The Verve

Posted: February 24th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

The Skinny on Art, Fame and Nike Ads

Background note: Favorite band of the ’90s. First ever cover story. A little lengthy, but I think it still holds up (does any music mag run 5000-word features these days?). Classic cover photo and interior shots by the incomparable Ms. Heidie Lee Locke. Still love this group.

“For me to sit here and analyze my whole fuckin’ life is just… I made a great record; I don’t need a lot of fuckin’ shrinks with tape recorders. Do you know what I mean?”

He’s not here to have his head examined, but under different circumstances, the man at the window might seem paranoid. He speaks of clearing up “misinformation.” He describes himself as a voyeur who’s become the spectacle. He senses people projecting their unfulfilled desires onto him. He also exhibits an unsettling intensity when describing these lucid insights.

But you’re in England, and the man scanning the street below this bare dressing room is Richard Ashcroft, currently the singer of the biggest rock group in this compact country. Millions do watch and listen to him quite closely these days.

Imagine selling 1.5 million albums in a country the size of Florida. One in 30 people own your album, and many more than that have seen the video in which you aggressively push down a sidewalk looking undernourished and possibly possessed. As you perceive it, many people for whom TV is more real than reality feel as if they’re part of some ongoing video clip when they encounter you on the street. You venture out for an Italian dinner with your wife, and 25 Portuguese students sing your hits back at you. To top it off, journalists in your native country think nothing of sifting the garbage of royalty. Imagine what they can find on a man who’s lived a life informed by rock’s greats.

You’ve caught Ashcroft at an interesting juncture in his career. After nearly eight years of successful music making, the singer has achieved fame and now has to deal with the consequences. On the upside, he’s staged the comeback of the decade. After pulling the plug on his critically acclaimed but average-selling band, in 1995, he relaunched the Verve, in 1997, with the chart-topping Urban Hymns and its majestic single, “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

The British music industry has recognized the Verve’s achievement by nominating the band for four Brit Awards. The Grammy-like celebration will be held tomorrow night, but Ashcroft and his bandmates—guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones, drummer Pete Salisbury and keyboardist Simon Tong— plan to celebrate the event by performing a benefit for the homeless at Brixton Academy. As a grudging nod to the ceremonies, the band will beam out a performance of their latest single, “Lucky Man,” and focus attention on a charity to “bring a sense of worth into a situation that is completely plastic,” according to Ashcroft.

There are, of course, worse aspects of fame than superficial awards shows. This morning, for instance, Ashcroft awoke to discover that a former girlfriend had sold her story to a tabloid (“Why I Dumped Rock’s Hottest Property!” teased the headline). She’s not alone on stirring up this apparently sluggish news year in England. Former schoolmates have also come out of the woodwork and spoken with the press (Ashcroft went by the nickname “Jesus,” according to one such authority). The press also prey’s on Ashcroft’s wife, Spiritualized keyboardist Kate Radley.

Until recently, journalists were content to create a soap opera out of Ashcroft and Radley’s relationship, and Radley’s former involvement with Spiritualized leader Jason Pierce. When they discovered only recently that Ashcroft and Radley have actually been married since 1995, they turned speculation to Radley’s alleged “mystery illness,” which they claim has kept her from touring with Spiritualized.

This background explains Ashcroft’s agitated state and guarded demeanor, but it’s not the reason he’s granted an interview. While not nearly the phenomenon it is in England, Urban Hymns has caught on in the States. Recently certified gold, the album is nesting higher than even Barbra Streisand’s Higher Ground on the Billboard album charts.

Though amused by the statistic, Ashcroft is more concerned with America’s perception of his band. Through an odd series of events somehow typical of the Verve’s history, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” currently scores a U.S. Nike TV ad. It nags the singer that Americans may not be aware of his band’s uncompromising dedication to The Music.

When Ashcroft tries to place his band’s success in historical context, he asks you to imagine what would have happened if the Velvet Underground, Can or Big Star had achieved commercial acceptance during their career spans. He doesn’t mind that his music can now be heard over fast-food-restaurant sound systems throughout America. “So much of my favorite music was never heard or enjoyed at the time the [musicians] were alive, and it would have done them good,” he notes. “It would have done people good having that music filling those [public] spaces.”

Seemingly oblivious to our ugly blue surroundings, Ashcroft takes a seat in one of the three chairs that serve as the dressing room’s only furnishings. For the next two hours, with few moments of relief, he will stare at either his interviewer or the cassette recorder while clearing up misconceptions about the Verve and articulating the ways in which he will sidestep the pitfalls of the music biz.

