THE VERVE - is it over? NME's behind the scenes report into the internal turmoil of the hottest band in Britain in 1998...
THE VERVE‘s future is in doubt after last week’s announcement that NICK McCABE (pictured) will not be playing live in the UK with the group at their V98 and Slane Castle gigs in August (See earlier story) .
The founder member guitarist will also be absent from the band’s US tour which begins in Chicago on July 28 winds up in Seattle three weeks later (August 17). The statement follows weeks of speculation about the group’s future, much of it triggered by the band’s walk-out from their German tour in June (officially because bassist Simon Jones contracted a viral infection) and the subsequent cancellation of a further six European festivals over the following four weeks. In some cases, European promoters were informed of the band’s cancellation only hours after being assured they would be fit enough to play.
Rumours sprang up to the effect that the band’s management was keeping the members apart because of arguments within the group. One tale, subsequently denied by The Verve’s press representatives, suggested that a fist-fight had occurred between McCabe and Jones. A statement issued last week by the band’s press representatives was ambiguous regarding The Verve’s future.
It read: “Nick McCabe, lead guitarist with The Verve, will not be touring with the band for the rest of this year. The remaining members of the band – Simon Jones, Richard Ashcroft, Pete Salisbury and Simon Tong – will fulfil The Verve’s touring commitments as a four-piece: the dates include two headlining appearances at next month’s V98 festival. McCabe’s decision has been forced by the increasing stress of touring.”
The statement went on to say that Jones would be rejoining the band in the coming week to rehearse with them for the US dates. The US, V98 dates and Slane Castle were described as “the only dates the band are scheduled to play this year”. There was no mention in the statement of whether McCabe would continue to record with the band or would tour with them in the future. Nor was there any indication in the statement as to the nature of “the increasing stress of touring” or whether the band would continue as The Verve after the US tour. Ashcroft has said on many occasions that The Verve can’t function as a band without McCabe.
The confirmation of McCabe’s absence casts a pall over what was to be the year The Verve cemented their position above Oasis as Britain’s current number one band. Their ‘Urban Hymns’ album sold five million copies, their Wigan Haigh Hall show on May 24 sold out its 33,000 tickets even before any support acts were announced and their two V98 appearances have also been the fastest-selling in the festival’s history. The band picked up three Brit Awards in January and four awards at the [I]NME Brats the same month. An Ivor Novello Award for best songwriter followed for Ashcroft in May.
The band’s progress on the road to success America has been steady if somewhat slower than expected. They played a 12-date coast-to-coast tour of 1,000-capacity venues last October and November and were one of the most eagerly anticipated of the British acts to play last month’s Tibetan Freedom Festival before Jones’ illness forced their last-minute withdrawal.
In April, they were the cover stars of Rolling Stone, America’s highly influential and highest-circulation rock music magazine. The interview had been set up to coincide with an 18-date US tour subsequently cancelled as the band were worn out. The Rolling Stone cover was the culmination of six years’ hard work.
Verve, as they were then known, released their first record ‘All In The Mind’ in March 1992. However, they’ve been around in one form or another since 1989 when they made their live debut at Wigan’s Winstanley College. Their debut album, ‘A Storm In Heaven’ was released in 1993 following a string of minor indie hits including ‘(She’s A) Superstar’, ‘Gravity Grave’ and ‘Blue’, all of which were released on Virgin’s Hut label. Later that year, after representations from the US jazz label Verve, the band were forced to add ‘The’ to their name.
In 1994, they took part in a riotous US Lollapalooza tour which eventually saw Ashcroft hospitalised due to on-the-road-excess. As soon as he had recovered they set about an equally eventful US tour with Oasis playing support. The following year’s ‘A Northern Soul’ broke them to a wider audience, helped by Noel Gallagher, who added handclaps to ‘History’ and called the album “the third best of the year”. However, tensions between the party-loving Ashcroft and the quiet McCabe were rising and the band fell apart after a ragged T In The Park performance in August 1995.
Everyone associated with The Verve has an opinion as to why they find themselves in their current predicament, but such is the fierce loyalty The Verve inspire in their friends, few sources are willing to be quoted on the record. Furthermore, most of the rumours are conflicting. Some put the blame for the split on tensions between McCabe and Ashcroft, others say McCabe and Jones don’t get on and still more rumours are in circulation that there is tension between McCabe and the band’s manager, Jaz Summers.
