Looking back on the album that helped break the band in America
Sometimes, a band’s biggest album is the start of something good. For The Verve, it would be their creative swan song.
Urban Hymns, which turned 25 today, was effectively the end of the band, despite releasing a fourth album, Forth, in 2008.
The Verve were relative unknowns here in the States in 1997. They released their psychedelic shoegaze debut, A Storm in Heaven, in 1991. Today, it sounds like the album the Stone Roses’ Second Coming should have been.
They followed with the loud, absorbing A Northern Soul in 1995, still arguably their best work.
The one thing they hadn’t had was a big hit single. The three from A Northern Soul (“This Is Music”, “On Your Own” and “History”) had cracked the UK Top 40. Here? Not so much as a ripple.
That would change in 1997. But more on that in a bit.
First, the album as we know it almost didn’t happen. The band, as it was constituted, was no more after A Northern Soul. Guitarist Nick McCabe was gone, not of his own volition. Singer Richard Ashcroft was planning on doing his first solo album with Verve members Simon Jones on bass and Peter Salisbury on drums. Simon Tong (who’d later play with Blur and Gorillaz) and Bernard Butler, formerly of Suede, took over on guitar.
At some point, Ashcroft wanted McCabe back. The guitarist accepted. Working through the spring of ’97 with producers Chris Potter and Youth, things came together.
It’s impossible to talk about Urban Hymns without talking about its lead track — “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. It’s the song that delivered The Verve their first global hit. But it’s also a song that turned out to be a pain in the ass in a way that The Verve couldn’t have envisioned.
VIDEO: The Verve “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
Ashcroft built the song around a sample of a version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” on an orchestral record by the Stones’ one time producer and manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. That sample was expanded into a big pop song with further strings and instrumentation. There was nary a trace of the Stones’ version’s bluesiness.
The band had cleared the sample with Decca, which owned the rights to the Oldham song. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it was credited as a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards song. That meant the Verve had to go through Stones’ one-time manager Allen Klein, who’d been able to get the rights to the band’s pre-1970 material as part of the deal that allowed them to walk away from him.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was set to be the lead single. The notoriously hardball Klein smelled blood in the water. Unafraid to be litigious, he sued, demanding full credit for Jagger and Richards. “We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing,.They rung up and said we want 100 per cent or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice,” Jones said.
And thus Ashcroft walked away with $1,000 and no songwriting credit.”Bitter Sweet Symphony” became, as Ashcroft later quipped, the Stones’ “biggest hit since ‘Brown Sugar.'”
Of course, as Ashcroft and others have pointed out, there was a Staple Singers song called “This May Be The Last Time”, a Shirley Joiner arrangement of a traditional tune, that came out over two years before. They nicked the refrain and added their own riff and melody to it.
Keith Richards said in 2003, “We came up with ‘The Last Time’, which was basically re-adapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time.”
AUDIO: Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra “The Last Time”
And it’s also worth noting that David Whitaker, who actually wrote and arranged the sampled string line, wasn’t included in the writing credits on the Oldham record, something neither Klein nor Oldham, who also sued The Verve, seemed too broken up about.
Still, the song broke The Verve to a wider audience they wouldn’t have had otherwise. There would also eventually be resolution years after Klein’s death. His son, Jody, was much more amenable. He suggested Ashcroft’s managers approach the Stones’ current management. That led to Jagger and Richards agreeing to return the rights and their share of the royalties to Ashcroft, also taking their name off the credits.
So 22 years later, the song was officially Ashcroft’s. And what a tune it remains, utterly majestic in its determination, even in grim circumstances (dictated by class and/or self). The video didn’t hurt, either, consisting of Ashcroft in black leather jacket looking intensely pleased as walks on the sidewalks of Hoxton Street in North London. All the while, he walks mostly where he pleases, to the annoyance of other pedestrians and drivers, to the point where a “literal video version” on YouTube would have had to have constant variations of “Hey! Watch where you’re going!”, possibly with included expletives.
Ashcroft wasn’t always willing to make his point abundantly clear lyrically. He told MTV in 1997: “I don’t think the listener needs to know anything more than the song. Because we always abuse our listeners’ imaginations by giving them too much, and telling them too much. We’re making music, we’re not making cheeseburgers. So I’m not about to give it to them on a plate and say what exactly it’s about. I think that’s important. I hate it when you see lead singers taking all the mystery away.”
All that said, while “The Drugs Don’t Work” is hardly a cheeseburger, the lyrics don’t paint Ashcroft as an international mystery, either. Rather, it’s a gorgeously, achingly tender look at grief at the point where you know nothing can be done to prevent the coming loss.
Although one could certainly interpret the song as being related to the band’s prior days. McCabe has said the chorus lyric was originally,”The drugs don’t work/They just make me worse.”
While Ashcroft had sole songwriting credit on the bulk of the album, Urban Hymns is clearly the sound of a full band contributing, particularly McCabe.
He’s all over “Catching the Butterfly”, both in atmospheric touches and soloing. It’s a reminder that if they were less shoegazey than before, The Verve hadn’t left psychedelia behind.