He wrote a song called “The Drugs Don’t Work,” but he’s making a habit of just saying no to “the periphery,” as he calls it, of music making. “Any of the sensitive fuckers who were making great music through the ages have been burnt out,” he says. “And I’ve seen it over the last few months and witnessed what it can be like when something escalates.”

Ashcroft draws a Marlboro Light from the pocket of his black nylon windbreaker. During the interview, he smokes on only two occasions—when he’s inhaling and when he’s exhaling. It’s an impressive feat that underscores his intensity, as when he gets on a roll explaining his objective approach to fame.

“It’s an experiment in humanity and how people are toward you, and how prepared you are to be a monkey. And how prepared you are to be treated like a lottery winner. That’s the other syndrome that comes down—you’re a fucking lottery winner. Success.” He spits out the word with a bemused look on his face. “So you’re a dancing monkey and a lottery winner—you’ve got to keep that smile on your face ‘cause you’re successful. 
Everyone’s concept of success is completely distorted, as well. Everyone’s concept of success is [the number of zeros] on sales [figures]. And that’s not where we come from, either.

“Success was the moment we did it, as far as the music’s concerned, or if we got anywhere near where we were planning to be. That’s success. Success is being able to make a record. He reclines in the chair, stretches his legs and—seemingly more relaxed—dovetails the concept to include the simple things in life. “Success is a cup of tea or… a cigarette.” He pulls on his cigarette and lingers on the moment to illustrate. “Or a great song.”

Ashcroft doesn’t miss the irony, then, that he was relieved of compensation for writing perhaps his greatest song yet. But that doesn’t mean he’s at peace with the situation. The singer first became aware that he didn’t own the publishing to and wouldn’t receive writing credit for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” shortly before he was, as he describes, “throwing things around the room, screaming at people.”

At a second-hand shop in Manchester, Ashcroft had picked up an orchestral album of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards tunes arranged by the Rolling Stones’ original manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. Ashcroft sampled and looped a string section from Oldham’s version of “The Last Time” and used it as a foundation for “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” Shortly before the single’s release, he learned the song’s copyright belonged to ABKCO, a company owned by the Stones’ second manager, Allen Klein.

Rock history books remember Klein for his dubious business practices involving the acquisition of copyrights to the Stones’ early catalog, as well as the Beatles’. A classic photo pictures the rotund man brandishing not a double- but a quadruple-barreled shotgun. 
According to a no-longer-relaxed Ashcroft, ABKCO is “dealing with a band they shouldn’t be fuckin’ messing with because they will suffer the consequences.”

Whatever the karmic retribution, the legal wrangle has led to the song’s inclusion in Nike’s “I Can” ad campaign. “Once you get the advertising world and the music industry working together, that’s a whole lot of fucking dirt in one place,” says Ashcroft, who’s donated the band’s earnings from the ad to charity. “The only problem for me is the fact that we don’t have power over the track, and that it can be bastardized and used all over the world for anything. But you’ve got to move on, and you’ve got to see it as a product of our times, that no one has any respect for anything anyone makes or does.”

The song’s lyrical content only contributes to the irony. “Within the song it talks about greed,” says Ashcroft. “It talks about whether we are genetically capable of escaping our little traits that we’ve picked up from our generations.”

According to Bob Wood, Nike’s VP of U.S. Marketing, the “I Can” slogan “reflects… feeling good about participating and setting personal goals.” It doesn’t take a marketing degree, however, to explain why the Nike ad splices the track before the lyric, “You’re a slave to money, then you die.”

The commercial’s use of the song deeply concerns Ashcroft because he doesn’t want the Verve perceived as sellouts. “It demeans our name in America because you will never find another piece of music that I’ve had anything to do with appearing in the advertising world,” he says, before concluding that you have to view the events through “Peter Sellers’ eyes” and recognize the “lunacy” of the situation. “At the end of the day, people die and people get ill; and obviously on personal terms it isn’t as bad as other things that have gone on in my life.”

Though it had nothing to do with his music, Ashcroft has previously flirted with the advertising world. Before you hear the details, consider a context the singer might endorse. After Lou Reed left the Velvet Underground and before he transformed himself into a solo act, he typed and filed for his father’s accounting firm, on Long Island. When Big Star’s Alex Chilton was drying out from his initial experiences with the music industry, he washed dishes in a Memphis restaurant. In 1996, with the Verve dissolved and Ashcroft struggling to recapture the vibe in various studios, the singer flew to New York and earned a few thousand dollars posing for a Mossimo print ad, in a sheer black shirt.

