Now and again, the world of music throws up a record that is out of the ordinary, something in its timing, quality and spirit that feels right. Verve’s 1997 album Urban Hymns, released on September 29th, 1997, was one such record.
It captured the mood and spirit of the times with songs of an emotional and musical depth that touched a raw nerve throughout the world and ensured this band would graduate from highly respected indie favourites to a genuine rock colossus. A certified classic, Urban Hymns is one of the 20 biggest-selling albums ever in the UK (now 11 times platinum) and has sold over ten million copies worldwide. Mark Millar revisits this masterpiece with The Verve’s guitar genius Nick McCabe.
Urban Hymns is 20 years old on September 29th this year. How do you feel looking back on the album after all this time?
Nick McCabe: It takes a four-year span before I can start to be objective. Obviously, at the 20-year point, it’s really almost the work of somebody else. It’s a good vantage point to be objective about it. When you have just recorded something, the attachment to it is a little bit too awkward to access things on its merits. I think criticism hits a bit harder, and you are really in the position of justifying it. Once you have been out of the habit of doing that for 20 years, you can start to look at things clearer. All of the Verve records have aged much better than I expected them to when I made them. I think the biggest surprise of the lot is A Storm in Heaven. I didn’t think that would age particularly well. By the time we got to Urban Hymns, Richard Ashcroft was trying to cast himself as a classic songwriter, and I think that’s a record where he achieved that quite successfully. It has aged well and still sounds pretty fresh.
One of the things we have been discussing recently is when we were growing up and suddenly started getting infatuated with music. I would have been ten when the Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper album was 13 years old, and it seemed like a lifetime ago and to be looking back on my work after 20 years is very strange because it doesn’t feel like 20 years in any way shape or form. I can remember everything about making that record. It’s nice to have these glimpses into the past because while you’re running away from your history as a musician, you want to put last year’s work behind you as far as possible. After all, the thing you’re doing right now is the best thing you have ever done. I still feel like that, and to be forced to go back and look at the material and then to be pleasantly surprised by it; it’s a bit of a gift. I couldn’t foresee that the outcome would be this positive. It has been a joyful experience going back and listening to those records and quite a surprise.
All those records mean so much to a lot of people.
Nick McCabe: I know; each record could have been by different bands. We were very young, so we were reinventing ourselves from day to day, and by the time you get to album time with The Verve, you may as well be listening to a different band each time around. One of the things that our last album, Forth, is useful for is that we stopped reinventing and started expanding our vocabulary at that point, so it’s the one record to me that makes sense, although It doesn’t seem to for anybody else. The other three albums are like trying out different clothes. They are part of our progress as young men. Still, because they are so different, each record has the attachment to vastly different sets of people, which were problematic at the time. I think we struggled with our sense of identity at the time and the different people that ushered in as a by-product of that.
That’s one of those things that were now looking back on; it is a good thing that I couldn’t have anticipated that I would be that pleased about having a diversity of fans and that the band means lots of different things to lots of different kinds of people. Urban Hymns is the one where Richard hit his stride as a singer of universal issues that affect everybody and things that were personal to him that he managed to translate into these big anthemic statements that everybody could connect with.
The Verve split up after the second album, A Northern Soul, and Richard recorded what was supposed to be his first solo album with the former Verve members, Simon Tong and Ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. How did you feel when you heard that?
Nick McCabe: I was essentially sacked from The Verve for various reasons I don’t have the time or reason to go into now. I was a bit more sanguine than I perhaps was shortly after Urban Hymns. After feeling stitched up again at the end of Urban Hymns, I allowed myself to feel the anger I probably didn’t the first time around. Hence, the period of 96 for me was one of those moments where I tried to remain zen about it; I thought, “just suck it up, they are going to be on MTV or whatever,” and at the time, I had enlisted in St. Helens Technical College to become a spark again, so I had not exactly made my peace with it, but I had shelved the whole thing as something to be bitter about. After the fact from friends who were getting information back about what they were up to and were deliberately not passing it on to me, I had heard about it, so I think people were sheltering me from the harsh reality of what was happening with my band.
