With hardened cheekbones, sunken-in eyes, and a mane of hair that rivals a young Mick Jagger's, the rail-thin Richard Ashcroft wouldn't seem out of place strolling the streets of London during the swinging '60s. With that said, Ashcroft is more than a pretty face; he was the lead singer of 1990s Brit-pop shoe-gazers the Verve, and has released two solo albums of soulful pop that showed maturity and a wide variety of influences. Through his battles with drug addiction, health issues, and the numerous breakups of the Verve, Ashcroft managed to help shape the landscape of British pop music in the 1990s on into the 2000s, penning a collection of hits, most notably the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," making his voice one of the mainstays on modern-rock radio for a long time to come.
Ashcroft was born on September 11, 1971, and grew up the eldest of three children in the Wigan suburb of Billinge, England. While Ashcroft was attending Upholland Comprehensive School (along with future Verve members Simon Tong and Peter Salisbury), his father died of a blood clot to the brain when Richard was only 11 years old. His mother later remarried, but Ashcroft's family grew up quite poor, and often struggled just to get by. Though young Ashcroft had an interest in music at an early age, his family could not afford to buy records; so he did what he could, and taped songs from the radio. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ashcroft claimed, "I used to know when a song would be on the radio. I'd have the tape player lined up. It may not have been a song around at the moment. It might have been a song done five years earlier. But I seemed to have a knack to find it straightaway when it came on the radio."
Ashcroft credits this ability—"visualization," as he called it—to his stepfather. His stepfather had at one time been a member of the ancient secular order of Rosicrucians, and when Ashcroft was a teenager, he would frequently conduct "experiments with his mind" and "experiments in healing." Former Verve member Simon Jones told Rolling Stone, "He used to talk about his stepfather and it blew people's minds. I think the quote that did it was he said, 'If I wanted to, if I put my mind to it, I believe people can fly.' All he was basically saying was, you can do whatever you believe in." It was this gusto that gave Ashcroft the inkling to supply a spiritual bent on everything he does, as it would later show up time and time again in his work with the Verve and as a solo artist. He told Rolling Stone, "People are afraid to use the word spiritual. I'm a firm believer in songs coming from an unlimited pool, and you have to be in a certain state of mind to get them. You don't know why you're in that state of mind. Sometimes it's a dangerous state of mind. But I know where my influence comes from. It comes from the universal mind, mate."
As Ashcroft grew up, he started to change that universal mind, and instead of dreaming of becoming a professional football player like so many other tall, athletic English lads, he concentrated more on becoming a free-spirited, independent musician. When his family moved from Wigan to live in Cotswolds, he decided to stay behind and room with friends, even though he was still in school. As Jones recalled to Rolling Stone, "He's always been so sure of himself."
As a teenager, Ashcroft began gobbling up any kind of music he could get his hands on, after being weaned on the likes of the Beatles, the Carpenters and the Rolling Stones as an adolescent. He described his teenage musical evolution to Mean Magazine in 2000, saying, "Our part of England, and England to me, felt 'post-war' until the early '90s, in a strange way. Very strange. [A] bunch of people got together and whilst most of the people were discovering raves, we started this, we had this other thing goin' on. We'd go to the beach and fires and music went hand in hand. We were [listening] to the Byrds, to Miles Davis' On the Corner…. Nick [McCabe] came in with his own things he'd been discovering, because New Order and Joy Division had sparked off a lot of tributaries and places that he'd gone from there, I think. We were into Smiths, and from the Smiths, now you got to the Byrds. We had these huge speakers and we'd take turns to see who could blow each other's mind. One moment it was Love and then there'd be a sort of West Coast psychedelic tape going round the band for three weeks and you'd just gorge yourself. The days of getting into the H.P. Lovecraft album—that's an essential part of the whole story. Then the Electric Prunes came through. Then [David] Axelrod's solo albums, which are extraordinary records, really. So we had a lot on tap, so it was a very quick process. If I hadn't met these people, I don't know what I would have found. I just know there's some mad little twist of fate. So then we started making music. It was like, 'We gotta make our own soundtrack. We're gonna make the music we want to hear.'"