In Ashcroft’s estimation, his hour of work as a meat puppet was no less demeaning to his art than Reed’s stint as a typist or Chilton’s as a dishwasher. “I was absolutely [broke] and desperately needed some money,” he explains. “It was a case of down and out—you’ve gotta do something when you’re down and out. Everyone has sold to the fucking devil at one point in their life.”

For Ashcroft, the ad was his final sale. He no longer bends when it comes to his career. Lately, he’s referenced Led Zeppelin as an inspiration. It’s not only the power of their music he appreciates, but also the way in which Zeppelin allowed their albums to speak for themselves—no singles released; few interviews granted. The Verve have adopted a similarly uncompromising stance toward standard industry practices. They don’t do after-show meets-and-greets; they won’t tour to the point of burnout; and, in the future, they’ll grant few, if any, interviews.

It’s all part of Ashcroft’s plan to keep the muse engaged while restoring dignity to his profession. “Bands are made to feel so afraid that if they don’t hit it early they won’t have a career; they are prepared to do anything the record company tells them to do,” he says. “The power is in the wrong place, and I think that’s half the battle—trying to slap people out of this fucking coma and say the power’s back in with the people who make the music. “When we’ve been through the system and been spat out, our record company’s going to change. And once someone signs a band who’s seen how we’ve done it, hopefully that will be a blueprint for how bands should be treated as far as space and creativity are concerned.”

He can’t say he didn’t see it coming. Although Ashcroft has always advanced a vision of his band’s success, that vision became manifest when he filmed the video for “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” With a powerful new management team in Big Life, the full support of Virgin and what he terms a “seminal piece of music” as the first single, Ashcroft was well aware the clip would find an audience.

Over two days of filming with director Walter Stern, in the east end of London, the singer had ample time to ponder the transition he was about to make. What else is there to do while you’re walking down the street all day? 
”Some days I find it hard walking through the streets, anyway,” he says. “So what was going to happen when [the video] was beamed around the world and everyone who was within eyeshot was taking part in a video if they’d seen it? Do you know what I mean?” he says, laughing. “Everyone I look to as I’m coming across in their heads [now] is part of some video they’ve seen.”

Among the flash-cut videos on MTV, the simplicity of the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” clip was a concept that anyone, in any country, could relate to: a man walking down the street singing—and shoving grandmothers and baby strollers aside. Without exception, the video provokes a response. Some viewers despise it because it reminds them of the rude bastards on crowded streets. Others feel empowered. Almost everyone who’s seen the video, however, comments on Ashcroft’s twiggy frame, the suitcases beneath the eyes, and wonders… “Is he on smack or something?” completes Ashcroft, rolling his eyes.

He’s heard the question before, and though he’s no stranger to drugs, he finds the assumption that he’s a junkie ridiculous. “[People’s perceptions are] beyond my control,” he says, before offering his interpretation of the video performance. “To me, it’s a very one-dimensional image. Everyone wants to be [Taxi Driver anti-hero] Travis Bickle for one day of their life, and I probably just got two days to be Travis Bickle. Which was quite an intense, enjoyable experience.”

Ashcroft is aware that many people can’t separate TV from reality. It provides yet another reason the Verve are pulling back from the spotlight. As with fame, he chooses to observe people’s reactions to his image as an almost Jungian psychological experiment. “A lot of the time the musician or artist builds an image, and they’re very afraid of what they’ve built,” he notes. “You can build monsters.

“That’s why the ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ video was almost like creating a monster. You get so many uninvited guests into your life—these brief moments where some guy might have been outside the venue every single time you’ve played a gig, and you can’t quite work out what the fuck he’s looking for. These brief flashes of people—they’re things that can stay in your head for the rest of your life. 
Seeing the way people can project an image onto you or make something out of you that they cannot fulfill themselves is a thing people have used and abused in pop music for fuckin’ years. It’s very good to get away from that.”

The Verve’s hometown is a place “neither her nor there,” according to Ashcroft. If you ever have occasion to make it up to Wigan, three hours north of London by train, he suggests you sample a meat-and-potato pie, go for a pint and—if you follow his lead—leave the first chance you get. 
Wigan had a “massive influence” on the Verve, he claims, but it was the town’s limited opportunities that truly inspired the young band. “If I hadn’t made the decision to be in a band, looking back on what was on offer in that town, it’s a quite frightening prospect.”

