LONDON -- The Verve's Richard Ashcroft, British rock's man of the moment, appears drained as he steps into a backstage room at the Brixton Academy concert hall on what should be a night of triumph.
It's two hours before the Brit Awards, the English equivalent of the Grammys, across town at the London Docklands Arena, and the Verve is the odds-on favorite to win best band and best album over such heralded rivals as Oasis, Radiohead and Prodigy.
Sure enough, the group took home both trophies, climaxing a remarkable comeback year in which its Urban Hymns album sold 5 million copies worldwide, thanks largely to the melancholy hit Bitter Sweet Symphony. The haunting single was featured in a high-profile Nike commercial in the United States and has subsequently leaped into the Top 20.
Yet Mr. Ashcroft, 26, is anything but joyful at the Academy, from which one of the songs in the band's concert that night will be shown live on the Brit Awards telecast. He is fried from months of nonstop touring and faces the prospect of yet another whirlwind trip to the United States. On top of that, the day's sound check ran late and there was a hassle over the lighting.
Not noticing a reporter sitting behind him, Mr. Ashcroft complains to a tour aide, "On top of everything, I've got to do some (expletive) interview."
It's an awkward moment as the aide diplomatically points out the reporter's presence.
Spinning around, an embarrassed Mr. Ashcroft says, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything personal. It's just that there's too much going on at the moment. It's been nonstop for months, and now we're supposed to go back to America for some more shows. It's just insane."
It's a common, even tiresome theme in rock in the '90s -- the difficulties of success. But Mr. Ashcroft isn't someone who has any desire to retreat from stardom, despite his momentary frustrations. Rather than feel uncomfortable when embraced by mainstream fans, as Nirvana and, initially, Pearl Jam did, a new cadre of British bands, including the Verve and Oasis, sees the acceptance as confirmation that their music is touching an audience.
"I don't see popularity as something to be afraid of," Mr. Ashcroft says later. "Most of the bands that I loved were popular, from the Beatles to the Stone Roses. It is the most exciting thing in the world to know that there is all this excitement over your record or your next concert.
"What bothers me isn't being No. 1, but the things that come with being No. 1. . . . Look at bands that get to this position and see how many get torn apart from the demands put upon them. . . . The constant touring, the obscene (tabloid) mentality in this country, the fight to preserve the integrity of your music."
Mr. Ashcroft touches on an important, often overlooked point in today's pop-rock scene when he talks about the importance of mental toughness.
"When I was growing up, I thought the only thing you needed to do was to make a great record and everything would take care of itself in music," Mr. Ashcroft says during the interview. "But what I thought was the finish line is just the starting point. There's a reason they call this the music business."
The ability to navigate treacherous industry waters is what has enabled U2 and R.E.M. to become fixtures in pop rock for almost two decades. Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis have made it to the edge of this contemporary elite, but none has shown the continued commercial and creative consistency needed to cross the line.
With the success of Urban Hymns, the Verve enters the list of contenders. In the album's best moments, Mr. Ashcroft writes about despair as convincingly as Neil Young did in Tonight's the Night, yet injects the songs with the accessibility and optimism that so often accompany the greatest pop-rock works. It's a delicate balance, but one that makes the Verve such a stirring force at a time when so much U.S. rock has become dominated by novelty and flash.
Equally important, the Verve has shown in its handling of potential crises regarding Bitter Sweet Symphony the mental toughness to suggest it can avoid the pitfalls that so often keep talented groups from reaching rock's top level.
Not only did the group and its manager persuade one of the record industry's most feared negotiators to change his mind and allow a sample of a Rolling Stones song to be used as the centerpiece of Symphony, but the band also avoided having the song licensed for a tacky commercial.
"The last thing in the world I wanted was for one of my songs to be used in a commercial. I'm still sick about it," says Mr. Ashcroft about the Nike experience. "But it could have been worse. If we didn't fight for the song, Symphony would have ended up in a cheeseburger ad and no one could ever have taken our record seriously again."
