05 October 2017

The Airwaves Are Clean: The Triumph And Tragedy Of The Verve's 'Urban Hymns'

Nick McCabe on one of British music's most iconic moments... 
The Verve scorched a trail across British music for a decade. A meteor, a flash of light across a guitar music pantheon imbued with more than its reasonable fair share of stars, the band’s story still makes for gripping re-telling.

Industrial origins. Astonishing live shows. Breathtaking ambition. An enthralling debut album. Prodigious self-medication. A second album collapse. The patronage of the biggest artists in the land. And a final, astonishing glimpse of fame, one of the decade’s most remarkable crossover stories.

Guitarist Nick McCabe, though, couldn’t think about any of this for a long, long time. The memories were burned too deep, the regret scorched too clearly; put simply, he gave himself better things to do.

“I try not to, really,” he says, his Northern brogue seeming to render that blunt statement all the more blunter. “I just don’t see the point, to be honest. And normally the reaction is to be critical of your older works, especially if it’s recent. Once you’ve just done something you’re on to the next thing, really, and you can’t help but be hyper critical of that thing that just came out.”

But time is a great healer, and Urban Hymns certainly deserves to be celebrated. Re-packaged and re-issued, it’s winning fans all over again, more than 20 years on from its initial release. “It feels like somebody else’s work, really, so I can actually enjoy it as a third party, almost. And it’s funny, coming back to all three of those albums, really, because the first two in particular, I couldn’t listen to them for ages because it was juvenilia to me. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised going back to this album.”

Listening back to Urban Hymns is a strange experience. It’s strong, for sure – released in a year of titanic albums, it’s the sound of a generation defining band operating at their very best. But it’s also entirely enmeshed with the period, with the changing of the Britpop zeitgeist, with those iconic videos and those sensational, epic live shows.

The guitarist himself clearly feels the same way. “It’s one of those records that for a long time I’ve had to disassociate myself from it, because it’s taken on a meaning external to my perception of it,” he says. “It means a lot to a lot of different people. Lyrically, the content of that is very close to people’s hearts, so I’ve always had this separation from my perception of the record to what other people have had. I find there’s not actually that much difference these days, I appreciate it as an outsider, almost. I think that’s a nice position to be in because you can then appreciate your own work. And that’s a novelty!”

But really, Urban Hymns never should have happened. The Verve split after the release of second album A Northern Soul, only to reform with long-time friend Simon Tong replacing Nick McCabe on guitar. In a feat of pride-swallowing, though, the mercurial axe-slinger was welcomed back into the fold, returning that element of magic to the band’s sound.

“It was nice coming into Urban Hymns… They’d got a two million quid advance in the time I’d been off. I think the record company thought, thank fuck for that, Nick McCabe is out the way with his prog rock nonsense, let’s throw some money at this! Little did they know I’d be back within a year! But there was all kinds of nice vintage stuff knocking about in the studio. So I plugged all my junk shop shit into their 60s plexes and stuff. And did the same thing, really.”

And that thing elevates Urban Hymns to one of the truly great British guitar albums, one that veers from astonishing balladry - Sonnet for example – to the out-there space rock of Catching The Butterfly. For a long time, I point out, fans have assumed that the balladry is the responsibility of frontman Richard Ashcroft, with the more lysergic elements being, well, Nick himself.

“A lot of those songs did start out on acoustic guitar,” he admits. “But they still got the band treatment, really. And I think probably where Pete and Si Tong were struggling previously is that they didn’t have the chemistry that we could get together over those first two albums. Tong taught them to play guitar initially, but he hasn’t developed the sort of vocabulary you do as a band interacting. So while he was giving it a semi band treatment, spending the year with those three producers – Owen Morris, John Leckie, and then eventually Youth – they’d not had the glue, really, and I suppose that’s where I came in, when I came in to finish that record. It was to tie the whole thing together and to bring dynamics.”

“We’ve read his interviews recently, and as offensive as it is we know what we did on that record,” he argues. “Obviously, that’s his crowning achievement, and he’ll look back at ‘97 jealously, like he doesn’t want to share it with the people who helped him create it. But the fact of it is that even something like Sonnet - which was pretty fully formed, really, by the time I came to it… it still needed another thread through it. And I think objectifying what I did retrospectively with Richard, I think I was a second voice or foil to him – I instinctively knew what to do to wrap around his voice. It’s just something that we’d developed, really.”

It was an innate chemistry – in every sense – the pushed Urban Hymns up into the heavens. “That’s the beauty of bands, really,” he points out. “One of my many, many soapboxes is that you’re always going to do more interesting things as a collective than as you do individually.”

