Tag Archives: The Verve

With a Song in My Heart: B is for…

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve, 1997.

Back when I was still playing around with what kind of blog I was looking to write, and fancying part of myself a frustrated successor to Lester Bangs, I did a pretty comprehensive review of The Verve’s Urban Hymns album, which you can read here.  That of course was a clinical discussion of the music’s technical merits with little space given to personal reflection.  What I didn’t get into was how that album and this song in particular clobbered me out of a fog of complacency like an electric sledgehammer in 1997.

After my mother succumbed to cancer in the early spring of 1995, leaving my sister and I orphaned teenagers, I spent months trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was going to do now.  A little more on this “lost weekend” period when we get to the “O” song in a few weeks, but suffice to say it was months spent reeling, wallowing, sinking into a mire out of which I had no desire to climb, while faking a smile for the cameras and for the benefit of friends and family I did not want to see me as an inconsolable basket case.  I hid away in my garret of an apartment and wrote screenplays.  They were formless, profanity-heavy treatises of obvious anger and guilt, the only way I knew how to process the turmoil in my brain and the rift in my heart.  From the comfortable perch of twenty years’ distance I can laugh at them as examples of Graham’s Emo Period, to be sequestered forever in the Vault of Bad Ideas, but back then they were my lifeline, as was the non-Internet capable computer I was writing them on.  If nothing else, they helped me become a much faster typist, as my fingers had to learn to keep up with the gushing wellspring of angst.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as Verve fans know, is layered on a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”  I heard it for the first time while visiting my sister up at her university one weekend.  Having only a few soundtrack CD’s in my collection at the time, relying too much on a shoebox full of old mixtapes and being somewhat phobic of the radio, I wasn’t hearing much that was new, or, at least, non-orchestral.  But like so many others I was arrested instantly by the bold, melancholy string motif that introduces the song in a gentle crescendo, building to the moment Richard Ashcroft opens his mouth and lets the words pour out in a soulful torrent.  His first message isn’t terribly enlightened, or optimistic for that matter:  “Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.”  Indeed, I’ve read more than one review that has dismissed the lyrics as trite.  But as the strings continue to bow, the drums pound and the song evolves toward its multi-tracked vocal coda, something clicks.  As does the now-infamous music video, featuring the sullen Ashcroft walking a London street, so single-minded of purpose and destination he bumps into everyone he passes and ignores the young woman he flattens.

Being “a million different people from one day to the next” is rather what is expected of us in what can often be a bittersweet life, isn’t it.  Be the husband, the father, the best friend, the professional, the stranger, the lover, the fighter, the poet, the misanthrope, the shoulder, the cold shoulder.  Somewhere in that mass of contradictions, the cacophonous throng of a million different people, we find the truth of who we are, and it shifts like sand beneath our feet blown by the west wind.  In 1997, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was proclaimed an anthem, and for me, it still is.  I could recognize that although the place I was in was dark, it was not eternal, and that at some point the skies would lighten and the dawn would break, because there is that next day, and the opportunity to be another of the million different people – a better one.

In like a lamb

A perfect metaphor for March 1st, 2012.

Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing advice is, never open your book with weather.  So with apologies to Mr. Leonard and his learned wisdom, I’m starting off March with a few comments about the state of the climate.  It was not that long ago that I recall temperatures plunging to the minus twenties in the middle of February, jagged sheets of ice coating my apartment windows and blocking the view of the mountains of white beyond.  I’m not going to complain about a more modest than usual February heating bill, but this is ridiculous.  I’ve had to shovel the driveway exactly twice this entire winter.  I missed doing it so much I actually shovelled both my neighbours’ driveways just to get in the extra few minutes of cardio.  My better half’s allergies have been in overdrive all season as it never got cold enough to kill off the mould and spores of autumn rot.  And we did double-takes this morning when birds started chirping outside.  The geese have figured it out – they never flew anywhere this winter.  Think there could possibly be a relation to, well, I don’t know, um, global CO2 emissions being higher than ever before?  Nah, it’s sunspots.  We’re actually in a cooling phase.   It’s just Al Gore, Solyndra and the Islamofascisocialists trying to sell you solar panels.  Think I’ll fill my Hummer with Super-Hi-Grade and then run over a spotted owl.  Suck it, Mother Nature.  FREEDOM!!!

Yep, it’s gonna be one of those days.

I love the Search Engine terms tracker on the WordPress dashboard.  It is genuinely amusing to see how people find me, and I can’t help imagining the tremendous disappointment that must occasionally result.  I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of hits from people who saw The Grey and are looking for references to the “Live and die on this day” quote – that at least relates to something of substance.  I get a few from people searching for My Little Pony, The Verve, Coldplay, other search terms that happen to coincide with some of my random word strings, like “grahams wall of sound”.  But some of these other search engine terms are just plain bizarre.  The one that really made me laugh was “kesha good looking”.  Someone on the hunt for images of Kesha for what I’m certain are nothing less than the purest of purposes ended up here?  Granted some of what I write can hopefully be very thought-provoking, but those are definitely not the thoughts I’m trying to provoke.  Eeeww.  We won’t have none of that ‘ere, mate.  Keep calm and carry on.  Besides, silly rabbit, you should know that “Kesha” and “good looking” are not terms that relate.  Ooh, how catty of me.  Thanks, try the veal.

