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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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Comments

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  1. 121
    wichitalineman on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Re 75: Tim Buckley’s legend seems to have dimmed dramatically in recent years but not so long ago his name was dropped as regularly as Nick Drake’s. Clearly this isn’t Tim’s fault as he died in 1975, so how can this have happened? Blame has to lie with Starsailor (least appropriately named band in history? And, yes, they were from Chorley) and young Jeff, who seems to have stolen his dad’s thunder by dying in more tragic/romantic circumstances.

    Re 110: Supertramp. I’ve never read it.

    Are Felt named after a song?

  2. 122
    Tom on 24 Mar 2014 #

    I think it was always more hope than expectation that Tim B would go from cult to canon as successfully as Drake (or as Jeff) – poorly served by labels, spottily available, far from immediately accessible when you did track it down… it did strike me as weird, though, that many of the alt-rock fans who loved Jeff B seemed completely incurious about his Dad, especially as he’s such an obvious next step once you’ve finished with Jeff B’s limited catalogue.

  3. 123
    Ed on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Another iron law: there are no good pop performers whose parents are also pop performers.

    So to like Jeff Buckley, you have to ignore Tim’s existence.

  4. 124

    The wikipedia list includes Felt, but it may have been tampered with by naughty people!

  5. 125
    Cumbrian on 24 Mar 2014 #

    123: Hmm. Nancy Sinatra got the first 10 on Popular, so I’m not sure how far that Iron Law is going to fly.

  6. 126
    thefatgit on 24 Mar 2014 #

    #123 Nancy Sinatra. Forget “Something Stupid”. Remember “Some Velvet Morning”.

  7. 127
    Tom on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Ah, but “Three Coins In A Fountain” got (from memory) 5 or so. So Popular, at least, obeys the law.

  8. 128
    Cumbrian on 24 Mar 2014 #

    And Strangers In The Night – a miserly 5 that one, in my opinion.

  9. 129
    Ed on 24 Mar 2014 #

    @125, @126 OK: I am inclined to concede on Nancy Sinatra. My iron needs some work. Maybe it’s just rock where parentage is an infallible marker for lack of talent. Oh, and reggae.

    There is definitely something about the spirit of youth and independence integral to most pop that is absolutely inimical to the sense of filial duty inherent in going into the family business. Pop and parents just don’t go together.

    Re the discussion about Mum songs on the thread for the Spice Girls’ ‘Mama’, how many good Dad songs are there? Is TDDW the only one we’ll encounter here?

  10. 130
    Cumbrian on 24 Mar 2014 #

    129: Minor example in the rock/soul sphere (as neither are particularly famous) but Patterson Hood from Drive-By Truckers is the son of David Hood, who played bass in the Muscle Shoals house band.

    As with any of these, whether one thinks that either of these guys was/is any good is up to that individual but I would say that Patterson Hood has produced some good stuff and the Muscle Shoals group played on some scorching tracks.

    And re: good songs about Dads, a quick answer from the top of my head is it depends on what you think of Bruce Springsteen (Independence Day and Adam Raised A Cain being the two most at the forefront of my thinking).

  11. 131
    Cumbrian on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Re: Further on Dad songs. Papa Was A Rolling Stone was on George Michael’s Five Live EP. And Papa Don’t Preach got a 9 from Tom.

    Seems like most of the songs I can think of about Dads are about how rubbish they are though. :(

    Although there is Son of my Father by Chicory Tip, which is less about Dad being rubbish and more about being forced to be like him. Don’t know whether this is better to be honest…

  12. 132
    Chelovek na lune on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Erm, “My Old Man’s a Dustman”?

    Maybe if Julian Lennon had released a cover of that he might be regarded more fondly; even, respected.

  13. 133
    Chelovek na lune on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Natalie Cole, though: occasionally (“Jump Start”, at least) she was great.

    Also: Sam Brown: AND KIM WILDE.

  14. 134

    that name we are all tiptwerking round: MILEY

  15. 135
    punctum on 24 Mar 2014 #

    tbf Ed in his original post said “there are no good pop performers whose parents are also pop performers,” which implies that both parents had to be pop performers rather than just one. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, for instance.

  16. 136
    wichitalineman on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Rufus and Martha Wainwright and their (slightly less?) famous parents.

    Harry Nilsson’s 1941 is a great “bad dad” song. As for “nice dad” songs – Cats In The Cradle and The Living Years are pretty horrible. I’ll try and think of a good one.

  17. 137
    punctum on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Ha! Canada always comes through.

  18. 138
    flahr on 24 Mar 2014 #

    SHAKESPEARS SISTER (though I guess that ship has sailed)

    More to the point: OI TOM @ #68 (half of) DRAWN FROM MEMORY WAS (quite) GOOD

  19. 139
    thefatgit on 24 Mar 2014 #

    I just listened to “Dance With My Father”. Why on earth did I do that? Will I ever learn??

  20. 140
    hardtogethits on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Going way, way back to #31 and #32, the Airplay charts for that week were indeed uniquely turbulent. It may be helpful to note that the Airplay chart, taking into account BBC and commercial radio, is intended to reflect the songs which are ‘most heard’, rather than ‘most played’. It by and large has the feel of a late 70s/early 80s singles chart. Records rise up the chart in stages, week by week, and then fall back down. That said, it’s slightly more common for records to hang around and make small climbs back up the charts than it was in those sales charts.

