07 October 1997

The Return of The Verve

When the Verve where last with us, with the elegiac lament of "History" in August '95, Michael Jackson had no idea who Jarvis Cocker was, there wasn't a football fan alive who'd sung a chorus of "Three Lions", Blur were still considered rivals to Oasis, the heavy electric summer of Knebworth was still the stuff of Noel's sleeping hours; and astral gobbledegook - once the sole preserve of 'Mad' Richard Ashcroft - has since been spectacularly hijacked by Kula Shaker. The last few months have even seen the rise of the deeply dull Embrace, more or less a Verve substitute band. So, where exactly were the Verve whilst the world was getting high?

Richard turns back the clock: "I dunno, man. I think people felt it was a little bizarre us leaving when we did, because we were building to a point where it looked as though we were about to take off, after all the work we'd done up to that point. The thing is, The Verve is a human band, that's the way the music sounds, and that's why it happened like it did. We're human beings, the music sounds like it's made by human beings, and human beings have their problems. We're not robots: we just needed some time to, you know, get our heads together.

"Over the last year or so I've had a lot of experiences of people trying to get me to do things for them just because I'll give them this stamp of... I dunno what it is, this notion of something that money can't buy. But that's the point. We've constantly only done what we've wanted to do, and if that meant we had to disappear for a while then so be it..."

Prior to their 21 month hiatus, the Verve's career had been as fervently catalogued as any group's since the Manic Street Preachers. That mind-altering debut single, "All In The Mind", the especially over-reaching first album (including forgotten free-jazz blow-out "Butterfly"), the valedictory comeback with "This Is Music", the colossally troubled Northern Soul album sessions. These have brought the Verve to a point where expectation is all.

But that time away. Rumour has it, it was far from a clinically self-imposed sabbatical. Having split the band following a below-par appearance at the T In The Park festival, there was much talk of an irrevocable rift between Richard and Nick...

"Oh yeah, I mean we had our problems, no one's denying that. When the group split up I knew that we needed some breathing space, I just didn't know quite how things were going to work out. We weren't communicating at all: things just weren't going to plan. The point is, now we've had that break, the next phase of the band will be twice as long as the first one was. People forget. They say, 'Man, you should have carried on'. But we'd been playing together for two years before we got signed, and then there was about four or five years before Northern Soul came out....'

But you must have felt the split pretty keenly. When did it really hit you what had happened?

"I remember sitting in a hotel room overlooking the cliffs in Cornwall, and Radio One came on and it said, 'The Verve are history and this is their final single "History", and I was more choked than I've ever been in my life. The total is always more than the sum of the parts and when I heard that blasting out I was gutted. I'm The Verve's biggest fan, y'know... the point is, we had to split. I couldn't lie any more. I don't like living a lie and we had to do it. When we were recording Northern Soul we went into the scary zone, to places where it takes a long time to come to terms with what went on there..." [pause]

In what respect? Drugs?

"No, not just drugs... Let me tell you this, there are things that have gone on in The Verve that I won't be talking about in this interview and I won't be talking about until the day I die. If we were an American band I might talk about them and go on to sell 15 million albums on the back of it, but because we're from Wigan, and we all love each other, we're not gonna start talking about it. I know some people get their catharsis through interviews, but not us. Let's just say there was a cloud over us..."

In their time away, the three members of the band who weren't guitarist Nick McCabe set about forming a new band. Guitarist and old friend Simon Tong was drafted in, songs were written, and tentative plans were made to record the songs with John Leckie. However, following an initially successful trip to the studio, the band's recordings became increasingly less fruitful the more time dragged on. Richard would announce himself unhappy with the band's progress, the impetus would drain away and talk would drift onto the subject of recruiting another guitarist. A chance meeting with John Squire while out for the evening found the ex-Stone Rose reputedly bewildered by Richard's intensity, and a liaison with Bernard Butler broke down after one rehearsal (Bernard's only comment on the meeting since has been that "there was nothing in the air", while Richard is happy to write the incident off as an aberration).

Desperate to hurry themselves up, the band linked up with no-frills Oasis knob-twiddler Owen Morris, only to leave the studio smarting at the realization that, despite having Richard and Simon in their ranks they still lacked a viable lead guitarist. Accordingly, the group found themselves a year on with barely anything, bar a clutch of new songs, to show for their collective efforts. And in the middle of it all, as if to show the passage of time, came a call from Noel Gallagher suggesting that Richard take the time to play a solo spot at Oasis' Madison Square Garden soiree. ("That was mad, really: it just showed me that me that I'm not a solo artist. I felt so alone up there.")

A week into '97, Richard picked up the phone and rang Nick McCabe and asked him to re-join the band.

Was reformation really as simple as that?

"Yeah, I think we both knew. I mean we're only 24 or 25 now, and that time away, that 18 months or whatever it is has given us the strength to last another 10 years. It's helped beyond recognition. I tell ya, it's been the longest fuckin' road I've ever been down. The thing is, I love Nick McCabe, and I never want to be in a band if he's not playing the guitar. I hope he thinks the same way about me. We just needed that time to realize it...

The point is, now we're back in this situation and the only thing to do is infiltrate it and take what's ours. Someone like me doesn't usually get this far, on front covers or on the TV. In normal circumstances someone like me probably wouldn't even have a job, they'd just be sat in a lounge somewhere as we speak, dreaming their life away, sedated by drugs.

