Remembering The Verve's Urban Hymns, 20 years on
British band The Verve didn’t exist at the end of 1996. Frontman Richard Ashcroft had disbanded the group after the release of their second album, 1995’s A Northern Soul.
At the time, it seemed as if the band were going out on a high. The album featured ‘History’, their biggest single to date, which hit number 24 on the UK charts.
It's what I've always wanted. I've always wanted the music to be universal rather than just some elitist club.Richard Ashcroft — triple j, 1998
By the end of 1997, the band could have scoffed at number 24.
That year, the band reformed, made their third album Urban Hymns, and cemented a place in the annals of rock’n’roll thanks to chart topping singles like ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Sonnet’.
“I'm buzzing,” frontman Richard Ashcroft told triple j’s Michael Tunn in 1998.
“It's what I've always wanted. I've always wanted the music to be universal rather than just some elitist club and it seems like now different parts of the world are getting off on it, which is great.
“It's been a time where a lot of early dreams have been realised. And a time of adjustment as well, to a new way of life and new way of people treating you as a person.”
Ashcroft remained positive about success, though conceded it wasn’t all glory.
“The way the music's been accepted across the world has been amazing. Obviously it has its drawbacks but you have to move on and get better.”
Those drawbacks were largely to do with the media attention that came with having such a massive record.
"Some days you might want to be a voyeur, but instead of being a voyeur, you're the one in the goldfish bowl," he said.
“I went for a quiet holiday. I took my wife [Spiritualized keyboardist Kate Radley] to Rome for her birthday and that turned out to be a bit of a nightmare.
"We're not a showbizy kind of band, we don't play the game where everyone else goes to specific parties to have their photograph taken, which sells magazines, that whole kind of game we're not really part of."
They weren’t a part of that game because Ashcroft saw his role as a musician and nothing more. He put his heart into his songs and he reckons that’s where it all ought to end.
“We've only done about 11 interviews since we came back from non-existence,” Ashcroft said. “There's a lot of bands who'd be milking this situation to the full, but with The Verve, less is more. You give so much away with the music, why give anything else?
“My job stops after I've given something emotional, something that means something to me, something with soul, something that can uplift people for the rest of their lives - that's enough as far as I'm concerned.”
One of the biggest songs from Urban Hymns was ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, which Ashcroft admitted had been taken entirely out of context.
“As far as it being a total anti-drug song, I'm actually rolling a spliff as I'm speaking to you now,” he said. “I can't stand the idea of any kind of artist giving me a speech, giving me a few words to sum up the whole drugs issue.
“It was a personal song that people have adopted for whatever reason to fit into these times. People want music to reflect their times, the great music of any era did reflect the times.
"I've been through certain situations before and I think that's why the song arose. If people latch onto that and feel something from the song and they've been through similar experiences, that's what it's all about.
“As far as these songs being odes to a generation, that's a different ballgame completely. They're just personal songs.”
Famously, The Verve never saw a cent of the royalties from their most iconic song, the omnipresent ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.
A four-bar sample of an orchestral recording of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ provided the famous motif that runs throughout the song. After a protracted legal dispute, the band lost all royalties.
Ashcroft wasn’t happy about it, but he said that it was about more than the money.
“The money issue, I mean obviously if it was falling into the hands of starving children I would've been a lot happier, [but] it's fallen into the hands of Allen Klein,” he said, referencing the music publisher who took the band to court.
“The issue was the amount of work that had gone on from the sample to create and make it into this incredible piece of music, from something which quite honestly is a piece of schmaltz as far as I'm concerned.
“Looking back, it was a perfect piece of pop art in a sense. Something that a band like KLF would have dreamt of being able to pull off.”
The Verve's Urban Hymns celebrates its 20th anniversary on 29 September, 2017