When Oasis’ feverishly awaited third album, be here now, released in August 1997, it rose to the top of the UK charts, becoming the best-selling album in UK chart history. Yet the celebrations were brief and oddly muted, as it was the record that hit be here now at the top of the UK Top 40 – the verveit is Urban anthemswhich captured the zeitgeist as Britpop entered terminal decline.
Led by the intensely charismatic Richard Ashcroft and precociously talented guitarist Nick McCabe, the idealistic Lancashire quartet had promised something of this magnitude from the moment they signed with Virgin Records subsidiary Hut in 1991. Produced by John Leckie (Radiohead, The Stone Roses), The Verve debut in 1993, A storm in paradisewas an ethereal, psychedelic beauty of considerable promise, while its acclaimed successor, 1995’s A soul of the Northclosed in on the mainstream, eventually peaking in the UK Top 20.
Although contrasting with the hedonism inherent in Britpop, the introspection A soul of the North had generated two more British Top 30 hits, “On Your Own” and the frenzied ballad “History”. both suggested that Richard Ashcroft was rapidly emerging as a songwriter of major importance.
become gold, A soul of the North left The Verve seemingly set for crossover success, but with the band exhausted by the usual rock ‘n’ roll symptoms of excess and exhaustion, Ashcroft abruptly split the band just before “History” began to climb in the charts. As events proved, however, the band’s split was only temporary. Within weeks The Verve was back in business, albeit without guitarist Nick McCabe, but with the addition of new guitarist/keyboardist Simon Tong, an old school friend who had originally taught Ashcroft and bassist Simon Jones to play the guitar.
The band already had working versions of soulful new songs, including “Sonnet” and “The Drugs Don’t Work”, Ashcroft having written the latter over Jones’ battered black acoustic guitar in early 1995. Instead of the exploratory jams who produced The Verve’s earlier material, these lively, finely crafted songs were the logical extension of A soul of the Norththe plaintive ballads “History” and “On Your Own”, and they reflected the direction The Verve tenaciously pursued as they began to work on what would become Urban anthems.
“These two tunes [‘Sonnet’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’] were written in a much more definitive way…more of a singer-songwriter approach,” Ashcroft says today. “For me, I wanted to write concise stuff at that time. This opened up a well of material and melodies.
Urban anthems came together slowly, with The Verve cutting demos at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Bath, then with A soul of the North producer Owen Morris, before the start of the actual album sessions with producers Youth (The Charlatans, crowded house) and Chris Potter at London’s famed Olympic Studios at Barnes. At the instigation of Richard Ashcroft, string arranger Wil Malone (Massive attackDepeche Mode) was introduced and its swirling scores added an extra dimension to a number of the album’s key tracks, including “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “Lucky Man”.
During these extended sessions, The Verve morphed into a quintet after estranged Nick McCabe was welcomed back into the fold. Among his arsenal of guitars, McCabe brought a Coral electric sitar and a 12-string Rickenbacker to the studio, and his spontaneity was encouraged by adding his inimitable magic to the guitars already precisely layered by Simon Tong. “What [Nick] was very respectful,” Jones says today. “He made it all come together. He embellished what was already there and how it turned out to be a beautiful thing.
Aided further by what Richard Ashcroft enthusiastically calls the “loose discipline” of Youth’s production methods, The Verve emerged triumphantly from the arduous Olympic sessions knowing they had created music that would have a lasting impact.
“I knew the story of this room [Olympic Studio] and we were now a part of it,” Ashcroft recalls, speaking of the studio which had previously hosted artists like The rolling stones and jimi hendrix. “We would have touched a timeless couture. When Wil got those scores, it was that amazing feeling that we could just hit Rewind and hear them over and over. It was like walking into a bank with millions and millions of pounds of music.
The group’s self-confidence was vindicated when Urban anthems‘, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, reached No. 2 in the UK in June 1997. Built around Malone’s strings and a four-bar sample of Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral rendition of ‘The Last Time by the Rolling Stones, the song was imbued with a timeless quality and quickly gained popularity thanks to a memorable, MTV-adapted promotional film of Ashcroft walking down a busy London pavement, seemingly oblivious to all that was going on. is happening around him.
With their star firmly on the rise, The Verve scheduled their first UK gigs for two years in September 1997, as did the album’s second single, the glorious orchestral swell of “The Drugs Don’t Work”, their provided their first UK No. 1. Urban anthems‘ The trailer’s majestic singles were inevitably singled out with praise when the album was released, but the record fluctuated seamlessly between the band’s usual psychedelic wig-outs (“The Rolling People”, “Catching The Butterfly”, the parting word “Come On”) and vast existential laments such as “Space And Time”, “Weeping Willow” and the elegant “Sonnet”. Barely a second seemed superfluous.
With Urban anthems, which was released in all its glory on September 29, 1997, The Verve delivered the transcendent masterpiece they promised all along. With party reviews (melody maker hailing the disc as “an album of unparalleled beauty”) and the fans unanimous in their praise, Urban anthems not only hit be here now to the top of the UK chart (where it remained for 12 weeks), but also climbed to No. 12 in the US and sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
Concerted acclaim followed, with The Verve winning two Brit Awards in 1998, a coveted prize rolling stone cover and a Grammy Award nomination (in the Best Rock Song category) for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Still, the magic the band alchemized was volatile at the best of times, and after The Verve split for the second time, in 1999, nine years passed before they returned to the fray and were a late follower. their masterpiece with Fourth In 2008.
Out during a remarkable year for alternative rockduring which landmark titles of the time such as Radiohead’s Ok Computer and Spiritualized Ladies and gentlemen, we’re floating in space were also published, The Verve’s Urban anthems remains one of the most significant albums of the 90s.
“I was 100% sure it was going to be huge,” drummer Pete Salisbury recalled of that intense time. “Urban anthems was a complete mix of where we were as a band. We were at the top.
Proof, if needed: Included in the expanded six-disc edition of the album is the band’s legendary comeback show at Wigan’s Haigh Hall. A juggernaut performance in front of over 30,000 fans on May 24, 1998, it confirmed what many had known for years: that The Verve Urban anthems was a force of nature.
This article was first published in 2017. It is republished today to celebrate the release of Urban anthems in 1997. The deluxe edition of Urban anthems can be purchased here.
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