It was gratifying when I came back that they had tried to replace me with two guys, and they couldn’t. I am the guitarist they couldn’t replace (Laughs). It did work in my favour, allowing myself to feel a bit of pride because when I went back into the studio, that obviously informed my mentality that I had been brought in as a problem solver. I had just come off a year of enjoying myself because my relationship with my daughter’s mother had gone down the toilet just a month after I had gotten sacked. The two were quite obviously interrelated, but I managed to turn that into a positive thing. I had been gifted all this time and reconnected with friends and had a laugh, so by the time I walked back into the studio, not only was I more personally confident, but I also had this unwritten license to be me and do what I did and fix the record. I think I felt vindicated and gifted the keys to bringing it home. There was no producer on my stint on the record. They had obviously struggled and had a lot of money thrown at it. They had spent 2 million in the year I had been away. I didn’t see any of that (laughs) but what I did get was to bring home a record that they couldn’t finish with all those resources at their disposal, so it’s quite gratifying looking back on it now despite Richard’s revisionist take on things, it was the record they couldn’t finish without my input.
I know Richard would like to underplay my importance to that now, and he does do, but it’s a Verve record. It’s the Verve record we were heading to make anyway after A Northern Soul because when he brought in The Drugs Don’t Work; you’re looking at a batch of songs that included On Your Own, History and No Knock On My Door, so he had tested the water. He was awkward with imposing himself as a songwriter when we had been a cooperative, almost communist organisation mainly. Once he decided he wanted to make his mark as a songwriter, he didn’t feel comfortable doing that within the framework, so looking back on it generously, I think he felt it was almost necessary to sack the guy whose band it was perceived as being up to that point. I am still trying to piece together his logic because, unfortunately, you will never get a straight answer with Richard. You just get left with questions rather than any logical explanation.
When you rejoined the band and heard demos that Richard had written for the album, did you instinctively know what to do with them?
Nick McCabe: I only found this out from Simon Jones yesterday that when Richard called me to ask me back, he hadn’t bothered to tell anybody else. He just picked the phone up impulsively. I could hear what the record was missing straight away. The songs were all fairly flat and static. They were good, and they had obviously tried to make a big anthemic record, but it had got a bit flat. Some of the stuff was born out of loops, and the problem with using loops which is a well-known syndrome with working with computers and stuff these days, is things can get locked into four-bar segments without having any developmental interest happening in them. I had been experimenting with hard disk recorders in my time off, so I had developed a new way of working, which was liberating for me in that I could do the thing that I always did, which was improvised, and it didn’t have to be great because I’m not a virtuoso. I never really had aspirations to be a guitarist per see, let alone a virtuoso.
I knew it was going to be easy. I got Chris Potter (Producer) to rent in Pro-Tools. We both got our hands dirty with Pro-Tools on that session which wasn’t a thing back then, but it was the perfect toolset for a band like us that was semi-improvisational. Previously we had had to get it right on the spot. You know you have a mountain to climb, and you have to have something to show for it by the end of the day. That pressure had been completely alleviated, and for me, it was a case of bringing dynamics to things and quite a lot of the time with something like Bittersweet Symphony, it was just a case of taking things out and putting more things in so you have got the MSG side of what I contributed to that which is just extra ingredients so that you can then bring some sonic interest to whatever is going on.
With Lucky Man, that was something that I heard immediately, and it made me think right away of the Richard Thompson song The Cavalry Cross. There’s a live version of that. I just heard that spindly ecstatic guitar thing and did my sort of compromise impression of it. It’s one of the few times that I’ve gone into the studio where I have felt like a game plan for almost all of it and not had that pressure of not fucking up. It’s red light syndrome; we definitely had that during A Northern Soul, which I think accounts for the low yield of work. We only got stuff done on Wednesday on A Northern Soul (Laughs), but it was fun in the studio on Urban Hymns every day.
Chris Potter and Youth produced the album. Was there a time when A Storm in Heaven Producer John Leckie was involved?
Nick McCabe: There was no producer by the time I came back, although Youth won producer of the year for Urban Hymns. I was a bit peeved about it because he was long gone before I came back and the record was nowhere near finished. Chris Potter was still there in an engineering capacity. It was me who fought for his producer points when I perhaps should have fought for my own, to be honest. I think it’s one of the reasons they were paralysed because they had too many options. With each producer that they had been in the studio with, including (A Northern Soul Producer) Owen Morris at one point, they got such dramatically different results with each producer that they couldn’t perceive any unity in what they had done. I did some interviews with Si Jones recently, and it seems his take on it now is that I brought some glue to the project. These very disparate songs didn’t hang together particularly well, and that was where I solved a major problem.
