01 February 1998

Comment: Profile: The Verve: Where Oasis once stood

From the Brats to the Brits, they're rock music's latest superstars. By Ros Wynne-Jones

"BOUND with all the weight of the words he tried to say, as he faced the sun he cast no shadow." The lyric, one of Noel Gallagher's most bitter-sweet, could so easily have been an obituary for The Verve. As a portrait of Richard Ashcroft, the band's lead singer, Cast No Shadow is near-perfect, a vampiric sketch of a man so thin and narcotically handsome that his cheekbones have been described as "dug out with a junkie's spoon". But by the time it appeared on Oasis's (What's The Story) Morning Glory in 1995, written by Gallagher about his friend, The Verve had disbanded and their shadow was already fading.

It is hard to imagine now, as on the back of the soaring melancholy of their hits "Bittersweet Symphony" and "The Drugs Don't Work", and a best- selling album, Urban Hymns, The Verve are currently overshadowing Oasis. Last week they swept the board at the alternative Brat awards, which also saw the talent of Ashcroft's wife, Kate Radley of Spiritualised, finally recognised. They have won five nominations for the Brits, the mainstream awards the Brats mimic, and next week they will beyond doubt win most of those categories. The Verve's invitation to No 10 is almost certainly already in the post.

But it very nearly didn't happen for the boys from Wigan. Oasis's What's The Story, with a sleeve note dedicating "Cast No Shadow" to the "genius of Richard Ashcroft", was released in October 1995, a month after "History", which The Verve, on the verge of imploding, had intended to be their last ever single. The Verve have always been an all-or-nothing band and, against a backdrop of exhaustion, nerves frayed by narcotics and widening rifts between band members, they decided that if they couldn't have all, they would simply walk away with dignity.

After they disbanded, the mainstream music press, which had begun to warm to the defiant and emotional album A Northern Soul, wrote grand and sweeping eulogies to the the Band That Could Have Been. The Verve's cult following went into mourning.

Then, last September they came back suddenly and decisively. "Bittersweet Symphony", a string-swept orchestral landscape overlaid with an elegaic vocal and a Rolling Stones sample (which has ultimately cost them all royalties, so hard did the Stones' lawyers fight them), swiftly went to No.2 in the charts; then the pensive "The Drugs Don't Work", to number one. The release of their fourth album, Urban Hymns, in the same month to open-mouthed critical acclaim - in brilliant contrast to Oasis's disappointingly prosaic Be Here Now - confirmed their place in rock history. The music press now began to hear the distant sound of Britpop's death knell.

Through all this The Verve's music had never really changed, inhabiting the same psychedelic panorama of melancholic vocal and huge, distorted noise. It was the world outside which had altered - so much so that on their return the indie outsiders suddenly found themselves the spirit of the Zeitgeist. "At this point in time," Ashcroft says carefully, "the world's tuned into what we've been doing and saying all along."

THE working-class North-West was to find itself newly articulate with The Verve's music in the same way inner-city Manchester has often found its echo in a Gallagher chorus. The best musicians come from the North, Ashcroft has said, "because there's fuck all else to do".

To Ashcroft, the son of an unemployed builder and a hairdresser, articulacy and individuality developed early on with the death of his father, when he was 11. He became a loner, preoccupied with the meanings of life and death. He found some answers through his grandfather, who was interested in astronomy and taught him about the infinity of space and time, and later through his step-father, a radical schoolteacher fascinated by spirituality and magic.

The Verve - Ashcroft, McCabe, and their schoolmates Simon Jones and Peter Salisbury - were formed at Winstanley Sixth Form College in 1986. Their former head teacher, Dennis Lavelle, recalls them making a lot of noise in the school's recording studio and contemporaries remember them dividing sixth-form girls between who lusted after Richard and who preferred Nick.

"No one ever comes from Wigan," says Helen, now 25, who remembers paying 50p to see Verve - a copyright dispute forced them to introduce a "The" - at scout huts and rented halls in obscure villages in Lancashire in 1991. "Manchester seemed to have everyone around that time, but for a band to come out of Wigan ... that was almost unthinkable. Then along came Verve and we, Wigan, had our very own Stone Roses."

The lead singer, running on amphetamines and unshakable self-belief, was special from the very start, performing in tiny venues as if already on stage in the Albert Hall. There are still no half-performances for Ashcroft; he performs this way even in sound checks and rehearsal. In interviews he refers contemptuously again and again to things, feelings, music, life, as being "plastic", and you sense it is this fear of falling into plasticity which drives him into giving everything every single time. "Even then he was like a generator, powering the rest of the band," says Helen. "You thought, God, they are really going somewhere." In one of this summer's biggest music events, the band are to return to Wigan's Haigh Hall to salute the faithful.

Standing usually towards the edge of the stage, as if trying to walk off into the wings as he was later to do, was the quiet and emotionally fragile Nick McCabe, the Keith Richards to Ashcroft's fleshy-lipped Jagger. McCabe and Ashcroft have not always got on, but it is the dynamic and creative tension between the two that is The Verve, however talented the other musicians. For a lead guitarist, McCabe has always made a lot of noise on stage. On any track, his is the beautiful distortion, the nonsensical psychedelia that adds the impenetrability which, in turn, guards The Verve from descending into a plastic, verse-chorus-verse band.

As the Eighties bled into the Nineties, Ashcroft's haunting figure could be seen regularly on Wednesday nights at the end of Wigan pier. "Come on," Ashcroft would shout, as he still does, gesturing wildly at his band and audience. "Come on." With his obsessive melancholy, he was curiously at home there, as if he might leap off at any time. It was to be another five years, however, before the give-everything passion which was to characterise his early performances was to spill over into something blacker and more self-destructive.

It was a flash of this hypnotic energy that made Dave Boyd, the legendary boss of Hut, a Virgin Records subsidiary, sign The Verve in 1991, after he watched Ashcroft climbing the monitor rig at the Fulham Greyhound, sweating blood for an audience of 20 people. But as history tells, three albums and four years later the darker side of The Verve also nearly finished them. There is a famous image of Ashcroft giving a weak thumbs-up from the back of a Kansas City ambulance during a US tour in 1994. He had allowed himself to reach a near critical state of dehydration. Arrests, smashed- up hotel rooms, and drugs-and-sex binges followed, but, more seriously, the band felt their friendships faltering. The drugs weren't working and neither was The Verve. Spending the following months holed up together in a Wigan basement to record A Northern Soul hardly helped.

A year later, the band had split. McCabe became a father, reportedly had a nervous breakdown, and considered going back to the day job, quantity- surveying. He didn't speak to a single band member for 18 months. Ashcroft, whose own mental state was fragile at that time, tried to go it alone, but steadily realised that the Verve magic had simply upped and left with McCabe. Eventually, he swallowed hard and made a difficult call to his old friend. McCabe says Ashcroft "ate shit". Whatever was said, he surprised Ashcroft by coming back on board.

The Verve's reformation brought them Jazz Summers, the former Wham manager. He almost wept when he heard what they had been recording since they split: "The Drugs Don't Work", "Bittersweet Symphony" and the spare and beautiful "Lucky Man". His voice has an air of wonder when he talks about watching them live for the first time. "They have this way of tapping into the collective consciousness of the crowd," he says. "Richard lets himself go completely and it reminds me of seeing Hendrix years ago. Total creativity is the only way to describe it."

Summers is looking forward to seeing his band perform live, "as a punter", a week tomorrow, the day the Brits are awarded. The Verve have turned down an invitation to the ceremony to perform a charity gig at Brixton Academy for London's homeless. Industry awards ceremonies, after all, are for plastic people.