It’s safe to say that I’ve never exactly been what you might call an obsessive fan of The Verve. Even when they were just called Verve.
I first became aware of Wigan’s foremost exponents of The Evening Session-friendly prog rock-inflected big riffing and correspondingly big coats when All In The Mind was released as a single over the summer of 1992, and having already very firmly nailed my colours to Blur’s Ben Sherman-trimmed mast in the throes of that weird wilderness between the decline of ‘Madchester’ and the dawn of Britpop (as you can read much more about here), it’s fair to say that their admittedly mighty hard-rocking cosmic-straddling epic tendencies were not quite what I was looking for. She’s A Superstar, which followed shortly afterwards, seemed to serve only to confirm that having an eight minute song doesn’t automatically confer you the status of transcendental artistic powerhouse, it just means you’ve got an eight minute song. Meanwhile Gravity Grave – or as I hilariously insisted on calling it, Byker Grove – sounded exactly as I’d always suspected a song with a video made up of eighty thousand hours worth of footage of a car driving through a single frame of a Hovis advert might do.
In fairness I did try with The Verve, as it was still obvious even in slow motion videos that personal tastes aside, they were very evidently a good, capable and above all relatively original band, and in any case they could scarcely be accused of following the crowd. Lots of my friends with similar musical tastes rated them highly, and one in particular kept on sneaking songs from their debut album A Storm In Heaven onto compilation tapes that they made for me. I even sort of liked This Is Music and History, the big singles from second album A Northern Soul, but that ‘sort of’ qualification brings us around to the central issue. It was all just that bit too humourless, pretentious, pseudo-messianic and downright unrelentingly heavy for me, and if you consider that despite liking neither Country House nor Roll With It I was still unshakeably and vociferously Team Blur, then that should not really prove much of a surprise. Though frankly I’d listen to Gravity Grave on an unstoppable loop before I willingly agreed to listen to anything by Kula Shaker.
Then, just as those singles that I sort of liked were meandering around the charts and a breakthrough looked somewhat more than likely, The Verve broke up. So suddenly, in fact, that the whopping great ‘ALL FAREWELLS SHOULD BE SUDDEN’ on the cover of History looked like an equally whopping great understatement. There were rumours of a punch-up immediately prior to a live appearance on Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 1 show, but in more innocent and less rampantly speculative times there was nothing to indicate that they were going to throw in the towel so absolutely with so much set to happen, and they came and went so quickly that it was almost as if nobody noticed. This would actually work to their advantage when they equally quietly regrouped a short while later, and began work on the big comeback single that would finally make them household names in households that included mad fer it Oasis fans who didn’t mind it when they used them long words, teenage girls who were rapidly outgrowing The Spice Girls and furtively sampling Shine compilations on the HMV listening post, people you knew from school that you bumped into randomly on a night out who told you loudly that they were ‘into indie now’, and interns at The Ironic Review. Most significantly, though, this was the moment when I finally, briefly, connected with The Verve.
When I first heard Bitter Sweet Symphony on daytime Radio 1, I was in the middle of writing – by hand – a letter to a fanzine editor, and felt compelled to mention how much I’d liked it in the middle of another sentence entirely. The fact that this observation will have taken two days to have reached him, and that I had more than likely seen him in person in the interim, seems almost mindblowingly quaint now. That’s just one of many vivid memories associated with a record that I probably wouldn’t have expected to like but really, really did. Although it later became the subject of widespread mockery everywhere from a football single that wasn’t to an incoherent advert for low fat spread, the Bitter Sweet Symphony video, featuring Richard Ashcroft walking determinedly down a street in a straight line, stepping over car bonnets and past proto-hipsters, oblivious shoppers, a post-Britpop loungey woman with red hair who steals the entire scene with single askance ‘fuck are you doing, mate?’ glare, what appears to be Richard Herring from 2007, scarily authentic lairy London market geezers and somewhat less convincing finger-waggy over-reactors, was genuinely startling on first viewing and remains what most people think of first when they think of The Verve. I occasionally slipped The Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra’s arrangement of The Last Time – which inspired rather than was ‘sampled’ for the strings on Bitter Sweet Symphony; we’ll be coming back to that – into DJ sets, leading to a steady procession of blokes in big coats wanting to know the identity of this bangin’ choon and being drink-buyingly nice in return. There was also the time on the other side of the DJ booth when I ended up repeatedly clashing shoulders with a young woman with hairgrips in a comic imitation of the Bitter Sweet Symphony video – that’s how you had to do flirting in old money – and you don’t need to know the rest of that story other than that the night ended up being memorable for entirely different reasons when startling news reports started to filter through from Paris and one particular bored non-Monarchist who hadn’t quite grasped the full severity of events yet turned over to Paramount Comedy to watch Lancelot Link – Secret Chimp.
