(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