I wonder what it must feel like to have a voice that other people love to impersonate.  Do they ever listen to themselves and think, “good God, do I really sound like that?”  My own voice is quite unremarkable, so I enjoy dressing it up with different accents whenever the opportunity arises.  The other day I was watching a YouTube clip of Michael Caine doing an impression of himself, or more accurately, Michael Caine doing Peter Sellers doing Michael Caine.  It was all in good fun, of course, but how frustrating must it be that almost everyone you meet will be some wag who thinks he can “do you”?   As I’m certain even ordinary lads from Glasgow or Belfast must roll their eyes at attempts by continentals to affect their unique, history-nurtured tones.  One of the cardinal rules on whatever film set he happened to be working was that no one was allowed to impersonate Sean Connery, which I’m sure didn’t stop them from trying to slur “Missh Moneypenny” behind his back.  That is the problem, naturally – everyone thinks they can mimic Sean Connery and almost no one can pull it off.  The same goes for John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Johnny Carson and most of Rich Little’s repertoire.  Voice actors, I’m told, often start from a celebrity impersonation when they’re working up a new character.  The scratchy warbles of The Simpsons’ Moe the bartender began from what his performer Hank Azaria called a bad Al Pacino impression.  Somehow I doubt anyone will ever be accused of doing a bad Graham Milne impression – except maybe myself.

So what are my goals for this month?  Thirty-one days of possibility lie ahead, full of opportunity for both triumph and tragedy.  Gonna try to keep blogging as close to daily as I can, have a new screenplay to start working on, and, because I find that putting it out there publicly is a good way to motivate myself, I’m going to begin sending out my long-gestating novel to agents and publishers.  Hopefully the response will be as promising as that which has greeted my musings here.  If all goes well, maybe, by the 31st, I will, like the lion, have a good reason to roar.  Stay tuned!

Awesome Albums 1: Urban Hymns

As I suspect it was for most, my first exposure to The Verve was through the heavily-rotated music video for “Bittersweet Symphony” in the summer of 1997 – the weirdly compelling sight of this skinny, morose guy resembling an anime rendering of Mick Jagger, shambling down the streets of London’s East End and bumping into people, while wailing a surprisingly lush existential rock lament.  “Bittersweet Symphony,” as audiophiles know, is built from a sample of an old orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time.”  Due to the peculiar ins-and-outs of sampling rights, and the greed of the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein, The Verve were forced to relinquish all royalties from their biggest hit, and forfeit writing credits to Jagger and Richards.  But “Bittersweet” got people to buy the album – and enough people bought Urban Hymns to compensate The Verve for the bitter pill forced upon them by Klein.  Just as well too – listening to the entirety of the album, if you just picked it up on the strength of the lead track, is like finding an unexpected caramel centre inside your piece of chocolate.  You would expect that the remainder of the tracks couldn’t possibly live up to the heights reached by “Bittersweet” – that they do is one of the most enduring surprises in store.

A lot of great art has arisen from unhappiness and The Verve are no exception.  The English quartet (Richard Ashcroft, Nick McCabe, Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury) best known for their long psychedelic jams had already broken up once following the release of their previous album A Northern Soul.  In fact, most of the tracks on what would become Urban Hymns were written by singer Ashcroft for a potential solo album.  But the gang were persuaded to put their differences aside and give it one more go.  Lead guitarist McCabe’s unique, trippy style elevates some of Ashcroft’s more pedestrian lyrical inclinations to create songs that are deeply emotional but dreamy at the same time.  The album finds a decent balance between introspection and all-out rock:  songs like “Sonnet,” “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “One Day” lean toward the tender, while “The Rolling People” and “Come On” let loose with primal fury; the latter even features a wild Ashcroft screaming a cathartic release of profanity as the album draws to a close.  Those who grew up with the long-haired shoegazing iteration of The Verve will hear a tribute to their roots on the sole track bearing McCabe’s name in the writing credits, the aptly-titled wandering vibes of “Neon Wilderness.”  And the album’s middle section features a powerhouse trifecta that is as good as anything the Stones themselves ever cranked out:  “Space and Time,” “Weeping Willow” and “Lucky Man,” the latter of which no less a rock statesman than Bono once listed as one of the six songs from the last twenty years he wished he’d written.  It is by no means a perfect album; Ashcroft veers toward the treacle, some of his couplets are quite awkward, and he can occasionally come off like Captain Obvious in his emotional pronouncements.  But where he stumbles, McCabe and the others are there to pick up the slack, and the whole thing still manages to cook.

Ultimately, Urban Hymns contains enough treasure to be spread across three great albums, let alone this one solid, shining achievement – we listeners are lucky men ourselves that The Verve held together long enough to pull it off.  Nick McCabe walked away in the middle of their subsequent tour, and it would not be until 2007 when tempers cooled enough between Ashcroft and the other three to try being The Verve again.  The resulting effort, Forth, was a passable work, but only a glimmer of former greatness – whatever eclectic mix of ego and talent that had crystallized on the previous album wasn’t quite there this time, nor did it seem to be for the band, which promptly broke up again.  In latter years The Verve have been written off as a one-hit wonder.  But one would not dare set “Bittersweet Symphony” alongside the likes of “Disco Duck” or “Convoy” – The Verve have earned enough credibility with their signature song alone to merit a lasting berth in the echelons of rock.  Fifteen years and a few regrettable commercial uses later (Nike and Vauxhall ads and the closing credits of Cruel Intentions), “Bittersweet” remains poignant, moving and powerful, a radio staple, and if nothing else, a beautiful song – one far more sweet than bitter.