From left: Peter Salisbury, Simon Jones, Richard Ashcroft, Nick McCabe, Simon Tong
The Verve were a British rock and roll band of the 1990s, originally formed in Wigan, England in 1989 by vocalist Richard Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury. At the height of their fame in 1997, the Verve were considered one of the finest bands from the UK and were one of the most popular groups worldwide before they abruptly called it quits in 1999. Their rise to success did not happen overnight - the band released LPs and EPs that were critically acclaimed and highly regarded, yet worldwide commercial success eluded them for most of their career. Despite having to endure major breakups, health problems, drug abuse, and various lawsuits, the Verve released three successful albums and cemented a reputation as one of the most innovative and influential British rock acts of the last decade.
The Verve (or simply Verve as they were originally called) were formed in the small town of Wigan in 1989. Led by Richard Ashcroft, an enigmatic lead singer who was rivaled by very few in the British rock scene for his stage presence and vocal abilities, the band caused a buzz in early 1991 for their ability to captivate audiences with their musical textures and sonic aptitude. With Ashcroft's song-writing skills and McCabe's unique and impressive guitar work, the Verve released 1992's ethereal Verve EP with Hut Records. The Verve EP was positively received and established the Verve as cult favorites with epics songs like 'Gravity Grave' and 'A Man Called Sun'.
1993's A Storm in Heaven, the band's full-length debut, was a critical hit (both in the UK and the US), but failed to attract a broader audience. The whirling psychedelic sound of the album wasn’t radio friendly in the eyes of the music industry and the general pop audience. However, critics and the indie rock community hailed the LP for its expansive sound, particularly regarding Nick McCabe's unique and mind-blowing guitar work. The single 'Slide Away' topped indie rock charts and made enough of a splash across the Atlantic to score the Verve a spot in the successful 90s alternative rock festival, Lollapalooza, in 1994. The tour was disastrous for the group as Ashcroft was hospitalized for dehydration while Salisbury was arrested for destroying a hotel room in Kansas. After the tour, the Jazz label Verve sued the band for copyright infringements and forced the group to officially change their name to The Verve.
Turbulent Recordings and a Breakup
The turmoil continued well into the recording sessions of the follow-up album, 1995's A Northern Soul. The massive intake of drugs (particularly Ecstasy) and the strained relationship between Ashcroft and McCabe during the sessions took its toll on the band. Richard Ashcroft later described the recording experience as 'Four intense, mad months. Really insane. In great ways and terrible ways. In ways that only good music and bad drugs and mixed emotions can make'. When A Northern Soul was released, it received very strong reviews. The band broke new ground by departing from the neo-psychedelic sounds of A Storm in Heaven and instead recorded a powerful British alternative rock album. The singles 'This Is Music', 'On Your Own', and 'History' all reached the UK Top 40. The latter two singles were particularly new for the Verve as they dabbled with soulful ballads, a formula that would make their final album such a success. Despite the critical praise the album received, the band once again experienced a lack of commercial success. The rise of Britpop had captivated the UK in the mid-90s and the media had their attention on the Oasis vs. Blur rivalry instead of focusing on the Verve's album. The disappointing album sales and his strained relationship with Nick McCabe resulted in Richard Ashcroft breaking up the band.
The Height of Fame
Although Ashcroft reunited the group just a few weeks after the breakup, McCabe refused to rejoin the lineup. As a replacement, the band chose old Wigan schoolmate Simon Tong to fill in the lead guitar duties for the remainder of the tour.
Ashcroft, Jones, Salisbury, and Tong went ahead and started writing songs for the upcoming album. In 1997, Nick McCabe returned to the fold (a crucial moment for the band). With the band back together, the group went through a 'spiritual' recording process to finish the epic Britpop classic, Urban Hymns. For the first time in their careers, the Verve not only received very strong critical reviews, but they also experienced major commercial success. Not only was the album a hit in the UK, but the band also 'broke' into the US and most of the world. The first single off Urban Hymns, 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', was an instant hit. It entered the UK charts at #2 and remained on the charts for 3 months. The single was also very popular in the US, topping the charts at #12 (their highest position ever in the Billboards). The song, which borrows a looped sample of a symphonic recording of the Rolling Stones' 'The Last Time', was the soundtrack for many in the summer of 1997 and is considered one of the finest songs ever written.
Urban Hymns propelled the Verve from merely critical darlings to one of the UK's most popular bands. The timing of the release couldn't have been better. The state of Britpop was in question. Once the kings of the rock world, Oasis was nowhere to be seen with their lackluster effort, Be Here Now, while their rivals Blur decided to progress away from Britpop and focused their attention on the American Indie Rock scene. The release of Urban Hymns was considered by many a classic that kept the wave of Britpop rolling for at least a few more years.
Despite their success, turmoil was still a constant reality for the band. ABKCO Music, which runs the Rolling Stones' back catalog, and which had warned The Verve against using the Rolling Stones sample in 'Bittersweet Symphony,' successfully sued the Verve for 100% of the royalties for 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'; further, as a result of the lawsuit, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were given songwriting credits and full publishing rights to the song, which later appeared in a Nike commercial against The Verve's will. Then, as the band was on a very successful tour to promote the album, bassist Simon Jones collapsed on stage. Things got worse when Nick McCabe suddenly pulled from the tour and decided he couldn't tolerate the constant life on the road any longer (some speculate that the incident with Jones and McCabe's relationship with Ashcroft were the reasons).
Ashcroft took the duties of lead guitar for the rest of the tour, which resulted in unfavorable reviews for the band. Ashcroft was unable to exude his powerful stage presence when playing the guitar, and the live shows lacked the energy that existed when the talented McCabe was onstage. After a year of inactivity, the Verve officially announced the end to their careers in 1999.
After the band's final collapse, Simon Jones and Simon Tong formed a new group called The Shining along with former Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. Tong has also appeared as a live replacement for departed Graham Coxon in Blur. Richard Ashcroft has also enjoyed a successful solo career, debuting with 2000's Alone With Everybody, followed by Human Conditions in 2002. Nick McCabe has mostly remained quiet after the breakup, although he has recently worked with a few artists, notably John Martin and Leeds based band, The Music.
from A Northern Soul
- 1995 'This Is Music' #35 UK
- 1995 'On Your Own' #28 UK
- 1995 'History' #24 UK
from Urban Hymns
This biography is published under the GNU Licence
- 1997 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' #2 UK, #12 US
- 1997 'The Drugs Don't Work' #1 UK
- 1997 'Lucky Man' #7 UK