As Britpop titan Richard Ashcroft returns with an album of reworked classics, Tom Farmer looks back at the former Verve frontman’s career, as well as what is still yet to come.
Adidas trainers, Fila Tracksuits, England doing well (but eventually breaking hearts) at major football tournaments. It has become the norm that things that defined the 1990s are having a renaissance in 2021. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that king of Britpop Richard Ashcroft is re-emerging into our ears and onto our stages with his best solo work yet.
Whilst not reaching the noteriority of Oasis or Blur, the Verve remain to me the quintessential Britpop band. With a soulful yet stubbly style, the Wigan four-piece had something very special, captivating the minds and souls of millions across the globe. Whilst Nick McCabe’s guitar playing was enchantingly catchy and the rhythm section of bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury glued tracks together, the snarling vocals and strutting stage presence of one man helped to breed the Verve into life: Richard Ashcroft.
Britpop was defined by the characters as much as it was by the music. You had Damon Albarn and the Blur boys, fresh out of art school kitted out in baggy clobber from London charity shops. You had Noel and Liam, with the confidence of Wall Street bankers and the behavioural tendencies of primary school children. You had Jarvis Cocker, who is far too complex to describe in half a sentence. Then you had Richard Ashcroft, a moody and brooding presence, perhaps best characterised in his strolling about with a monotonous tone in the “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. As a songwriter, Ashcroft also possessed a cultural intelligence that few others had. “History”, for example, begins quoting 18th century Romantic poet William Blake. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only track I’ve ever heard (regardless of genre) which has any sort of reference to the Romanticism movement. If Britpop was a soap opera, which I suppose it was, Ashcroft played his role perfectly: a versatile presence, suited equally to a conversation down the pub as the Glastonbury stage.
Again, if Britpop were a soap opera, Richard Ashcroft and The Verve would have been confined to cameos for the first few seasons. Debut album “A Storm in Heaven” arguably came too early, with Britpop conditions not quite ripe in 1993. Whilst follow-up record “Northern Soul” made slightly bigger waves, drawing in a couple more fans to Ashcroft’s snarling vocals, the band’s flagship moment was on the horizon. In 1997, the band released “Urban Hymns”, one of the most iconic British albums of the 20th Century. With two of most anthemic tracks in guitar music history, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and “The Drugs Don’t Work”, taking pride of place, the album blew The Verve to the closest thing to stardom that rock stars get to in the UK.
Of course, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. An infamous lawsuit with The Rolling Stones cast a dark cloud on the band, as well as numerous internal disputes within the band frequently damaged the dynamic. More recently, Ashcroft’s stance on Covid Passports has ruffled a few feathers. The less said about that, the better. It is true that he has written immense songs over the years, and nothing he does now can change that.
Ashcroft’s legacy is still rife, almost 30 years after The Verve’s first release. If England are playing football, over 20 years later, turn the coverage on and you will be greeted by the opening string chords of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Similarly, I’m sure many awkward teachers still use Richard Ashcroft to help negotiate the topic of drugs in Citizenship lessons. He has also frequently been the man who has unconsciously pushed the first domino that has led to the creation of musical greatness. The Gallaghers have waxed lyrical more times about Ashcroft than they’ve said “R Kid”, with the early Verve albums seizing the imagination of Noel in particular. Anthem “Cast No Shadow” is literally written about the former Verve man. Another 1990s band, Chester-based Mansun are called so because of the Verve track “A Man Called Sun”. In more recent times, bands like The Lathums (also from Wigan) clearly have their roots in a love of Ashcroft’s sweet vocals. Having literally just played two sold out nights at the Palladium in London, it appears Ashcroft’s appeal is still alive and kicking.
Ashcroft’s longevity will be a relief for his label RPA/BMG, with new album “Acoustic Hymns Vol. 1”recently hitting the shelves. Whilst Ashcroft has done well for himself without the help of those iconic Verve tracks, with five of his solo albums hitting the Top 5 in the charts, it’s a joy to hear Ashcroft re-recording some of the old favourites for an acoustic trip down memory road. Whilst some songs may not sound quite as they used to, the album is a bundle of joy and ripple of warmth.
The album begins with a rumbling acoustic guitar, before seamlessly bouncing into the infamous strings of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Beginning on a high, the album has the consistent intimacy akin to Richard Ashcroft sitting in your living room with his set of guitars and piano (and a brass section in the corner), serenading you on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Whilst his vocals have got slightly more husky, his tone still seems to be as strong as it ever was, as well as still being able to ignite the same passion in the listener as he ever could.
As mentioned before, the album is a trip down memory lane, with many songs having stories behind their recording and re-recording. Beginning with the opener, the re-recording of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” prompted Ashcroft to re-open the conversation with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about song writing credits. Before this conversation, and the paying of royalties from the Rolling Stones to the Verve, the “Start Me Up” guitar heroes had pocketed all of the royalties to Ashcroft’s masterpiece. Before 2019, Ashcroft had only received £1,000 for the track. So, in short, the re-recording of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is sweeter than ever for Ashcroft as he finally got his reward for what is an iconic track.
Another good story interlaced into the album is linked to track 4 “C’mon People (We’re Making It Now”), featuring a vocal performance from Liam Gallagher. Originally released on Ashcroft’s solo debut “Alone With Everybody” (2000), Ashcroft allegedly played it to LG on a piano somewhere in Mallorca in 1997. How the other half live! Since then, it has been a shared passion of the pair, with Liam keen to sing on its re-recording.
Some songs sound nothing like they once did. “This Thing Called Life”, originally written and released in 2010, is completely reworked from its original. Some tracks, although acoustic, have benefitted from the progression of sound engineering and technology bringing us Richard Ashcroft in HD and 21st century sonic quality.
Other than that, this is simply Richard Ashcroft. There are no Noel Gallagher-esque attempts to reinvent himself as some kind of sci-fi soundtrack writer. Nor is there any attempt to push things too far in any of the tracks, as if he has something to prove. With two Ivor Novello awards and millions of fans, that question would answer itself. No, “Acoustic Hymns Pt 1” is just Richard from Wigan, playing his guitar and singing his heart out. Albeit with the backing of a small string orchestra.
Accompanying the new release, the Verve man is back playing live. By all accounts, Ashcroft’s back-to-back sold-out London shows were a firm blast from the past, with booming vocals and driving guitar. Whilst many Britpop bands have faded into obscurity, Ashcroft has maintained that star quality, which has to be admired. Maybe life isn’t too bittersweet, eh Richard?