As Mr. Ashcroft sits backstage, it's easy to see why Spin magazine would describe the young Englishman as someone "who appears genetically engineered for rock stardom." His pouty good looks remind you of such '70s punk/new wave heartthrobs as Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine.
Mr. Ashcroft began planning early for a life in rock 'n' roll. He was still in his teens when the Verve made its public debut in 1990, but the roots of his ambition were formed earlier, when his father died in the early '80s.
The future Verve leader was just 11, and the death drove home the lack of opportunity for so many working-class youth in the Manchester area -- including the Gallagher brothers, who went on to form Oasis.
"My father's death showed how fleeting life is and how he had such little chance because of his background to make anything out of himself," Mr. Ashcroft says, slouched in a chair as if saving his energy for the concert. "He worked in an office for a while and had other jobs, but he was unemployed for a long time because of his health.
"And it wasn't just my father. No one in our family has ever done anything. They just didn't have the time or the options. And I didn't want it to happen to me."
Mr. Ashcroft's real breakthrough in music came when, at age 15, he saw the Stone Roses in concert. It wasn't just the music that stirred him, but also the fact that the group had working-class roots similar to his.
Soon after making its public debut, the original Verve lineup -- Mr. Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury -- made a demo tape that led to a record contract with Hut Records, a subsidiary of Virgin Records.
The band's first album, 1993's A Storm in Heaven, brought some early attention, but it wasn't until 1995's A Northern Soul that the group began exhibiting the songwriting craft that would characterize Urban Hymns.
Then, just when it seemed the Verve was headed for the top in England, the group fell apart. Although everything from drug abuse to the rigors of touring to clashes between Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. McCabe were cited in the 1995 breakup, Mr. Ashcroft says the biggest problems were immaturity and a lack of communication.
Disillusioned, Mr. Ashcroft went into a studio and poured himself into writing. It was during this period that he drew on the memory of his father's death to write Bitter Sweet Symphony. He framed the words brilliantly with a lavish string arrangement that built around a sample -- an actual sound bite -- from an obscure '60s instrumental version of the Rolling Stones' The Last Time.
After more than a year of experimenting with other musicians, Mr. Ashcroft patched things up with Mr. McCabe, whose guitar work brings an inspired musical edge to the Verve's work. With the band expanded to include second guitarist Simon Tong and with veteran British manager Jazz Summers as the band's new manager, the Verve looked forward to 1997 with confidence.
The Verve was rewarded for its faith in Symphony when the single entered the British charts at No. 2. last year, building enough interest in the album for Urban Hymns to sell 250,000 copies during its first week in the stores.
Weekly charts for the nation's best-selling recorded music as they appear in next week's issue of Billboard magazine. Reprinted with permission. (Platinum signifies more than 1 million copies sold; Gold signifies more than 500,000 copies sold.):
1.All My Life, K-Ci & Jojo (MCA)
2. Let's Ride, Montell Jordan featuring Master P & Silkk the Shocker (Def Jam)
3. Too Close, Next (Arista) (Gold)
4. Frozen, Madonna (Maverick)
