Nineteen years ago this week the new rock revival reached its apotheosis with an unlikely resurrection. The Verve – or Verve, their name until a certain legendary jazz label couldn’t help noticing them getting all noisy – had split in 1995, not so much in acrimony as disillusion, with Richard Ashcroft unhappy and talismanic guitarist Nick McCabe frozen out. Even when the band snuck back together after a few weeks, Ashcroft, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury co-opted old school pal Simon Tong on guitar, with McCabe left in the neon wilderness. The split had been a sly ruse to ditch the troubled axeman.
What a pity. The Verve’s first two albums, ‘A Storm In Heaven’ and ‘A Northern Soul’ had been space rock epics, sent skywards by Ashcroft’s shamanic performances but kept focused by McCabe’s astounding virtuosity. What would they do without that old magic?
Well, we never had the chance to find out. Eighteen months after the split, Ashcroft called McCabe up and got the old band back together, this time with a renewed sense of purpose and – pretty soon – a raft of classic songs that would put them on top of the pile in one of rock’s least expected but most joyful turnarounds.
Third album ‘Urban Hymns’ had the right time/right place thing sorted – fag end of Britpop, wide-eyed endorsement from incumbent King of Rock Noel Gallagher – but in another sense it was timeless. Its unwithered status 19 years on is thanks to deathless anthems like ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and ‘Lucky Man’ that will pass down the generations, tough-guy-with-a-heart ballads ‘Sonnet’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, still affecting whatever their associations, and a bruised bullish soul encapsulating Ashcroft, Captain Rock himself.
For the last few months of 1997 even ‘OK Computer’ was forgotten, and ‘Urban Hymns’ ended up one of the biggest selling albums in UK history. It seemed to capture a time, to scratch an itch for soul-searching but extrovert rock, but it remains one of the true muscular statements of British rock. Here are 15 of its best moments, presented in ‘real time’ format. Go on, stick it on, and be blown away all over again.
The beginning of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ when those slanting strings fade in. The cowbells and string refrain might’ve been nabbed from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’, but who really knew then? And does it soften that shuddering impact?
“I’ll take you down…” – ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ ad libs to fade with Ashcroft testifying and McCabe ringing the changes.
Tinkling piano pops in as the sad, soulful ‘Sonnet’ remembers something words can’t quite express.
Nick McCabe takes the brakes off and solos away on ‘Sonnet’. Ashcroft’s winning argument to get McCabe back in the band? He said he’d quit music forever if he didn’t return.
“Freak-out” Verve didn’t die! The moment when ‘The Rolling People’ starts to squall, wah-wah and speak in tongues is a reminder of those pre-‘History’ days.
The scene set, in comes the rhythm section on ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, a heartsore lament for Ashcroft’s dad.
“If Heaven falls/I’m coming too” and those “la la la”s – it’s ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ finding sweeter pain.
A brief moment, but the harmony on the second “Like a cat in a bag” in ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ is the time to put your arm around your mate.
A strangely funky pattering drum sequence puts the Happy Mondays into the Cocteau Twins on ‘Catching The Butterfly’.
This sickly, atonal pull on the guitar shifts ‘Neon Wilderness’ from dreamy to creepy, revealing something ugly beneath the stoner bliss.
After three and a half minutes of taut reflection, ‘Space And Time’ breaks free, as the “second best band in Britain” (according to Noel Gallagher) reach for the stratosphere.
There’s a meditative dropout but ‘Lucky Man’, the third straight Top 10 single from the album, comes back in with overarching strings to match ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.
After the expansive ‘Lucky Man’, ‘One Day”s electric piano – played by auxiliary guitarist Simon Tong – is a soothing balm.
‘Velvet Morning’ gears up for the big finish, challenging Oasis at their weepy, anthemic, stringing-it-out best.
‘Come On”s first chorus bulges forth, bringing in Led Zep riffing that’ll stick around. Often the gig closer back in the day, here it brought the curtain down before “hidden track” Deep Freeze.