And so, along with McCabe on guitar, Simon Jones on bass, and Peter Salisbury on drums, Ashcroft did just that, and formed Verve in 1990. With Ashcroft on vocals and some guitar, the band cooked up a swirling and gigantic sound, with McCabe's swooshing guitar lines crashing in over clouds of drugged-out psychedelic smoke. Ashcroft's soulful vocals soared atop the massiveness, and his cocksure attitude gave the band a certain swagger other shoegazing bands (like Ride and Slowdive) simply could not pull off. After signing to Hut Records in 1991, the band released singles like "All in the Mind" and "She's a Superstar" in 1992. After touring with the Black Crowes in 1993, playing their first shows in the United States—after massive adoration was thrust upon them by the British press—the band released their debut, A Storm in Heaven. In 1994, the band was added to Lollapalooza, though their time on the tour was riddled with illness (Ashcroft suffered exhaustion), jail visits, and other drug related problems. At the end of the year, the band was forced to add a "the" to their name, because of a possible suit by an upset jazz label.
In November of that year, the band recorded A Northern Soul, an album that Ashcroft described as, "one character going through twelve different experiences of pain, elation, sex, loss, romance … all the emotions piled into one album. This is to the point, to the heart and from the soul." The band split up after a performance at the T in the Park festival in Glasgow, but regrouped, with keyboardist Tong in tow, for another album in 1997. The record, titled Urban Hymns, sported two top ten singles ("Bittersweet Symphony" and "The Drugs Don't Work") and made the Verve instant stars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The band, however, wouldn't make it past 1999, as a suit was issued by ABKCO Music, suing the band for illegal usage of a loop created from a symphonic version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" on "Bittersweet Symphony." After the company was awarded 100 percent of the profits from the song, tension between Ashcroft and McCabe boiled, and in April 1999, after almost ten years as a group, the Verve disbanded indefinitely.
For the Record …
Born on September 11, 1971, in Billinge, England; married to Kate Radley (a musician); children: one son, Sonny.
Formed music group the Verve, 1990; released first singles on Hut Records, 1992; released debut album A Storm in Heaven, 1993; with the Verve, released albums thoughout 1990s; the Verve disbanded, 1999; released solo debut Alone With Everyone on Virgin Records, 2000; released solo album Human Condition, 2002.
Addresses: Website—Richard Ashcroft Official Website: http://www.richardashcroft.com.
By the time the Verve announced their split, however, Ashcroft was busy in the studio writing and recording his solo debut. In April of 2000, Ashcroft emerged as a solo artist with the single "A Song for Lovers" off of his album Alone With Everybody. Debuting at number one on the British charts that July, Alone With Everybody showed Ashcroft picking up right where he left off on Urban Hymns, but this time with an even more contemplative and spiritual soul, without the drugs and settled down with wife Kate Radley. The NME said, "At a time when music is still struggling to extricate itself from a rut, and visionaries remain conspicuous by their absence, Alone With Everybody remains a beacon of light. Ashcroft's newly discovered stability has done nothing to blunt his powers of communication or reduce his belief in the apocalyptic potential of music." Inkblotmagazine.com said, "Cynics will call Alone With Everybody too trad to be considered great, but Ashcroft's constructs are too visceral not be considered wondrous and winning. The album doesn't stray too far from Urban Hymns territory, yet considering how wonderful that record is, why would anyone want it to? It's the stirring debut we expected, with a cherry on top."
Following some touring in support of Alone, Ashcroft also worked with James Lavelle and DJ Shadow on their U.N.K.L.E. project, and collaborated with the Chemical Brothers on a song called "The Test" for their Come With Us album in 2002. In October of 2002, however, Ashcroft stepped away from his dabbling in electronics, and released his second album, Human Conditions for Virgin Records. Featuring 10 Ashcroft-penned songs, the album featured collaborations with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (who sang harmonies on the song "Nature is the Law"), keyboardist Chuck Leavell, former Verve drummer Pete Salisbury, and Talvin Singh. Popmatters.com said Human Conditions is made up of "the best of what Ashcroft does best: thoughtful incantations teeming with emotion, clarity, and vision."
Alone With Everybody, Virgin, 2000.
Human Condition, Virgin, 2002.
With The Verve
The Verve (EP), Caroline, 1992.
A Storm in Heaven, Vernon Yard/Virgin, 1993.
No Come Down (EP), Vernon Yard/Virgin, 1994.
A Northern Soul, Vernon Yard/Virgin, 1995.