5. Truly Madly Deeply, Savage Garden (Columbia) (Gold)
6. Romeo and Juliet, Sylk-E. Fyne featuring Chill (RCA)
7. Nice & Slow, Usher (LaFace) (Platinum)
8. Sex and Candy, Marcy Playground (Capitol)
9. Gone Till November, Wyclef Jean (Ruffhouse) (Platinum)
10. My Heart Will Go On, Celine Dion (Sony)
11. Body Bumpin' Yippie-Yi-Yo, Public Announcement (A&M)
12. No, No, No, Destiny's Child (Columbia) (Platinum)
13. Deja Vu (Uptown Baby), Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (Columbia) (Gold)
14. You're Still the One, Shania Twain (Mercury)
15. What You Want, Mase featuring Total (Bad Boy-Arista) (Gold)
1.Titanic soundtrack, (Sony Classical) (Platinum)
2. Let's Talk About Love, Celine Dion (550 Music) (Platinum)
3. Savage Garden, Savage Garden (Columbia) (Platinum)
4. Ray of Light, Madonna (Maverick)
5. Backstreet Boys, Backstreet Boys (Jive) (Platinum)
6. Moment of Truth, Gang Starr (Noo Trybe)
7. Pilgrim, Eric Clapton (Duck-Reprise)
8. Retaliation, Revenge and Get Back, Daz Dillinger (Death Row)
9. Love Always, K-Ci & Jojo (MCA) (Platinum)
10. Life or Death, C-Murder (No Limit)
11. Left of the Middle, Natalie Imbruglia (RCA)
12. My Way, Usher (LaFace) (Platinum)
13. Big Willie Style, Will Smith (Columbia) (Platinum)
14. Come On Over, Shania Twain (Mercury) (Platinum)
15. The Players Club soundtrack, (Heavyweight)
1.Bye Bye, Jo Dee Messina (Curb)
2. Perfect Love, Trisha Yearwood (MCA)
3. Then What? Clay Walker (Giant)
4. If I Never Stop Lovin' You, David Kersh (Curb)
5. You're Still the One, Shania Twain (Mercury)
6. This Kiss, Faith Hill (Warner Bros.)
7. Two Pina Coladas, Garth Brooks (Capitol)
8. Dream Walkin', Toby Keith (Mercury)
9. Out of My Bones, Randy Travis (DreamWorks)
10. Nothing But the Taillights, Clint Black (RCA)
11. Lonely Won't Leave Me Alone, Trace Adkins (Capitol)
12. Valentine, Martina McBride with special guest artist Jim Brickman (RCA) (Platinum)
13. I'm From the Country, Tracy Byrd (MCA Nashville)
14. Too Good To Be True, Michael Peterson (Reprise)
15. Just Between You and Me, The Kinleys (Epic)
1.Let's Ride, Montell Jordan featuring Master P & Silkk the Shocker (Def Jam)
2. All My Life, K-Ci & Jojo (MCA)
3. Too Close, Next (Arista) (Gold)
4. Body Bumpin' Yippie-Yi-Yo, Public Announcement (A&M)
5. Romeo and Juliet, Sylk-E. Fyne featuring Chill (RCA)
6. A Rose Is Still A Rose, Aretha Franklin (Arista)
7. No No No, Destiny's Child (Columbia) (Platinum)
8. It's All About Me, Mya featuring Sisqo of Dru Hill (Interscope)
9. Nice & Slow, Usher (LaFace) (Platinum)
10. What You Want, Mase (Featuring Total) (Bad Boy) (Gold)
11. Deja Vu (Uptown Baby), Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz (Columbia) (Gold)
12. Money, Power & Respect, The Lox featuring DMX & Lil' Kim (Bad Boy)
13. Rain, SWV (RCA)
14. Gone Till November, Wyclef Jean (Ruffhouse) (Platinum)
15. Do For Love, 2Pac featuring Eric Williams (Amaru-Jive) (Gold)
Modern rock tracks
1.The Way, Fastball (Hollywood)
2. Sex & Candy, Marcy Playground (Mammoth-Capitol)
3. Closing Time, Semisonic (MCA)
4. I Will Buy You a New Life, Everclear (Capitol)
5. Don't Drink the Water, Dave Matthews Band (RCA)
6. Time of Your Life (Good Riddance), Green Day (Reprise)
7. My Own Prison, Creed (Wind-Up)
8. Push It, Garbage (Almo Sounds-Interscope)
9. My Hero, Foo Fighters (Capitol)
10. Clumsy, Our Lady Peace (Columbia)
11. Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Verve (Hut-Virgin)
12. Shimmer, Fuel (550 Music)
13. Given To Fly, Pearl Jam (Epic)
14. Torn, Natalie Imbruglia (RCA)
15. Wishlist, Pearl Jam (Epic)
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