Friday, June 16, 2017

Spiritualized, The Verve, and 1997’s Biggest Secret Love Triangle

Twenty years ago, two of the UK's biggest acts were quiet rivals, and the result is one of the most important albums of that year.


June 16, 1997 will forever be immortalized in music history as the day Radiohead welcomed their third and most influential album, OK Computer, into the world. But its long shadow often covers the release of another great album by a different innovative UK rock band: Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space. And while these two 20-year-old albums might have enough in common to seem like natural counterparts (i.e. Spiritualized supported Radiohead on their 1998 North American tour), Ladies and Gentlemen has a far deeper connection with another album that also turns 20 this year: The Verve's Urban Hymns.

From their beginnings, Spiritualized and The Verve were celestial brethren. Both bands formed in 1990, undoubtedly with a mutual love for Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and an appetite for drug-taking: Jason "J Spaceman" Pierce founded Spiritualized from the ashes of his previous band, heroin-championing trance rockers Spacemen 3, while Verve (then without a "The"), led by the charismatic Richard "Mad Dick" Ashcroft, was a gang of teenagers that enjoyed trippin' balls on LSD. They each jammed eternal, though with distinct styles: Pierce favored extended, pedal-heavy drones, while Verve conceived loose, reverb-soaked grooves. Following the release of Spiritualized's debut album, Lazer Guided Melodies, and Verve's debut single, "All In The Mind," in 1992, the two bands toured the UK together. For the next couple of years, the bands seemed to follow a similar path, on course for cult worship.

Spiritualized has always been and forever will be Jason Pierce. The gaunt, straggly-haired Spaceman as he was called, formed the band in 1990 as Spacemen 3 was crumbling from the result of his acrimonious relationship with paper-thin bandmate Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember, a 24/7 shades wearer with a bowl cut. A lot of it had to do with two songwriters going in different directions and likely drugs, but the presence of Pierce's then-girlfriend, the Calvin Klein-modelesque Kate Radley, was also to blame. According to Kember, Radley put a strain on band relations by following the band around wherever they played, be it the studio, rehearsal, or gigs. Once the band imploded, Pierce recruited the remaining S3 members, sans Kember, for his new band, Spiritualized. After the release of their debut single, "Anyway That You Want Me," Radley joined the band on keyboards, adding a face to Pierce's muse for songs like "I Want You" and "If I Were With Her Now." After joining in 1991, Radley became as synonymous with Spiritualized as Pierce, appearing in all press photos, sometimes just the two of them. They appeared as a match made in the heaven he so often referred to in his music.

 In 1995, Spiritualized added "Electric Mainline" to their name for some reason and released the magnificent Pure Phase, an album of transcendental, cosmic R&B designed to "play loud 'n' drive fast." Verve, meanwhile, was forced to add "The" to their name, thanks to a lawsuit by the record label of the same name. Unlike Spiritualized Electric Mainline, The Verve would stick. They too released an album, A Northern Soul, which followed up their 1993 debut, A Storm In Heaven. Moving on from their early cavernous psych-rock, A Northern Soul was a game-changer. Led by Ashcroft's emotive voice, Nick McCabe's virtuosic guitar work, and Oasis producer Owen Morris' larger-than-life production, The Verve moved into a whole new stratosphere: the mainstream. Although the album is carried by a spirit that is equal parts Floyd and Zeppelin (see the rumbling low-end vibes of "Life's An Ocean" or the ecstatic rave-up "This Is Music"), it was the ballads, "On Your Own" and "History," that helped them crack the Top 30 and reveal Ashcroft, now referred to by Noel Gallagher as "Captain Rock," as one of the UK's most compelling songwriters.

The Verve had surpassed Spiritualized and entered the big time, but their success was not what caused a rift between the two bands. Instead, it was due to a personal matter. That same month, The Verve released A Northern Soul, Richard Ashcroft married Kate Radley in secret. Yeah, you read that right: Ashcroft, not Pierce, married Radley. This bombshell was kept under wraps until 1997, but for two more years, Radley was still an active member of Spiritualized. In fact, just days after the wedding, Spiritualized headlined above The Verve at the Phoenix Festival in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Neither camp has ever been forthcoming about whether Ashcroft was the cause of Pierce and Radley's romance ending. Maybe that's for the best, to let this dog lie and just enjoy all of the music that seemed to be a result of such an ordeal. But in these pre-social media times, this incredible love triangle story managed to transpire without details leaking to the press. Fifteen years after it happened, Ashcroft offered up a rare candid moment to Sirius XM, even accepting blame for her leaving Spiritualized. "I was supporting her band," he said. "I saw this girl jump off the stage with these boots on, this beautiful little skirt. I'm like, 'Wow! Who's that? She's gorgeous.' And I'm just so lucky that she was intelligent as well. Such a bloody bonus, guys out there! You really should go for that. But I was very fortunate. People should check out her band, she doesn't play with them anymore. I probably ruined that!"