There is this sense in the band’s story that being in The Verve wasn’t exactly a lot of fun – continual tension being the price for such extraordinary music. “I’m spending a lot of time correcting that perception at the moment,” he points out. “It was actually a lot of fun. Especially Urban Hymns. My memories of that time are mostly fun, really. I think the perception of the band as being at each other’s throats all the time is wrong. We would have been better served, I think, by a bit of open aggression towards each other. It would have acted as a safety valve.”

“Somebody asked me the other day, did egos get out of hand? And I think I can honestly say that while I was in the band everybody kept themselves in check. I don’t think the external effects of doing well went to everybody’s heads. We were pretty arrogant anyway – I think you have to be at that age. But we’d moderated it a bit by Urban Hymns.”

“To me, I’d spent maybe three years in a fog of paranoia prior to that, culminating in A Northern Soul. By the time we got to Urban Hymns I’d learned quiet confidence, really, and Richard and Si had come back from rock ‘n’ roll overload on A Northern Soul. And they were embracing their mid 20s and doing young adult stuff! I think we were quite a strong unit.”

Able to focus on the music, The Verve hurled themselves into the task at hand. Urban Hymns is a formidable band record, but it’s also dominated by incredible individual performances – from the vocals to the arrangements, to Nick McCabe’s guitar playing. Daubs of sound on a wonderfully entrancing canvas, he was hugely influenced by electronic textures.

“I call it dirty ambient,” he says. “It’s texture that’s not quite as twee. You can get away with being more sugary that would ordinarily be but without crossing over into the sickly new age territory, it’s quite a nice ambiguous inbetween point.”

“It’s what I like in guitar, really. I was always looking for something that appealed more towards my electronic music ear. Sort of what I got brought up with round the house. I talk about my failings to pull off impressions of things, but I actually quite like that. I like that about John Martyn’s music because sometimes he’s trying to impersonate a horn and stuff like that. He doesn’t quite pull it off but instead you get a new thing. The aesthetics of failure.”

Failure isn’t a word you can now associate with The Verve, though. Urban Hymns smashed all before it, knocking Oasis’ gargantuan ‘Be Here Now’ off the top of the charts, the band spiralling higher and higher. For a while, it was kept perfectly in check – but as the pressures increased the cracks began to appear once more.

“What happened was that I got glandular fever,” he remembers. “When I wanted to put the brakes on I got talked out of it and talked into going back out on tour again. And I was really overdoing it, and I was a bit of a mess. They subsequently went on tour without me after that, and I believe it all started to come unstuck then.”

“I don’t know whether that was one of my functions in the band, as part of the group dynamic. My cynicism kept everybody in check. I think it could be just going to America for you, really – there’s just too many people to indulge you, and function as enablers to your burgeoning self-love.”

Before they finished, though, The Verve managed to play an enormous hometown show, a huge outdoor concert at Wigan’s historic Haigh Hall. More than 30,000 fans would attend, with the international coverage thrusting the post-industrial hub into the spotlight just as it was escaping the lingering effects of Thatcherite gloom.

Nick himself is surprising downcast about the experience, perhaps owing to his roots in a nearby – and rival – town to Wigan. That said, he does recognize its defining role, and has warm memories of the experience, and it’s legacy.

“Richard in particular had this caveman analogy about going down to London - we were like Northern cavemen going down!” he says. “There was also this sense of inferiority to Manchester, as well. That’s where culture was happening. They had culture, and out in the sticks where we were… Out in the sticks was why we embraced it in the first place because there wasn’t culture so you had to make your own.”

“There was definitely a feeling that we’d achieved that. We’d built our own universe, and lived in our own universe on our own for several years, during those first two albums. And just through happenstance and good fortune and having a good team and a good record things came round to our good fortune, really. That was a good feeling. Knowing that you’re committing to culture.”

Despite the undeniable success of the record, the splits that followed Urban Hymns left a stain on Nick McCabe’s memory that took years to wipe away. We spend time discussing ‘FOURTH’, the band’s final album to date, and an experience he recalls with palpable relish.

“It was very difficult for me, for a long time, specifically after the Urban Hymns split, to view anything Verve related without a sense of… all the times I’d been stitched up by the band. And I was very bitter about it for a long time.”

“We didn’t get closure on it properly until 2009. And knowing that it was all coming unstuck again, after the Roundhouse thing when Si and Richard had the big bust up. We were then in a process of preparing for the end, really. And we knew that we had to do it properly. And subsequently by the time we had finished that last tour, the festival season, we felt like we wrapped it up in the best possible way and it’s now easier to look at that whole thing, really.”

“And there’s a bit of me that thinks, if Richard ever picked up the phone I’d say yes… But I kind of hope he doesn’t, really, because we’ve finished the business as far as I’m concerned.”

  • Source: Clash, Robin Murray