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THE VERVE – “The Drugs Don’t Work”

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#773, 13th September 1997

verve ddw “Whenever we played that live there would be rows of grown men crying. It was almost like these guys couldn’t cry when they needed to cry, but that song operated like a pressure valve for them and it was okay for them to cry at a big rock concert.” – Richard Ashcroft on “The Drugs Don’t Work”

The list of number ones is not a complete history of anything except itself: it’s an iceberg party, a throng of bobbing and jostling tips – rock, hip-hop, reggae, indie, cinema, politics, comedy, charity, marketing and more, each one an incomplete and distorted story. But sometimes – when a berg seems over-familiar – the tiny and partial story told by the tip can put a new spin on it.

So the rock and indie number ones of 1996-1997 have seemed to me to tell a story about anxiety, a crisis of legitimacy for rock music. “Setting Sun” brutally demonstrated that it was impossible simply to pick up where the 60s innovations had left off. “Discotheque” suggested that other musics could no longer be easily absorbed into the working practises of a rock band. And Oasis were a walking declaration that a traditional band line-up should be the centre of pop, simply by right and by confidence – and it had worked, until Be Here Now showed the limits of this fiat rock.

But there are other things rock can do beyond innovation and simple hugeness. “The Drugs Don’t Work” leads us to one of them: rock could get emotional. Specifically, rock could thrive as a venue for great big male emotions, a conduit by which confused 21st century guy feels could be expressed and released at stadium scale and numbing pace. Creation’s Alan McGee, a partisan of more swaggering styles, coined an ugly, dismissive term for it: ‘bedwetter music’. He was talking about Coldplay, but he could have been talking about Keane, Athlete, Snow Patrol – bands who, like them or not, were Britain’s main solution to the “what is rock for?” riddle.

Tying this to The Verve might seem wrong. The Verve were part of Oasis’ moment, not Coldplay’s – their previous album, A Northern Soul, used Oasis’ producer Owen Morris, and as Matt DC pointed out to me, the reason Urban Hymns ended up outselling Be Here Now was because it offered a similarly mammoth, but apparently more consistent and thoughtful, alternative for disappointed buyers.

That side of the band always fought against a still earlier incarnation. At the heart of the group was an instinct to meander. Early singles – like 1992’s “Gravity Grave” – cast Richard Ashcroft as a psychedelic pilgrim, cloudwalking wide-eyed through his band’s blown-out songs. It was an outrageously corny take on psychedelia, all the more so for its fixed-stare sincerity. At the time I thought myself far too hip for it, but secretly enjoyed it anyway.

But once they started writing more structured songs, their best tracks were usually the ones where Ashcroft tapped into this questing side. “History” wraps itself up in William Blake references and comes on like a Northern Jim Morrison, and again uses aggressive sincerity as a get-out-of-jail card to cover the track’s wayward structure: when you mean it this much, who cares that the song just fizzles at the end? “Bitter Sweet Symphony” – the breakthrough – does the same thing with a fantastic stolen hook, and a groove and theme which means the endless voyaging and the lack of resolution become the point rather than something Ashcroft is trying to front his way through. But the famous video sums up the underlying game very well – Ashcroft crashing into passers-by who get in the way of his vision quest. It’s the Gallagher attitude applied to philosophy: weaponised introspection.

That’s the link between The Verve and the Coldplay era – that sense that the singer’s giant sensitive feelings are the most important thing in the world, and that as such they deserve only the broadest, slowest, most self-serious music as accompaniment. As you’ve probably realised, I don’t like this music very much – not that this makes me a critical maverick – and “The Drugs Don’t Work” both succeeds and fails by pointing towards this glum, widescreen version of rock.

“The Drugs Don’t Work” is a small, bleak song nestled inside a larger, lazier one, and the small song takes The Verve out of their psychedelic comfort zone and back down to grey, inescapable, Earth: it’s Richard Ashcroft writing about his dying Dad. Of course, the song works if it’s just about comedowns, or a chemically-defined relationship, but this is one time when learning the song’s authorised subject improves it. It’s already got the cat in the bag metaphor – an ear-seizing image, one of the year’s most arresting lyrics – but “If you want a show / Just let me know / And I’ll sing in your ear again” becomes a devastating line when you set it in the hopeless quiet of a hospital ward. Ashcroft tones down his rock prophet style to sound confused and exhausted, and Nick McCabe drops in the occasional lonesome whale cry.