But I'm fully prepared to take on the mantle. Oasis have tapped into how a lot of people feel in this country, but at the end of the day I know that I speak for a certain amount of people. I don't want to be a spokesman, but there's still a lot of untapped ground in England. Oasis are a massive part of it, but there's a darker side to this country, and I'm its flag-bearer..."

The Verve's new single, "Bittersweet Symphony", is as gloriously epic as you could ever have possibly hoped it could be. Strings on loan from the Archangel Gabriel soar down from the heavens; a spectral drone of sky-shattering guitar clangs in the distance, and the lyrics, spilt from the same mortality cocktail which powered large parts of Northern Soul are to do with the intangible passage of life; nothing less. If you're looking for equals for sheer, heart-stopping honesty this year, look no further. There aren't any. It's the hymn of the year. Are lyrics like I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah/ Let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now/ But the airwaves are clean, there's no one singing to me... a signal that Richard's come back partly because he knows he needs to be back for his own state of mind as well as ours?

"Yeah... I mean, it's just a question of putting the truth back into music. There's a battle going on in this country at the moment and it'll lead to a real change because people are demanding that it happens. As we get nearer to the end of the century they'll demand to hear stuff that's from the fucking heart and nothing else will do. We've had a century where shit has been fed to us, and in the next century people will realize that it's time for a fucking change. And the bigger The Verve get, the quicker it's gonna come..."

The follow-up is scheduled to be a song called "Drugs Don't Work". Is it time for the party to stop?

"It could be... I'm not gonna describe what that song means, man, but we're gonna go through an Altamont period. I think we're in it now. We need people to reflect that change. Because in the end you can't cane it without coming down, can you?"

How will it manifest itself, then?

"Well it may be a festival: it may be a dance band's gig. We're all reaching this point where one's not enough, two's not enough, you know what I'm saying? They'll be some great art coming out of it, but people will look back and say people's heads weren't right..."

A week later, bathed in the Saturday afternoon sunshine of a Chiswick pub around the corner from Richard's house, such apocalyptic visions have fizzled away to be replaced by a que sera sera benevolence unthinkable in the Richard Ashcroft of two years ago. If physically he's even slighter than he was before (and that's saying something: in pop star terms he's the 'i' in thin) then his general demeanour is far less intense. More like that, in fact, of a man about to release a comeback single which is already flooding the play lists and seems destined to launch the group into the Top Ten.

"Yeah, I'm optimistic about "Symphony", of course I am. We filmed the video the other day in Hoxton and there's so many people who know about The Verve now, even as you're just walking down the street, it's really inspiring, almost as though they needed the time away to get their heads around Northern Soul. And now they have, we're back. And it's like, 'COME ON... LET'S HAVE IT!'"

Do you personally feel as though less pressure's on you?

"Yeah, definitely, man. It feels completely different now. The difference is that this time around, it can only be personal, what we do, that's what I've learnt in the time I've been away. I've not got Day-Glo red sunglasses on anymore, I can see what's what. I've got to get over this idea that maybe the ultimate prize isn't possible. It's just your own personal battle that needs to be won..."

In his own way, Richard Ashcroft and his group have partly won their own battle simply by being back with us. There were those in the industry, let us not forget, who muttered loudly that, in the wake of all the failed studio sessions, Richard was likely to end up not so much as a returning hero but the same way as mystic legend Lee Mavers, destined never to return to the fray whilst still tracking down that elusive universal chord. He stifles a laugh.

"Well, yeah, we gotta keep looking. It's just that now I'm not so sure it's out there as a complete, one-off experience. But there is a universal chord. Like 'History'. If we do that song live on this tour, it'll be the only time I've ever sung it apart from the night we recorded it. Where did that music come from? When those words came to me in the studio, that proved to me that there is a higher force out there. I can't reason out why it happened, it just did. Now to me, that proved to me that great things can be done, but it's got to be on a personal level. I'm not perfect. I can be an ugly, violent bastard, or I can be a loved-up beautiful man. I think what I'm trying to say is, I've just got to work on me for a while..."

As we're leaving, talk turns to the future facing the Brit pop survivors who've spent the last 18 months lining their nests with their varying takes on the late-'60s. The Seahorses get caught in the nets ("Let's put it this way; they're just proof of the fact of how difficult it is recreate the original chemistry), Ocean Colour Scene get washed up ("fuckin' '60s rock") and the name-calling threatens to get out of hand until Richard stops himself.

"Listen, if you get me on a negative trip I could be here all day. I'm done with my days slagging off other bands...."

Richard waves his arms at the glorious panoply of white pavements, resplendent trees and bustling cosmopolitana of west London on a weekend afternoon.

"This is what we've got to think about, all this around us. We're all alive man, there should be fuckin' street parties all the time, we've gotta appreciate being here. Let's have it, let's celebrate being alive!"

And with that, cosmic sermon well and truly delivered and eyes sparkling with hope behind his cosmic '70s shades, he veers off into a bustling corner shop to buy some fags. He's got work to do.

Dazed & Confused
112 Old Street
  • Dazed Magazine, The Return of The Verve, October 7, 1997
  • Written by Paul Moody