Before they started the Verve, Richard Ashcroft, Simon Jones, Nick McCabe and Peter Salisbury used to gather in an old car high above the hillsides around Wigan, gazing down over the town and wondering how they could avoid the anonymity that destiny seemed to be presenting them with.
Their solution was to form a band, but even the wild-eyed dreamers couldn't have possibly guessed just how far that band would take them.
In fact, the Verve have given us three fantastic albums - including Urban Hymns, the fifth fastest selling British album ever on release and one of the landmark releases of the Nineties. There have been some stunning gigs, both in tiny pubs in Wigan on the way up or the mammoth 33,000 capacity Haigh Hall back in their hometown once they'd been around the world. They play 'music of the spheres,' which strives to break out of the stratosphere and yet is laced with a brutally down-to-earth, gritty realism that understands the hopes and fears of their world-wide audience but challenges them to accompany the band on a quest for something greater. When the words of Bitter Sweet Symphony power out across a venue, the words 'It's a bitter sweet symphony, this life, you're a slave for money, then you die' are transformed from what should be a depressing statement into an uplifting cry of celebration and of seizing the moment, something the Verve can never be accused of failing to do themselves. As the cover of 1995 single History spelled out, the Verve's manifesto is 'Life is not a rehearsal.' Individually and collectively, they challenge themselves and their enormous audience to get the most out of it we can, and live for the instant.
This belief is spontaneity and the here and now is particularly evident in their explosive live shows, which reflect how the band are feeling at the time. Not a band who could ever be accused of faking, the Verve live experience can run anything from cutting sets short after two songs (as they were known to do in their early days) if the feeling isn't there, to playing 45 minute jams of songs if they felt like it or even conversely walking away from the band entirely when things haven't been right. However, generally it manifests itself in thrilling improvisation as setlists are rearranged at will and songs blast off wherever they want to take them, a quality prevalent in jazz and Sixties rock but which has been all but lost among the sterile, formatted rock bands of today. Thus, when they are together and on form, few if anyone can touch them. Critics and fans alike recognise a band who individually are people like you and me, but collectively are Out There.
Something happens when the Verve are together that none of them experience when they are apart. Individually, the Verve are all highly-accomplished players. Singer Richard Ashcroft has been called 'the greatest singer in the world' by no less a peer than Coldplay's Chris Martin. Liverpool-born Simon Jones's dub-informed bass takes the Verve's music far beyond rock and into space and dub; Peter Salisbury plays drums more like a jazz great than a conventional rock drummer and when the tag 'guitarist of his generation' is thrown about it often lands at the feet of the hugely adventurous, psychedelic, exploratory Nick McCabe. However, when they are together a chemistry takes hold that transcends the four people onstage to blast the Verve somewhere else entirely and this chemistry and spontaneity has survived an absence of almost a decade. Already, since their typically unpredictable 2007 reunion, live shows have been running the gauntlet of everything from material so new that Ashcroft has been singing the words from scraps of paper to long-lost, hazy B-sides like Let The Damage Begin and A Man Called Sun, amid all manner of musical fireworks. When they take the stage, literally anything can happen.
However, at the same time their unpredictably fantastic voyage has been a similarly rollercoastering very bumpy ride. Along the way, there have been trashed hotel rooms, broken relationships, fallouts, rumpuses, mental illness, tales of mind-boggling psychedelic drug abuse, hospital stays and even a performance with a drip feed hanging from a Verve musician's arm. The band have split up not once but twice, but always come back for more - even if this time it's taken them a bit longer to do it. But all these extremes have helped shape the turbulence in the music and the Verve wouldn't have it any differently. Indeed, its been this way ever since the quartet met at college in Wigan and set off on their musical journey while still in their teens.
Seeing the Stone Roses in 1989 was the catalyst for the band's centrifugal belief that apparently ordinary northern young men could reach a whole new potential through music if they have enough Herculean self-belief. When the Virgin Records talent scout who discovered the band first encountered them playing in a Wigan pub he glimpsed a band who were treating a tiny room as if it were Wembley stadium and treating music as if it were a personal crusade.
Perhaps there was always something different about the Verve. Onstage, as much a spiritual shaman as a rock singer, Richard Ashcroft often looks and sounds as if he is trying to break out of himself and confront life's Bigger Questions, and it has been this way ever since his father died - from a brain haemorrhage - when the Verve man was very young. He once memorably confessed that the incident led him to 'question life and society' when other kids were playing with their Action Men - and has said that the incident gave him the 'sense of urgency' he has brought to creating music. Similarly, in the music of Jones, McCabe and Salisbury you can almost literally hear them breaking out of their surroundings - something that may or may not be a legacy of striving to avoid a future of employment at the local baked bean factory or quantity surveying for Nick McCabe - which Wigan presented them with all those years ago.