It’s sombre, effective, it’s what (I guess) the record is best remembered for, and it’s only about half the song. All the “ooo sha la la” parts, all the “whoa Lords”, and especially Ashcroft’s vamping at the end are big rock boilerplate, and for me they blow the effect. A song which works because it’s grounded in a relatable experience turns into another trot through the rock frontman playbook. The ‘Mad Richard’ urban shaman shows up again at the most inappropriate time.

The most obvious effect was just to make “The Drugs Don’t Work” longer. We are in an era of Number One bloat, where bolting on an extra minute comes as standard, and I think it particularly hurts this record. Perhaps I’d feel different front-and-centre at a Verve gig, but for me that whole string-driven coda doesn’t feel redemptive or healing, it’s just a reminder that – as with “History” – Ashcroft is awful at sticking the landings of songs and prefers to bluff his way out of them. The bluff plainly worked, but the ideas and the emotional weight of “The Drugs Don’t Work” ease up well before halfway. In the wider story of British rock, it’s a transitional Number One, a song whose hurt and confusion are sabotaged by its worn-out nods to rock enormity. The next generation of massive UK bands would smooth out these conflicting impulses, and find ways of doing emotion at arena scale. Most of their hits are as dreary and draining as “The Drugs Don’t Work” winds up being, but few are as frustrating as this song, because few of them have its kernel of quality in the first place.

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  1. 201
    fivelongdays on 29 Mar 2014 #

    My annoyance with the whole ‘Behold our NORTHERN power’ thing was that it (a) often replaced genuine band identity with a regional one (b) always looked like playing the Noble Savage to London based music critics and (c) it was almost exclusively Northern bands (well, Greater Manchester) bands who did the regional thing (at least post the height of Britpop) – can’t remember Radiohead banging on about the Thames Valley or The Prodigy giving constant big ups to North Essex.

    (And, yes, there is the Bunnied Welsh Band, but it always seems to me that you know when their next album isn’t going to be that good when they ramp up the Welshness in interviews/song titles)

  2. 202
    Tom on 29 Mar 2014 #

    *crowd applauds warmly as TM brings up the 200*

    Oddly enough when I was a nipper at the height of Madchester there was a lot of fretting about how London hadn’t had a strong musical identity since the Clash.

  3. 203
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Mar 2014 #

    Flowered Up! Oh….that might be why

  4. 204
    Ed on 29 Mar 2014 #

    If Flowered Up were the answer, it was because people were asking the wrong question.

    This sounds like a pretty strong musical identity to me, from 1990, straight out of Stoke Newington: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SciKyogccN0&feature=kp

  5. 205
    Izzy on 29 Mar 2014 #

    198: I doubt The Stones had anything to do with it since aiui they have no rights to their catalogue pre-circa Let It Bleed. ‘Don’t touch anything Allen Klein weaselled the rights to’ should be the first rule of sampling; even teenage me knew The Verve were going to get killed for it.

    I’m sure another indie band were bled 100% a couple of years further back, for basically the same reason but possibly much more innocuous. Was it Carter USM: ‘goodbye Ruby Tuesday/come home you silly cow’?

  6. 206
    Tom on 29 Mar 2014 #

    #204 you will be amazed to learn that this fretting – in the NME i think – confined itself to indie bands. Not that I knew much better at the time.

  7. 207
    tm on 30 Mar 2014 #

    I don’t think MCR should recycle its glory days but when I first ventured into town in the mid 90s, there was a vibrant local scene flavoured by hip hop, drum n bass and even jazz with no concern about what indie scene was considered cool, even locally. It seems like that’s gone and Manchester seems to be looking more to London for its style cues than ever before.

  8. 208
    Middlerabbit on 7 Apr 2014 #

    As far as the sampling of The Last Time for BSS goes,I thought nobody came out of it looking very good.

    1. The Stones, hardly a band with too many scruples about ripping off other people’s records goes.

    2. Whoever it was who wrote the string riff for the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra is the one who deserves the credit, really.

    3. At the time, it was hard to get hold of the ‘original’ of the sample and Ashcroft repeatedly claimed it was only a little bit of bongos that had been sampled. My girlfriend was a much bigger fan of The verve than I and she was adamant that the sample was practically inaudible. She was quite taken aback when she finally heard it, as were a lot of people. Ashcroft did himself no favours by claiming it was bongos only.

