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  • Writer's pictureMichael Leopardi

The Most Variant Band of the 90s: The Verve

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

The bitter sweet Brits that had all the talent and potential in the world, but subsequently burned out because of tumultuous in-fighting and power struggles.

Simon Jones (Bass) Nick McCabe (Lead Guitar) Richard Ashcroft (Lead Vocals, Guitar) Peter Salisbury (Drums)

Everybody and their mother knows The Verve's greatest hit, "Bitter Sweet Symphony," the second they hear the strings section, but what most people don't know is that The Verve wrote three of the greatest albums of the 90s, all of which they re-invented themselves entirely to showcase their instrumental virtuosity and maturation of their songwriting.

When The Verve had first formed, they were a psychedelic, shoegaze, alternative-indie band where their songs predominantly consisted of long instrumental jams highlighted by Nick McCabe's dreamy, heavily reverbed and distorted guitar tone inspired by the sounds of keyboards and synthesizers. The Verve started out by playing small clubs which were filled with young teens and adults having the trips of their lives, only to have their faces melted off when the band took the stage and blew them away. Their first official release, a self-titled E.P. consisting of 5 songs clocking in at a 31 minutes was every before-bed-bowl connoisseur's dream. The E.P. consisted of the most beautiful guitar chords, mystical single-note fills, dream-pop vocals and bass lines that actually make one want to be a bass player. "A Man Called Sun," and "Feel," are two of the most beautiful and mellowed tracks in their catalogue and the full cut of, "She's a Superstar," is the trip of a lifetime. Best enjoyed at night, tucked away in bed.

June 1993, six months later, the band had banged our their debut record and were hailed as psychedelic gods. The record, A Storm in Heaven can be described as Jeckyll and Hyde record consisting of gloomy, psychedelic tunes similar to their E.P. as well as heavily distorted tracks loaded with feedback, aggression and the occasional saxophone solo. The record opens up with the track, "Star Sail,"which opens with one of the most heavily distorted chords you'll ever hear and takes you through on a journey through a dark, gloomy cave, similar to the imagery of the album cover. The highlight of the record, in my opinion is the third track, "Already There," which opens with the darkest, gloomiest chords ever to be played in the space time continuum. The song starts off with Nick McCabe's dreamy, clean tone, which then slowly builds up in the pre-chorus, only to come to a harrowing halt, and then the band completely explodes in the chorus. "Already There," fully encompasses the Jeckyll and Hyde analogy of their music in this one song which shows how slow and dreamy they can play, but also how hard and in-your-face they could be. This record is best experienced at night with dim, colorful lighting, a great set of over the ear headphones, and an open mind.

Fast forward almost two years to the date, The Verve released their sophomore album, A Northern Soul, a very dark, mature, alternative record which showcased the emergence of Richard Ashcroft's songwriting abilities along with small elements of their previous psychedelic palate. The recording process for the record was a literal hell for producer Owen Morris which resulted in two week ecstasy binge, Richard Ashcroft disappearing for a month, broken windows, broken jaws and wrists, and eventually the band's first break up. A Northern Soul is a concept record which chronicles a character that experiences every known emotion and the highs and lows of each. The record possessed much more of the distorted, instrumental elements of their previous record and emphasizes on the lyrics more-so than the instrumentation, as the band wanted to be more sophisticated and enhance their artistic abilities rather than just sounding like a bunch of acid-heads noodling on their instruments. "A New Decade," the opening track starts off with the band playing very quietly which then builds up, get louder and explodes into the first verse and carries throughout the rest of the song. The highlight of the record is the song, "History," which has a full strings section and is inspired by William Blake's poem, London, a poem that is inspired by love, childhood and nature. This record is best experienced at night in pitch black by one's self.

Three months after the records release, the band then broke up for first time due to ongoing power struggles with Richard Ashcroft and Nick McCabe over the band's creative direction.

Now, for the big one, The Verve's masterpiece. A few months went by before Ashcroft decided to resurrect the band without Nick McCabe and brought in another guitarist in his place, Simon Tong (funny story about him later that I'll get to). The Verve's previous two records were a band effort in terms of the songwriting process, whereas their third and most successful album, Urban Hymns, Richard Ashcroft took full control over the creative process. Urban Hymns is a folk/alternative record with more more standard structured songs, more acoustic guitars, big choruses and less improvisation, a total and complete departure from their previous two records. Ashcroft pretty much had the entire album written before even presenting it to the rest of the band and was actually contemplating whether to release it as a solo album before deciding to release it under The Verve's name as it would attract much more hype and publicity than just his name. That being said, the beginning stages of the recording process went extremely smooth, except there was one major thing missing, Nick McCabe. McCabe and Ashcroft had then put their differences aside and the band would continue as a five-piece with three guitarists.

