Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

‘Hero Rock’ someone called it, and the name stuck for a while – a big, brainwashing chorus in front of a lumbering unrock rhythm section and gussied up by liberal use of the hired orchestra. Still practised by Williams, R., it’s a kind of musical Toryism, stirring songs that common sense tells you are more emotional and meaningful than that ‘pop crap’ or that ‘weird shit’. This is what good music is meant to sound like, so it must be good music, right? But common sense and pop go together like bread and gravel.

So you can file “History” as a ‘guilty pleasure’ if you like. The Verve were always the most mystical of the Hero Rock crowd, evidence A here being the William Blake half-quote that kicks off the song. Blake was wracked, radical and romantic, so Richard Ashcroft’s picking his role model well, no matter how pretentious it seems (considerably less so than, say, the Divine Comedy putting a Wordsworth poem to music). It’s proof the Verve are playing for epic stakes, then, and nothing on “History” is done by halves. The strings which bring us in are immense, dizzying spans of sound whose sheer, clear scale makes plain that this is a single of extreme gravitas. Couple that opening with the Blake stuff and it’s tempting to think that I like “History” because it’s such a grotesque folly. But that’s not quite it.

The Verve started off as spacerock truthseekers with a Roses-style messiah complex, and though by the time A Northern Soul came out they’d cut back on their sonic drift, traces of that ambition remained. In “History” you can hear it in the phrasing, the way Ashcroft lets his words wander around in the song, sometimes stumbling or messing up the metre, or running out of music or even breath. This halting delivery makes him sound overwhelmed by the sound, dwarfed by his own song, drunk on music and besotted with himself. He only gets it together to tell you what he’ll not quite get around to actually doing: “I want to tell you a tale,” he declaims, “Of how I loved and how I failed.”. And he doesn’t, because it’s the ambition, the scope, that matters more than the execution: very Hero Rock.

But it’s that rambling, searching quality that makes “History” bearable, and more, remarkable: all the undeniably visceral power of the most self-assured music in Britain’s pop history, but all the same such a diffracted song. All the other big Britpop anthems – “Live Forever”, “A Design For Life”, even “Bitter Sweet Symphony” – defeat themselves because they answer all their own questions: they’re so massive and autocratic that the listener becomes the object, not the subject of the song. With “History”, Richard Ashcroft gets lost in his song, and opens up a way for you to get in too.