The loss of Radley romantically seemed both devastating and inspirational for Pierce. Normally, he would let the songs just come to him, but when he sat down to begin writing Ladies and Gentleman in the summer of 1995, he amassed 14 songs in 11 days. According to then-bandmate Sean Cook, Pierce had been doing heroin, which he seems to corroborate on "Home Of The Brave": "Sometimes I have my breakfast right off of a mirror." Other lyrics like "There's a hole in my arm where all the money goes" ("Cop Shoot Cop") and "Just me, my spike in my arm, and my spoon" ("Think I'm In Love") insinuate that he was consuming the brown stuff intravenously. Even for a guy who named an album, Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To, this seemed like a pretty shocking admission.

Of course, in hindsight, it's Pierce's romantic anguish and this supposed inability to carry on that makes the album such a gut-punch to hear. The first voice you hear on Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space isn't his, but hers: Radley mutters the album's titular words completely devoid of emotion. Rumor has it the line was left as a "kiss-off voicemail" for Pierce, though that has never been verified, and seems more like a thing of gossip. Lines like "I'm wasted all the time, I've got to drink you right out of my mind" ("Broken Heart") and "All I want in life's a little bit of love to take the pain away" (title track) painted a seemingly obvious picture of despair. But Pierce frequently denied that these songs were about his ex. He told MOJO, "If I hadn't been doing interviews I wouldn't even have come to that conclusion." He also downplayed any kind of resentment over Radley leaving him for Ashcroft, telling NME, "I love her dearly and she loves me dearly. Simple fact."

Astonishingly, Radley was still in the band, and is credited with contributing organ, synths, and piano, as well as vocals to the album. However, when it came to gigs, Spiritualized's PR team claimed she was suffering from a "mystery illness."

Pierce has said that a lot of the album was recorded spontaneously, and most of what we hear are first takes. So the majority of his time was spent mixing the album, a total of 18 months all together. Originally, he asked Brian Eno to take a crack at it, but he was too busy. And so Pierce began a quest on par with Kevin Shields' epic stab at refining My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, to achieve perfection. Some might say he achieved it. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space might not receive the same godlike praise as Loveless, but it's every bit warranted. This was one man's singular vision: an orchestral space rock odyssey complete with blessed gospel choirs, bursts of free jazz noise, swampy blues, and garage rock freak-outs, divulging the pain he's suffered.

When Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was released, the press was still unaware of Radley's marriage to Ashcroft. Pierce was subjected to questioning about their relationship, considering the lyrical content, but no one caught on. And why would they? He was admittedly still living with Radley's parents at the time. Months later, when the press found out, Radley and Ashcroft became tabloid fodder and their lives became a soap opera. (Again, since this occurred during the days of dial-up, Angelfire, and movies like this, such gossip never made it online.)

Pierce did everything he could to deflect any such attention in order to push his masterpiece. Despite no real hit single to boost it, the album was a commercial success, charting at number four in the UK and achieving a considerable breakthrough in the US. The novelty of packaging the CD in prescription pill form complete with a foil blister pack and dosage advice also helped shift a few copies. So did a performance 114 stories high at the top of Toronto's CN Tower, which was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest gig ever played.

The Verve, meanwhile, was on the verge of Oasis-level fame. After breaking up (for the first time) in 1995, Ashcroft began working on music he felt would be for his solo album. Instead, The Verve reformed and released the mammoth hit "Bitter Sweet Symphony" in June 1997. (To Pierce's probable liking, the band was forced to pay 100 percent of the song's royalties to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for sampling an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time.") These new, uplifting anthems—perhaps a sign of his domestic bliss with Radley—formed their third album, Urban Hymns.

The Verve may not have survived (they would reform again in 2007 to make a fourth album, then break up for a third time), but Ashcroft ended up with both the girl and the glory. The drugs may not have worked for him, but selling out sure did. By appealing to the common denominator—which at this time was deemed Noelrock—rather than continue with their cathartic space rock, Urban Hymns became a number one album, selling over ten million copies worldwide and making Ashcroft a rock star in the process.

For the most part, Urban Hymns is still lauded as a modern day classic, but in retrospect, it likely should have been credited to "Richard Ashcroft & The Verve." That's certainly how the press treated it. Maybe in 1997, when Britpop was still being touted and Oasis was—in their words: the biggest band in the world—songs like "The Drugs Don't Work" and "Lucky Man" were candidates for Single of the Week, but two decades later they sure don't sound much different from this. Maybe finding true love wasn't the best thing for Ashcroft's songwriting after all, because things only got worse when The Verve returned in 2008 with Forth.

The same cannot be said about Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. What Pierce created was timeless; an engrossing, uncompromising, and outright masterpiece that critics have never needed to reassess. That might have something to do with the fact that Pierce, unlike Ashcroft, has never strayed far from his original template.

OK Computer may have won over the critics, and Urban Hymns may have sold a zillion copies, but Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is 1997's true magnum opus. It's the sound of a man detailing how he lost his heart, body, and soul over the span of 69 spellbinding minutes.