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Nov 19

My Thoughts Big I Just Can’t Define (THE VERVE – “Bitter Sweet Symphony”)

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(Reached #2, June 1997)

One of the repeating themes in British indie music is bands hitting the rocks because the guitarist and singer can’t work together. The Smiths, The House Of Love, The Stone Roses, Suede, The Verve – for a decade some of the biggest names in British guitar rock kept flaring out like this, until the music became boring enough that it stopped being an issue (you can’t have creative differences when nobody’s doing anything creative).

It’s worth asking why it happened. My initial impulse – often the way – was to blame Morrissey: he set the pattern where the singer’s role is to forge a song out of the music their band brings to them. But that isn’t really how the other bands worked. Then it struck me that the Smiths – or at least their success – was the main issue, because it created a kind of selection bias. The funnel from obscurity to fame was the music press, and while readers of the music press would – naturally – consider themselves above the squalor of gossip, tension sold papers.

The dyad of flamboyant frontman and moody, intense musical genius – and the relationship between them – served the same function in the NME as celebrity marriages in the tabloids. No surprise bands built around that dynamic got attention.

The Verve were always presented with Richard Ashcroft at the centre. But his relationship with his own band’s music wasn’t straightforward. Onstage he got a reputation for getting caught up in the sound (and the drugs), climbing amp stacks, crowdwalking, subsuming himself in the noise guitarist Nick McCabe and the others were making. Which meant that on record, McCabe was the dominant force – at its best the band’s first album, A Storm In Heaven, makes its singer sound like he’s exploring the music along with us, reacting to it with streams of ideas and half-songs. McCabe’s own best trick is keeping the heavy atmospherics mostly in his pocket and instead using his dappled guitar lines to magic up a haze of prettiness (Jonny Greenwood took plenty of notes).

The band’s career looks like a simple tilt in this balance, from McCabe to Ashcroft – the latter broke the group up after their second LP in 1995, wrote most of Urban Hymns as a solo album, then called McCabe back in, a decision he later (at least sometimes) regretted as a loss of nerve. What complicates things is that the way Ashcroft is used on A Storm In Heaven – a man pushing wide-eyed through is own songs, letting the sound inspire him – remained easily the best way to use him.

This became clear on that second album, A Northern Soul, which was vastly better received in the press, even though it sounds like a man who’s had a massive crisis of confidence after hearing Oasis. (Lots of journalists were going through a similar crisis, so could probably sympathise). Ashcroft completely reinvented his vocal style and centred the band on it – his new schtick was a combination of Gallagher aggression with visionary preaching. Tellingly, it works best when McCabe plays along – the unstable, glitchy effects on the title track, and the storm surges on “This Is Music” give Ashcroft something to push against. But a lot of the record is Ashcroft singing his ponderous, mid-paced songs, with McCabe and the band a sullen background presence, and it’s a snooze.

That’s why Urban Hymns is a chore, too – Ashcroft works best when he’s got some interesting sounds to bounce off, and he’s too convinced of his own genius to let interesting sounds get in the way of it.

Fortunately, there’s an exception. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” isn’t just the biggest Verve hit, it’s the one which sounds least like anything else the band ever did. But the reason for all this backstory is that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” works because it does what successful Verve tracks always did – its track-defining sample gives Ashcroft something to push against, which makes it sound like he’s exploring a song again.

When the band found themselves shafted for the royalties by Allen Klein, they made aggrieved attempts to downplay the importance of the sample – it was only six notes. But a listen to the orchestral “The Last Time” belies that – the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra lift structures the track. Whatever they precisely sampled, The Verve borrow the song’s tremulous, string-driven vibe, its cock-of-the-walk rhythm, and the soaring melody which ignites Ashcroft’s vocal.

As samples go, it’s a magnificent spot – the rest of the ALO Orchestra LP is largely the greed-soused instrumental cash-ins you’d expect, but “The Last Time” has real imagination. The Verve treat its bounty with care: once the song’s got going, McCabe and the rhythm section act like a curling team, doing their bit at the edges to keep the momentum high, with the result that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” feels like a song in perpetual ascent (even though there’s no actual climax). McCabe in particular is in a position to fuck the track up but instead he rediscovers his knack for prettiness and the embellishments he drops in – like the squiggle of echoey guitar after “then you die” work to lighten the track and open it up.

It’s Ashcroft who’s the centre of the song, of course. It’s easily his best few minutes as a pop performer, because while the sample gives him something to react to, it forces him to react in a particular way, to follow the logic of the song’s relentless momentum rather than pause, wallow or wander. And these tramlines suit what he’s singing about – life’s unstoppable forward motion and whether you can change yourself when you can’t change direction.

Chris Martin once called it “the best song ever written”. “The song I’ve been trying to write for 15 years” might have been more accurate – this is the record, more than any other, that shows Coldplay, Keane, and similar the way to marry widescreen rock with polite motorik flow. Don’t let that turn you against it, nor the fact that Ashcroft never did anything remotely this fine again. “It was good as far as pop goes,” said McCabe sometime between the second break-up and the last one, meaning it as faint praise. But how right he was.

