The Verve and Nick McCabe's guitar sound
Lime Lizard, July 1993
It's been said, many times before, that the mark of a great record is that it reminds you of other great records, reconnecting you to the score of rocks past. That, however doesn't make a record great it merely makes it great bounded by quotation marks because all it qualities have already been defined. As with Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque or Black Crowes The Southern Harmony..., their existence is only made possible by the fact that their ceiling has already been set. If you're willing to hook into the past, the first casualty is invariably the will to escape. Rather than people who are fixated on rock's legacy, maybe we should look to those who are mesmerised, those who can allow us to glance off the map,into uncharted territory.
This is Verve's Richard Aschroft:
"Anyone can pick up a guitar and play Heroin by the Velvet Underground, but not everyone who picks up a guitar can create something that sounds fresh and new. What's the point of closing yourself in when you've been given the chance to make music? Maybe you'll make only one record in your life, that's the way we see it when we record. We record as if it's the last thing we're ever going to do, purely because you get the most out of yourselves. It's not in a muso way, it's just in an expanding way, and not being afraid to use certain sounds, certain instruments. Maybe with the new LP, A Storm In Heaven, and a few records that have proceeded it, the doors are finally being broken down as far as expression on record, and expression as far as the band are concerned. The way I look at it is that it's time for people who want to create to create, and people who want to be out there in mediocrity to sink."
Verve aren't sinking, they're floating several miles high, drifting way beyond any reference points that may have called them into being. A Storm In Heaven isn't just a "great" record, it's a great "great" record, one that reminds you of records you've never even heard, and makes you dream of records that might one day exist. Verve reach out, not to plunder trinkets from rock's past, but for the sheer task of reaching out, as if the act alone gives rise to the concep of a future, a future defined only by the thirst for it, as real and yet as indefinate as the light emanating from a projector lens as it disperses into space.
An Appreciation Of Nick McCabe
When editor of 'Guitar' magazine, Michael Leonard, contacted us to ask about using some of our Chris Potter interview in his magazine's big Verve cover story, he kindly offered to write an appreciation of Nick McCabe's guitar playing as he is a big fan. It isn't intended as a tribute to Nick or anything like that, it's just an informative look at Nick's work by someone who knows something about guitars and all the opinions expressed are Michael's own. Thank you Michael.
Oasis and A Northern Soul producer Owen Morris has called him 'the most gifted musician I've ever worked with'; Verve bassist Simon Jones once pleaded with a guitar journalist to 'tell him he's fantastic. I think he's the greatest guitarist around and he won't have it. Tell him! He's amazing!' He is Nick McCabe, and for all the column inches devoted to Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft, the quiet guitarist is arguably the true architect of The Verve's unique sound.
Ashcroft reportedly described McCabe's sound as a 'whole new universe' when he first heard the guitarist playing in a Wigan practice room before the band's formation; eight years later with the release of Urban Hymns, and despite the pair's temporary falling out in 1995 and McCabe's recent withdrawal from live appearances, Ashcroft reiterated his debt to McCabe in shaping the Verve's sound 'I love Nick McCabe, 'the singer insisted, 'and I never want to be in band if he's not playing the guitar. I hope he thinks the same way about me. We just needed time to realise it.'
On Verve early releases, from debut single All In The Mind to the debut LP A Storm In Heaven, McCabe's playing relied heavily on delay and chorus doubling effects to build up a formidable wall of sound. Some thought McCabe's 'ethereal' style betrayed the influenced of '80s indie legends The Cocteau Twins and early '90s shoegazing kingpins My Bloody Valentine, even the prog-rock-ish textures of Pink Floyd's veteran guitarist David Gilmour. In a rare interview, McCabe insisted his primary influences came from a much more unique sources.
'When I was 14 or so I listened to a lot of Joy Division, I loved the textures of their records, but now it's more John Martyn, his '70s albums in particular; that's where my textured guitar playing comes from, honestly. I had Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd forced on me when I was younger, and although I tend not to listen to that sort of thing now, I guess it's lodged in my brain. I won't say that bands like the Cocteau Twins were not an influence, but that's not the sort of stuff I really likeŠ I like Vini Reilly (from The Durutti Column) because he could be flashy, but he was really simple about it. I also like Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel who, to me, condensed the best bits of Jimi Hendrix. You can probably hear all my influences in what I play, whether it's recent stuff or old blues records.