McCabe’s touches came even if he occasionally took a wandering route.
Owen Morris, who produced A Northern Soul as well as the first three Oasis albums, told Guitar in 1997: “I haven’t a clue where his genius comes from. But at the same time he’s a complete and utter nightmare, ha ha! He’ll never play the same thing twice. Now you can ask Noel Gallagher to play the same guitar line a hundred times, and as long as there’s a good reason for him doing it, he’ll do it. But with Nick you’ve got no chance. But that’s what he does, y’know?”
As it turned out, The Verve got tagged with the Britpop label, in part because of the singles. The third hit — following “Bitter Sweet” and “Drugs” — most fit that tag.
“Lucky Man” has the strings and that McCabe guitar, but it’s the soaring chorus that absolutely makes it.
VIDEO: The Verve “Lucky Man”
“Space and Time” and “One Day” likewise can be filed under Britpop. Both are love songs — the former punchier and more uncertain, the latter warm and soulful.
There’s no doubt that Ashcroft was confidently aiming big here. It shows in “Sonnet”, which in that anti-cheeseburger tradition, could be read as a love song or an anti-love song. To these ears, it feels like a statement on the reality of love, which doesn’t fit neatly into poems and Iambic pentameter.
“Weeping Willow” is as deep as The Verve ventures into Oasis territory, although it works better with Ashcroft’s emotive vocals and its darker atmosphere.
Urban Hymns is not a short album by any means — instrumental interlude “Neon Wilderness” and hidden bonus track “Deep Freeze” (a subpar “Revolution No. 9” homage/piss take) are less than three minutes. But the band is able to sustain a strong mood throughout, keeping the long songs– both the singles and the songs that echo early material engaging.
If the drugs didn’t work, Urban Hymns didn’t eliminate songs for listeners who found they worked just fine.
“The Rolling People” is a great example, which builds into Ashcroft’s wordless scatting and swooping vocalese, squalling guitar and the stuttering groove of Jones and Salisbury. You could see The Verve of 1992 still in there.
That’s not the case for “Velvet Morning”, which aims for Capital AB-Anthemic Ballad, albeit with an unusual vocal. Recorded on a Monday, Ashcroft sang his vocals through a megaphone he bought the day before, with gaffer tape to hold the button down.
The old Verve storms back to close the album on the roiling “Come On”,which isn’t a coincidence, as it and “Rolling People” dated back to the time in between the first two albums.
This one’s all about the build, as the determination hinted at in “Bitter Sweet Symphony” explodes in stadium rock glory. There’s more noise and wah-wah. There’s the less-hinged vocals, with lines like “love somebody in the back!” and “This is the thing, fuck you!” delivered with a mixture of anger and almost glee.
Greater success wasn’t able to keep the band together. A blowup between Ashcroft and McCabe on tour became the apparent catalyst for them to call it a day.
Despite the on-again, off-again state of the band, The Verve didn’t exist in a state of constant bickering. “There seems to be this impression that we were always fighting but if anything that’s the inverse of what the situation was like,” McCabe told Drowned in Sound in 2017. “What generally happened with the band from day one until the end was that nothing ever got talked about. There were never tensions as such but there were unresolved issues so if there was any kind of spark to ignite, anything vaguely explosive, it created this huge powder keg that could go off at any time.”
The members went their separate ways, a state that appeared permanent. In 2007, Aschroft said “You’re more likely to get all four Beatles on stage” than have a Verve reunion.
Months later, the temptation was too much and the reunion happened with Tong promoted to full-time member. There was a statement that they were getting together “for the love of the music.” Ashcroft told Billboard,”It’s not something that we’re just gonna chuck away again.”
Forth was, in a word, okay. It had moments that offered reminders of past glories, but couldn’t stand toe-to-toe with them overall.
By the summer of 2009, it was over. Alternative Addiction reported that McCabe and Jones weren’t speaking to Ashcroft, feeling they’d been used just to get his solo career going again. The story quoted a source close to the band as saying, “If Richard came back with cap in hand they’d tell him to fuck off.”
Ashcroft went back to his solo career, releasing albums full of intent, purpose and inconsistency (his 2000 debut Alone With Everybody remains his best to this point).
There seems to be no rush to reunite a third time. McCabe and Jones played together in Black Submarine, a band that also included Davide Rossi from Goldfrapp.
McCabe hasn’t expressed a desire to perform in The Verve again, but has kept the door open. Ashcroft, who’s said that bands only stay together after a time because of money or fear, doesn’t appear interested. Instead, he revisited The Verve on his own. Of the 12 songs from his back catalog on 2021’s Acoustic Hymns Vol. 1, eight are reworked versions from the band’s 1997 classic.
The Verve were somehow less able to stay together than a band with Liam and Noel Gallagher did, but for the three albums in their initial run, they were able to put together albums that made any acrimony worth it.
Urban Hymns is as good of a swan song as one could have hoped for — a lead singer aiming high and a band capable of fleshing it all out and putting it together to get him there.
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