Urban Hymns, EMI, 1997.
This is the Music: The Singles 92-98, EMI, 2004.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 25, 2001.
Mean Magazine, July-August 2000.
Newsweek, February 19, 1998.
People, July 17, 2000; March 31, 2003.
Rolling Stone, June 1998.
"Alone With Everyone," Ink Blot Magazine, http://www.inkblotmagazine.com/rev-archive/Richard_Ashcroft_Alone.htm (August 15, 2005).
"Ashcroft, Richard: Alone With Everyone," NME.com, http://www.nme.com/reviews/4062.htm (August 15, 2005).
"Richard Ashcroft," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (August 12, 2005).
"Richard Ashcroft," Filter, http://www.filter-mag.com/artists/interior.3.html (August 15, 2005).
"Richard Ashcroft: Human Conditions," PopMatters.com, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/a/ashcroftrichard-human.shtml (August 15, 2005).
The Verve Official Website, http://www.theverve.co.uk/Qevent.cgi?biography=1 (August 15, 2005).
"Ashcroft, Richard." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ashcroft-richard
"Ashcroft, Richard." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ashcroft-richard
English alternative act the Verve traveled a long road during their mere half-decade of existence, a path that might be defined by the fact that fellow northern England musicians Oasis once opened for their live shows. A few years later, the Verve were scheduled as Oasis’s opening act. Oasis singer Liam Gallagher even admitted in print to liking them—a high honor, given his disdain of most popular music except that of his own band. The Verve’s career path was also marked by two well-received albums, debauched nights during the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, the narrow avoidance of a potentially costly lawsuit, and interviews with the press in which they unabashedly proclaimed their talent and high moral standards in the face of relentless pressure to sell out. Despite the misfortunes, the band’s spiraling, guitar-driven melodies and complex arrangements won them vociferous critical praise as well as comparisons to the Doors, early U2, and even Pink Floyd. Musician writer Aidin Vaziri described their sound as “a wondrous concoction of molten guitars, psychedelic rhythms, and halcyon choruses.”
The Verve formed as simply “Verve” around 1990 in the English town of Wigan, near Manchester’s famed music scene. Founding members Richard Ashcroft, Simon Jones, Nick McCabe, and Peter Salisbury attended college together, and Ashcroft had long entertained dreams of escaping Wigan’s dreary atmosphere, at one time considering a career on the soccer field. His father’s death when Ashcroft was just eleven impacted his ambitions: “He’d worked nine to five all his life, and he suffered and got nowhere,” the singer told Melody Maker’s David Stubbs. “I immediately realised that this wasn’t the life for me. Immediately I found out how quickly someone can die and just be wiped out.” I n high school, he asserted during a career-guidance session that he wanted to be a musician. “I got the classic wry smile that said, ‘You’re going to be working in a factory in two years, son, ‘” he recalled in another interview with Andrew Smith for the same publication. “After that, I fluffed my exams and then I really started thinking about doing it.”
After the Verve played their first London show and completed a demo tape that cost a mere $90 to record, they were signed to England’s Hut label and were playing regular shows around London by 1991. They released three singles in England, but refused to cut their typically eight-to-ten-minute tracks down to a more radio-friendly format. Their music was lauded by critics, but the singles failed to chart—though Ashcroft’s resemblance to Mick Jagger did make good press.
The Verve’s refusal to become acquiescent performers for their label also seemed a hindrance to greater success. Once, they walked offstage after only two songs (albeit, one lasted 25 minutes) because of poor turnout. Hut released a five-track EP entitled The Verve EP in 1992, comprised of their earlier singles and their B-sides; it was also released in the United States on the Caroline label. Sharon O’Connell reviewed it for Melody Maker and described the band and their music as “all weightlessness and detachment, their tunes barely-delineated, freeform drifts which refuse definition…. They have a petulant, ragged glamour and there’s Ashcroft at their centre, a dark star with a stripling ego who seduces/goads/guides the others toward their transcendental launch pad.”
