1997 was a year of snapshots, moments in particular days never to be forgotten. We’re not talking about the grossly over-hyped arrival of Oasis’ Be Here Now album either, despite the date of its arrival (21 August) being imprinted on both the front cover of the album and in memories, although many of us were amongst the 350,000 tempted into buying the fractious Mancunians’ third studio LP on its day of release. Ten days later, the real ‘moment’ arrived. Reports began to surface of an early morning car crash in Paris involving probably the most popular person in Britain at the time – arguably of all time – ‘England’s Rose’, Princess Diana. As a nation awoke on that tragic Sunday morning and switched on TVs expecting some light, lazy morning relief, instead pictures of the unravelling story flashed before our eyes, recounting an event that would rival in popular memory such history defining moments as the assassination of President John F Kennedy in November 1963 and the World Trade Center terror attacks in September 2001. When Diana’s death in hospital was later confirmed, the nation seemed to enter a collective level of mourning never before seen.
Somewhat overshadowed as time went by, other major events of the year dwindled in comparison. A landslide victory in the General Election for Tony Blair’s New Labour over John Major’s Conservative Party was a massive political turning point. Channel 5 was launched – a seemingly irrelevant piece of news in light of today’s multi-channel hopping possibilities, but at the time it was big news. Hong Kong was handed over to China after having been a British colony for over 150 years. In music, Katrina And The Waves overcame the usual political bias which continually taints the competition to become the first UK winners of the Eurovision Song Contest since Bucks Fizz in 1981, whilst the later-to-be-knighted Elton John’s eyebrow-raising re-recording of Candle In The Wind for Diana’s funeral would go on to become the second biggest selling single of all time. The Spice Girls were breaking all sorts of records as Girl Power ran amok, their three singles of 1997 ensuring their first six single releases all topped the UK chart. Britpop was also larger than life as too many bands were lazily lumped into the pigeonhole creating a far bigger phenomenon than was probably justified. Sparring partners Oasis and Blur both released albums that year, but the core Britpop bands were more in the mould of Sleeper, Elastica, Menswear and Dodgy. There outsider success stories too, headlined by Suede and Pulp. And the music world had mourning of its own to do after INXS frontman Michael Hutchence was found dead in a Sydney hotel room.
Ploughing their own furrow was The Verve, a Wigan outfit formed in 1990. Fronted by Richard Ashcroft, a singer who seemed to perfectly fit the bill with his moody persona, long dark hair, penchant for sunglasses, chiselled looks and incredible voice, Verve (known at first without the definitive prefix) were signed to Hut Records in 1991, a wholly owned subsidiary of Virgin Records. Although each member of the original quartet earned their keep, their sound was overwhelmingly defined by guitarist Nick McCabe, his dreamy wah-wah waves of blissful, psychedelic guitar colouring the soundscape that would have been average without it.
The four young friends (the line-up completed by bassist Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury) had dreamt of leaving behind their bleak Northern lives for years but for them to achieve the levels of success they eventually found had to be totally unexpected. A debut album – A Storm In Heaven – was released in 1993, the only album before their name change saw the addition of, er, the The. Revisited last year in deserved depth along with its follow-up A Northern Soul, the debut in particular found itself awash in McCabe’s magical guitar tones, setting their stall out early and finding an audience through those hungry for mind-inducement of the sonic variety.
But all was not well within the camp and it hadn’t been for some time. As McCabe has recently revealed, there was no particular ill-feeling and ongoing fighting raging throughout the band, contrary to belief. The fragility of the band was deeper than personal animosity, built on unresolved issues and the individual members’ inability to communicate – they didn’t like to talk about anything confrontational and that simmering, pushing away of words that needed to be said was the real reason why The Verve are not still a force today.
In 1996, recording for a third album began but McCabe had since been sacked, with Simon Tong replacing him on guitar. From October, the band began fleshing out their songs at Olympic Studios, London, with production on the new album undertaken by Youth (Killing Joke bassist Martin Glover). When Ashcroft realised McCabe’s inimitable style was required, he was re-hired in January 1997, immediately hearing what he had to do to make the songs “come alive”. Youth exited, replaced by Chris Potter, and tracks were subsequently re-recorded, and with McCabe’s additional guitar magic in the mix – Tong was retained, the band becoming a five-piece – the album started to come together in stunning fashion as the band suddenly found themselves bigger, better and more grandiose.
Released on 29 September 1997 to notable critical acclaim, Urban Hymns swiftly became The Verve’s pinnacle and found itself doing battle with several other big albums of the year for Best Album awards. Stereophonics’ debut Word Gets Around, The Boatman’s Call from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Charlatans’ Tellin’ Stories and Prodigy’s The Fat Of The Land were all magnificent albums of 1997 but all – Urban Hymns aside – were being blown away by Radiohead’s epic OK Computer, another to enjoy a recent revisit. And that simple fact highlights the power that Urban Hymns wielded.
Spawning four singles – Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Drugs Don’t Work, Lucky Man and Sonnet – the album managed to blend acoustic guitar with McCabe’s wonderfully psychedelic mastery for three of the four singles in a way that had rarely been done as successfully before. Whilst they all stand up in their own right, the strength of Urban Hymns was in its psychedelic depth and The Drugs Don’t Work and Sonnet in particular feel out of place with hindsight, despite their huge mainstream popularity; in an ideal world, we would probably be talking about these two numbers as stunning B-sides or stand alone singles rather than part of a psychedelic masterpiece.
