Rock: Perhaps the drugs do work after all, Richard

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE STORY of The Verve is a bittersweet symphony of humiliation and vindication, the tale of a singer whose vision brought him to the brink of death and/or insanity and of a band who tore themselves apart, only to reunite and conquer all before them.

At least, that's how it looks in pop music terms. In real-life terms, the story of The Verve is an anecdote about some boys from Wigan who were so fond of rock'n'roll mythology that they took a silly amount of drugs, didn't get enough sleep, didn't sell many copies of their first two albums and fell out with each other. To portray their subsequent reformation and success as a gallant triumph against adversity is to ignore that it was their old-fashioned hedonism which created the adversity to begin with.

If the resurrection of The Verve isn't heroic, it's still quite a story. A year ago, they were out of sight and out of mind, having broken up upon the completion of 1995's A Northern Soul (Hut). Since then, they've had five Brit nominations, three hit singles, and an album that out-sold any other in Britain in 1997, bar those by Oasis and the Spice Girls. This is Urban Hymns, and a mighty album it is too, packed with richly layered psychedelia and an inspirational grandeur which is tempered by the ragged emotion of Richard Ashcroft's singing and lyrics. By comparison, Kula Shaker's psychedelia is as convincing as a hippy wig at a fancy-dress party.

It's not easy to recreate such a record in concert, and at Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, The Verve didn't quite manage it. Their former all- out wildness has been evened out (a few years ago Ashcroft's capers earned him the music-press nickname of "Mad Richard"), there was no effort to give the show any kind of shape or direction, and several of the songs could have done with more structure, too. Sometimes it sounded as if Nick McCabe, the lead guitarist, was yet to rejoin the band from which he was absent for 18 months: he was playing along with the others, rather than playing with them. Standing as close to the wings as he could without tripping over a roadie, he seemed to have no interest in complementing the songs, as he does on Urban Hymns, preferring to use them as an opportunity to try out the different noises he could make with his effects pedals. Certainly he whipped up a Hendrix of a racket, but I suspect that if anyone turned up their amp and bumped their guitar against a speaker, the resulting squeals wouldn't be entirely different. It's quite a relief when Ashcroft plays "Space and Time" accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and a crowd that knows all the words.

According to one theory, Urban Hymns would never have had the impact it did were it not for the time Ashcroft spent without his colleagues. With the group in tatters, he was forced to write focused, "proper" songs: tunes that made sense in his bedroom instead of hazy, rambling jams that worked only with a band and several thousand watts of amplification. This is not to denigrate The Verve's bassist and second guitarist, Simons Jones and Tong. They may be nondescript agglomerates of fringes and crumpled shirts, but one area where the band score over their close comrades, Oasis, is that while Bonehead and Guigsy never got past chapter two of their play-in-a-day books, Jones and Tong really know what they're doing. All the same, Urban Hymns is Ashcroft's triumph.

It helps that he has the looks of an elegantly wasted Nineties Northern rock god. His face is so hollow that he can barely be said to have a face at all, just a bunch of facial features and nowhere to put them. Most of us have an inch of two of smooth skin and flesh to round out our visages; Ashcroft has nothing but bulging eyes, cheekbones that make him look as if he's got three noses in a row, and a mouth that can gape as wide as a snake's. Like Marmite, this is a face you has you either licking your lips or coming over all queasy.

The flesh has been drained from the rest of his body, too. He's so thin that a breeze could knock him over, but he shakes his bony fist in the air as if he's ready to do 12 rounds with a typhoon. Ashcroft was talking up his band as the best in the world long before it became tediously fashionable to do so, and his self-belief is justified - nearly. On Urban Hymns, he can take on all comers. Onstage, he'll be able to do so only once he gets the sound man, the lighting man, and - most importantly - the guitarist on his side.