9 out of 10

Comments

  1. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Nov 2019 #

    I can’t think about this without thinking about Unfinished Sympathy – the names, the video, even getting the same string arranger – and as unflattering as the comparison was 20 years ago, it’s only gotten worse.

    On the other hand, he’s got the song back – apparently all he had to do was ask! Must write to Carter..
    https://www.npr.org/2019/05/23/726227555/not-bitter-just-sweet-the-rolling-stones-give-royalties-to-the-verve?t=1572907594975

  2. 2
    PinkChampale on 5 Nov 2019 #

    Ha, all so backhanded I couldn’t tell if the mark would be high or low. I guess, in the end, on balance, this is very good. But I also struggle slightly to admit it.

    I think the baleful influence thing worked both ways. Cast no Shadow, Oasis’ tribute to, and attempt to channel the questing, spiritual blah of, Ashcroft has to be a contender for their worst song.

  3. 3
    hardtogethits on 5 Nov 2019 #

    Tom. I lived for 50 years without realising “cock of the walk” was a phrase. If I’d ever heard it, I must’ve thought someone meant to say “cock of the north” or something. Then on Sunday I encountered it whilst watching Celebrity Catchphrase. The next day, this. Connected?

  4. 4
    Lee Saunders on 5 Nov 2019 #

    Random thought: The Verve comeback of 2008 is for me a lot better than it gets given credit for. Yes, there are solo Ashcroft circuit drives like Rather Be, but there are also marvellous tracks like Sit and Wonder where he and Nick play off each other in the most wonderful way since 1994

  5. 5
    Steve Mannion on 5 Nov 2019 #

    Currently pondering on whether to include this in my 100 Favourites of 1997 (which is taking too long to do as I insist on listening to everything that charted that year that’s easily hearable and ’97 still has the record for most chart entries of singles in a calendar year).

    I think ITV’s use of it for England matches has thwarted any kind of proper charitable comeback effect although it may still squeak through.

    Because of the chimes and vaguely similar chord sequence, and due to it being out around the same time, I feel like the Fatboy Slim remix of Pierre Henry’s ‘Psyche Rock’ is a Big Beat remix of BSS (also the clear inspiration for the Futurama theme) so there is that.

  6. 6
    Ed on 6 Nov 2019 #

    The singer v guitarist dynamic is a great tradition in British rock, including the Kinks, Deep Purple and the Clash. But until you pointed it out I hadn’t noticed how indie bands in the 80s and 90s really perfected the form.

    I guess if you were pushing it you could include the Libertines and Oasis there as well. Maybe Blur, too? I don’t really know their story, but didn’t they make a final album without the guitar player?

    You mention the role of the music press creating selection bias by promoting the bands that had newsworthy internal struggles. It’s also worth pointing out that all the bands we have mentioned were *really good*, and their creative and personal tensions probably had something to do with that. The alchemy that turns four or five individuals into a great group is mysterious, but a love/hate dynamic certainly seems to be effective. As you point out, the bands that came later with no internal conflicts made no interesting music, either. Do Coldplay even have a guitarist?

    I wonder if in some cases the limits of the bands’ commercial success were important, too.

    The Who and The Rolling Stones have kept going for more than 55 years, despite deep divisions between their singers and guitarists. The need to pay a tax bill or buy another island has always seemed like an important reason for them to stay together. If your success is measured in NME covers rather than stadium tours, the incentive to keep working with someone you can’t stand (now) must seem rather less compelling.

  7. 7
    Ed on 6 Nov 2019 #

    Also, when the fractious relationships at the heart of those bands finally broke, their subsequent music was almost invariably uninteresting.

    The Clash without Mick Jones, the House of Love without Terry Bickers, most of Morrissey’s solo career, the Richard Ashcroft Band: you’d have to pay me to listen to any of it. I do like Coming Up, I have to admit. But there’s no denying it is a more cartoonish version of Suede.

  8. 8
    Lee Saunders on 7 Nov 2019 #

    I love Coming Up (By the Sea is my third favourite Suede song) and, to a greater extent than many, Head Music (unquestionably some duff tracks but sonically it keeps me hooked throughout except on Elephant Man. Indian Strings is again top drawer for me). Will also stand up for Cut the Crap despite everything, not least because This Is England is my favourite Clash song

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 7 Nov 2019 #

    I suspect that once the music press had mostly abandoned the vaguely ideological stances of the 70s and early 80s it pretty much settled into celebrity gossip crossed with tales of derring do where the plucky protagonists wrestled with their demons and/or each other (rather than the alligators or Nazis that had featured in earlier mens pulp magazines). Most of its readers (myself included) had little musical understanding and so it was easier to get ones head round Romantic myths of the mad, bad and dangerous to know artist – even as it became one that quickly offered diminishing returns.
    It was almost impossible to ignore or get hooked by this single at the time but it is a triumph of arrangement over content – the drum loop, string sample and guitar effects transform and envelop a pedestrian busker strum and thankfully obscure the lyrics to a few catchphrases. Tom talks about creative tension but this sounds as though everything has been united to create a leviathan that knocks down everything in its path

  10. 10
    Tommy Mack on 8 Nov 2019 #

    Pink Champale @ #2: “Cast no Shadow, Oasis’ tribute to, and attempt to channel the questing, spiritual blah of, Ashcroft has to be a contender for their worst song.”