In the weird hazy woozy muted dense swathe of melancholy that clouded the second half of 1997, Bitter Sweet Symphony hung around like an unwanted cheerful interloper at a contest to see who could be the most emotionally overwrought and performatively offended, which somehow also involved an inflatable E.T. and/or ALF. It did not sit well alongside Candle In The Wind ’97, I Am In Love With The World or that thing Cliff Richard did, but The Verve had scored a national sobbing-aligned hit with The Drugs Don’t Work – sadly, the point at which they lost me again – and ensuing massive sales and truckloads of awards for the accompanying album Urban Hymns, so it was in common radio rotation whether the public mood liked it or not. They had to get through to those kids who weren’t really that bothered but kept on glugging down Virgin Cola and wondering when TFI Friday would stop being ‘sad’ and get back to normal again somehow; otherwise they might end up announcing “a song that I think says what we’re all feeling now – REM with Everybody Hurts“ and somehow managing to cue up Fall On Me instead. With the wonky tranquilised public mood dissuading even those who were in no great hurry to go along with it from doing anything but go along with it, a good deal of the post-party Britpop crowd finding solace in downtempo Trip-Hop and lounge-tinged Big Beat, and Chris Morris blurring out Blue Jam somewhere late at night on Radio 1, Bitter Sweet Symphony was as welcome a totem of something approaching normality as shouting on phone-ins about how we should buy the tabloids to punish the tabloids or something was the exact opposite to others.
Of course, the saga of Bitter Sweet Symphony didn’t end up quite so close to something approaching normality for The Verve themselves. As usual, the men behind desks in suits were already looking for ways to make even more money out of something that had already made them more than enough money, and – in one of the most shameful episodes in the entire history of copyright – the eager beaver legal types somehow concluded that following the original agreement over the string arrangement to the letter wasn’t actually sufficient and managed to wrestle the songwriting credits and associated earnings away from Richard Ashcroft and into the hands of Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, based on a loose orchestral interpretation of a loose orchestral interpretation of a song that they arguably had been a bit free and easy with the authorship of to begin with; have a listen to This May Be The Last Time by The Staple Singers if you’re in any doubt about that. Contrary to popular belief it isn’t actually true that Jagger, Richard or Oldham instigated or even welcomed the legal shenanigans – although in fairness they hardly covered themselves in glory with needless snippy bigheaded gloats about The Verve ‘stealing’ a song and not being able to write a good enough one themselves; remember that someone who didn’t even much like them still thought they were a pretty bloody good and original band – but it’s also not true that The Verve ‘sampled’ The Last Time without ‘permission’; not that it stops anyone from responding to you with a frowning emoji and a lower-case harrumph that they are sure they heard that somewhere once.
Although the rights have now reverted to The Verve – a turn of events that allowed Richard Ashcroft, for all of that messianic posturing that had put me off the band way back when they had one less ‘The’ in their name, to emerge as the bigger person with a statement that expressed gratitude, relief and, well, no bitterness, sweet or otherwise – the whole ridiculous state of affairs over Bitter Sweet Symphony only served to underline what a remarkable song it truly was, no matter what the authors of Pretty Beat Up might have had to say on the subject. It allowed a song about the underdog triumphing in the face of adversity to actually become an underdog if not triumphing then at least enduring in the face of adversity. Even now, the lyrics about being on your knees and needing to hear some sounds that recognise the pain in you, but still insisting on going down the only road you’ve ever been down, letting the melody shine and cleanse your mind to feel free, and – most significantly – defiantly insisting that it’s possible to be a million different people from one day to the next are as powerful, inspiring and uplifting as they were back when it felt as though the entire world apart from you had taken leave of its senses. All of this is even more pronounced on an absolutely gobsmacking demo of Bitter Sweet Symphony which sounds uncannily like the lone surviving acetate of a lost recording by one of those mid-sixties bands that did one ignored and later celebrated single before disappearing forever; not unlike, ironically enough, many of Andrew Loog Oldham’s one-time charges. Both of its time and timeless in more than one sense. It’s hardly surprising that it had so much unexpected resonance in a weirdly dislocated world where you didn’t feel you belonged but there didn’t seem to be an obvious path out of either. Although it’s probably advisable to make sure that when the path – or indeed the only road you’ve ever been down – presents itself, you don’t walk along it in a straight line and knock over an old lady’s tartan shopping trolley.
Sometimes, you’re just never going to get an artist’s work, no matter how hard you try, but sometimes one song is all they need. And all you need too.
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If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Please note this does not imply any legal liability for any coffee spilled as a consequence of an altercation with Richard Ashcroft.
Amongst Them Trevor The Sheep is a feature about the weird events surrounding the final episode of the first run of Chris Morris’ Blue Jam, which you can find here. I’m Meaner, I’m Leaner, I Ain’t No Inbetweener is another feature looking at the strange atmosphere that dominated the second half of 1997, which you can find here.
You can find the full version of THAT story about Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp in Looks Unfamiliar here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.