“Get back, get back again and again.”
My father taught me the route. Crossing the Peak District at a bone-shaking pace, in his 1980s classic Porsche 911. A gift to himself when he hit forty. Roaring over the Pennines, dodging sheep and nipping past Sunday drivers. Me trying to note down directions at over ninety. A two hour journey in half the time.
I had to learn the route by rote, a sequence of signposted place names, like album tracks: Congleton, Buxton, Grinlow, Blackwell, Miller’s Dale, Tideswell, Bradwell, Hathersage, Sheffield. Then in reverse: Sheffield, Hathersage, Bradwell, Tideswell, Miller’s Dale, Blackwell, Grinlow, Buxton, Congleton, home.
I’m no Jeremy Clarkson. I hated driving. The confines, the tedium, the traffic. But, like Clarkson and the rest of his deluded creed, I treated those trips through the Pennines as the embodiment of driving as self-determination.
I can't dispute that I had a comfortable upbringing. For the homesick undergraduate, the route ran an umbilical link from university to home. That first semester, from September to December, I drove it every weekend, often alone, in increasingly bleak weather, propelled by a fervid state of depressive introspection: escaping the fresher-pressure of forging new friendships, the emotional turmoil of being far from family, the absence of a significant other, etc ad nauseating teenage neurosis.
It was a notorious stretch of road. The winding route unforgiving and oppressively compressive, with steep sloping roads leading into hairpin bends, sheer drops unprotected by crash barriers, errant and untrustworthy sheep and oblivious elderly drivers. Often cut off by snow in winter, rain, fog, sleet and ice made for an atmospherically-charged, treacherous passage. Aside from the rural wildlife and dawdling drivers, slow moving artic lorries and tipper trucks also impeded my progress. After countless risky overtaking manoeuvres – with me spitting invective at the vehicle in front – its remarkable I only crashed only once.
Travelling with two friends, I missed the turn for Grinlow and got caught in traffic in Buxton. At a set of traffic lights, a car pulled up with two former schoolmates in the front seat. A grim coincidence. Back on the A54, they overtook me. With my friends’ piss-taking spurring me on, I sped to catch them. Midway between Buxton and Congleton I crashed into the barrier at the Rose and Crown Inn hairpin, and limped home with £300 worth of damage to my Fiesta. After that, I preferred driving alone.
I drove recklessly not simply because I was feeling low and didn’t give a fuck; but because behind that depressive urgency was impetuousness fuelled by impatience, driving by the possibility that something better was waiting around the bend; and, because, more often than not, because I was listening to The Verve.
“This is music.”
Urban Hymns, the band’s 1997 comeback, was released two weeks into my first semester at Sheffield University. Their resurrection that year came at the expense of Oasis, whose last album – the cocaine-impaired, hubristic and bombastic Be Here Now – had been released a few months earlier. Shortly after hearing Urban Hymns, I bought A Northern Soul (1995) and A Storm in Heaven (1992). And I didn’t listen to Be Here Now again for fifteen years.
The Verve were on heavy rotation in my car during those months, the grumbling tape recorder spooling tinny noise through chronically under-powered speakers. No doubt the band would have lamented the abysmal sound quality. It didn’t really matter anyway because – in my preferred state of driving solo, and when I wasn’t swearing at other drivers – I was usually bellowing out the lyrics at high volume.
The music unlocked a door inside me: it described a roadmap of the soul, the constellations of identity formation, the physical world blurring with the psychological. A nexus of journeyhood tropes course through The Verve’s music: from the opening lyric to debut single ‘All In the Mind’ (“So I got in the car”), to the roadmovie motifs of singles 'Gravity Grave' and 'Slide Away', the "slippery, slidy road" of 'Life's An Ocean', the “only road I’ve ever been down” of 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'.
A Northern Soul is the band's definitive album, by far their most coherent offering. The four-piece jettisoned the shoegaze psychedelia and English pastoralism of their debut in favour of the leather-clad, classic rockstar poses of The Stooges, The Doors, The Rolling Stones. This, of course, is an oversimplification – retrospectively it sounds more like prog-fusion, reflecting a misasma of influences loosely contained by the rhythm and blues rock structure (Led Zep, Funkadelic, Gram Parsons, Miles Davis, Can, even Oasis), while retaining the effects-laden, avant-garde soundscapes of their previous records.
As arriviste to The Verve’s oeuvre, I was a latecomer to the mythology surrounding A Northern Soul’s fraught recording: a succession of incidents apocryphal or too-absurd-to-be-false. Month-long benders, week-long jams, epic ecstasy comedowns, trashed recording studios and other self-destructive incidents tore the psychological fabric of the band. Back then, my younger self admired their commitment to experiential abandon. (My diligent, dutiful nature generally kept me on the straight and narrow, and out of the ditch. However, a decade-long enjoyment of smoking weed began in earnest during this period.)