They did throw out a lot of good stuff because the John Leckie stuff yielded two tunes one was Monte Carlo, and the other was a very early version of A Song For The Lovers, which are absolutely brilliant. I’m not on them, but they are great tunes. They were almost too complete because they couldn’t find a place with the more traditional Urban Hymns approach. It’s ironic that we revisited stuff from A Northern Soul, such as Rolling People and Come On, and then things that were written in the studio while I was there, like Weeping Willow and Catching The Butterfly they, hark back to an earlier time, but if you look at what they did with John Leckie, they were actually developing something new. I don’t think they would have needed me if they had done more of that because that avenue was pretty rich. I was disappointed when I heard the version of A Song For The Lovers that came out on Richards’s solo album mainly because I had heard this amazing version with Simon Tong on guitar. I still think it’s one of the lost gems of the record. There is lots of excellent stuff on the CD we did towards the end that we didn’t get to finish.
There is a track called All Ways Are Maybes (listen above), and that’s one of the best things we have done. Radiohead recently released a single with the reissue of Ok Computer, a contemporary record of Urban Hymns. We were blown away when we finally heard it, so when the rest of the band apart from Richard were approaching the box set and putting it together, we found a couple of things that we had initially forgotten about, and it all came flooding back when we heard them. I had a vague hope that All Ways Are Maybes might be released as a single. It turns out Pete Salisbury went on to work with Richard on several of his solo albums since Urban Hymns says Richard has tried to revisit that tune several times and never really worked. But there’s a good reason for that. The band wrote it in the studio. It actually comes out of guitar loops, so it’s indelibly stamped with the prints of what the band was at the time. I think part of the reason that CD got scrapped in the first place was that that’s the evidence that we were at a peak at that point, and I don’t think that Richard is happy for that to be common knowledge. There is a couple of really great tracks on the CD. I think it’s a crime that whoever is buying the box set pays the same amount of money that they would have done had it went out as it should have done in the first place. Richard said no to that, and the rest of the band were really chuffed about that particular CD.
That’s interesting because there were unreleased tracks on the previous two reissues.
Nick McCabe: Well, there is a key difference there. Richard wasn’t involved with the reissues of those records; he wasn’t interested. It’s a bit galling that he decided to get involved in this record because he now considers it to be his first solo record, but yet again, he said no to all the press, so me and Si have done all the radio, so far for it. As far as I know, he has not agreed to do anything for it. Still, in some respects, that’s a good thing because we get to redress some of the hubris and nonsense he was spouting last year about Urban Hymns being his first solo record and stuff like that, which we all know what we put into that record for me it was six months of 1997 and then I toured it to death for another year after that.
There has always been a lot of talk about Bittersweet symphony and how all the royalties go to Jagger/Richards because of a sample taken from an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones The Last Time. A lot of people think it’s the string hook that was sampled. Can you clear up what the actual sample was?
Nick McCabe: Yeah, the sample hardly features in it at all. It’s a bit more complex than that. The main string line that everybody seems to think is the sample is Will Malone’s score. Hence, the high string line that comes in at the beginning and then the swelling strings (that have got sampled quite a lot actually) have got nothing to do with The Rolling Stones; it is all Will Malone he wrote that not Richard or anybody out of the band so if anybody has got a reason to be peeved it’s him. Further to that, the string line, if you hear it, is an orchestral version of Andrew Loog Oldham that bears no resemblance to the original. Given that we were idealistic in our mid-20s, we just thought if it sounds cooler with the sample in then, we would put the track out, so it was basically decided in an afternoon when they got back to us with these outrageous demands. If you sample George Clinton, he wants 40% or something; they weren’t satisfied with that; they wanted 100%.
Being young and idealistic, we granted their wishes. Then we came unstuck later on because Virgin (Records) failed to declare the mechanicals on it. Then a whole raft of other issues developed out of that, one of which was a musicologist got involved and realised what is quite obvious now the line that Richard sang his melody over the top of even though you can’t tell the difference between the Andrew Loog Oldham and the Rolling Stones version of The Last Time. Richard reverted to the original Last Time vocal, which is a half-time version of that, so it’s not really the sample that’s the issue. It is credited to Jagger/Richards because of the melody line, so the sample is by the by. The other aspect of that is allegedly The Rolling Stones stole it from a Staple Singers tune.
In 2007 The Verve announced via NME of a comeback and released The Thaw Sessions as a download from the website. Soon after the last Verve album was released called Forth, what was the atmosphere within the band for those album sessions?