That these four people had an extra-special musical bond was obvious when the line-up made the very first Verve album, A Storm In Heaven, in 1993. Many bands peak with their debut, but the Verve's first offering is a very important step along their way, featuring the band at their most free and exploratory. Hooks weren't in short supply, however, and it's no surprise that Gravity Grave and the trancelike Already There, to name just two, still feature in the live set. However, even this string set was superseded by the Verve's second album, and what many consider their masterpiece. 1995's A Northern Soul was named partly in honour of the mad soul all-nighters at Wigan Casino but formed out of some of the most extreme experiences on the Verve's own journey - as vitriolically and emotionally documented on the symphonic single History.
This Is Music - which kicked off their first gig in a decade, last year, in Glasgow - is the Verve at their most high octane and ferocious as the song manages to tackle both the class system and the band's belief in the power of guitars and drums into four pulverising minutes. Another favourite, the dub-spacey Life's An Ocean, ponders the future as terrifyingly as a George Orwell novel or Stanley Kubrick film, offering the spectacle of a future where humanity has been reduced to the commercial transaction of 'buying some feelings from a vending machine.' But A Northern Soul is the sound of a band refusing to accept fate, bitter blows, constraints or human limitations, laughing in the face of disaster with some of their most driven and distinctly humane music, which still figures largely in their live shows to this day.
And so to Urban Hymns, the album that took the Verve from Wigan to the world - going platinum in the States and receiving Q magazine's inaugural Classic Album award in 2007 even if making it ten years earlier had proved so demanding that the band split briefly during the process and again shortly afterwards. More song-oriented than previous albums - although still with a place for cosmic Verve songs in the shape of The Rolling People, Space And Time and the epic, chaos theory-drenched Catching The Butterfly - its sold 8 million copies worldwide and the song list still reads like a list of standards. Bitter Sweet Symphony's huge orchestral groove took the Verve into clubland; The Drugs Don't Work shot to Number One and both that and Sonnet and Lucky Man (the sound of the Verve acknowledging 'the fire' in their hands) have long been buskers' favourites. Equally, who could ever have imagined Verve songs being covered by acts as diverse as ex-Skunk Anansie singer-rapper Skin, American steel guitarist-songwriter Ben Harper or Aussie grunge band Grinspoon or innumerable bedroom-bound would-be's on YouTube - as The Drugs Don't Work has been?!
However, after an absence of almost a decade these songs are again being played, as they should be - by the Verve themselves. The individual members have not been slouches. Richard Ashcroft has enjoyed a successful and prolific solo career. Simon Jones formed a band, the Shining, who were not altogether dissimilar to the Verve, and has played with Damon Albarn's Gorillaz. Nick McCabe has been remixing and playing with everyone from the Beta Band to John Martyn while Peter Salisbury has been playing with Ashcroft, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and has further diverted his musical obsessions into running a Stockport drum shop. However, all seem to have realised what their enormous fanbase has been telling them all along. That today, as much if not more than ever, music really needs the Verve.
However, a band like the Verve would never settle for easy nostalgia. Even before they'd set out on their initial comeback gigs last year, which sold out within an astonishing 20 minutes, they made public (via the NME website) the results of their very first jam session as a reformed band. The Thaw Sessions comprised 14 wondrous minutes of music, which signified their ability to spark off one another remained undimmed. Soon afterwards, the band debuted new song Sit And Wonder - a tune trimmed from a 25-minute jam, just as they would in the early days, a taste of things to come. Those comeback dates proved so successful and were so enthusiastically received that the band immediately embarked on a full-scale tour of arenas in December, playing bigger gigs in many cases than the first time around. In 2008, they look set to up the ante even further, by appearing at many of the major festivals and, in a turnaround that would have seemed unthinkable even a year ago, releasing their enormously-anticipated fourth album. The band have reportedly amassed dozens of songs. Simon Jones recently described some of them. 'There's Appalachian Springs, which is a song of Richard's, just three chords going round and round so we can still jam through it as a band. Mona Lisa is a much more strictly written, Richard type of thing.' A song called Judas was another full band jam. Jones compares another tune, Rather Be, to Bitter Sweet Symphony in that it's got a string line all the way through. 'But it's nothing like it. That's a pretty strong one.' The results will almost certainly be worth the wait.
The quartet are different people to the wild-eyed explorers of the 1990s. They're apparently less prone to wild adventures on psychedelic drugs, married and with moderately sensible haircuts but they remain restless souls infatuated by making music that will lift them - and those listening - out of the everyday and into a form of transcendence through music. Judging from the quality and variety of the new songs they're already unveiling, their ability to do this remains undimmed: the famous chemistry and turbulence is still there even though none of us know quite where it will take them next. Whatever happens when the four musicians take the stage again, it's another opportunity to strap on seat belts, hold on for the next twist and turn in the roller coaster journey and witness what on its day is the best live band in the universe. In the words of one of Ashcroft's old favourite onstage incitements - which provided a song title for another belter on Urban Hymns - 'COME ON!'