It used to be okay to tell the press that you are the greatest band in the world; it was all the rage in 1997. Oasis, The Verve and Embrace often made the claim. It could be argued that the claims were even justified (except in the case of Embrace, of course). However, after such delusions of grandeur, it is apparently pretty hard to maintain a level of cool when you are no longer the greatest band in the room.
After a drawn out marketing campaign for fan club members only, which basically consisted of weekly emails asking “Are You Ready?” in a big red font, I was very excited about Richard Ashcroft’s fourth solo album last year. The Verve had inevitably split up for the third time but he had come up with a new band, “RPA and The United Nations of Sound” and gathered a bunch of LA super-contemporary session musicians and hip-hop producers.
Sure, it was the worst band name since The Alan Parson's Project, and none of his three previous solo albums had been groundbreaking, but maybe this would be the one. It wasn’t. It was a terrible and desperate attempt to sell records in which every song ran out of lyrics after a minute, and so repeated the line “I’m reborn” or “Na na na na na” for the remaining five. I now pretend it doesn’t exist.
In 1993, Ashcroft would creep around a smoky stage barefoot in a skinny t-shirt howling under low red lights. He had an effortless cool, like Jagger in the “Sympathy For The Devil” video, while behind him Nick McCabe and an unstoppable rhythm section created some of the most thunderous rock grooves since Led Zeppelin. The NME deemed him “Mad Richard” and hailed The Verve as “The Return of Rock and Roll”; a real band that could be deified and compared the greats, in the midst of lightweight Britpop acts trying to emulate The Kinks (see Dodgy, Space, Sleeper). The Verve had high ideals, their music would never appear on a TV commercial. When they controversially lost the songwriting rights to Bittersweet Symphony to The Rolling Stones, the song soon appeared on a car advert out of their control, to which Ashcroft proclaimed “Don’t buy Vauxhalls, their shit”. He was so inspiring to me that when Keith Richards (a man who himself knows a little about cool) said “If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money”, I stopped listening to the Stones for a year.
Ashcroft’s new material can be heard in a recent Volkswagen Jetta commercial and is being used by Fox News for baseball montages. Now Richard wears a red velvet suit (more Neil Diamond than Neil Young) and tries to work out how to sell records. He even sank to releasing a soccer inspired video to “Are You Ready?” in time to cash in on last year’s World Cup in South Africa. What changed? Maybe it was the drugs. Back in his psychedelic hey-day he claimed that he would always see life through a cracked pair of sunglasses due to the amount of chemicals ingested during the infamous Northern Soul sessions. Maybe he just stopped not giving a shit. The only person that still thinks Richard is cool is Chris Martin, who introduced him as “The best singer in the world” at Live 8, although admittedly at this point Martin hadn’t heard The United Nations of Sound.
Ashcroft’s soul mate Liam Gallagher is also pretty hard to take seriously these days. He used to strut out to a packed stadium full of rioting kids, dressed in a shabby Adidas shell-suit, as though he had walked straight from the Manchester council estate, and he was, well, the coolest man on earth. Fifty thousand people stared at him, and he stared right back, before ripping into the gloriously hedonistic “Cigarettes and Alcohol”. Now he spends his time working on his fashion label “Pretty Green”, playing in a sixties tribute act, and combing his meticulous and ridiculous bowl cut.
How is it possible that Thom Yorke, who used dip his spikey hair in hydrogen peroxide and run around art school in platform shoes, is now the coolest Britpop survivor? Probably because he never really gave a shit, and still doesn’t, clearly demonstrated in the sublime Lotus Flower video. The only other cool Britpop survivor is Jarvis Cocker, who is also always ready for some extraordinary dancing. I guess it’s easier to look cool when you are still making relevant music. Maybe The Verve will get back together for a third time and make something great. Maybe Ashcroft will buy back what he sold out, and forge an illustrious a solo career, or maybe I should stop giving a shit, and practice my moves.
The United Nations of Sound album gets its US release this week. But, for old time’s sake, here is Mad Richard at his best, before he stopped dancing…