When the record was released, it was extremely well-received and the band took off when they released the first single, their biggest song and one of the biggest songs in the last 25 years, "Bitter Sweet Symphony." You'd think they made it huge just off this one song, right, wrong. Richard Ashcroft and the band were sued by the Rolling Stones manager, Allen Klein because when recording the song, Ashcroft had asked permission from the Stones' camp to borrow a few bars from an orchestral recording of the Stones' song, "The Last Time," which they completely ripped off from a song by The Staples Singers, but that's another story for another time. At first, the band and the Stones' manager had agreed to a 50/50 split with royalties and when the Stones' camp had seen how well the record was doing, they then claimed that Ashcroft had borrowed a larger sample than initially granted, so it was either the Stones' get 100% of the royalties from the single or the record would have been pulled from shelves. Needless to say, when you look up the writing credits of the song, it says "written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards." Aside from all that, the record was an instant hit worldwide, but what really cemented the record's legacy was when they released their second single, "The Drugs Don't Work," an absolute downer of a tune the day after Princess Diana of Wales was killed which captured the mood of the nation. Urban Hymns went on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide and is still highly regarded as one of the greatest albums of the past 25 years. There are so many great songs on this album, my personal favorites are "Space and Time," "Weeping Willow," and "Sonnet." My favorite places to listen to this record are in Central Park and the small hill in Hoboken right along the Hudson River waterfront, much like the small hill the band are sitting atop of on the album cover.

Funny story and a small world; I have this co worker in his 40s that I always talk music with, and when I had told him that I was listening to bands like Oasis and the Stone Roses, he said, "dude, you've got to listen to The Verve, their early stuff is AMAZING." This guy has a lot of friends in the music industry, and in a small enough world, one of his friends that worked at Virgin Records was the guy that got The Verve their American record deal and was close with the band members throughout the years. At the album release party for Urban Hymns, the record label had presented each of the five band members with commemorative jackets and when Simon Tong was presented with his, he turned to my co worker's friend and said, "I cant wear this, this is huge on me," and threw it at him. The jacket had just been sitting in his basement for the past twenty years or so and is now, of course, in my possession, one of five ever made.

The Verve would embark on a world tour which would last from late 1997 to early 1999, the band would then go inactive for awhile before officially announcing their second break-up. Richard Ashcroft would go on to a solo career with Pete Salisbury as his drummer while Nick McCabe and Simon Jones would lay relatively low. Fast forward to 2007, after a buzz floating around in which Pete Salisbury had contacted Nick McCabe for a side project collaboration, Ashcroft caught wind of it and had a major case of FOMO (fear of missing out) and as a result had made amends with McCabe and Jones and The Verve would reform with the band's original lineup, excluding Simon Tong. The band went back in the studio and recorded their fourth album, cleverly entitled, Forth to lukewarm reviews and would go on to headline major festivals like Coachella, Rock am Ring as well as closing the final night at Glastonbury. This would go on for a few months before, you guessed it, the band broke up for a third and final time. Nick McCable and Simon Jones, whom have not been in contact with Ashcroft for over 10 years now had seen the reunion as a platform for Ashcroft to relaunch his solo career. So now, here we are in 2019 with no Oasis, no Stone Roses and no Verve, what a terrible time we now live in, all because people cant put their differences aside and do what they were put on this world to do, make great music together. It's a damn shame.

The Verve's music first came to light for me on a rainy day in May 2018 when I went to see Liam Gallagher of Oasis in Central Park where Richard Ashcroft, was opening for him. Before Ashcroft had even taken the stage, I kept glancing over at him at the trailers on the side stage to see him with a cigarette and different drink every five minutes. "This should go over well."He then stumbled on the stage with a camouflage jacket, thick, black sunglasses and an acoustic guitar, true rock fashion. The opening line of the song he opened up with went, "Tell me what you've seen, was it a dream? Was I in it?" From that first line, I was sold on Ashcroft as a lyricist as he then ran through some of his greatest hits such as, "Sonnet," "Space and Time,"and "Weeping Willow." He was absolutely plastered, but seemed like a really sweet, funny and humble guy that knew exactly who he was. Growing anxious for Liam Gallagher to come on stage, I awaited for Ashcroft's setlist to close and for him to bust out the only song I knew of his, (Bitter Sweet Symphony), only to see the promoter pull him off stage, as he went over his allotted time slot from his drunken rambling in-between songs. Regardless, I was sold and couldn't wait to go back home and dive head first into The Verve's music, the rest, much like one of my favorite Verve songs, is "History."

Below are two playlists which sectionalize the band's two different styles throughout the years. The picture of the band in an underground tavern entitled, "The Virtuosic Verve," is their early psychedelic music; save this for a gloomy afternoon or late at night.

The second playlist, "The Vernacular Verve," embedded in the picture of the band standing on the rooftop is their later, alternative, folk music; save this for a sunny afternoon.

Happy Listening!!

The Virtuosic Verve

1. Slide Away

2. A Man Called Sun

3. Already There

4. Star Sail

5. Feel

6. All in the Mind

7. South Pacific

8. Virtual World

9. The Sun The Sea

10. 6 O' Clock

11. She's a Superstar

12. Blue

13. Endless Life

14. Gravity Grave

15. One Way to Go

16. Shoeshine Girl

The Vernacular Verve

1. Bitter Sweet Symphony

2. Sonnet

3. Velvet Morning

4. Space and Time

5. History

6. Life's an Ocean

7. A New Decade

8. Weeping Willow

9. Lucky Man

10. The Drugs Don't Work

11. So it Goes

12. On Your Own

13. This is Music

14. The Rolling People

15. This Time

16. Brainstorm Interlude

17. A Northern Soul

18. Drive You Home

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