Bittersweet symphonies and space rock

By Sergio Ariza

A Northern Soul, the The Verve’s second album was an artistic success but not so much commercial. Launched in the heat of Britpop it did not manage to enter the British Top Ten and barely had repercussion outside Britian. The recording had been chaos and the band decided to separate. But a few days later Richard Ashcroft, their singer, reunited with bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury, as well as signing an old school friend, Simon Tong, to take charge on guitar. But when Ashcroft was in the middle of recording what was going to be the band's third album, Urban Hymns, he decided that this could not be The Verve if it was not with their original guitarist, Nick McCabe. So the band became a quintet and recorded their defining album.  

A work divided between the incredible orchestral ballads of Ashcroft, which would be what would turn them into stars - gems like Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Drugs Don’t Work, Sonnet or Lucky Man - and the 'jams' of space rock and psychedelia more typical of the band like The Rolling People, Catching the Butterfly and Come On. Obviously, it is the former that turn this record into a classic but it is the contrast with the latter songs that makes it even more special. A rarity of an hour and a quarter that looks like two mixed albums, a solo album by Ashcroft, and the continuation of their first two works as a group.

Ashcroft had created their best songs to date on his Epiphone EJ-200 acoustic at home. As a quartet they began to work on them but something was missing, and the producer, John Leckie, had it clear: "the missing ingredient was the Mick Ronson, the Keith Richards, call it whatever you want to call it". In other words, those songs were looking for their guitarist. And Ashcroft knew who this man was. After rejoining, McCabe managed to give them his own touch, as is shown by his country slide on The Drugs Don’t Work or his wah on Weeping Willow. But where his presence would be most noticeable would be in the songs that the whole band composed, where his Les Paul created an atmospheric wall of noise, which would be the fundamental element of songs like the psychedelic Neon Wilderness, the intense The Rolling People or the 'zeppelian' Come On.

Of course, the song that would make them stars would be Bitter Sweet Symphony, a piece based on a 'sample' of a recording by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra of a symphonic version of The Last Time by the Rolling Stones, which would lead to a judicial controversy that would make Jagger and Richards co-composers of the song with Ashcroft. Driven by that success and their next single, The Drugs Don’t Work, the album would become a best seller across half the world; and place The Verve on the crest of the wave.

But the internal problems were not resolved and McCabe left again, tired of being simply an extra to Ashcroft. The band would continue for a while but they would end up separating definitively in 1999. Despite a reunion in 2007, the magic of their time together disappeared with this great album.