This Is Music – The Singles 92-98
n 1995, as a naïve and passionate and occasionally very stoned 16 year old, I bought a copy of A Northern Soul on spec, because I’d read something about them which I can no longer recall but which made them seem like the coolest thing on earth. The cover art helped—four faces, sullen and focused, not miserable but angry, thousand-yard stares, arranged in a diamond and projected oddly over someone walking through a door in a huge, blank wall. On the reverse side one of the band (I would later find out that it was Simon Jones, the bassist) was slotting some coins into a vending machine labelled FEELINGS. He had red jeans on, and I immediately wanted a pair. I had to settle for a red denim jacket and a copy of A Storm In Heaven a week or two later. I remember catching a glimpse of the video for “This Is Music” on TV, the band dressed in black against a white background, throwing shapes in a most un-show-off way, as if they were harangued and wracked by music rather than by stardom, which was the case, because they weren’t stars. In 1993, or 1994, or sometime anyway, Richard Ashcroft “died” onstage in America when his dehydrated, drink & drug fuelled frame buckled under the pressure of live performance. Later in 1995 they split up, possibly on stage, certainly acrimoniously, before I’d got a chance to see them live.
“Mad” Richard Ashcroft, as he was known, was given to outrageous pronouncements early in the band’s career, claiming he could fly, telling people Verve would one day be huge but that it would take three albums for the world to catch up with them. He was right about one of these things, sort of. After they split up in 1995 The Verve (the definite article was added after a dispute with the jazz label) spent a year or so apart before reforming without taciturn-but-genius guitarist Nick McCabe, replacing him with childhood friend Simon Tong, who had allegedly taught Ashcroft and McCabe their first guitar chords. Rather than editing their songs together from huge jam sessions as they had done before, sharing writing credits four-ways, Ashcroft seized control of the band and started writing songs. But the sound the band made could never match the sound in his head, and slowly Ashcroft realised that he needed McCabe if they were to make the album he was desperate to create. So they convinced him to come back, and Urban Hymns was born. The lead-off single from The Verve’s third album was “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, and while it may have only managed to ascend to one-hit-wonder status in the US, it was the start of something massive in the UK. Urban Hymns sold millions.
I have to ask myself why The Verve need a singles collection; their three albums are all readily available and often cheap, and they only had a handful of bona fide “hits”, all of which are from Urban Hymns with the exception of “History”, which got to 13 in the charts after they split up for the first time. There are three early singles/EPs which aren’t readily available (“All In The Mind”, “She’s A Superstar” and “Gravity Grave”), but somehow I suspect that casual fans won’t be interested, while serious fans will probably own the original EPs (which were all re-released in 1997 when Urban Hymns went massive, and which have already been compiled elsewhere for the US). Considering this, it seems as though Virgin/EMI are seeking to cash-in on the recent popularity of the likes of Coldplay, and that the pre-Christmas release of this collection is timed to make the biggest stocking-filler financial killing. (Britney Spears, Travis, Robbie Williams and Tina Turner all have compilations out this month too.)
This Is Music eschews chronology in favour of some kind vague conceptual flow, and yet still dumps the two “previously unreleased” tracks at the end like some half-thought-out bonus for a south-east Asian territory. Actually, the bonus tracks perhaps reveal some of the reasoning behind the existence of the compilation—“This Could Be My Moment”, an Urban Hymns-era composition, sounds more like a Richard Ashcroft song than a Verve song, meaning it lacks the telekinetic thrill which made them so special at their best, and is perhaps included as an attempt to give his faltering solo career a shot in the arm. The other “new” song, “Monte Carlo”, is an inauspicious Verve groover, neither spectacular nor poor. It’s nice to have it, but we could easily have lived without it.
This Is Music does, however, start with a bang, as the title track (taken from A Northern Soul, their most raw, and therefore best, LP) impacts from the off with seismic force, a rolling, roiling in-the-round rocker dedicated to the power of sound, tumbling vocals and winding, screeching guitars hammered together beneath volleys of Pete Salisbury’s percussive force. “Slide Away” and “Blue” are stargazing pop from their debut album A Storm In Heaven, layered and hazy but still propellant, murder fantasy one moment, LSD reverie the next. Of the three early tracks, “All In The Mind” is a kinetic, post-Stone Roses race, and “She’s A Superstar” an indulgent, ten minute psychedelic meander designed to give record company execs palpitations. “Gravity Grave” pretends to be a song for three minutes before breaking down and giving into (pre-The) Verve’s nascent Can fantasies, desperate to surge to the moon but not quite capable of doing so.
And then there is “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, which still stands as one monumental moment in modern music, incessant and grandiose, seeping paranoia and confidence in equal measure, put together more like a hip-hop tune than a jam-band rocker by a load of Doors wannabes. The double-whack beat, the string hook, the miasmic, hypnotic rhythm, the spiralling soup of sound and associated images of Ashcroft striding like a man possessed down some anonymous English street; it has become its own myth, its own totem. “The Drugs Don’t Work”, by contrast, is delicate, country-tinged, foreshadowed by the desolate “On Your Own” from A Northern Soul and sullied by the prefabricated authenticity of “Sonnet”. “History”, cribbed from William Blake and beloved of Noel Gallagher, still stings like salty tears in all-too-recent wounds. “Lucky Man” soars, even now, even knowing that, to all intents and purposes, it was The Verve’s death knell, the sound of them erring on the side of workmanlike caution and forgetting who they were.
Because there’s a whole other side to The Verve that’s only hinted at here. The drawn-out, paranoiac psychedelic groove of “Catching The Butterfly”, “Brainstorm Interlude” and “Life’s An Ocean”, the spacerock rush of “Star Sail” and the LSD-bliss of “Make It Till Monday” are all key facets of what (The) Verve were, of why they were so different and so special, those moments when structure and limitations were abandoned and they just played, when Nick McCabe would never play the same thing twice, when he would make his guitar groan like a person or surge like a shuttle launching. But because of the nature of this compilation they are all absent, and only the hits, such as they are, remain as testament to where (The) Verve came from. As such This Is Music only presents half of the story.