In fact, cleaning toilets at a local community center was the singer’s first—and last—real job before he had an epiphany on Ash’s Beacon, a bluff overlooking Wigan. “Stood on the top of the hill over my town; I was found,” Ashcroft sang on A Northern Soul’s “This Is Music.” In 1993, he described the moment in more detail: “I thought to myself that out of those millions of lights [in the town below], not one of them know me, and we’re just fucking rotting away on [unemployment] doing nothing. That was the first spark. After that, all Simon [Jones] and I had to do was place a couple of phone calls to our old school friends [Salisbury and McCabe] and set up a few crap jam sessions, and we had a band.”

Those jam sessions were the litmus test for the space-rock chemistry that organically combined the bands’ influences with an otherworldly energy. Drummer Salisbury provided Can-influenced grooves; bassist Jones brought in the dark dubby bass lines; and guitarist McCabe tastefully delivered Hendrix-like atmospherics and Stooges savagery. Ashcroft initially sang in a soft, reverb-soaked alto, but his passion and charisma easily compensated for any early deficiency in the vocal department.

Dubbing themselves Verve (as they were called before the litigious U.S. jazz label Verve requested the band change their name to avoid confusion), the four teens played a sparsely attended gig in London, and were soon signed to Hut. The Verve were the label’s first signing, and according to label president Dave Boyd, he and the band always knew it would require three albums before the group achieved mass acceptance, because their sound was so “against the grain,” in his words.

“You almost had to have the records in your collection that they took their influence from to understand it,” says Boyd. “These guys were listening to the records that I didn’t get until I was 30, and they already had them in their collections when they were 18.”

The Verve recorded the neo-psychedelic classic A Storm In Heaven, in 1993, with the aid of John Leckie. The producer, who’d worked with John Lennon, Stone Roses and XTC, has claimed that the Verve were the only band he’d ever approached to produce. “They were incredible,” he said. “They had sensitivity, power, everything.” Though Ashcroft took a few interesting lyrical turns on the album, such as “I was the crease in the shirt that this world wears,” on “Blue,” he had much more to offer on the band’s second full-length.

“There’s nothing like a few lessons in life to make whatever you do in art that much more substantial,” Ashcroft said, in 1995, after recording A Northern Soul. The lessons during that time involved broken bones and broken hearts. Gigs and sessions were cancelled when Salisbury broke his foot in a bizarre kitchen accident and when a bouncer broke McCabe’s hand, in Paris. 
When Ashcroft split with his long-term girlfriend (the one who’d later tell her story, claiming she left him because she was a lonely tour widow), the result was some of the most beatifically bleak music this side of Big Star’s Sister Lovers.

Dying alone was a recurring theme on tracks such as the title song and “On Your Own.” Though a collection of b-sides released between the first and second albums was titled No Come Down, the lessons seemed to bring reality into the bands midst. That’s not to say the Verve were necessarily sobered. 
Before A Northern Soul was recorded, the band took a fateful jaunt around the U.S., on a leg of Lollapalooza, in 1994. Performing midday on the Second Stage, the Verve finally had the opportunity to share their version of soul music with a large American audience.

Midwestern alternakids stood transfixed as McCabe doused the sun in wah and reverb, and Ashcroft, barefoot and feral-eyed, testified on the mic. With the band going through some “weird shit, all at the same time,” according to Boyd, what were initially methods of escape turned destructive. In Kansas City, the rock lifestyle caught up with Ashcroft and sent him to the hospital for treatment for dehydration after he collapsed onstage.

“I’d been drinking for the last three weeks on the road,” he explained. “There were bands on the Main Stage who didn’t touch the [backstage] rider, so I’d be infiltrating their tents and drinking it for them… I went to the bar the night before [I collapsed], got in at 7 in the morning—totally dehydrated. We played the next day, and I felt like I had huge pieces of lead in my feet. I was stomping around that stage like a dead weight. 
It’s good for Mother Nature to give you a slap in the face sometimes before you go too far,” he concluded. “I got a big slap in the face.”

The experience might have slowed the singer to some extent, but the Verve’s press agent at the time described the recording of A Northern Soul as “a bit of an exorcism for all of them.” Ashcroft himself has compared the experience to Lord of the Flies, and the sessions were capped when producer Owen Morris hurled a chair through a window. “He was just happy, you know?” explained Ashcroft.