In 1993 the Verve were picked as the first band on the Vernon Yard label, a newly-created American affiliateof British giant Virgin Records. Their full-length debut, recorded in Cornwall, was A Storm in Heaven, released that same year on Hut in England and Vernon Yard in the United States. “Slide Away” appeared as the single, and did nominally well, receiving some airplay on American alternative stations. Yet the band remained pegged in the “indie” slot, although having received almost unstinting praise from jaded rock journalists in both countries. Writing about A Storm in Heaven for Melody
For the Record…
Members include Richard Ashcroft (born c. 1972, in England), vocals; Simon Jones (born c. early 1970s, in England; married; wife’s name, Myra), bass; Nick McCabe (born c. early 1970s, in England), guitar; and Peter Salisbury (born c. early 1970s, in England), drums.
Group formed, c. 1990, in Wigan, England; signed with Hut Records, 1991; released three singles in England and later an EP, The Verve EP, on Hut; same EP also released on Caroline Records in the United States; disbanded, 1995.
Maker, Smith avowed “it shimmers and drifts, going nowhere beautifully.” David Stubbs reviewed it for the same paper and termed it “music to make your head melt.” That first single, Stubbs asserted, moves “effortlessly from glittering, turquoise beauty to tempestuous noise.” He concluded by enthusing: “Verve have already achieved transcendence—their music sounds like it’s been around for centuries waiting to be brought into being and will linger for centuries to come.”
American reviewers were equally laudatory, with Rolling Stone pegging the band as an up-and-coming alternative act of 1993. The magazine called their first full-length release “an engrossing, atmospheric debut that jams an epic-song spine plus zero-to-ninety-and-back-again dynamics into the hellbent guitar storms of Britain’s psychedelic dreamers.” The summer of 1993, however, was also the start of numerous troubles for the band. The venerable jazz label “Verve,” part of the Deutsche Grammophone company, initiated a lawsuit to order them to stop using the name lest music-buyers become confused. I n the initial suit, the label demanded that sales of A Storm in Heaven be halted, and in the event of infringement, that all profits be seized. Vernon Yard president Keith Wood issued a statement quoted in Billboard that read, in part, “I cannot imagine a record buyer mistakenly coming home with the new Verve album when they’ve set out to buy a Charlie Parker box set.” A compromise was reached which resulted in the band’s name change to “The” Verve.
Being launched into the world of American alternative rock had other drawbacks. Tales of unabashed substance abuse and destroyed hotel rooms abounded; Ashcroft earned the nickname “mad Richard” for his misbehavior both off and onstage. “At the start, it was an adventure, but America nearly killed us,” the singer told Melody Maker writer Dave Simpson in 1995. “My problem, basically, is that I think too much. Sticking someone who thinks too much on a chrome bus and sending him around America isn’t a very good…experiment.” Returning to their hometown of Wigan was also difficult. “That’s supposed to beyour life, but you don’t know who you are,” bassist Simon Jones explained to Simpson. The group set out to record a follow-up album, but the aforementioned escapades made recording difficult. Additionally, Ashcroft was devastated by the breakup with his girlfriend of six years, and a sense of isolation and despair worked its way onto the recording. Other personal problems surfaced. At one point Ashcroft left the studio, manned at the time by producer Owen Morris, who had also helped craft Oasis’s phenomenally successful Definitely Maybe.
Despite the hindrances to its creation and completion, A Northern Sou/was released in mid-1995. Again, it was well received by critics—but this time by fans as well; in just two months after A Northern Soul’s summer release it sold more copies than A Storm in Heaven had in two years. “Listen to A Northern Soul … and the recurrent images are of terror, horror, dread, and morbidity,” Melody Maker’s Simpson wrote. One cut, “History,” he called “an epic, windswept symphony of strings, flailing vocals and staggeringly bitter sentiments.” Melody Maker colleague Victoria Segal contended the record “has a mirror-smashing intensity.”
Unfortunately, such intensity ultimately seemed to portend the end of the band. A series of concert dates in the United States, and the attendant round of press interviews that went with it, further exhausted Ashcroft. He quit, and the Verve then officially disbanded in August of 1995. They had been scheduled to play more tour dates, including opening for Oasis, for the coming year, which probably would have launched them into mainstream commercial success—but Ashcroft had long asserted that he despised the “business” side of the music industry. “As far as I’m concerned, if by the second or third single, Verve are getting pressure off men in suits, Verve will fold and we’ll just go off and do our own thing,” Ashcroft avowed in the 1992 Melody Maker interview with Stubbs. His colleague, guitarist Nick McCabe, put it more succinctly: “This band is totally selfish, self-centred and self-indulgent and that’s exactly the way it should be.”
