Frowning, awkward, charismatic, single-minded, passionate, intense, gifted, complicated and incredibly striking - Richard Ashcroft is without doubt the Face Of '97. His gaunt expression stares moodily out from newstands and billboards everywhere, all piercing, deep-set eyes, a pouting expression and razor-sharp cheekbones. He looks like a man in a permanent bad temper but if you look closely - -. very closely -. - you may just spot the first inklings of a smile.
Ashcroft, you see, has just cause to celebrate. Since the summer, his band the Verve have returned from their two-year, self imposed (neon) wilderness to notch up two jaw-dropping singles, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (No.2) and "The Drugs Don't Work" (No.1), and a chart-topping third LP, "Urban Hymns" (selling quarter of a m~ion copies in a week, no less). Only now, it seems, had the music caught up with promises of stardom, the hyperbole and features that screamed "rock star", a face which was both Jagger and Richards and a nose that had survived being broken four times, sacrificed while Ashcroft had pursued as a child his previous dream of playing for Manchester United. Pardon my mischief: other bands are too sheepish or follow trends, sheep-like; from certain angles, Richard Ashcroft simply looks like a sheep.
Back in summer 1995, the Verve's fortunes weren't so rosy: after appearing at the T In The Park Festival, Ashcroft issued a curt statement, out of the blue, announcing the band's demise. No reasons were given; and this from a man who had ravenously courted fame with grand gestures and lofty, self-aggrandising statements ever since Verve's arrival in 1991. Like other 'Manchester' bands before (the Stone Roses) and since (Verve's mates, Oasis), Ashcroft's ardent, heartfelt desire to make Verve special, to lift them exultantly free from the grimy, ever-so-'umble, work-aday nature the inconsequentiality - of the indie circuit, had literally defined the band. To say that the Verve figurehead was seen as precious is an understatement.
From the start, the Verve (or, back in those days, just plain Verve before the U.S. jazz label had a moan) reached for the stars. With apologies to R. Kelly, it seemed Ashcroft really believed he could fly - both live and on record. On stage, his idiot dancing and his Tim Burgess-playing-Jesus Christ poses, all 0-mouth pout and vacant stare, fell midway between Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie (he of the limp-wristed handclap) to the Doors' Jim Morrison (whose narcissistic hogging of the limelight begged comparisons with Ashcroft). On record, too, early Verve vinyl dabbled in a 90s space rock that drifted off into the ether.
Maybe such ferocious ambition was fuelled by the outwardly unglamorous image of Verve's hometown. Even to their more sophisticated urban cousins in Manchester, the mention of Wigan attracts sniggers - "aye, they're pie-eaters oop there, lad. It's all flat caps and whippets." Hmm, but weren't Verve all about spectral soundscapes which painted aural pictures that threatened the space-time continuum, which transfixed their audience - where song titles were meaningless, where one set supporting Spiritualized at the T&C ended with a 25-minute song? Yeah, strange, that: not what you'd expect from Wigan.
The Verve are younger than they look: the original foursome formed in Upholland, just outside Wigan, in 1990 when they were 18ish. Having written songs in their bedrooms, the violently skinny Ashcroft and bassist Simon Jones roped in school friend, drummer Peter Salisbury, followed by guitarist Nick McCabe from their sixth form college, Winstanley. Verve were officially born that August with a local birthday party pub gig and all the ingredients were there, from Ashcroft's meandering vocal wails to the band's, er, meandering, effects-laden music. Hiding behind gaunt features, long hair and skinny-rib attire that shunned Madchester's de rigeur Baggy uniform, the band rotated gigs in nearby indie haunts like the Citadel in St. Helens and Manchester's Boardwalk over the ensuing months.
They left an immediate impression. Clearly, everyone (from the numerous major labels who'd responded to demo tapes to early reviewers) was captivated by Ashcroft's star appeal, and the Virgin-funded Hut label snapped Verve up after their first visit to the smoke (that's London, you southerner). By March 1992, on the eve of their debut single, Verve were already attracting ridiculous adulation from some critics (notably, Melody Maker's Steve Sutherland, now NME editor), who all but hailed Ashcroft as the new messiah.
In fact, the jury was out on the band - at least initially. Verve were the next Great White Hope to follow Suede - but whereas Brett & Co. proved to be smart gameplayers in that rocky road between critical fervouri favour and commercial nous, Verve issued a string of unfocused pieces (songs would be too restrictive a term), which explored instead the possibilities of multi-layered electronic sound. Clouds of ethereal, hypnotic music washed across the speakers like a boat at sea, the waves sometimes crashing violently, at others scarcely creating a serene ripple. Cynics, alternately, denounced them as hippie hogwash, self-indulgent progressive rock created in a druggy haze. As one writer put it, the musicians spent their gigs studying the dust patterns swirling around the heads of their audience.
Their first EP was promising, though. "All In The Mind" was a pleasant assault on the senses, a bleak, dissonant funk workout which finally introduced two long4ost cousins, Can and the Happy Mondays; "Man Called Sun" was a mesmerising shimmer of the Doors' "Riders On The Storm"; and the too-long "One Way To Go" probed the same ambience as Durutti Column or that Stone Roses flip to "One Love".