Promoting the album, the singer said, “The moment we’re not getting turned on by our own music, then that’s the day this band’s over with.” Few people knew how close that day was. After a brief but trying American tour, the Verve played the T In The Park festival in Glasgow, on Aug. 6, 1995. It was their last performance. Ashcroft folded the group, claiming, “It no longer felt right.” His next move caused speculation as to why the group actually broke up.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the history of rock, a solution teenagers have arrived at instinctively since garage bands first formed. One member not cutting it musically? Not fitting in socially? Hey, let’s tell him the band’s breaking up and reform under a new name! While it’s true that Ashcroft, Salisbury, Jones and their childhood friend Simon Tong reconvened with producer Leckie at Real World Studios only weeks after Ashcroft pulled the plug on the Verve, Hut’s Boyd insists it’s far too obvious to claim they did so to eliminate McCabe.

While the band had reached a musical maturity, the individuals involved were still in the process of balancing careers and domestic situations, according to Boyd. They had signed to the label in their teens; life had crept up on them; they’d hit the breaks. “It was no one incident; no one individual,” says Boyd. “It was just events and change in life and growing up.”

Ashcroft himself, however, had admitted before the break-up that he and McCabe didn’t always communicate. “Me and Nick are as crazy as each other in two totally different ways,” he said. “The time when we connect is when we have the headphones on and we’re playing music.”

According to Boyd, Ashcroft returned to the studio to cut demos that were more song-based. The recordings were never supposed to be finished masters, and at the time, it was merely easier to recruit Jones and Salisbury than advertise for new players. Guitarist/keyboardist Simon Tong, who’d actually taught Ashcroft his first guitar chords, was brought in to contribute because he was an available friend. 
The line-up eventually entered Olympic Studios, in mid 1996, with producer Youth and engineer Chris Potter, and the sessions produced nearly finished versions of 15 songs, some of which wound up on Urban Hymns.

Before they mixed the tracks, however, everyone involved realized the music was missing one crucial element: Nick McCabe. 
McCabe, in the meantime, had been recording ambient music and spending time with his daughter, in Wigan. Over the Christmas break, Ashcroft swallowed his pride, called the guitarist and asked him to rejoin. McCabe accepted and within a week had contributed guitar tracks to existing material such as “Weeping Willow” and “Neon Wilderness” to offset the ballads.

Though today he has no regrets about splitting the band, Ashcroft agrees that many people hold grudges for far too long and lose valuable friends in the process. “It’s one of our most destructive things,” he says. “If I’d let it carry on for X amount of years… It almost seems like such a wrong decision to make that I can’t even process what it would have been like or what would have happened [if I hadn’t called Nick]. But, yeah, people do make mistakes. People’s egos get involved too much. What [Nick and I] can actually do together is bigger than our little disagreements on certain things.”

On the day of the benefit, the Verve arrive for a cover shoot at a Brixton photo studio. Ashcroft is in a lighter mood, joking with his bandmates and planning the evening’s set, but he also seems keyed up about the show. He has reason to be nervous. Not only will the band’s performance of “Lucky Man” reach millions viewing the Brit Awards, but manager Jazz Summers has arranged, at Ashcroft’s request, for soccer maverick George Best to accept the group’s awards. He’ll do so while standing in front of a banner promoting NCH Action For Children’s “House Our Youth 2000” campaign.

Best—before Patti Smith, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and Robert DeNiro—was Ashcroft’s childhood hero. In the ‘60s, Best was a natural from Northern Ireland who played for Manchester United. Many consider him the best soccer player ever. His long hair earned him the nickname “El Beatle” in Spain, and his good looks didn’t hurt in his sideline as a notorious womanizer. Tragically, Best had drowned his athletic career in a tidal wave of booze by the early ‘70s. Though he has no true analogue in U.S. sports history, imagine Muhammad Ali accepting a Grammy for Pearl Jam and you’ll get the general significance of the gesture.

While individual portraits are taken, someone speculates whether Best invested well. Ashcroft has the answer: “He once claimed that he spent 80 percent of his money on booze, 10 percent on women, and the other 10 percent he wasted.” His bandmates laugh, and then Salisbury reveals that Best has requested a mere three bottles of mineral water on his backstage rider.

