Sultry rock gods-in-waiting The Verve were on the brink of stardom in 1995 when they suddenly split up. Now thye've reformed to rescue us from rock mediocrity with their new album. And we should all, apparently, be bloody grateful
'Bands like us never got heard, never sold. Split up after two records. Then we all went off and did insane solo things. ANd ended up in bars saying we were in bands.'
Sitting on a park bench, a bottle of Bud in one hand and an emaciated roll-up in the other, Richard Ashcroft certainly looks the part, even down to the haven't eaten in days' cheekbones, eyes protected from daylight's wicked rays by huge sunglasses, and a pair of lips that'd shame Jagger's smackers any day of the week. Very down-and-out and rock'n'roll.
Except the ending to this story isn't down-and-out. The bench is situated prettily under a gazebo in the grounds of a plush south London recording studio, and Ashcroft's band - the one that cruel destiny would have eaten for breakfast - are putting the finishing touches to a third album. Their first single in over 18 months, 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', is already dominating radio playlists and poised to crash into the charts at Number One. Okay, so the band did split and reform, but now the air of justified expectancy is tangible. And Richard Ashcroft, a lead singer with such utter belief in his band you'd swear their music was a formula for world peace, is merely trying to convey the truly awful consequences if we'd been left with nothing but everyon else's musical mediocrity: God forbit that the world didn't get this second chance to hear The Verve, to buy their records, to see a band unified by their own awesome songs. He nods as if everything's all right again, as if Superman got to the primed 'world destruct' button just in time. 'But this time everyone's so alive. It's like a rebirth.'
The Verve were born in Wigan at the beginning of the decade. Ashcroft, a teenager with lofty ambitions, hooked up with schoolmates Simon Jones(bass), Peter Salisbury (drums) and eventually guitarist Nick McCabe, and set about rearranging the face of rock music. Signed up by Virgin (via Hut) a year on, after only a handful of gigs, in those days there were knows simply as Verve. Then as [minor popularity came about the record] label Verve got wind, got uppity and got them to change their name. After flirting with simply calling themselves Verv for the pure pleasure of releasing an album called 'Dropping E For America', they arrived at the 'The'. By then a series of guitar-soaring EPs, an assured and uncompromisingly ambitious debut album, 'A Storm In Heaven', and remarkable tours (where they picked up some other bunch of mouthy Manc lads called Oasis as support) had established the band as a critically acclaimed but still relatively cult Band Most Likely To. In July 1995 they released their second album, 'A Northern Soul'. Taking the power and energy of their earlier work and adding a striking maturity, it was the bravest, most remarkable rock record released all year. Long-time mate Noel rated it just below Oasis's own '(What's The Story) Morning Glory', an album that even featured a song celebrating the genius of Richard ('Cast No Shadow'), and was looking foward to having The Verve as special guests on tour with them. Then, just as The Verve were about to relase the track 'History' from the album in their boldest and most likely bid for chart stardom, they split up. It was about a week before Time Out were going to interview the band. Did they really want to avoid us that much?
Ashcroft laughs through a cloud of smoke. Yeah, Ashcfot admits, maybe being around to plug their single, plus the impact of Oasis's endorsement might have done the career some good, but he's unrepentant about the band's split. They died to save our souls.
'If it's not happening, fuck the money, fuck the fame,' he asserts in his muddy Merseyside-meets-Manchester drawl. 'There was never any problem with the togetherness in the performance side of it, it was just when the instruments were down and we needed to sort that out. You've got to rememer, we were only 19 when we made our first record. A big change had gone on personally, and life itself takes individuals on many fuckin paths.' He sits in the sun, spouting his wisdom like some foul-mouthed guru; he'll make a perfect pop star one day very soon. 'The breakup was basically about having to stop something before it went beyond any possiblility of ever getting it back. Beyond the phone call saying, "Hey man, I need you and you need me, let's 'ave it."'
I remember at the time talking to Noel Gallager about the band's sad demise. He assured me that Richard would somehow return with 'something special'. Rumours were rife that The Verve hadn't so much split up as kind of gone off in the hope that they'd painlessly shed guitarist McCabe along the way. As McCabe's celestial guitar masterstokes were at the heart of The Verve's finest works, you got the feeling that something had to be very wront for the band to make such a sacrifice. Still, there was Ashcroft with his gaunt good looks, achingly soulful tock voice and heart-rending lyrics. Who better to tap in to the British guitar-rock renaissance than him - as a solo artist? Instead, vague plans for acoustic gigs, recordings sessions with the rest of the band and various other guest guitarists and producers came to what Ashcroft describes as 'a lot of dead ends'. Eventually, it was time for both sides to do a little white flagwaving. For Ashcroft, the process had taught him a lot about his creative needs. For McCabe time had given him a chance to sort out personal matters a little closer to home.
'Even when his presence is minimal or subliminal on a track, his sould is massive.' Ashcroft insists. 'Coming back is so natural and beautiful. It's something beyond us as individuals. It's about music and chemistry that happens maybe once every ten years, maybe 20. It's something you don't abuse, and when you're fucking each other up, you're abusing it. I could have lined up a solo album, but it's about being able to look yourself in the mirror, about trying to come out of this stinking business with a feeling that you did something. It's no fun when it just becomes a business arrangement. The music suffers. You heard it with the Stones. They gave up that vital thing that just came naturally in order to make millions when they should have been playing small halls and playing the blues. Instead they're a bar-rock band playing to 80, 90,000 people.'
'I guess the underlying theme