The 20-year anniversary of The Verve’s home-coming gig at Haigh Hall in Wigan fell this year on 24 May. Back in 1998, lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft sang at the stately home’s largest ever event, a crowd of 33,000 mostly Wiganers, with the opening song "This is Music." The lyrics mention Billinge Hill where Ashcroft reminisces how he, “Stood at the top of a hill over my town.”
Tickets sold out quickly to a tenth of the town’s population. Everyone wanted one and I was lucky enough to be there. 1998 was a good year for Ashcroft: his band won three Brit Awards Best Album of the Year, Best Producer of the Year, and Best British Group for their third album Urban Hymns, which by 2017 had become number 18 in the list of best-selling albums in UK chart history. To date, it has sold over 3 million copies. Ashcroft shouted to fans from the Haigh Hall stage, “Thank you for making this one of the best nights of my life,” and we all went crazy, in awe of his performance, and I lost a trainer in the hectic crowd that day.
Later that year, at the age of 27, Ashcroft won an Ivor Novello Award for Songwriter of the Year, and later invested in a 17th-century manor-house in Gloucestershire where he still resides with his wife Kate and sons, Sonny and Cassius, born in 2000 and 2004.
Ashcroft’s northern soul is obvious, and his hometown of Wigan is proudly displayed on his social media pages. He was born in Billinge (former) Maternity Hospital, 1971, the same hospital where I was born 3 years later, and attended school in Upholland, a village west of Wigan, where he lived close to growing up. He played for the Junior team of Wigan Athletic and was noted for his abilities, and is still a big follower of the club.
In 1989, Ashcroft attended Winstanley College in Orrell, where he formed The Verve with a group of friends and became distracted by his music, dropping out of his A-Level exams, and walking his favourite hill. The band practiced in an underground basement before acquiring their first gig at The Honeysuckle pub in Poolstock, close to the town centre in 1990.
After Hut Records signed them in 1995, frontman Ashcroft and his band received momentous UK, European, and worldwide success. Noel Gallagher wrote "Cast No Shadow" about Ashcroft for Oasis in 1995, and by 2006, The Verve were at the height of their success globally with NME Awards, Q Awards, and Rockbjornen music prizes. However, rifts amongst band members had begun to appear as early as 2000, and the band was now only performing sporadically. Ashcroft had also begun a solo career whilst The Verve were still together, releasing three albums, Alone With Everybody, Human Conditions, and Keys to the World, two of which achieved platinum status.
The Verve finally split in 2009 and Ashcroft went onto form RPA & The United Nations of Sound the following year, releasing an album called United Nations of Sound.
While Ashcroft moved away from Wigan, becoming a family man in rural Gloucestershire, describing periods away from the public eye as time spent “bringing up kids,” he retained a fondness for the town. He’d dreamt of performing at Wigan Athletics football ground, although this was quashed due to licensing restrictions. Instead, he performed at other north-west venues such as the Manchester Academy, Old Trafford’s Cricket Ground, and Manchester’s M.E.N Arena. In 2016 Ashcroft released the album These People and performed at the Albert Hall, Manchester, then toured the UK in 2017 returning to Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl.
20 years after the memorable Haigh Hall gig in 1998, Ashcroft is touring widely again in 2018, including London’s Hyde Park in July, to a crowd of up to 65,000 people. He'll accompany his long-time friend, Liam Gallagher, more than once this year, and I'll be in the Manchester crowd on 18 August.
In early 2018, Liam’s Gallagher’s brother Noel cast another kind of shadow when he said, live on Radio X, that Ashcroft had “an army” of songwriters working with him. Ashcroft Tweeted, “I don’t write my own songs? You want to qualify that NG?” and Liam responded, “Dig me out all day long kid [sic], but Richard Ashcroft pisses all over you.”
Will Ashcroft ever perform in Wigan again? The former stately home is now a luxury hotel, but perhaps Ashcroft’s wish to perform at Wigan Athletic’s football ground can finally come true for the 20-year anniversary of The Verve’s sell-out performance at Haigh Hall? Unbelievably, a friend found and returned my missing trainer to me that night, and I still have them for memories 20 years on!
Proud Wiganers are hopeful of Ashcroft's return to the town and are silently chanting his name below Billinge Hill, in the valley of Wigan:
"Coming and going
I watch you look at me
Watch my fever growing
I know just where I am"
~ "Lucky Man," (1997) Richard Ashcroft