrew Loog Oldham/Bitter Sweet Symphony sample. I just had a sampler with the loop on, and I just remember looking down at my finger shaking uncontrollably above the keyboard, thinking, “Jesus, please just get it vaguely in time.”

Richard’s relationship with Nick had broken down again, and Nick had left the band [during a European tour in June 1998]. But we’d committed to some festival dates and a US tour. We got BJ Cole in on lap steel, and there were some really good shows, but me and BJ couldn’t fill that huge sonic gap – Nick’s so much the sound of The Verve.
Slane Castle in Ireland was the last show of the Urban Hymns tour. We were headlining with people like the Manics and Robbie Williams. It was a great show – there were 100,000 people stretching off into the distance singing every word, and Mo Mowlam dancing at the side of the stage. Afterwards, we ended up back at the hotel. I think John Squire was there. We were all doing these horrible champagne and tequila slammers, the most revolting thing. I don’t think it had actually been decided definitely, “this is finished”, but there was a sense of, “I can’t really see this going on.” I think they realised that they couldn’t do The Verve without Nick. It was sad.
A few years ago I met a couple of Irish people who’d been at the festival, and they said, “It was amazing, but you do realise that most of the people were there to see Robbie Williams?” That slightly ruined my memory of it, and brought home the fact that you can spend years making what you see as the most beautiful, serious, moving pop music, miraculously manage to get it on prime time radio, and still the public turn round and say, “Great! But we really just wanted Robbie Williams.”
Of course, the band got back together years later, but for whatever reasons, they didn’t want me back. I’d say I was disappointed, ’cos I’d have loved to have been playing a lot of those songs again. Luckily I’d been doing a lot of other work. If I hadn’t, I might’ve been more pissed off.
The Magnetic North’s Prospect Of Skelmersdale is out now on Full Time Hobby. The band play at the Golden Dome of Enlightenment in Skelmersdale in May.