Richard Ashcroft: 'I was the mouthy lead singer'

Richard Ashcroft playing with The Verve at Haigh Hall in 1998
Ashcroft says The Verve's Haigh Hall gig in 1998 was "my own version of Spike Island" [Getty Images]

"Most of my fame is based on people talking about songs or a gig they went to and a lot of the time, it’s minutes of my time to make someone happy."

As understatements go, Richard Ashcroft’s is something of a whopper.

Since he announced his talents with The Verve’s debut album A Storm In Heaven in 1993, his creativity, both while serving as the band’s totemic frontman and as a mercurial solo artist, has delivered a storming and often sensational selection of songs.

Few would deny him a little arrogance, not least because his magnum opus, 1998’s Urban Hymns, which spawned four Top Ten singles in the shape of Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Drugs Don’t Work and Lucky Man, remains one of the top 20 biggest-selling albums of all time in the UK, ahead of Adele’s 25, Ed Sheeran's X and U2’s The Joshua Tree.

And arrogance, thanks to the much-loved and often parodied video for Bitter Sweet Symphony which saw Ashcroft striding down a street while passers-by bounced off him, is what he has somewhat unfairly become known for.

A quarter of a century on from that, the ever-angular and stridently confident Ashcroft admits it was something he played up to at the time.

The Verve in 1996
The Verve, who formed in 1990, topped charts and played festivals across the world [Getty Images]

“I was the mouthy lead singer,” he says.

“It’s a sport, and there’s levels to it, and you want to be at the top, you want to be the Messi, and you want to be the George Best.”

He says it was about doing “everything with conviction”, which was fine “as long as it was not just empty arrogance”.

“There was a lot of people that got it wrong and tried but they had nothing to back it up with.

“I was like ‘I am going to write some of the best songs’.

“A few years later, I am walking all over the world hearing my song.”

Now in his early fifties, Ashcroft is much more sanguine than he was – and he is ready to pass on the wisdom of his years.

And in his sights, thanks in part to his son’s musical tastes and what he’s heard at home, is what he sees as the problems in today’s music.

“The youth have such easy access to a plethora of stuff, but they are very discerning now,” he says.

“My son loves Lana Del Rey [and] there’s a certain aesthetic and style and a quality with that, but they’re looking for other things after all the plastic stuff.

“In reality, we’re still human and we still want the good stuff.

“We still want quality, we still want the stuff that moves us.”

Richard Ashcroft playing with The Verve at Glastonbury in 2008
After splitting in 1999, The Verve reformed in 2007 and headlined Glastonbury the following year [BBC]

There’s no doubt that Ashcroft, with two Ivor Novello Awards for Songwriter of the Year and Outstanding Contribution to British Music, has the ability to provide what he believes is needed.

And he says he is determined to do so, as a way of repaying what he received as a teenager growing up in the shadow of Manchester’s vibrant music scene in the 1980s.

"The Smiths… Happy Mondays… these people were all relatively local,” he says.

“They were not from America, and I thought ‘these people are from Manc, I can get a bus to there’ and that had quite a profound effect.”

He says that despite being “banned from doing music at GCSE because I was naughty on the xylophone”, that wider musical schooling the region gave him spurred him to success.

"I won the lottery in the sense of when I got into music as I could go and see these people,” he says.

“It was such a beautiful education."

"It is important when you see people from the streets you live in, and it was the same for me watching the Stone Roses back in the day.

“You think ‘oh wow, maybe I could to this’.”

Richard Ashfcroft
Ashcroft says if his gigs brought further large shows to Wigan, that would be an "amazing legacy" [BBC]

He says passing on that spirit to a new generation of bands is vitally important to him in order to give them the confidence to follow in his footsteps, as he did with his heroes back in the early 1990s.

"When you first tell people you’re going to be in a band or creative, you get mocked a little bit, because you might not be amongst anyone who’s ever done it before," he says.

"But you have to be a pioneer [and] you also have to take control over your life and your destiny."

He says a major step in his efforts to inspire will be two shows at Wigan Warriors’ Robin Park, which have been titled simply as “The Homecoming”.

For Ashcroft, it will be a chance to relive memories of one of his favourite gigs with his former band.

In May 1998, more than 30,000 fans thronged on to Wigan’s Haigh Hall estate to witness what Ashcroft calls, in a nod to the “mythical” landmark show by Stone Roses eight years earlier, "my own version of Spike Island".

"It was a very celebratory day for the fans and the people and the locals,” he says.

“I was born in Billinge Hospital and when I stepped on to the stage, I turned around and I could actually see it in the distance.”

He says such was the effect of the show, which came at the height of The Verve’s fame in the months after Urban Hymns was released, that years later, “lads in the pub were like ‘if you see Rich, tell him nice one, because it just gave a sense of pride on that for the town’”.

“A lot of stories came from the Haigh Hall gig and it influenced a lot of people and inspired them a bit.”

Richard Ashcroft
The singer says in the years since Haigh Hall, there have been several attempts "to play again in Wigan, but it’s not been logistically possible" [BBC]

And it is that sense of pride he aims to bring back with his shows in July and hopes will roll into an annual series or festival that could boost Wigan’s economy and give local bands a platform.

“I am hoping that these gigs and potentially next year… could be something that the town puts on more often and can inspire the youth to form their own bands and do their own music,” he says.

And it is not just local musicians he wants to inspire.

"If we can prove that this can work, then I think Wigan is a great place for people from all over the North West to get to,” he says.

"It could be something that we could look back on and go ‘yeah, that’s where it started, that’s when Wigan, for the first time in years, became a focal point for music’."

That said he admits that the shows are not just about inspiration – they are also a celebration of his much-loved back catalogue.

“The Verve haven’t played or been together for years,” he says.

“It is an opportunity to see and hear those songs by the people who originally sung them.

“There’s been several attempts in that 25 years to play again in Wigan, but it’s not been logistically possible.

“So let’s get it on, let’s get it done.”

Richard Ashcroft: The Homecoming is at Robin Park in Wigan on 20 and 21 July.

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