The Verve's A Storm In Heaven
Lights from Paradise
By Christopher Laramee
Emerging from seemingly nowhere, Wigan UK cosmonauts The Verve dusted us with A Storm In Heaven in 1991, arriving fully formed and choked on clouds of second-hand starpower passed down from an (already) imagined historical perspective of cosmic rock n' roll, encompassing Beefheart, Aphrodite's Child, Funkadelic and maybe even The Rolling Stones more "outre" moments, the breakdown in "Sway," perhaps, the epic groove of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" the way it rattles off to some inconclusive end- the real deal in other words, for those who care about such things. Also a top group to get wrecked to, they were (and ARE) a soundtrack for late-night views through the windshield glare of a 1989 Toyota Camry- you know, smoke some weed and fuck the world and all its bullshit. That sorta vibe.
So let me just say for the record that I was one of those teenage wasters obscured by a cloud of dope smoke in a 1989 Camry whose very soul was set alight by this album. Nothing seemed the same after I encountered it and, to the contrary of most of the groups I was listening to at the time, its stature in my head and ears has only grown larger with every passing year. And each successive immersion into its many layered reverbed recesses brings something else to the surface, be it a vague remembrance of some zoned-out reverie or, ocasionally, an entrance to another land, unexpected but always completely welcome. Really.
Emerging from the epicenter of Britain's Northern Soul movement, Wigan and its infamous dancer's paradise the Wigan Casino, our boys met up through school and hanging about. Richard Ashcroft, from day one, was the catalyst for this group, to look a little bit beyond their present circumstances and dream of something else to do. His recently deceased father's extensive record collection providing the road map, they embarked upon extensive pharmacological adventures with the above mentioned bands as a guide to tripping, skygazing and dreaming. And speaking of signposts to heaven, John Martyn's seminal echoplexed forays into innerspace, Solid Air and One World (among many others), cannot be underestimated for the effect they had on Nick McCabe's liquid guitar impressions. His sense of infinite space and wide-open vistas made him one of the most original guitarists the UK had thrown forth in years, on par with Martyn or Keith Levene (Public Image Limited) in terms of sheer originality.
But, let's remember, this is a band after all. And the rhythm section of Si Jones and Pete Salisbury were no slouches, laying down an unfussy and straightforward throb when required, but unafraid to tear the roof off when the situation arises.
So after hunkering down in their rehearsal space/ shrine, they emerge with some loosely arranged jams and do their first official gig at buddy Mark's birthday party down at the local pub, mid-August 1990. Emboldened with more than a little attitude, they play a rapturously received London gig a few months later and secure a deal with Virgin subsidiary Hut and proceed to put out three singles in quick succession, each one more blasted and warped than the one before. In order, "All In The Mind," "She's A Superstar" and "Gravity Grave" set out their stall rather magnificiently. Merging Pink Floyd's stately crawl across the multiverse with the sort of O-Mind jammage that only comes from some serious time spent together, The Verve show not only where they're at, but where they're headed. UP.
And with hearts aflame, our heroes embarked on the recording of their debut record, hoping to reach the heights of THEIR heroes, the Zepís, the Stones, Funkadelic, Dr. John, and so many more influences that were tearing a path through the speakers and minds of Ashcroft, Jones, McCabe and Salisbury as they imagined an escape strategy from the doldrums of their lives, looking for a way out, music industry considerations be damned. And I'll be horse-whipped if they didn't find it, this perfect evocation of teen doom, star-gazing beauty and wide open landscapes created by only the most basic guitar, bass, drums and vocals set up (with assorted saxes, flutes and organs, of course!) as the guide to mapping the final route to Heaven. Heady shit, I know.
Thank one John Leckie (producer) for steadying the ship and providing a steady hand for what transpired. His ability to fashion songs from what were endless jams proved to be essential for shaping an actual record from these green recruits, insofar as the record industry (that word again!) was concerned. Opener "Star Sail" floats in on a Nick McCabe guitar squall so sublime that whole albums (hell, careers) have been built on its vaporous foundations. Time stops, the ground cools and species are born in the pause before the ĎStormí (pardon my largesse). Then the band charges in, commanding attention and fealty to the electrical firestorm constructed around McCabes' circular melodic line, Ashcroft babbling nonsense to Gods known and unknown. Check it:
Been circling round for twenty years
And in that time I've seen all the fires and all the liars
I've been calling home for twenty years
And in that time I heard the screams rebound to me
While you were making history, I could see the fire...
- "Star Sail"
Yup, gets me too. Who gives a fuck 'bout the exact meaning of those lines. All I know is that it sums up the way I felt as a twenty one year old wastrel, fucking about and not really giving a shit about anything beyond the next sunrise, sorta intuiting that the game was fixed, no-one cares, etc, you may as well stare at the stars and drop out, cause this world's a con, just like you already knew...
Unmoored. That's the word that I keep coming back to that seems to best sum up this hermetic listening experience. That and "private," a very singular wander through a certain headpace I was in when I encountered this. It still tingles me, and though the years have passed by, the shivers I get from already there still resonate and enthrall, Nick's guitars waft up to the ceiling only to crash in with the rhythm section on the bludgeoning chorus.
Ashcroft's improvised rant and moan gets elemental and also provides an elegantly spaced narrative to the tumultuous roar surrounding him. Certain sentences leap out, such as "You can do anything you want to, all you gotta do is try..." or " I heard the screams and all the wild eyes... you know what I meannnnn...." Sure, dilated on acid and smoked to shit the man may be, but his words do dovetail nicely with the languid racket. Unmoored, again. Free-floating, even. And there's a picture of my younger self sparking bowl after bowl in Mike's Camry, getting truly lifted and staring at the city lights like they're brand new again. Yeah, it's happening. Something's happening somewhere. Dreams of the future. Yeah, those things.
Another line, "Betcha could If you wanted to...", repeated over and over until the flute answers back at the end of "Virtual World," another stunner of epic proportions that sounds like it was recorded on a prairie back road outside of Saskatoon, so wasted and real. There it is again, that wide-open feeling, things beginning. Shit yeah, I can do anything I want! And all I want is to be in the most spaced band signed to a major label in years. Done! And I'm gonna be as big as Mick and Keef, yeah man! Well, Richard, you're gonna have to wait a few years for that...
(and, by the way, the following records A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns will not be discussed here. These are albums I am quite fond of, A Northern Soul's ripped highway wander being a favorite. Not so much Richard's MOR-leaning tendencies flowering on Hymns, though its still got a couple of barnburners on it, thanks to Nick. But anyways...)
Again, mad props to Leckie for pulling this one out of the fire and giving it some of the edits and glow that this record definitely required. I still would like to hear some of the unedited sessions, though. In the era of special editions and whatnot, this should happen easily, should'nt it? Well, maybe they burned the tapes in some ecstacy fuelled escapade in a forest, I dunno. Also, the Microdot sleeve is a real pleasure to behold, Brian Cannon and associates being responsible for many of the best covers of the era (Suede, Oasis and others).
And so I will conclude with my own "mad" rant. In the current shoe gaze revival (but it never REALLY goes away, does it?), space is given to lesser lights, rarities that, a song or two aside, should never have been excavated and reissued. I will name no names here but the shit is piling up lately (labels, you KNOW who you are!). So, reissue this fucker already! Oh, I know they sold a couple records so their hipness is little to nil. So I guess this is directed at whoever owns the rights to this, god knows who in the current music industry climate. Everyone else, roll a number, make some tea, whatever does ya and drop out to one of the great records. A world beater, if there ever was one.
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