Luke Haines is an English musician and writer. He has recorded under the name of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. His books include the bestselling Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. His latest solo album, Smash The System, is out on Cherry Red Records on October 7, 2016. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his website.
Cards on table #1: I have had a lot of time for the Verve in the past. Their tour manager once lent me enough dosh to get out of a sticky situation involving airport security, a pathetic amount of hashish and the business end of a surgical glove. You get the picture. (Sorry.) I was also a fan of their big hits. Only the hits, mind you — the early stuff that sold about as much as my early stuff (not much), that shit can get tae fuck. The hits were where it was at for me. You see, throughout much of the ’90s and the early 2000s I shared a label — Hut Recordings — with the Verve/Verve front man Richard Ashcroft, and when Urban Hymns, their third album, went monster in 1997, I breathed a sigh of relief and quietly applauded from the sidelines. The Verve’s commercial success paid for my artistic freedom, and as long as they kept delivering the hits, I was free to explore my own particular bent (i.e. not delivering the hits). My own excellent Baader Meinhof concept album (1996) was paid for by the Verve’s burgeoning success. But that was a long time ago, and here we all are washed up on the uncertain shores of 2016 with only our rock & roll muse to save us. The past is another country and the (surgical) gloves are off. But before we begin, let me just say, “Thank you, the Verve.”
Sadly, there is very little for which anyone is going to thank Richard Ashcroft and his new solo album, These People. “Mad” Richard (as he was once known) was one of the great nitwit shamen1 of ’90s Brit rock (along with Ian Brown and Liam Gallagher). Up they popped, with their exhortations for the masses to “shine” and “shine on.” And “shine” and “shine on” the masses duly did, as post E-hangover beer boys slung arms around each other’s shoulders and sang together of mysterious “Wonderwalls,” “Champagne Supernovas” and how life is shit and then you die (“Bittersweet Symphony”). When it was all over, they trotted off — the nitwit shamen — to their newly acquired country piles, wearing their Prada flip-flops and their silly hats.
Within the first two seconds of These People, it is clear that the singer’s inner nitwit shaman has not bothered turning up to the recording studio. His inner nitwit has, though. Opening track — the ominously titled “Out of My Body” — is a disaster. It is, and this is no exaggeration, a solid contender for one of the worst album openers in the history of rock. (“Janie Jones” it ain’t.) A horrible Butlins club-lite backing track plops uselessly along as Ashcroft, one foot in the Euro-disco and one foot in his mouth, drawls away in a ridiculous all-purpose “American” accent about “Watergate” and other such nonsense. Imagine Hazel Dean performing to a backing track on a busted ’80s boom box, in a care home, and you’re halfway there.
Things improve measurably with the next track, the awfully titled yet pretty damn good “This Is How It Feels.” Ashcroft’s inner shaman is back, and this time he’s channeling Euro-pop gold. With a brilliantly inane2 hook of “Hey, hey, woah, woah,” Sir Dick has actually bettered Nena’s (almost) seminal 1983 track “99 Luftballons.” I check the press release and my Nena analogy is borne out by the fact that Ashcroft is also worried about “Syria,” “war” and “bad shit” in general. For a moment I think I may have got this album all wrong. By the time the next track flops out of the traps, I realise it’s not me that’s got it all wrong.
By now I’ve listened to five songs, each considerably blander than the one before. There are rhyming couplets — too numerous and appalling to quote — that would give even Noel Gallagher cause to raise an ironically quizzical eyebrow, all of this glued on to a feeble electro-lite production as directionless as a mob of fifty German tourists wandering around Leicester Square on a Saturday night. I’ve even — and I put the work in, dear reader — listened to a dreary ditty called “Hold On.” It takes me an enormous amount of willpower to listen to something as un-imaginatively titled as “Hold On.” I briefly contemplate the Herculean strength it must take to actually write something called “Hold On.” Then I stop briefly contemplating.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through now. The foot that was in plodding Euro-disco world has now wandered off into plodding acoustic guitar world. The foot that was in the mouth remains there. I feel myself going into a coma; luckily there is a screwdriver nearby that I use to stab myself in the head whenever I feel like I’m slipping over to the other side. I look bleakly at the track listing; I am only one song away from something called “Ain’t the Future Bright.”
“Not from where I’m sitting, pal,” I think to myself as I long for death’s sweet kiss.
Cards on the table #2: I really wanted to like this album. I like Richard Ashcroft. I think he’s a sincere artist, and the Verve had some great moments — even early solo single “Song for the Lovers” was cocksure and immense. These People is the opposite; it’s cockless and weak as a runt child’s piss. I suspect Richard Ashcroft knows this.
From the hip: I believe in the transcendent power of rock (now more than ever) and I know Richard Ashcroft does too. Rock & roll is for the losers, the ill, the lunatics, the spastics, the seers of visions, the disenfranchised, the terminal, the naturists, the shit-kickers, the beekeepers, the ugly fuckers, the nutters, the poets, the poet nutters, the ranters, the chancers, the foot painters, the Lovers of the Sacred Hare, the Johnny Too Bads, the faithful, the pantheistic masses. This record is, at best, mediocre. It does not speak to those who heed rock & roll. The Verve, whatever their faults, were righteous. This record is not righteous. Richard Ashcroft, sir — you have wasted rock. Please don’t do it again.
1“Nitwit shaman” in the context of rock & roll is meant entirely as a compliment.
2“Brilliantly inane” – also complimentary.