Nick McCabe: It was complete fun for a good four weeks. We just laughed. I used to come home in pain from laughing. We all got on really well. The only thing we were up to was having a few beers at that point. Then we went home to have a break and take stock of what we had done, and when we came back, Richard shut off. The paranoia had completely reactivated. There was good enough reason for that prior because Si and Richards’ wives both hate each other, and before Richard had even got to speak to Si, he delayed it so long. I had been out for a drink with him. I said: “You have got to ring Si; it’s been four weeks down the line, and you haven’t spoken to him. You are fine when you meet.” and when he called, he got through to Si’s Mrs who started blazing on the phone at him and spent the rest of the night abusing him basically, so he didn’t get to speak to Si until the next day after he tolerated Si’s Mrs going off at him. Remarkably by the time we got into the studio, he had managed to get over that, and they just got on. It was slightly strained, but at the end of 1998, Richard and Si’s relationship had deteriorated. Me and Richard just did the usual “there’s the door; it’s shut. You talk, I’m not”, and we have managed to sort that out over a few beers. They didn’t get it sorted out, and something happened in between. I think Richard had gone back to smoking, and by the time we went back into the studio again, all the walls had gone up, and tracks were getting scrapped.
It went from four weeks of the band just laughing all the time to Richard disappearing. There were lots of markers that indicated that we should have maybe expected that. I don’t think that we were willing to believe that it had been reactivated for such cynical reasons, but it’s hard not see it in that light now after the fact because he had quite a disastrous year the previous year, and there must have been that conversation that he needed to do something drastic and reactivate The Verve. With reactivating that, we also brought in Jazz Summers, who is no longer with us; he died of cancer a couple of years ago. Jazz was always a blessing and a curse. I don’t doubt that we would not have headlined Glastonbury if it wasn’t for him, but it’s business at the expense of everything else. By the end of Forth, I had these ridiculous arguments with Jazz about putting Columbo on the record, for example, so Forth isn’t the record that it should be; it’s missing a lot of stuff like Blue Pacific Ocean. I think Richard thought, “I’m not writing this for a Verve album. I’m going to keep it for myself for my next solo album.” so there is a few missing from there that should have been included, and it was only through flattery that some of the tunes got included at all. It’s a long time off, but Forth is the album I’m looking forward to reissuing most of all because of the B-sides and with everything included that should have been there. Hopefully, Richard will be hands-off with that one as well.
What songs are you most proud of when you look back over the whole Verve catalogue?
Nick: That’s a tricky question. I went through a period when I thought that the albums were artificial big statements, and because of that, I always liked the B-sides because there was no bombast about those. I have to see it in context with everything else—some of the things I might have dismissed as young people’s work. When we re-released A Storm In Heaven, there’s a track on there that we abandoned at the time called South Pacific. If you look at the thread between those three very different records, you can see that we were moving towards Urban Hymns anyway, with songs like So It Goes on A Northern Soul and South Pacific that recently got included in the Storm In Heaven box set. We have got a melodic pop sensibility and have never been a particularly experimental band. We’ve had an experimental approach to what we consider to be melodic pop music. We have had to make it interesting for listeners and interesting for ourselves over the years and sometimes been mislabeled as this psychedelic away with the fairies nonsense entity, which was never our agenda. We thought we were making pop music. I suppose things like Slide Away on the first record are very strong for 19-year-olds, and Si was probably 17 when he came up with his material, and it still stands up pretty well. I like So It Goes, Stormy Clouds, and A New Decade; there was some great riffs on those.
If the day came and you received a call from Richard Ashcroft to get the band back together because his solo career hadn’t gone as well as he expected and asked if you would like to get the band together for the third time. Would you be up for it?
Nick McCabe: I know I would never say no, but I don’t know about making another record with him. I don’t think I could, but I did try and instigate this at the beginning of 2016, knowing that he has not got any close friends that we share in common, so there isn’t any intermediary. Last time he got Pete (Salisbury) to give me the call. Once Pete had ascertained there were no hard feelings, the door was open, and then Richard walked through it basically, but we’ve not got Jazz Summers anymore, and Pete and Richard have had their falling out, so he’s not an intermediary.
In full knowledge of that, I called Richard at his home in January 2016 to say, “Look, if you wanna do it, it’s ok with me; I’ve got some idea of how this could work.” Thinking specifically about a handful of dates rather than touring commitments. I spoke to his wife for a bit, and I got the feeling that he was upstairs shaking his head, saying, “No, no, I’m not here!” (laughs) I never got the phone call back. The answer is I would never say no, but I would never be able to do what we did on Forth or Urban Hymns again. I think that boat sailed a long time ago, and it’s not something he would be willing to do at this point, I don’t think. Maybe when he’s 68.
I recently saw on Facebook that you were in the studio with Pete Salisbury and Si Jones. Could there be an instrumental Verve project happening?