The Verve (EP), Caroline, 1992.
A Storm in Heaven, Vernon Yard/Virgin, 1993.
No Come Down (EP), Vernon Yard/Virgin, 1994.
A Northern Soul, Vernon Yard/Virgin, 1995.
Billboard, May 8, 1993, pp. 1, 79; July 3, 1993, pp. 10, 76.
Guitar Player, October 1995, p. 19.
Melody Maker, June 12, 1992, pp. 28-29; December 5, 1992, p. 29; May 15, 1993, p. 43; June 19, 1993, p. 33; May 15, 1994, p. 5; May 28, 1994, p. 34; May 13, 1995, pp. 10-11;July 1, 1995, p. 38; July 15, 1995, pp. 30-32; September9, 1995, p. 5.
Rolling Stone, July 8, 1993, p. 95; October 5, 1995, p. 32.
"The Verve." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/verve
"The Verve." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/verve
Formed: 1989, Wigan, Lancashire, England; Disbanded 1999
Members: Richard Ashcroft, vocals, guitar (born Billinge, Wigan, Lancashire, England, 11 September 1971); Simon Jones, bass (born Liverpool, Merseyside, England, 29 July 1972); Nick McCabe, guitar (born St. Helens, Lancashire, England, 14 July 1972); Peter Salisbury, drums (born Bath, Avon, England, c. 24 September 1971).
Best-selling album since 1990: Urban Hymns (1997)
Hit songs since 1990: "Bittersweet Symphony," "Lucky Man," "Sonnet"
The British band the Verve spent a good portion of the early 1990s relatively unknown internationally but fairly popular in their native U.K. Their hit "Bittersweet Symphony" from their album Urban Hymns (1997) is an anthemic, swooping, mid-tempo pop song with a full orchestra that ended up in a Nike ad.
The Verve formed in 1989 in the northern England town of Wigan. Lead singer Richard Ashcroft, whose full lips and rock-star swagger have often earned him comparisons to the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, was joined by guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones, and drummer Peter Salisbury. Their first few albums received much critical acclaim but barely registered on the sales charts. Their 1995 album, A Northern Soul, reputedly recorded under the influence of the drug Ecstasy, features a swooping, psychedelic explosion of guitars. After the album's release Ashcroft left the band, only to reassemble it a few weeks later. Prior to the release of A Northern Soul, the band had had its troubles, including a lawsuit from the major jazz label Verve, which forced the band to change its name to the Verve, and bad-boy rock-star behavior: Salisbury was arrested for damaging a Kansas City hotel room, and Ashcroft was hospitalized for dehydration.
The band split up after A Northern Soul but got back together to release their breakthrough LP, Urban Hymns (1997). The success of the single "Bittersweet Symphony," which borrows a sampled loop from the Rolling Stones song "The Last Time," boosted the album to the twenty-third position on the Billboard Top 200 chart, with that track reaching number four on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Its placement in a Nike advertisement guaranteed that anyone who spent time watching television would hear the song.
Urban Hymns is filled with love songs such as "Lucky Man" and "Sonnet" that belie the rancor among band members that preceded its release. With its plainspoken, unapologetic lyrics—"Yes there's love if you want it / Don't sound like no sonnet / My love"—and its emotional climax, "Sonnet" helped lend a romantic graciousness to the band's image. Confessional lyrics in "The Drugs Don't Work" added to the softening. Ashcroft reveals, "Now the drugs don't work / they just make you worse / but I know I'll see your face again."
Despite the band's problems, Urban Hymns remains a classic modern-rock album of the late 1990s. With its sweeping strings and hypnotic, psychedelic guitar loops, Urban Hymns became one of the fastest-selling British albums of all time and garnered the band three awards, including Best British band, at the 1998 BRIT awards. Sadly, the Verve never gave themselves an opportunity to top that success. In April 1999 the band announced it was calling it quits and Richard Ashcroft embarked upon a solo career.
A Northern Soul (Vernon Yard/Virgin, 1995); Urban Hymns (Virgin, 1997).
M. Clarke, The Verve: Crazed Highs and Horrible Lows (London, 1998); S. Egan, Verve: Starsail (London, 1999).
"Verve, The." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/verve
"Verve, The." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/verve