The follow-up, "Superstar", was even more atmospheric, a ponderous epic which was born heavy but ebbed and flowed like some scary, unpredictable soundtrack; its companion, "Feel", took soporific monotony to new limits before building to a soft destruction, at once beautiful/mellow/dreamy and mind-numbingly boring. True, Verve were following their muse but this was commercial suicide (despite topping the indie chart, they were plainly falling short of their considered potential).
The "Gravity Grave" EP trod water, too, the lead track slumped over a mournful pulsel echo, as if the Velvet Underground were interpreting whale noises before drifting into some dream state. "Endless Life" was lulled into submission by monotone, half-whispered voices and keyboards - like Pink Floyd's "Julia Dream" after a bad car accident - before emerging from its stupor to pick a fight with the speakers.
Maybe this is as good a time as any to broach the awkward genre that was 'shoegazing'. The term was invented by the music press to describe the indie scene's drift into aural confection, a wistful music that substituted rock'n'roll raunch for stoned radiance - and ten million effects pedals. Inspired by both the bitter-sweet symphonies (sorry!) of My Bloody Valentine and the choral majesty of the Cocteau Twins, bands like Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, Ride, Chapterhouse, Lush and (to a lesser extent) Curve created a music that evoked colours, hues and moods rather than more obvious emotions. A new psychedelia, if you will. Even Blur were tagged with the shoe-gazing brush (due to Graeme Coxon's penchant for lengthy descents into guitar dissonance).
Verve were different, insofar as their music felt closer to the psych paranoia of Terry Bickers' Levitation, the heroin rocks of Spiritualized/Sonic Boom/Spacemen 3 or the wigged-out experiments of Bark Psychosis. Where many so-called shoegazing acts were too demure, Verve's music felt yearning and hungry; the listener was, according to one fan, "lost in a sensual bath in which you became lost, entranced, irradiated". Despite exuding an arrogant glamour, Ashcroft's stage theatrics were way too absurd for shoe-gazing cool and their improvisational spontaneity was too, how should I put it, Rock.
Their next single, "Blue", was a masterpiece. A rotating rhythm of loping guitars chugged along as Ashcroft offered his most straightforward song to date. Reworking the spirit of Echo & the Bunnymen at their finest or, dare it be said, early Simple Minds, "Blue" felt like the headrush of a good night out. It had a structure. It was a step forward. The other songs, by contrast, felt like a trip to the medicine cabinet the next day, from the leafy, Sunday-setting blues of "Twilight" - acoustic, harmonica and a vocal whimper (think Primal Scream's "Damaged") - to the spooky bedsit balladry of "Where The Geese Go" and the sedative charm of "No Come Down".
Despite their self-aggrandising ideals, Verve's first album, "A Storm In Heaven", had an air of anti-climax. It was received favourably enough, but by summer 1993, music once more had tilted on its axis and Britpop was just around the corner - Blur had just created "Modern Life Is Rubbish". Maybe the problem was more-of-the-same, refinement rather than reinvention. A surefire hirhlirht was "Already There", a schizophrenic mix of featherlite touches and grinding guitar shades. "The Sun, The Sea", too, was refreshingly unpredictable, from its sax break (a' la Stooges' "Funhouse") to the momentary madness of wildly mutated guitar, Ashcroft sounding like some desperate, angst-ridden crooner - on drugs.
"Slide Away" was the obvious choice as Verve's next single. With echoes of the moodybut-handsome strength of Creation-era House Of Love, the song coupled Ashcroft, all wideeyed and angry, with flaming guitars sparring over a killer riff. "Butterfly", meanwhile, was a gutteral slide blues gem, and the odd flute or brass extended the soundscapes' horizons. But the LP wasn't the masterpiece Ashcroft had promised.
Instead, "A Storm In Heaven" marked the end of an era for Verve. Out went the flowing locks and disorientated/disorientating collages that were forged out of stoned jams. And in came songs which at last fulfilled Ashcroft's burning ambitions - an attitude, incidentally, which the singer attributes to the death of his father when Richard was just eleven. Like Everything But The Girl's Ben Watt, who famously stared death in the face after developing a potentially fatal condition, Ashcroft displays the intense drive of someone who's witnessed the fragility of existence first hand.
In 1995, the Verve returned with a new muscle, a renewed vigour that was born not only of frustration but also of touring with the Black Crowes and enduring spells on Lollapalooza, Penny Farrell's rock'n'roll circus across America. The States, incidentally, welcomed Verve with wide-open arms, hence two export-only collections of out-takes and B-sides, "The Verve EP" and "No Come Down", and an official live bootleg, 'Voyager 1", ostensibly designed for American consumption.
Probably the strongest persuassion to develop, though, was Oasis, who supported Verve on tour in late 1993. The two bands have since maintained something of a mutual admiration society and the streamlined barrage of guitars and attitude of early Oasis must have rubbed off. Inevitably, tales of rock'n'roll debauchery were soon linked to Verve they were banned from London's legendary rock resting place, the Columbia Hotel, for example.
