Before they started The Verve, Richard Ashcroft, Simon Jones, Nick McCabe and Peter Salisbury used to gather in an old car, high above the hillsides around Wigan, gazing down over the town and wondering how they could avoid the anonymity that destiny seemed to be presenting them with. Their solution was to form a band, but even the wild-eyed dreamers couldn't have possibly guessed just how far that band would take them.
In fact, The Verve have given us four fantastic albums - including Urban Hymns, the fifth fastest selling British album ever on release and one of the landmark releases of the Nineties. There have been some stunning gigs, no more so than their recent triumphant headlining performance at Glastonbury '08. They play "music of the spheres," which strives to break out of the stratosphere and yet is laced with a brutally down-to-earth, gritty realism that understands the hopes and fears of their worldwide audience but challenges them to accompany the band on a quest for something greater. When the words of Bitter Sweet Symphony power out across a venue, the lyrics "It's a bitter sweet symphony, this life, you're a slave for money, then you die" are transformed from what should be a depressing statement into an uplifting cry of celebration and of seizing the moment, something The Verve can never be accused of failing to do themselves. As the cover of 1995 single History spelled out The Verve's manifesto is "Life is not a rehearsal." Individually and collectively, they challenge themselves and their enormous audience to get the most out of it we can, and live for the instant.
This belief in spontaneity and the here and now is particularly evident in their explosive live shows. It manifests itself in thrilling improvisation as set lists are rearranged at will and songs blast off to wherever they want to take them. Critics and fans alike recognise a band who individually are people like you and me, but collectively are Out There.
The Verve are all highly-accomplished players. Ashcroft is as inspiring and other-worldly as ever, Liverpool-born Jones's dub-informed bass takes The Verve's music far beyond rock and into space; Salisbury plays drums more like a jazz great than a conventional rock drummer and when the tag "guitarist of his generation" is thrown about it often lands at the feet of the hugely adventurous, psychedelic, exploratory McCabe. However, when they are together a metamorphosis takes hold that transcends the four people onstage to blast The Verve somewhere else entirely and this chemistry and spontaneity has survived an absence of almost a decade.
That these four people had an extra-special musical bond was obvious when the line-up made the very first Verve album, A Storm In Heaven, in 1993. Many bands peak with their debut, but The Verve's first offering is a very important step along their way, featuring the band at their most free and inventive. Hooks weren't in short supply, however, and it's no surprise that Gravity Grave and the trancelike Already There often still feature in the live set.
The Verve's second album '95's A Northern Soul, considered by many a masterpiece. It was named partly in honour of the mad soul all-nighters at Wigan Casino but formed out of some of the most extreme experiences on the Verve's own journey - mortality in general, late night drives around Wigan and playing Chic and Funkadelic. This Is Music - which kicked off their first gig in a decade, last year, in Glasgow - is The Verve at their most high octane and ferocious. Another favourite, the dub-spacey Life's An Ocean, ponders the future as terrifyingly as a George Orwell novel or Stanley Kubrick film, offering the spectacle of a future where humanity has been reduced to the commercial transaction of "buying some feelings from a vending machine." But A Northern Soul is the sound of a band refusing to accept fate, bitter blows, constraints or human limitations, laughing in the face of disaster with some of their most driven and distinctly humane music, which still figures largely in their live shows to this day.
And so to Urban Hymns, the album that took The Verve from Wigan to the world - going platinum in the States and receiving Q magazine's inaugural Classic Album award in 2007. More song-oriented than previous albums - although still with a place for cosmic Verve songs in the shape of The Rolling People and Space And Time it sold 5 million copies worldwide. Bitter Sweet Symphony's huge orchestral groove took the band to another level altogether; The Drugs Don't Work shot to Number One and along with Sonnet and Lucky Man, Urban Hymns became the soundtrack of that time.
A band like The Verve would never settle for easy nostalgia. Even before they'd set out on their initial comeback gigs last year, which sold out within an astonishing 20 minutes, they made public the results of their very first jam session as a reformed band. The Thaw Session comprised 14 wondrous minutes of music which signified their ability to spark off one another remained undimmed. Soon afterwards, the band debuted new song Sit And Wonder - a top tune trimmed from a 25 minute wigged out jam, just as they would in the early days. Those comeback dates proved so successful and were so enthusiastically received that the band immediately embarked on a full-scale tour of arenas in December, playing bigger gigs in many cases than the first time around.
Since then, they have been buried away in the studio, jamming and honing dozens of songs to produce a monumental album entitled "Forth". That it is every bit as good as the most hopeful fans could possibly have imagined is the cherry on the cake, Forth taps deeply into what fans refer to as "old Verve" - the cosmic jams that first emerged on A Storm In heaven and A Northern Soul. However, tracks like Sit And Wonder and Appalachian Springs combine this with hooks as strong as anything in their catalogue. Nick McCabe's guitar has not exhausted its supply of magic dust, while the Jones-Salisbury rhythm section sounds as powerful as ever. In a way, it is perfect Verve.
Lyrically, Richard Ashcroft is once again in the familiar role of a seeker of truths, asking the big questions about life, the universe and everything, but perhaps with a keener urgency than before.. The songs are haunting, insightful and hymnal. The first single to be taken from the album, the progressive Love Is Noise, a rampaging epic built around a sample and the line "Love is noise, love is pain, love is this blues I'm singing again" every bit as memorable as the chorus of Bitter Sweet Symphony. The song closed The Verve's triumphant Glastonbury headline, a tour de force which had fans in raptures and even previously uncommitted bystanders talking about how The Verve were a force to be reckoned with.
The quartet are different people to the wild-eyed explorers of the 1990s. They're apparently less prone to wild adventures on psychedelic drugs but they remain restless souls infatuated by making music that will lift them - and those listening - out of the everyday and into a form of transcendence through music. Judging from the quality and variety of the new songs they're already unveiling, their ability to do this remains undimmed: the famous chemistry and turbulence is still there even though none of us know quite where it will take them next. Whatever happens when the four musicians take the stage again, it's another opportunity to strap on seat belts, hold on for the next twist and turn in the roller coaster journey and witness what on its day is the best live band in the universe. In the words of one of Ashcroft's old favourite onstage incitements - which provided a song title for another belter on Urban Hymns - "COME ON!"