Ashcroft facetiously suggests they get him back on the bottle and grill him for anecdotes. And what’s the first question the singer will ask his hero? How did Best score with Miss World back in the day? The peripheries of soccer are somewhat different than those surrounding rock, but human fascination doesn’t vary much. Ashcroft obviously understands why fans want to know the specifics of his life, but as a public figure, he takes press-shy actors like Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando as role models over Best. So when it comes down to his home life, sex and drugs are definitely off the list of topics, but rock and roll always has place in conversation.

The singer laughs when he’s asked whether he and Radley would ever record an album along the lines of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins. A nude album cover is out of the question, but he “wouldn’t rule out anything as a possibility for making music.” He and Radley literally make beautiful music together when they have time at home, but Ashcroft admits it’s good to shut off “the mental jukebox” when he leaves the studio or rehearsal space.

“You come home and someone needs to give you a slap because you’re talking about what you’ve just been doing all day,” he says. “It’s like you need to shake out sometimes; you need to have a life to write about a life. That’s another big thing that [musicians] get so messed up—they get in a bubble and they have no experience other than their institutionalization by the music business. It dries up any part of their spirit or soul they have.”

Happily married, he no longer feels that he’ll die alone in bed, as he felt when he was 23. The great thing now, according to Ashcroft, is that he’s with “someone who enjoys music, because obviously if both minds are somewhere different it’d be a very difficult relationship.” 
The English press makes it difficult enough. Ashcroft’s voice takes on an ineffably sad tone when he discusses the intrusion on his marriage. “It pisses me off, really, because you’re in the midst of living your life, and that’s what everyone forgets,” he says. “You did get up that morning. The same way I got up this morning and an old girlfriend had sold her story. It is funny that we are involved in that kind of shit. It’s disturbing, as well. It puts excess pressure on a situation that’s pressurized anyway.

“They love doing that ‘cause they want me to crack,” he says, enunciating the final consonant of the word for effect. “When you crack, it’s juicy story. So you have to get some inner strength from somewhere. At the end of the day we know we love each other, and we have to hang on.”

Like peers Radiohead and Spiritualized, the Verve have easily adapted their intimate sound to arenas. Tonight, however, there seems to be some conflict between presenting the band as a band, and a caution on the part of the soundman to make sure Ashcroft’s vocals are elevated well above the instruments to offer maximum sing-along opportunities. The Brixton Academy audience doesn’t allow such an opportunity to escape. 
In England, once a group have reached pop-hit status, their concerts turn into karaoke nights with students wrapping their arms around one another and singing into one another’s eyes with wistful smiles on their faces.

At a Verve concert, the practice seems perverse, especially when the lyrics are “You come in on your own and you leave on your own.” 
Ironically, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is the band’s weakest performance in an otherwise passionate set. the sequenced string hook fades up, and for four minutes the rhythm section’s natural grace is hobbled by a rigid click track. The crowd response turns more Pavlovian than rock-and-roll-like.

But then a transformation occurs. The string track ends, and the song begins to breathe. The band kick into an uptempo groove, and suddenly the stately, resigned march is released into the ether. “I can change, I can change, I can change,” howls Ashcroft, eyes shut, head swaying in profile as his bare feet scan the Verve logo and UPC code woven into his custom-made stage carpet.

Then he holds up his right hand. He holds up his hand to testify like his heroine Patti Smith. But he’s not just testifying, he’s also pointing to something, something better and less finite than himself. 
Some audience members look beyond the light to where Ashcroft directs above; some stare at the singer beautifully lost in the groove; and still others turn to their drinks.

By evening’s end, the Verve will have won three Brit Awards, including “Best Band.” In May, they will return to their hometown to perform a homecoming show to 33,000 proud Wiganites. And in July, they will launch what their manager promises to be the biggest U.S. tour of the summer. But these peripheral matters aren’t what’s on Ashcroft’s mind. It’s The Music, as usual.

“The other day, I was driving past this cheap furniture store, and I was questioning why, why is the furniture so shit?” he says, temporarily forgetting his cigarette as his fever grows. “You can design something of beauty with cheap materials. It’s almost like people giving in—it’s like, ‘Oh, they don’t have any money—fuck ‘em! Just give ‘em that shit-designed thing there. That’ll do for ‘em, ’cause they can’t buy anything else.’

“And that whole philosophy has crept into everything we do now. Music’s the last thing where people can pay the same amount for a piece of shit or a diamond. And that’s why we’ve got to care about it.”


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