It’s no secret that when The Verve originally split after their T In The Park performance in August 1995 it was due to tensions between Ashcroft and McCabe. “The previous year I was in a really fucking terrible state and I’d wanted to kill him on sight,” McCabe told NME in June last year. “I had a lot of stuff to sort out, I was in a mess. Stuff happening in my personal life. I’ve benefited most out of this, really, ‘cos I’ve got a sense of whatever goes wrong doesn’t really matter, ‘cos I fell to the bottom and it wasn’t so bad.”
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Ashcroft was more restrained in his description of the breakdown saying, “Emotionally me and Nick needed a bit of space between each other.” One of the most contentious testimonies NME collected regarding The Verve’s current situation came from a source who worked with them for a number of years before the success of ‘Urban Hymns’. Like many people NME has talked to in the last week who are unwilling to be quoted, he blames the split on unresolved bitterness between Ashcroft and McCabe and offered a unique insight into the reasons for it once again rearing up and threatening to extinguish the band.
“Richard is not very good at communicating,” he says. “When Richard (originally) announced he was going to leave The Verve, it devastated the rest of the band. Everyone left except Nick, then Richard announced he was going to form another band with the other remaining members but without Nick. There’s always been Simon and Peter as a buffer between Richard and Nick. If there’s tension in the band, it’s between Richard and Nick, not anyone else. I don’t think Nick has ever forgiven Richard for taking the band away from him.”
“There’s big, big tension between them, there always has been. They said the reason why it took the last album so long to put together was because Nick wasn’t in the band. Richard’s said before, ‘The Verve’s not The Verve without Nick’. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ may have been written without Nick in the band, but they couldn’t make them work without him. So Richard had to ask him back into the band. Before that, Bernard Butler wasn’t good enough for them, (Butler briefly auditioned with the band before McCabe rejoined) so fuck knows who is.”
However, another friend of the band who has known and worked with them for the past few years told NME that many of the reasons for the latest problems stem from Ashcroft’s elevated position within the band hierarchy. “Richard is treated like the goose that laid the golden egg, the others are just farmyard chickens,” he told NME.
“Richard is getting looked after so well, he’s got his nice house in Gloucestershire now and him and (his wife) Kate get really looked after. I think the others have just about had enough of it. The peasants are starting to revolt. That’s why Nick has had enough.
“Richard is very unapproachable if you want to have a discussion about anything with him. So things fester for ages, then suddenly blow up. Richard and Nick are just very different people. The pair of them really love each other but they are just so different. They hardly even talk. They live in a weird world, the whole band, where communication is non-existent apart from when they’re onstage. Musically, they have an amazing communication, they just have a problem with their mouths. I think I’ve only ever seen Nick and Richard have a conversation once.”
Asked whether he thought McCabe had split the band for good, the source was noncommittal. “Nick is a bit of a wandering spirit. I don’t think he really has any idea about how much money he’s made or anything. He’s made enough money never to have to work again. And he loves noodling away in his bedroom with his computer equipment making tons of this way-out music. He sees playing his guitar with The Verve as a day job. So who knows?”
Whatever the reason for the split, Ashcroft is aware that The Verve’s return to a rock’n’roll culture flushed with the ‘biggest is best’ success of Oasis was never going to be easy. In an ironic premonition of things to come, he told NME backstage at the Brat Awards in January: “I think record companies have got to see the power within a record rather than sending off five young people in a bus for two years. There’s been too much self-destruction.”
He also hinted at the pressure the band found themselves under in an interview with respected LA Times critic Robert Hilburn in March this year. “There’s too much going on at the moment,” Ashcroft said. “It’s been nonstop for months and now we’re supposed to go back to America for some more shows. It’s just insane. What bothers me isn’t being Number One. Look at bands that get to this position and see how many get torn apart from the demands put upon them. The constant touring, the fight to preserve the integrity of your music.”
The source of The Verve’s current troubles can be traced to their German tour in June and, more specifically, events after their Phillipshalle show in D|sseldorf on June 7. Simon Jones spent the day in bed after collapsing backstage the night before following the band’s show at the Munich Circus Krone. After the D|sseldorf show, the story goes that Simon collapsed again. However, a German tour worker at the D|sseldorf show hinted at a backstage fight following the show.
