18 November 2008

Rock epic of the month: "Gravity Grave" (The Verve) 1992

Rock epics of the month is a series of posts where I'll look back on classic examples of what I think is the greatest excess of rock and roll - the rock epic.

Shoegazing. What a genre. And it appears to be back, under a term that I have come to deeply despise, "Nu-gaze".

Shoegazing got its name from a variety of bands from London and the Thames Valley who were known for plugging in, switching on, turning the amps up to eleven and playing their guitars through three or four hundred different effects pedals. The act of "shoegazing" itself seems to reference the inordinate amount of time that guitarists in these bands spent looking at the floor, no doubt more interested in their setups than interacting with audiences.

The acts that people seem to remember from this period were the louder bands, My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Swervedriver, however there were three distinct versions of shoegazing for which these bands really only formed the first, louder version.

(Never mind that Swervedriver really were more rock than shoegazing, anyway)

Version two was a poppier, upbeat sound characterised by early Blur, The Charlatans and the Boo Radleys. Blur would probably go on to reap the greatest success of these acts, however, it is interesting to note that really, only the Charlatans managed to last the distance.

And then there was version three. A druggy, slowed down sound that was best characterised by acts such as Slowdive, Chapterhouse and finally, in the last days of the movement, The Verve.

Simply "Verve" initially, The Verve would be forced to add the "The" to the start of their name when poncy wanker jazz label, Verve Records threatened them with legal action over the use of their name.

The Verve were still their original line-up here - vocalist Richard Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bassplayer Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury. "Gravity Grave" itself originally surfaced on their EP of the same name which was issued in October 1992. This blogger notices that Gravity Grave seems to have now become the title of a single from the Verve EP, even though that EP was issued in December of that year and contains horrible edits of both "Gravity Grave" and "She's a Superstar".

By the time that The Verve got around to issuing their initial recordings, shoegazing was on death row. The first of the new wave of Britpop was coming through, heralded by the likes of Pulp, Suede and Blur, who had long hated being lumped in with the shoegazing crowd and were well on their way to recording a single-finger salute to the scene in their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish.

Meanwhile, Ride were languishing, My Bloody Valentine had broken up, Swervedriver were looking to replace their rhythm section, and the rest of the shoegazing scene seemed to be in total disarray.

Enter The Verve, who really were quite unlike anything else that the scene had thrown up, up until this point. For starters, they were from Wigan. The Verve entered to a rapturous response from critics and other bands alike, which, in the British music scene, is normally considered a kiss of death. And it kinda was, eventually.

But anyway, on to "Gravity Grave". The Gravity Grave EP (their third release after two well-received singles) contained the full length version of this tune, which at 8:21 is a gobsmackingly beautiful piece of spaced-out meandering. Kicking off with an echoey bass groove courtesy of Jones, "Gravity Grave" quickly establishes where its going as McCabe lets rip on the guitar with some squalls of feedback and some quite loud harmonics all the way through.

Ashcroft's vocals are soft and understated all the way through, although he never ever really went berzerk except in a few places. And there's this vague sound like a harmonica all the way through, which is so far back in the mix, I'm not even sure if it actually even is that.

And to get an idea of the difference between The Verve and some of their peers, compare Salisbury's restrained sticks work to that of Loz Colbert (ex-Ride, now with The Jesus and Mary Chain) and Adi Vines and Jez Hindmarsh (both of various incarnations of Swervedriver) whose approaches seemed to be to beat the living snot out of their drumkits. Salisbury's light patter on the toms is quite a bit different.

The Verve went on to release one album in this sound (A Storm in Heaven) before reluctantly embracing the Britpop wave that had engulfed the UK by that point with their second and third albums, A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns, recorded with the addition of Simon Tong on additional guitar and keyboards.

They then broke up in 1999 before reforming in 2007, without Tong who had gone off to do a stack of work elsewhere, mainly with various projects of Damon Albarn's.

But here's some of "Gravity Grave". It's only four minutes of it, but it's really only had the last part slashed off it. Please sit back and enjoy.

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