The Verve's 10 Best Songs

By Paul Rigg

The Verve exploded onto the British rock scene in 1997 with the release of their mega-selling album Urban Hymns. Formed in Wigan in 1990 by lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft, bassist Simon Jones, guitarist Nick McCabe and drummer Peter Salisbury, the band went through several line-up changes that included guitarist and keyboardist Simon Tong’s participation from 1996 to 1999. It is difficult to write a brief history of the Verve without mentioning the drug abuse, serial legal wrangles and bitter break ups - which at one point led Ashcroft to say “you’re more likely to get all four Beatles  on stage” – but beyond all that, their amazing contribution to British musical history is beyond doubt. Here are Guitars Exchange’s pick of their top 10 songs:  


10. Gravity Grave, Verve EP, 1992

Gravity Grave
was the first song on the band’s debut EP and presaged much of what was to come; being both druggy and meditative in its effect. Even the short version runs to over four minutes, but to really experience the song’s intention it is best to turn off the lights and lose yourself in the extended mix.

9. The Drugs Don't Work, Urban Hymns, 1997

One of the Verve’s best-known songs, interpretations of the lyrics have ranged from Ashcroft’s experience of witnessing his father die from cancer to a description of his own descent into drug abuse. The line “Now the drugs don’t work/ They just make you worse” touched a chord, as did the powerful couplet “
Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown/ This time I'm coming down.” The track hit the number 1 spot in the UK but as its reputation grew, Ashcroft wanted to speak less about it. "What I've found with lyrics is sometimes people's own interpretations are on another level to mine, certainly with things like 'The Drugs Don't Work,'” he said in one interview. "I realized 20 years ago, if I underline with a big marker pen, The Drugs Don't Work equals whatever, then I'm killing it for people."


8. History, A Northern Soul, 1995

A Northern Soul
preceded the release of Urban Hymns but it is an exceptional album for songs like History. The orchestration became a feature of a number of the band’s songs and here it is used to perfect effect to emphasise the heartbreak that Ashcroft felt when his long-term partner, Sarah, left him for one of his best friends. A part of the myth surrounding this song is that their producer, Owen Morris, threw a chair through a window in excitement when the lead singer first played it to him. The opening lyrics are based on the first two stanzas of William Blake's 1794 poem, London, and can also be read as the tale of a man lost and broken in a heartless city.

7. Love is Noise, Forth, 2008

The product of one of the band’s reunions, Forth spurned the track Love is Noise, which was inspired by
Blake's poem And did those feet in ancient time; well-known from the words of the hymn Jerusalem. Ashcroft wittily reshapes the lyric to "Do those feet in modern times/ Walk on soles that are made in China?" The song contains a loop that Ashcroft knew was a winner: "I was working a lot with an old vocoder I had in the studio and created the vocal loop, and as soon as I had that vocal loop that was it [… I thought …] if the world could hear it the world would get into it, and that's so rare I think when something within a few seconds can grab people."


6. The Sun, The Sea, A Storm In Heaven, 1993

In contrast to a lot of the band’s other material, The Sun, The Sea kicks off with a heavy wave of guitar distortion, probably on Mccabe’s Gibson ES-355, before calm descends in the verses. Composed by
Jones, Ashcroft, Salisbury, and Mccabe, the lyric focuses on a relationship that mirrors the timeless and often brutal ebb and flow of the ocean: “It amazes me how I broke free/ Then got brought back in/ 'Cause when the feelings there shattered and scared/ I know, you've won, goodbye, I'm gone.”

5. Sonnet, Urban Hymns, 1997

The touching love song Sonnet starts off with the evocative lines “My friend and me/ Looking through her red box of memories”, which the writer Ashcroft confirmed in an interview actually existed. "We even took a picture of the red box of memories," he said. "In England it came on an Urban Hymns deluxe thing at some point, and I remember photographing the actual box for the sleeve."


4. Slide Away, A Storm In Heaven, 1993

Opening with distorted guitars that increasingly give way to a gentler
Simon Jones’ bassline, before the guitars dominate once more, Slide Away sparkles from the outset. Ashcroft’s lyrics are typically complex and as the song progresses his voice is ovewhelmed by crashing guitars, amid the incantation: “slide away, burn away.”

3. A New Decade, A Northern Soul, 1995

If you are looking for an anthemic stadium song in the Verve’s back catalogue A New Decade would certainly qualify. After the quiet start the song explodes in anger before transforming into a yearning dreamscape around the two-minute mark.
As the song fades out Ashcroft can be heard in quiet desperation repeating If you're looking for me/ Then I'll be looking for you.”


2. Lucky Man, Urban Hymns, 1997

Lucky Man
is close to being a perfect pop song with its big hook and upbeat lyrics. Ashcroft himself told Q magazine in 2017 that he considers this to be his favourite song, "because it seems to be able to ignite or connect with an energy every time it's performed, without fail." In a BBC Radio 2 interview with Chris Evans, Ashcroft added that Lucky Man was inspired by his relationship with his wife "and that sense of, once you're beyond the sort of peacock dance that you have early in a relationship and you're getting down to the raw nature of yourselves - there's a beauty in that as well." 

1. Bittersweet Symphony, Urban Hymns, 1997

Bittersweet Symphony
offers a blend of rock and symphony that hit a chord with its opening lyric: “Cause it's a bitter sweet symphony, this life/ Trying to make ends meet, you're a slave to money, then you die.” “People have been sold a lottery dream in life that money solves everyone's problems," Ashcroft once explained in an interview. His father, Frank, worked all his life in an office and then died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage when the songwriter was 11: "He worked nine to five and got nowhere," he said. "I immediately realized that wasn't the life for me."

A further bitter twist to the tale was that the Verve had got permission from Decca to sample the Rolling Stones for the song, but didn’t realise that they needed additional permission from Allen Klein's company ABKCO, who insisted on 100% of the publishing rights. Ashcroft received a flat fee of $1,000 and had to sign away all his rights to a song that was repeatedly used in commercials and TV shows; but at least it gave The Verve a profile in the U.S.