Twenty-five years is a long time in pop music. Not many bands stay the course for a quarter of a century – and Verve, as they were known in 1991, did not come close either.
It was then the Wigan quartet were signed to Hut Records and released their first EPs. Three years later they split, reformed in 1997, split again in 1999 after the tumultuous Urban Hymns, and then reformed once more for the less convincing Forth in 2008. This was proof positive that creative minds do not always make great teams, especially when touring and extra-curricular substances are involved.
Yet this tension underpinned the band’s best work and their legacy is a powerful one, overwhelming the subsequent solo career of singer Richard Ashcroft, now onto his fifth album. He is yet to make a record approaching those his band made at the peak of their powers.
With early Verve, it’s all about the atmosphere. This is confirmed by the reissued and remastered albums A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul, their comprehensive packages giving fans and new listeners alike a chance to appraise the band’s early achievements, their struggles before blasting through with Bittersweet Symphony.
Deluxe issues are 10-a-penny these days, record companies having cottoned on to their cash rich potential among loyal fans, but these two are both generous and relevant. The big hits and structured songs would come later, but on these two albums the band are laying down the ground work, establishing their sound and laying bare their musical foundations.
A Storm In Heaven confirms them to be far more than your average guitar-led quartet from the North of England. A darkly magnificent piece of work, it blinds us with the light emanating from Nick McCabe’s guitar. His music is matched by Michael Spencer Jones’s dramatic cover image, a man silhouetted at the entrance to Thor’s Cave in deepest Staffordshire. The guitar sounds whip the music into whirlpools of distortion, often saying more in their musical lines than Ashcroft does in his dislocated lyrics.
Here the band are four equals, Ashcroft content to sing from within the massive sound with little to no posturing, though still exuding a sullen attitude. The music nods back to Echo & The Bunnymen, The Doors even, and the song structures are sprawling. Despite this The Verve rarely if ever outstayed their welcome, the tension between their elements exquisitely held.
The mood, set early on, has impressive grandeur on songs like Already There and The Sun, The Sea, which gains its aggression through McCabe’s wall of sound to paint a vivid picture of the sea spray. This is where the Bunnymen influences come through most obviously, before an impressive and impassioned saxophone cadenza wraps things up. Butterfly, meanwhile, has a loping groove, its ominously creeping bass line sounding great in remastered form.
From the two discs of extras for A Storm In Heaven it is clear the band’s quality control threshold was high – and we get the chance to hear all the recordings the band made prior to the album’s release. Meanwhile Gravity Grave as realised in a massive nine and a half minute version from the band’s set at Glastonbury in 1993, a time when future potential for live heroics was becoming increasingly clear. The song gathers itself impressively around two-thirds of the way through.
Even longer is the sprawling Feel, spanning its sprawling sonic picture over nearly 11 minutes. Brake Lights forms a frenetic guitar whirlwind, while She’s A Superstar still carries real gravitas. Two previously unreleased tracks, the sanguine South Pacific and the unexpectedly percussive Shoeshine Girl, are valuable additions.
A Northern Soul, its title a proud statement of The Verve’s Wigan heritage, is a proud statement indeed, if ultimately a doomed one. Bravely taking its name from a movement and a genre, it trains its impact on the whole body and mind rather than just the feet, shaking it from the very core.
This is far from comfortable music, made at the peak of the band’s overindulgence and prodigious drug taking. The title track bears this out, Ashcroft searching his soul for answers. “Give me your powder and your pills, I want to see if they cure my ills”, he sings, and they work for a short while – but by the end of the song he’s “too busy living a lie”. Even in the consonant guitar reveries of So It Goes there is little escape, the singer putting distance between him and the band as he propels himself to the front with bouts of self-analysis.
Never a shrinking violet, Ashcroft stayed largely within the band’s cavernous sound on A Storm In Heaven, where the grooves, bass and psychedelic guitar were alongside rather than underneath him. On A Northern Soul the shift in balance is telling; the emotion of songs like This Is Music courses through the words in a much more immediate sense. These feelings were implied on the former record, now they are dramatically conveyed.
Inevitably, History is the epic song that stands out from A Northern Soul. The front man’s vocal is wracked with pain and regret, unable to look to the future beyond recognising the fact the past is now being put to bed. The strings are tense, violins in their upper registers with a taut and unforgiving line. It is searing and beautiful, but also deeply uncomfortable – a kind of Unlucky Man, if you like.
As an epitaph to the band it would have been the ultimate statement, were they not to return with Urban Hymns two years later. There they upped the tempo ever so slightly and condensed their song structures, songs like Bittersweet Symphony signalling a more conscious move towards daytime radio and ultimately pop stardom. Ashcroft became the recognisable face of the band, whereas before he was a blur, a spectre.
Verve fans will of course be well aware of all these qualities from the first two albums, and while they will wish to enjoy the improved sound – thankfully not too clinical in its digital guise – they will inevitably head for the bonus material, of which there are copious amounts.
A Northern Soul’s extras consist of a disc each of B-sides and unreleased BBC and studio sessions. Normally there is a good reason for these recordings that lie unreleased, but in the main these selections continue the band’s relentless intensity. Let The Damage Begin sets the tone, a bruising and distorted encounter, but the mood does at least relent in the music for Little Gem, if not in Ashcroft’s pained vocal tones. There are no less than seven previously unheard tracks, including prototypes of The Rolling People and Come On, both destined for Urban Hymns, then the less convincing Mover and Muhammad Ali, headed for the second reunion record Forth.
These two albums constitute valuable documents, especially in their new deluxe cladding, with photos aplenty and solid packaging. They present strong reminders that The Verve were once four equals, they document their dark struggles, painful rows and massive excesses. They remain the definitive Verve albums – mean, moody and magnificent.
The Verve’s deluxe editions of A Northern Soul and A Storm In Heaven are out now through Virgin EMI. More on The Verve can be found here.