    There speaks someone who’s never heard Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants!

  11. 11
    Tommy Mack on 8 Nov 2019 #

    BSS would have been a 9 for me in 1997 when Urban Hymns was probably my favourite new album. I’ve been ground down to a 6 or 7 since from hearing it again and again and again…

    This is what I wrote about Urban Hymns when I relistened after Richard Ashcroft finally got the writing credit back for BSS:

    Justice at last then for Richard Ashcroft. You’re a slave to money until Allen Klein dies. Feels cruel to point out that the now infamous string loop, the bone of so much contention, is far and away the best hook on Urban Hymns, lilting and swaggering its way through megahit and opener Bittersweet Symphony with a fleetness of foot which generally eludes its samplers.

    You can glimpse flashes of the younger, darker, noisier, strung-out Verve: Some of Nick McCabe’s guitar work here and there or Ashcroft harmonising hypnotically with himself on Catching The Butterfly. To its detriment though, Urban Hymns is Richard Ashcroft’s album. Whatever esoteric direction his more bandmates head, they’re dragged into the slipstream of his anthemic ambitions and squeezed to the margins by his imposing personality and often heavy-handed singing.

    “A combination of Feel My Pain and Hear Me Roar,” said Tom Ewing of The Small Faces’ All Or Nothing which he pegged as a proto-Ashcroftian song in his #1 singles blog Popular and that’s definitely a charge I’d level at most of Urban Hymns. Pretty country-rock ballads, swaggering stadium indie anthems, psychedelic drone-fests, all are tarred with Ashcroft’s multi-tracked cosmic shaman drawl and feathered with his cosmic-er shaman-er lyrics.

    At its worst, Urban Hymns combines Oasis’ megalomaniac grandiosity with Ocean Colour Scene’s classic rock fetishism. Ashcroft has neither the brute hookcraft of a Noel Gallagher nor the patience and vision of a Kevin Shields or Jason Pierce. Every ballad bids for Wild Horses-style country yearning before building into an arms-aloft cosmic workout, multi-tracked Ashcrofts chanting over each other. I’d probably play Cast’s Walk Away before I’d listen to The Drugs Don’t Work again even though The Drugs Don’t Work is about Richard Ashcroft losing his father to cancer and Walk Away is probably about John Power feeling a bit bummed out cos he ran out of Rizlas.

    All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that Richard Ashcroft is kind of a drag, man. I wanted to get this out after the Bittersweet Symphony story broke but it’s taken me an age to finish this. I thought I’d have more to say but of all the albums I’ve revisited, this is the one I feel the least connection to. Heavy in the way hippies meant it.

  12. 12
    PinkChampale on 9 Nov 2019 #

    @10 Bang to rights! I did nearly add a caveat about not knowing any post-Morning Glory album tracks, but I figured it might be unnecessary – the late Oasis’ I’ve heard is obviously rubbish, but none of it seems offensive to my sensibilities in the way that Cast no Shadow is. But probably I’m underestimating Noel and the boys.

  13. 13
    Tommy Mack on 11 Nov 2019 #

    No, you’re right, PinkChampale: post-Imperial Phase Oasis is noxious in its mediocrity, not any particular conviction.

    That said, I can’t over-emphasize how bereft of any merit the back end of SotSoG is. It makes the back end of This Is My Truth sound like a Greatest Hits. I just imagine Noel recording this stuff alone in the South of France, thinking ‘Christ, we used Fade Away and Acquiesce as B sides!’

  14. 14
    Kit on 13 Nov 2019 #

    Great piece, Tom – love the different sense of engagement coming from you writing about a culturally dominant #2 rather than a grim obligation #1, too :)

    “On the other hand, he’s got the song back – apparently all he had to do was ask! Must write to Carter..”

    Carter finally put After The Watershed on The Love Album a year ago, presumably not after a plea to get the publishing back, but that as one track on an 11-LP coloured vinyl box set it would only amount to, say, as much as a single Spotify stream… https://www.cherryred.co.uk/grab-the-last-few-copies-of-our-massive-carter-usm-vinyl-box-set/

    “I feel like the Fatboy Slim remix of Pierre Henry’s ‘Psyche Rock’ is a Big Beat remix of BSS”

    ooh!

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