    4. I don’t mind the sample and maybe it’s a bit harsh to give 100% of the publishing to Mick and Keef, but tough, really.

    5. The video was also a rip off, as mentioned.

    6. The stunning lack of ideas from the band and those around it astonishes me. Total lift of the instrumental backing, cliched whining for lyrics that have no coherent message to offer at all, video idea completely ripped off.

    7. My first thought on hearing it: where’s the chorus? Why doesn’t it go anywhere?

    8. As for Urban Hymns, it was a record of three parts.
    i. Bittersweet Symphony.
    ii. The big ballads with big, sad chords and big, obvious, sad words.
    iii. The aimless noodling, ‘jam’ ‘songs’.

    This was ii. Music for people who aren’t big on subtlety. Lyrics for people who need everything spelling out for them. Records made by 4 or 5 ‘lads’ in jeans and leather jackets, who tend to get a bit maudlin when they’re drunk.

    Which, as a Northern male, I recognise, even if I’m not one of them. Mawkish sentimentality, as seen at relegation games in football.

    Men ‘like’ crying in public just as much as women do. We just cry about different things. For men, it tends to be as a result of beer and self-pity.

    I never saw The Verve live, although I had the first lp and a few early 12″s. A Northern soul made me feel poorly, quite honestly. Urban Hymns was, I thought, mawkish bollocks.

  9. 209
    xyzzzz__ on 19 Apr 2014 #

    “I sympathise with the “rock music has to rock” argument – mostly cos I agree it tends to be better when it does – but I think that descriptive ship sailed in 1965 or so.”

    You gave Hendrix a four or something didn’t you? :-)

    Anyway, bought it all at the time, looking for psychedelia but it wasn’t there, or it had been stamped out. I was thinking I wish I could hear more of McCabe’s work on it. Sounded like he was told to shut up and take the money because he’d paid his dues.

    Similarly some of the US bands (Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips) came round to make hay and play the festival circuit.

    Think the best thing was reading about Spaceman 3′s “Playing with Fire” (which might have gotten a reissue at the time because of all of this) and that was what I was looking for! All the risks in songwriting, arrangement, lyrics…the psychedelia is a shift from the 60s they were of course referencing too.

    Still listen to that lots!

  10. 210
    xyzzzz__ on 19 Apr 2014 #

    To go way up again Descension were ok though :-)

  11. 211
    Ed on 19 Apr 2014 #

    @209 I think if you were being a real purist about it you’d say Hendrix didn’t actually rock all that hard; at least not with the Experience. Mitch Mitchell was quite a loose, jazzy drummer whose great hero was Elvin Jones, and Noel Redding was a frustrated guitar player who was (obviously!) never going to be allowed to play guitar in that group.

    Put them together, and they were a much less hard-rocking rhythm section than, say, Ward / Butler or Bonham / Jones.

    I am not sure that that was why Tom marked the Hendrix record down, though….

    As for the terminology, I agree that people generally started using “pop” and “rock” as near-synonyms in about 1965, but that was solely due to an accident of history. It just happened to be the case that the biggest pop performers at the time were also the biggest rock bands. Now that’s not true any more – and actually it hasn’t been true for a long time – I think it’s time to bring the distinction back.

    I don’t know enough about the history, but didn’t jazz emerge as a clearly defined genre only in the 1950s? Before then it was all just popular music. Same thing with classical music. I am pretty sure they didn’t call it classical when Mozart was writing it.

  12. 212
    xyzzzz__ on 20 Apr 2014 #

    Ed that’s a fair assessment but I don’t think Tom would be looking at the purity of the thing. I should re-read the entry. Mostly joking about.

    Jazz was pop in the 30s and 40s. With classical that goes out of the window, the pop era coincides with the physical object surely, although you could say Mozart was a ‘star’ of his day.

  13. 213
    tm on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Couldn’t you equally argue that the looseness and swing of Hendrix’s rhythm section allowed him to rock more effectively (certainly to roll more!) Black Sabbath for example didn’t always rock much: many of their best songs are conducted at a menacing crawl.

  14. 214
    xyzzzz__ on 21 Apr 2014 #

    The rhythm section is usually responsible for the roll bit surely.

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