'It's all about sound,' he continued. 'I think guitar players who strive for technical excellence have lost the plot really. The whole point of the electric guitar started when Charlie Christian plugged his guitar into an amplifier to make it sound like a saxophone or whateverŠ and if I can press some button in the studio to make my guitar come up with a new sound then what's so bad about that? It's like the whole idea that techno isn't "proper" music 'cos they can't play instruments is so short-sighted. That's surely where new music comes from.'
On those early Verve recordings, McCabe made full use of delay effects to transform his relatively sparse playing into a full, atmospheric wash of sound; at first it was two vintage units, a Watkins Copicat and a Roland Space Echo (a picture of a Space Echo later featured on Verve merchandise t-shirts, though this one belonged to Simon Tong): both the Watkins and Roland echoes are tape units, whereby the notes are recorded on 'standard' magnetic tape and then played back after a small delay to fill out the sound. By the time Verve recorded A Storm In Heaven, McCabe was using a digital unit, a Roland GS-6, which uses microchip technology and records then repeats the notes in much the same way as any modern sampler. His guitars on early Verve recordings were a red Gibson ES-335 semi-acoustic (since 'retired' after the neck snapped off at a Las Vegas gig), a Fender Stratocaster Standard and, occasionally, a Fender Jazzmaster (McCabe was inspired to buy one after hearing Television's Tom Verlaine). For amps, he used a Mesa/Boogie MkIII (an American valve amp, giving a full, warm distorted sound) and a Roland Jazz Chorus (a Japanese transistor/microchip driven amp, offering a cleaner, more brittle and treble-y tone, with built in chorus doubling effects).
More important than the actual technology is how McCabe uses it. At the time of A Storm In Heaven, he explained, 'the way I come up with new ideas is just by dribbling guitars over everything and pick out something that makes sense. John Leckie (ASIH producer) was sampling stuff I'd played and looping bits and it sounded great.' McCabe is well known for rarely playing the same guitar lines twice, and it is this which gives The Verve their unique unpredictability when playing live. For those who complain how McCabe doesn't jump around when playing live (hello RAFT list!) it is simply because he is often not reciting the guitar parts heard on the records but improvising new parts and textures as the songs uncoil. As well as being brave in a gig setting, this requires McCabe to concentrate on his effects and amp settings, meaning he spends much of every gig monitoring his effects rack LED readouts and altering his footpedal settings.
On 1995's A Northern Soul, McCabe's guitar style toughened up. In tandem with the less-blissful, strung-out themes of Ashcroft's lyrics, McCabe toned down his use of effects, cranked up the amps and played with a stronger blues and heavier rock influence. Even so, he insisted, 'I'm playing the St Helen's blues. There's no Mississippi in me at all.' He also distanced himself from the prevalent trend for British guitar players at the time to play and draw on the influence of '60s blues rockers like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. 'I'm not trying to sound 65 years old, it's not this retrospective thing,' he sniped. 'Listen to (The Stone Roses')John Squire on The Second Coming and you can almost hear the taste barriers go up. He's become too obsessed with this idea of what a good guitar player should sound like. He's lost the plot really, hasn't he?'
While the likes of A New Decade, This Is Music and No Knock On My Door showed the heavier rock side to McCabe's playing, new directions on ANS included the wah-wah pedal driven title track (showing the influence of Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel) and the delicate bluesy bends on Drive You Home, while his live tour-de-force Life's An Ocean/Stormy Clouds showed a mastery of improvising other-worldy guitar sounds. Listen, in particular, to McCabe's control of feedback (created when an amp is turned up high and the player stands close by, with the guitar parallel to the amp's speaker), and how he makes the guitar wail while barely picking the strings.
ANS producer Owen Morris was amazed by McCabe's creativity in the studio, particularly that he created such a huge sound without numerous overdubs, adding -You can ask Noel Gallagher to play the same guitar line a hundred times and, as long as there's a good reason, he'll do it. With Nick, you've got no chance. He just doesn't want to.'
Gear-wise, McCabe retained his Fender Strat and Mesa/Boogie combo for ANS, but also introduced a sunburst Gibson Les Paul (a harder, darker-sounding guitar than his by-now now-deceased ES-335) and replaced the Roland amp with another warmer-sounding valve amp, a British Vox AC30 built in the 1960s.