Now in my thirties, I realise they were just kids getting fucked and fucking up. Despite the adolescent concerns of the lyrics, the maturity of the music is astonishing given their youth: an average age of 23 when recording the album.
All the more remarkable given singer Richard Ashcroft disappeared halfway through recording, as bassist Simon Jones recalled in a 1995 interview with Exclaim!: “Richard went on a sort of lost weekend when it all kicked off at home, and so we were writing all the music without him, and when he came back he was so blown away, cause all the lyrics he’d written fit so well with the music.” Ashcroft reiterated this in an interview for Detour magazine the same year: “I went off to London for about three months to sort some things out with my girlfriend at the time. Things didn’t go so well, and I got really fucked up for about two of those months, both physically and mentally. The strangest thing was that they were playing music that was precisely the way I was feeling”.
Now a critically respected album, it garnered some strong reviews, although not all were favourable. Reviewing the record for The Independent, Andy Gill decreed:
The Verve have, on this showing, appropriated the worst aspects of both the progressive guitar rock that is their clearest historical precedent, and the baggy scene that was current at their inception: sluggish and preposterously self-indulgent, their music slops around like a heavy listing boat, pitching the listener into the inky blackness of their retro-rock abyss. It’s like swimming in aspic, with no view of shore.
It was a not untypically scathing response to an album dogged my difficulty – from inception to delivery – and possibly hastened the band’s demise. The last single taken from the album, ‘History’, made a valedictory benediction: its turbulent, emotionally-overwrought symbolism transgressed the doomed love of the lyrics, and became the final convulsive act in the messy dissolution of the mercurial band. A further quirk of history: the cover of the single, a Michael Spencer Jones’ photograph of the four band members sat outside a Times Square theatre below a quote by Byron: ‘All Farewells Should Be Sudden’. It reinforced the belief, and fed a myth that even the subsequent reunion two years later failed to dispel: this was the end of The Verve as a unit.
“A New Decade.”
My obsession with the album was equal parts cerebral and instinctual: the cacophonic pulse of their compositions, the delicate patterning and driving squall of Nick McCabe’s swirling guitars, the low slung grooves of Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury, the metaphysical allusions of Richard Ashcroft’s lyrics. Rock n’ roll as raw despair. With its brooding basslines, sharp guitars and bleak lyrics, A Northern Soul positions the listener within a howling threnody of existential angst, supplemented by moments of bruised, elegiac tenderness. Sonically, it’s the decentered sound of a band slowly submitting to the destabilising centrifugal forces encircling it.
The album’s aural rawness came from Owen Morris’ spare production, which attempted to faithfully document the unpolished acoustics of their rehearsal space. Speaking to The Guitar Magazine in 1995, Morris recalled “My task was to capture, basically, the sound of them playing together…Usually, the version you’re hearing is the first playback, just the monitor mix on the DAT with no overdubs – not even vocals”. Morris had already heroically pared back Noel Gallagher’s overladen original cut to Definitely Maybe. Recording The Verve’s album, however, brought other challenges.
Lyrically, according to Ashcroft, “the whole album is about me asking myself, ‘who the fuck am I?’”, a perspective indebted to Sartrean existentialism: existence precedes essence. Sartre wrote: “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards”. This self-definition first takes the form of nihilistic despair and latterly a rebellion against the structures governing consciousness – or, to borrow from Albert Camus’ reworking of the Cartesian mind-body split, “I rebel, therefore I exist”.
Here was European existentialism bled into English exceptionalism, capped by an intertextual gesture towards the Orwellian desolation of The Road To Wigan Pier and The Smiths’ odes of thwarted love. Each track effects a narration in dialogue with the others. Album opener 'A New Decade' straddles self-affirmation (“And I will never suffer / So come on, come on, come on”) and self-desolation (“But now I see my face in a cardboard wall / nobody comes, nobody calls”), before lapsing into elliptical Lacanian mirroring ("If you're looking for me / Then I'll be looking for you"). The bruised beauty of 'On Your Own' intercedes, issuing its plaintive call for affective renewal ("All I want is someone / who can fill the hole / in the life I know"). For 'So It Goes' Ashcroft channels the throat-thraping vocals of a post-primal-scream-therapy John Lennon: “life” he wails, his voice at near-collapse, “this is my life”. ‘A Northern Soul’ lodges a terrified cri de coeur against the soul’s mortality: “I’m going to die alone in bed / I’m gonna die alone in bed / I’m gonna die alone in bed”.