Nick McCabe: I was trying to work out how we could do that without being a bit cheesy. A couple of things gave me a glimmer of hope. I was quite late in getting into Simple Minds’ early stuff and forming an appreciation for them. They were a really interesting band before they broke big, and the original band went out and did all those songs instrumentally. I was looking at Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, and I thought with the two early records, in particular, it makes sense that people might enjoy seeing those instrumentally. When Tortoise came out, I had more of a kinship with them than later on with Britpop, so I haven’t ruled out the idea of doing that. I had been talking to Si about it for a while, and he was enthused about it. Pete was always the difficult one because he had commitments to Richard. Even when he wasn’t doing something with him, he knew that it would be a problem for him to continue working with Richard where he was to come back to our camp because Richard does deem it that way. It’s him vs us scenario in his mind, so once that became wasn’t an issue, we started talking about working together. The only reason we haven’t done it is that it’s hard to pin everybody down simultaneously. Pete is working with The Charlatans now, and Si runs his rehearsal facilities up in Chester, and when he’s not doing that, he likes to travel a lot, so he’s very rarely about, but it’s on the cards.
I have been playing with Si in Black Submarine and various other things. Before Forth happened, we went in and wrote some stuff which Love Is Noise came out of. We have been working together sporadically over the years. At one point, I was going to do The Shining, which was Si’s band, immediately after Urban Hymns, but I was still pissed off with everybody at the time, and I managed even to alienate Si at that point in time, so that didn’t happen. At some point, we need to revisit all the things that we have done peripherally. I have always known that there was more mileage left in it. When Davide Rossi came on board for the Verve live shows, it was obvious that he was the next member of the Verve. As far as I was concerned, he could have brought a lot to the party had we continued. Black Submarine was really an outgrowth of us wanting to play together again. Pete (Salisbury) was supposed to be on board for that, but I think its politics eventually got the better of him, and he bowed out.
I enjoyed the Black Submarine album New Shores.
Nick McCabe: Nice one. It’s one of those records I knew it was good as I was making it. I couldn’t have been happier when I finished it. I suppose because nothing horrible had happened, that’s the problem when things start to deteriorate. You can’t disassociate the music from the situation, but we always got on, and it was a lot of fun making that record, and I still think it’s the best thing I have been involved in. I am really proud of it.
Are there any plans to follow it up with a second album?
Nick McCabe: There are, but they have been shelved in favour of wrapping what we have done as a collective into a couple of Eps and then the stuff that me and Amelia (Tucker) was writing never got fleshed out by the band.
What’s next for you musically?
Nick McCabe: Right now, there are a few things in the pipeline. There is the Emit Bloch thing which I have been working on and off for a couple of years, and I have done a couple of tunes with Daughter; eventually, that will see the light of day. Then there’s stuff with Amorphous Androgynous, Future Sound Of London, which will start dripping through, but I have five records ready to come out in terms of my personal music. One of them is all the academic work that I have been doing in the last few years, one of them is a delicate ambient thing which is finished and mastered and ready to go, and another thing is this dark ambient record but don’t play it in the dark (laughs) because it’s grim stuff. I have more beats-driven thing that I do. There are many guitar loops and things mainly to keep people happy because I know their reaction will be “where are the guitars?” when I put the other stuff out.
Suppose I put any one of those out in isolation. In that case, I know that the reaction is going to be, “what is this, and why are you doing this? Is this what you are doing now?” the questions are going to be of that nature, but if I make it a confusing proposition then people who are sufficiently interested in what I’m up to are going to sit down and work it out for themselves. I think ultimately, I have to think in terms of legacy these days that it will be good for The Verve because people will realise that the context is a bit broader than Brit-pop. These were people who were interested in different things, so it’s not a genre problem that I’ve got; it’s just I don’t want to have to explain them, really I want people to realise how much of that stuff there is and when new stuff comes out it’ll be interesting. It that’s your bag, then you know you have hit the jackpot cos I’ve got shitloads of it. Watch this space.
The re-mastered 20th Anniversary edition of Urban Hymns is out on September 1st via Virgin/UMC. Available as CD / Deluxe 2CD / Super-deluxe 5CD + DVD box / Super-deluxe 3LP box, it also comes with all of the accompanying b-sides, three hours of previously unreleased live material, the full May 1998 hometown show at Haigh Hall, Wigan (on both CD and DVD), and the documentary ‘The Video 96-98’, only ever previously available on VHS.
For more information on Nick McCabe, visit his Bandcamp.