Instead of wallowing in aural dry ice, Verve now felt like a lean, mean blast of hot air. To return to the Floyd analogy, the virginal "Julia Dream" now shared a bed with the hedonistic heavy metal thunder of "The Nile Song". To be blunt, it felt like Verve's balls had dropped.
The first signs of this revelatory pubescent experience was "This Is Music" in brink-of summer 1995. Smack! The grinding, wall-of-sound guitars pummelled you into submission as Ashcroft got straight to the point: "I stand accused just like you of being born without a silver spoon". Impact! The opening statement of intent was even printed on Ashcroft's sandwich-board on the front cover. Whack! No vague underwater ramblings: just a grand, rollercoaster juggernaut as an excuse to celebrate rock'n'roll. Chur-Ching! The Verve went Top 40. Yes!
"On Your Own" was swiftly snapping on its heels - in the nicest possible way, since its roosty acoustic balladry was essentially a vehicle for an Ashcroft love song (yep, proper emotional stuff, with soulful falsetto vocals to boot). Maybe Verve had got a taste of the spirit of Britpop and thought, let's have a slice? Nab. It's just that they'd turned off the effects pedals and written some decent songs.
All of which paved the way nicely for "A Northern Soul", Verve's second album, in July. First impressions begged comparison with the more intelligent aspects of U2, without the pomposity. Ashcroft sounded a tad like Bono, too, or a bleaker Ian McCulloch, but the breadth of vision was stunning. "A New Decade" set the scene - "the radio plays the sounds we make and everything seems to feel just right", bragged Ashcroft, "so come along and listen with me", as the leaden pace was dragged along in the jet-stream of guitars. To Verve, 1995 was the start of a new decade.
What else? Oh, too many songs to mention. "A Northern Soul" itself was a weird spacefunk workout that pulsed along as Ashcroft delivered a cathartic rant: "I'm alive with something inside of me that I can't get out". That bled into the mental confusion of the evocatively-named mindfunk, "Brainstorm Interlude". The anthemic "Knock On My Door" shared grooves and guitar leads with Oasis and the Stones. And the closing "Stormy Clouds"/"(Reprise)" may have dipped somewhat but still carried "A Northern Soul" off towards a spectacular sunset.
But then something snapped and the Verve vanished. For two years. No public reasons were given; Ashcroft and Co. just pulled back from the brink of enormous success and retreated into the shadows. It felt like one of rock's biggest anti-climaxes: after one of the 90s' most blatant exclamations of audacity, a vacuum. As a swansong, Hut went ahead with the next single from "A Northern Soul": the poignantly-named "History" was a yearning, incredibly moving acoustic ballad about lost love that built to a spine-chilling climax. It had that special quality lacking, for example, from Oasis's "Whatever". And its intense stnng arrangement paved the way for the future.
Occasional stories filtered out later. The Verve had had "differences" with Nick McCabe and were now working with a new guitarist, Simon Tong - but it wasn't to be called Verve. In 1996, Ashcroft then popped up playing some new tunes on acoustic guitar at an American Oasis gig - but nothing more was heard.
Out of the blue, then, Verve re-emerged this summer - swelled by second guitarist Simon Tong. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was rightly greeted with universal praise, and its canny use of an old string-laden backing track felt like a clever, rock variation on (you know, the music from the Lucozade ad). Its soaring groove perfectly underscored Ashcroft's lyrical quest for identity and the meaning of life - "I feel like a million different people from one day to the next/I can't change my mould" - and the single soared to No.2 as the Verve were hailed as the most important band of the year.
The acoustic lament, "The Drugs Don't Work", went one place better, topping the charts with a sombre tale that wasn't so much a "Just Say No" message as a vehicle for another of Ashcroft's downbeat love songs. It's a beautiful tune but few songs have so captured the Zeitgeist. The single was issued in the wake of Diana, Princess Of Wales' death, when the nation was whipped up into a frenzy of near-hysterical public mourning. Had the tragic accident not happened, Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" would probably have won out; as it was, "The Drugs Don't Work" caught the mood.
And so to Verve's recent No.1 LP, "Urban Hymns". It shares more with "A Northern Soul" than the reviews would have us believe - though it's more restrained/considered and occasionally Radiohead (U2-like, and heavier on Ashcroft's 'solo' songs, of which "Sonnet" is arguably the finest. To these ears, the album's peaks lay elsewhere in the group compositions. "Rolling People" sports a lolloping vibe, menacing and bluesy, "Neon Wilderness" is just that, resembling those sprawling, poetic Doors epics, and the forthcoming single, "Lucky Man", builds to a shuddering climax - Verve's "Hey Jude" or "All You Good, Good People". The album could have been wilder and less predictable - but what the heck.
From nowhere, then, Verve are the mosttalked about band in Britain. Their performances at Oasis's Earls Court shows were, by all accounts, remarkable and "Urban Hymns" has a mainstream accessibility which should win friends and influence people in foreign climes. "History has a place for us," said Richard Ashcroft in 1993. "It may take three albums but we will be there." Spooky. Damn Spooky.