In the burnished lustre of track seven, ‘Drive You Home’ – the true masterpiece of the album – Ashcroft’s heartbroken narrator survey’s the futile, frustrated or cyclically repetitious nature of existence: “We came back to the same place / We didn’t speak, just danced in our minds / Oh lover I know this ain’t what it should be / But let me take you home / I’ll show you what you should see / I was gonna drive you home / I was gonna tell you who I wanted”. This other to whom Ashcroft attempts to affect rapprochement with – another one of life’s passengers is unreachable, unreadable, ever-absent.
The non sequitur-driven specificity of ‘Drive You Home’ sets up perfectly the segues into the orchestral overture and Blakean visions of ‘History’. The track opens with a series of declamatory universalisms (“In every man / In every hand / In every kiss / You understand”) which yield to the desperate imprecations of a lover seeking reconciliation with that elusive other: “But you are me and so am I / Let’s pick it up, let’s even try / To live today. So why not smile? / Don’t dream away your life / ‘Cause it is mine”. ‘History’ closes in an impressionistic mode of incantatory, drug-addled desolation (“This life is mine / But the bed ain’t made / It’s filled full of hope / I’ve got a skin full of dope”).
The album’s closer, ‘Stormy Clouds’, culminates in a reverberation between the interiority and exteriority, where turmoil and tumult negotiate with intimations of renewal, resolutions to make things new, do things differently next time: “The heavens break, I am walking tall / How come change always seems to bring the rain? / And through it all I feel no pain / Stormy clouds, new horizons”. Hope and despair, the unbridgeable, unbreakable binary connection, surrendering to a noncommittal murmur: 'come and get it / if you want to'.
As I drove towards a deepening winter, the grinding tape always ran out partway through the album's coda, ‘Reprise’, leaving only the hum of the engine and the road rumbling underneath the car’s fragile chassis, before the tape clicked over, and the strings to 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' kicked into life.
“Stormy clouds, new horizons”
I played the album so much in that concentrated period of time that for almost twenty years I couldn’t listen to it anymore. Their post-Urban Hymns split in 1997, underwhelming reunion in 2008 and subsequent split was a bitter disappointment. There was something unreal, too polished, about the reunion anyway: in the highly polished digitised band portraits they all looked photoshopped together. The angst-ridden youthful looks replaced by grumpy men with paunches. Now Messrs McCabe and Jones have formed a new band, Black Submarine,the dream looks well and truly over.
Richard Ashcroft’s post-Verve media reputation as a sham Shaman and washed-up Britpop relic irks me. Of course, we hope that he will put a new record out which will obliterate all memory of the last (the RPA and the United Nations of Sound debacle), defy all critical expectation and become a defining record of the decade. But I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen. Because we've moved on, and he’s already done all he needed to do. Bands always make their best music when young, hungry and fearless. Take one of those away, the rot sets in pretty rapidly.
I saw Richard Ashcroft once in Richmond, not long after I moved to London, with Kate Radley and his children. He was carrying Sonny on his shoulders. I almost said hello, but bottled it. By then, I wasn’t really listening to The Verve anymore.
And yet: one of the most euphoric moments of my life occurred at a David Axelrod concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004. Drunk following a messy split with a girl, and having accused a couple of hiding my bottle of wine, I noticed a familiar figure shambling on the stage for a performance of ‘Holy Are You’. “It's Richard fucking Ashcroft” I yelled, and ran to the front. I’ve never been as elated at a gig. (And that includes Glastonbury in 2000, where I saw David Bowie, Elliott Smith and Cyprus Hill call the crowd “a bunch of fucking pigs”).
Playing A Northern Soul now always returns me to those twisting roads up in the Peaks. The road rising to a higher elevation, windswept, winding and wild. Plateaus where, if you’re lucky, you can get up to eighty and overtake the sluggish trucks. Drop into second gear to pass two retirees admiring the view. Sprint in third to beat a set of traffic lights. Cement wagon blindly lurches out of a T-junction around the next bend; delight when you pass it at the next straight. Tussocky grass tousled in the wind. The white surf of snowdrifts outside Buxton. Crows clawing at a cat on a low stone wall. A radio mast, messianic and totemistic. Trees swaying like acid casualties. Landscape opening up in shifting planes of perspective, hills and valleys, farms and fields, rivers and roads, flashing by. One eye on the speedometer, another on the road ahead, ears tuned to the music on the revolving tape: “This is the tale of a northern soul / looking to find his way back home”.