“They were locked in the rest room after the gig, whatever was going on there, I wouldn’t like to say. I can only make mistakes whatever I tell you,” he told NME. Intriguingly, despite Jones’ collapse backstage, the band’s management told NME that he refused to seek medical treatment at the time – against the advice of the German promoter Mikel Loeffler of Target Promotions – and came back to the UK where management said he underwent tests at a Harley Street practice.
As the weeks rolled on, The Verve cancelled more and more European festivals, including the prestigious Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and the Torhout and Werchter festivals, Belgium’s equivalents of the UK’s Reading and T In The Park festivals. Rumours began seeping from inside The Verve camp that it wasn’t just Jones’ illness that kept the band from performing – there were problems elsewhere within the band.
These rumours were denied at the time by the band’s representatives although they seemed to gain credence when Massive Attack pulled out of their support slot for The Verve’s American dates amid increasing conjecture that the tour, like the European dates, would also eventually be cancelled. The Verve had already decided not to go ahead with a proposed 18-date American tour due to take in smaller venues during April and May. This was cancelled on the band’s instructions because they were tired and also to enable them to return after the success of ‘Urban Hymns’ had solidified (it’s so far sold close to 1.5 million copies in the US) and they could play arenas, notably the 20,000-capacity Madison Square Garden in New York and the similar capacity Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. The idea was the fewest number of gigs for maximum exposure. However, these venues were subsequently downgraded to 3,000-seaters.
Massive Attack pulled out, allegedly because they felt they could fill the new venues on their own. NME understands that Ashcroft and the band’s management were keen for the band to play the forthcoming set of American dates even if it meant going without McCabe. There was some dissatisfaction with the American record company’s promotion of the album on radio and this was not helped by the band’s lack of presence in the States. However, most American promoters NME spoke to are not worried that McCabe won’t be with the band when they play there later this month.
Marty Diamond of New York promoters Little Big Man said: “I don’t think it will affect the shows at all. Only ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and ‘Lucky Man’ have been released over here so far, with ‘Sonnet’ to come soon, so the band are still very early in their life here. The experience of ‘Urban Hymns’ is pretty limited over here, so there’s a genuine excitement at the band coming over to play.”
Chicago promoter Andy Cirzan added: “The Americans are not like you guys, they don’t get in to the minutiae or detail. Over here, the kids are into the songs, they perceive Richard as the focal point of the band. If you stood outside and asked 20 kids, ‘Are you concerned that it’s not the original guitar player onstage?’, they wouldn’t mind. They’d ask whether the songs were still going to be the same and if Richard was going to be there and that would be it.”
So the big question for now is, just how will The Verve get through the American tour, and, closer to home, V98 and Slane Castle? What will they be playing and how will they be playing it?
The band spent the whole of last week rehearsing at a Bermondsey, South London studio without McCabe and refusing to talk to the press. However, after last week’s sessions it is presumed the band will now tour with a five-piece string section, the percussionist Steve Sidelynk (credits include Madonna and The Rolling Stones) plus BJ Cole, the pedal-steel guitar player who played on ‘Urban Hymns’ and whose credits include Beck, John Cale and Depeche Mode. This will free up bassist Jones to play guitar on some songs. Initial plans to employ a sampler player, as Oasis did on their US tour, were quickly discarded. The band’s representatives say that it’s too early to confirm what songs they will be playing.
If The Verve do split after Slane Castle, they leave Hut with a smattering of unreleased material. The band are rumoured to have gone into a London studio this summer and cut five songs with Chris Potter, who co-produced ‘Urban Hymns’ with Youth. Furthermore, there are said to be tracks left over from the ‘Urban Hymns’ sessions that have never been released.
Whatever, the fact remains that Richard Ashcroft has repeatedly said The Verve can’t function as The Verve without Nick McCabe. Commenting in June last year on his efforts to continue without McCabe after the split, the singer told NME: “If you’re not happy with the music, that’s when it becomes too much. And I wasn’t. I needed the secret element. I needed Nick McCabe. I got to the point a year ago when nothing other than The Verve was gonna do that for me. I probably let that fester inside me without telling people for a few months, but I knew it was gonna happen. And one day I just snapped and phoned Nick up. When you get the inner voice calling you, you can deny it for a while but when it starts eating at your insides you have to answer it, you have to heed its advice.”
This time though, nobody, possibly not even Richard Ashcroft himself is sure what that answer will be.
* The above article is this week’s NME cover story *