01 July 2015

The Verve's 'A Northern Soul' 20 Years On: A Knife-Twisting Snapshot Of A Band On The Brink

A Northern Soul (1995)
Never the most stable band on the planet, The Verve finished touring their debut album A Storm In Heaven in 1993 as a band on the brink. In the three years since their first gig in Wigan’s Honeysuckle pub in 1990 they’d broken the UK album chart and had a string of highly acclaimed indie hits in the shoegazey shape of "All In The Mind," "She’s A Superstar" and "Gravity Grave." But a legal wrangle over their original name Verve and a draining US tour saw singer Richard Ashcroft hospitalized from dehydration after a lengthy boozing bout and drummer Pete Salisbury arrested for smashing up his hotel room in a drug-induced rampage. So they entered a remote Welsh studio with producer Owen Morris to record their second album deeply fractured, and the sessions only widened the cracks. A Northern Soul remains, two decades later, a harrowing but tuneful snapshot of that troubled time for the group. Here's it story...

The story behind the sleeve

Designed by Brian Cannon at Microdot, the picture of a man emerging from a doorway in a massive projection of The Verve emphasized the hugeness of the more traditional rock music they were making within.

Five facts
  • The sessions began with a brilliant two-week ecstasy party, but subsequently became so strained by Richard Ashcroft disappearing for weeks on end and drug and alcohol issues isolating various band members, that Owen Morris smashed a studio window after recording ‘History’ from sheer frustration.
  • On ‘History’, Liam Gallagher plays ‘handclaps’.
  • The band’s link to Oasis had been forged while on tour together, and the mutual appreciation emerged here. On A Northern Soul, Ashcroft dedicated the title track to Noel, who returned the honor by dedicating "Cast No Shadow" to Ashcroft on (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
  • The band originally wanted to record the album in their practice room to capture the raw edge of their rehearsals, but this proved impossible.
  • According to Ashcroft the album is a concept of sorts, each song taking on a different characteristic of the attributes that make up a northern soul, from arrogance to pain and elation.

Lyrical analysis

“I've got to tell you a tale/Of how I loved and how I failed” – "History": The A Northern Soul sessions were thwarted by Ashcroft leaving the studio for three months to try to save his dissolving relationship in London.

“I’m just a poor little wifeless fella/Another drink and I won’t miss her” – "So It Goes": In the aftermath of his relationship split, Ashcroft lost himself in a two-month hedonistic blow-out getting, in his own words, “fucked up both physically and mentally.” Thankfully, when he finally returned to the studio, the band were making music that fitted his emotional state perfectly.

“Woke up with a scream/I was buying some feelings from a vending machine” – "Life’s An Ocean": Many critics have pointed at the harrowing personal lyrics of A Northern Soul, with Stylus’ Nick Southall summing it up most colorfully: “On a hillside somewhere in the distance a man screams his desolation at the sky and curses his birth, overcome with fear that this emptiness may be all he can ever know. This record is his scream.”

What we said then

“The Verve exude such a sense of astounding self-belief that they can almost convince you that even their more nonsensical moments should be cast in gold, carved in stone and treated with the utmost artistic respect.” – 6/10, Simon Williams

What we say now

Wracked with heartbreak, rent by internal conflict and buggered by drugs, it’s a miracle A Northern Soul is as cohesive and powerful as it is, a monument to Ashcroft’s shattered psyche that signposted the way to even grander schemes.

In their own words

“[A Northern Soul is] "one of the best albums in the last 10 or 15 years. As good as Nirvana's or the Roses" – Pete Salisbury, 1995

Famous fan

“The third best album of the year,” Noel Gallagher, 1995

The aftermath

The sleeve for the album’s third and final single "History" bore the message “all farewells should be sudden”; just three months after the album’s release Ashcroft split the band, only to reform it a few weeks later without guitarist Nick McCabe. A plan to work with Suede’s Bernard Butler fell apart within a fortnight and Simon Tong stepped in to replace McCabe, even staying in the band when McCabe returned in 1997 to record The Verve’s third album Urban Hymns. That album sold over 10 million, the 17th best selling album in UK chart history, but even such monumental success couldn't keep The Verve together, and they split for a further eight years in 1999.
  • Source: NME, by Mark Beaumont