The sheer quality of Urban Hymns puts most other albums to shame, containing 13 essential tracks with no filler. Aside from the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards lawsuit resulting Bitter Sweet Symphony, the singles all boasted this acoustic/electric guitar mix in abundance, but much of the remaining album delves deeper into the psychedelic in tremendous fashion. At a running time of 75 minutes, the album was an epic, anthemic wonder, with the record-buying public agreeing in droves, sales eventually topping 10 million worldwide.
To celebrate the success of a truly monumental rock album, Universal are giving Urban Hymns a similar revamp to its two predecessors: a 5 CD plus 1 DVD re-issue and another whopping six LP release for vinyl enthusiasts with additional goodies including a 56-page book, poster and postcards.
Concentrating on the CD release, first up you get a remastered version of the original album which has never sounded better. CDs 2 and 3 then focus on B-sides, session tracks and a BBC Evening Session from August 1997. Although – aside from the BBC Evening Session – everything here has been previously released, there are plenty of treasures for those that overlooked the single releases from the time. A James Lavelle remix of Bitter Sweet Symphony omits the famous strings until halfway through, too much of a massive omission for most, although the additional beat of the track soon becomes addictive. Echo Bass plays to the psychedelic strengths of the band leaving you to wonder how the hell it didn’t make the original album in the first place, as does the superb Three Steps, whilst more psychedelic joy awaits newcomers in the shape of Stamped.
With these three tracks being of such outstanding quality, it adds further to the belief that perhaps singles two, three and also four (Lucky Man) would have been better off excluded from Urban Hymns. Faring better than the James Lavelle remix, an extended version of Bitter Sweet Symphony also appears on CD3 which is a far more interesting version in line with the original for those that prefer their extended versions to remain more loyal to the core song. The previously unreleased BBC Evening Session consists of entirely acoustic versions with just a peppering of McCabe’s signature tones, which may not appeal to many.
Moving on to CDs 4 and 5, where all tracks are previously unreleased, a full live performance of the homecoming Haigh Hall in Wigan gig in May 1998 is included. Taken from the Urban Hymns Tour, the entire album is represented apart from This Time. In addition, the gig also included performances of This Is Music, Life’s An Ocean and History from 1995’s A Northern Soul. You almost immediately appreciate how Ashcroft’s vocals find themselves so much better suited to the anthemic crescendos of The Verve’s songbook rather than lower, quieter moments such as those contained within Space And Time, where he appears to be slightly struggling for those lower key moments at only the second track in. Lucky Man will also disappoint some, largely lacking those vital guitar solo touches from McCabe.
The whole performance at Haigh Hall was broadcast live by the BBC, and despite Ashcroft announcing this before The Rolling People starts, stating that there was no swearing allowed, he then rebelliously shouts “big assed mother fucker” before the band launch into the number – sure to have gone down well with BBC bosses, that. The gig spreads on to CD5 too, with the three-song encore followed by 12 other live cuts taken from three shows, namely at Washington DC’s 9.30 Club and Brixton and Manchester Academies between 1997 and 1998. There is a far better representation of non-Urban Hymns tracks to be found here, with A Northern Soul providing six of the 12 tracks and the brilliant Slide Away – a surprising setlist omission from most of their 2007 comeback tour – taken from A Storm In Heaven, whilst there is also room for the very early A Man Called Sun that appeared on the band’s debut EP from 1992.
The Haigh Hall gig also appears in its entirety on the DVD, along with The Video 1996-1998, a documentary originally released as HUTVID1, plus five promo videos and four tracks from Later With Jools Holland from November 1997. Quite why they felt a need to include both the DVD of the Haigh Hall gig as well as just an audio CD is a little perplexing. For those less wealthy amongst us, you can settle instead for a two CD version – the original album (remastered, as with all formats) plus the live performance at Haigh Hall although a better choice for the second CD would perhaps have been the B-sides.
Soon after the release of Urban Hymns – towards the end of 1998 to be precise – McCabe once again departed the band after Ashcroft hurled a bottle at him following a gig, the band’s lack of communicative skills probably being to blame once more. It would be almost a decade before differences were put aside, aided in the main by a rumoured £5m a man offer to reunite the band being too good to turn down. The reunion would result in a single further album, Forth, although it was received with mixed views. The ensuing tour, however, was like an epiphany for those that had missed their live performances the first time round, with their two Roundhouse performances in November 2007 being of particular note although according to McCabe an argument following one of these shows would be the final nail in the band’s coffin.
Whether or not differences can be put aside yet again remains to be seen, although it’s highly unlikely. One thing is for sure, though, and that is that should any reformation ever take place (again) then Urban Hymns will not be challenged by any new material. Amongst their back catalogue it is without a peer, standing like Everest amongst the Mahalangur Range, an album that marked an era for many and one that defined many lives. Unfortunately, the album’s legacy remains its singles and with The Drugs Don’t Work and Sonnet being afforded maximum excessive airplay over the years, the true quality Urban Hymns contains is clouded. But peel back the layers and discover just why it was that so many fell in love with this album in the first place.
The Verve’s Urban Hymns (20th Anniversary) is out now through UMC.