While ANS remains arguably the most difficult of all Verve albums, it is perhaps McCabe's finest hour to date. He admitted that the initial sessions recording the album were 'the happiest three weeks of my life.' Then, of course, everything went horribly wrong.
Given that much of Urban Hymns was written by Richard Ashcroft alone, Nick McCabe's influence on UH is his weakest of any Verve album. On Rolling People and Come On he reprises the heavy powerchord style of much of ANS (this time, though, McCabe repeatedly overdubbed to make the sound even more huge) and elsewhere Simon Tong and Richard Ashcroft handle electric and acoustic guitar parts. Even so, McCabe's contributions often recorded after the songs were 90 per cent completed show his unique style to be intact. By now, McCabe was playing more and more slide guitar, placing the 'bottleneck' on his little finger: guitar players note that McCabe frets the strings using all four left-hand fingers, an approach more often associated with classically-schooled guitarists (though McCabe is certainly not formally trained at all!), and requires considerable dexterity.
The Drugs Don't Work in particular, is given a country flavour by McCabe's minimal slide guitar motifs just one reason, maybe, why The Verve have recruited renowned pedal steel player BJCole (who has also played with Spiritualised, The Orb and Elton John) for their current US tour.
Other standouts for McCabe on UH include the effects laden Catching The Butterfly (edited down for a mammoth 25-minute Verve jam session led by Nick, just as in those early ASIH days) and Neon Wilderness (built around one of Nick's trademark guitar loops). That said, some of McCabe's most recognisable work with The Verve from the UH sessions can be heard on b-sides in particular, listen to more delicate control of feedback and 'backwards' guitar on Lord I Guess I'll Never Know, the jerky blues lines on Country Song, the fluid soloing Echo Bass, the super-heavyfuzz of Three Steps and the psychedelic synthesizer-like textures on Stamped.
McCabe's sound and style has gently developed over the Verve's three albums, yet his unique signature remains the way he uses effects to build huge walls of noise, his delicate control of feedback and his ability to improvise new lines night after night while some see the latter as making McCabe an irregular live performer, it's this seat-of-the-pants aspect that The Verve will no doubt have missed when they toured without him. Either way, McCabe's contribution to the Verve's music is immense and he arguably remains the most adventurous and unique guitar player in Britain today.
For those willing to seek out artists who appear to have influenced Nick McCabe's guitar playing, the following albums are recommended. Note that these are NOT Nick's own choices, but how Michael personally sees the roots of his sound.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience:Electric Ladyland (MCA, 1968)
Practically every guitarist since the '60s owes a debt to Hendrix though, interestingly, McCabe favours Hendrix's delicate use of volume swells, psychedelic washes and soul guitar licks rather than JH's more widely-imitated proto-heavy metal wailing.
Funkadelic: Maggot Brain (Westbound, 1971) sprawling rock/soul/psychedelic masterpiece featuring Eddie Hazel, one of McCabe's favourite players.
John Martyn: Solid Air (Island, 1972) Veteran Scottish singer/songwriter who supported The Verve at Haigh Hall; his influence on McCabe can particularly be heard on No Come Down's more folky acoustic tracks.
Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti (Swansong, 1976) McCabe denies any direct admiration for Jimmy Page's mega-heavy riffing, but it's likely he's absorbed a little Zep
Joy Division: Closer (Factory, 1980) Bernard Sumner's wiry 'no blues' guitar lines are some of McCabe's favourites.
The Chameleons: Script Of The Bridge (Statik, 1983) McCabe has never mentioned this early '80s cult Mancunian band in interviews, but their heavily chorused and echo-ey guitars are something of a precursor to his style
The Cocteau Twins: Treasure (4AD, 1984) again, not an influence cited by Nick, though Robin Guthrie's 'ethereal' approach influenced many a young Brit guitarist in the early '80s. Some moments on ASIH, particularly, show an appreciation of the Cocteaus
The Durutti Column: The Guitar And Other Machines (Factory, 1987) another Mancunian cult player, Vini Reilly's reliance of delays, loops and effects pedals to build up an 'orchestra' of guitars had a keen impact on Nick's textured approach. NB:Reilly also appears on Morrissey's Viva Hate (EMI, 1988)