    In the week beginning 31 August, everyone stopped playing Tubthumping. Having built ‘support’ ‘at’ ‘radio’, climbing 23-14-5-2, the record held at 2 in the airplay chart to 30 August. It then fell to 84 the next week.

    Major stations started playing ‘You Have Been Loved’ by George Michael. It entered the airplay chart at no.2 – the highest entry since the means of calculating the chart had been established.

    After 3 months on the chart, ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ leapt back up the chart, from 7 to 1, completing a run 41-15-12-7-2-3-3-3-3-3-7-5-7-1.

    ‘Men In Black’ fell from 1 to 19.
    ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ by Notorious BIG fell from no.10 to out of the Top 100.
    Upbeat records such as ‘All I Wanna Do’ (Dannii), ‘Free’ (Ultra Nate), ‘I Wanna Be The Only One’, ‘Freed From Desire’ and even ‘Bitch’ by Meredith Brooks all took sudden dives.

    On the other hand, Shola Ama, Mary J Blige, M People, Mariah Carey and Conner Reeves and, yes, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ became very widely heard.

    The Airplay Top 100 showed sudden renewed support for (and just reading the first few may convince you that your call is important to us and we will be with you as soon as possible): You Might Need Somebody; Lifted; Kiss From A Rose; Seven Seconds; Search For The Hero; If You Ever; I Believe I Can Fly; You Do Something To Me; The Universal; Isn’t It A Wonder; Nobody Knows; Don’t Look Back In Anger; Don’t Dream It’s Over; I’ll Stand By You.

    An old Elton John track appeared at no.34 in the chart.

    The week after that, there was the first instance of a new entry at no.1 on the Airplay Charts under the then-current compilation methods.

    The Drugs Don’t Work rose to no.2.

    George Michael’s ‘You Have Been Loved’ fell from 2 to 25.

    Hope this helps, assuming people really wanted to know.

  21. 141
    wichitalineman on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Thanks HTGH, that is fascinating. So it was soma-pop rather than cello-led orchestral things.

    Denim’s Summer Smash, a Radio 1 Breakfast Show single of the week, was also pulled from release completely.

  22. 142
    swanstep on 25 Mar 2014 #

    @rory, 115. I hadn’t grasped this until now, but I think we can gather that like Chisel, Paul Kelly, Dave Dobbyn and a few others, and notwithstanding their centrality to both indie and pub culture at different times down under (quite a feat! that sort of crossover almost never happens) let alone their current national/regional treasure status, no one’s heard of Hunters and Collectors outside of Australasia. I think Hunnas’ problem is that they’ve always struggled to capture the savagery of their live performances in the studio, and I recommend their original 1985 live album, The Way To Go Out as a good starting point for that reason.

  23. 143
    Mark M on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Re 142: Well, I’ve heard OF Hunters & Collectors, but I’ve never heard anything BY them. Despite TV shows and the once sizeable and still significant importation of bright young Australians to the UK, I’m convinced that the cultural gap is larger than either side realises. The English boyfriend of an Aussie friend recently challenged me to name three Australian bands – I could do it, but my bid (The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, The Hoodoo Gurus) made her laugh. I’m guessing not many Australians would pick those three. Likewise, she’s still perplexed after six years here about the way bands like Powderfinger have absolutely no impact here. Indeed, if you’re of an ’80s indie inclination, New Zealand is a much bigger deal than Australia.

  24. 144
    Patrick Mexico on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #47 – an incendiary classic. Bravo, so funny. The Verve mostly drive me round the twist. I usually relish bands hyping up their regional identity but they took all the irreverence, fun and wit of Madchester and melted it down into a bland election leaflet for Vernon Kay.

    I was expecting to be extremely annoyed, if not appalled, by this and Ashcroft’s Richard III-with-man-flu-vibes. But it’s a unpretentious and heartfelt record with a quite lovely string backing (yes, fresh farmhouse jam in a rather thin bowl of porridge, but it was the right kind of #1 for that week. Given the public hypocrisy and confusion over Diana’s death, quiet, gentle reflection was better than anything overbearingly pompous or another “I’ll be Missing You” which grabbed people by the throat asking them to cry, or God forbid, some tasteless anti
    SEVEN.

    The problem is, the dreaded Travis/Keane/Snow Patrol axis would carry on this quiet, gentle reflection long beyond any meaningful context. The tossers.

  25. 145
    Patrick Mexico on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #47 – an incendiary classic. Bravo, so funny. The Verve mostly drive me round the twist. I usually relish bands hyping up their regional identity but they took all the irreverence, fun and wit of Madchester and the Smiths and melted it down into a bland election leaflet for Vernon Kay.

    I was expecting to be extremely annoyed, if not appalled, by this and Ashcroft’s Richard III-with-man-flu-vibes. But it’s a unpretentious and heartfelt record with a quite lovely string backing (yes, fresh farmhouse jam in a rather thin bowl of porridge, but it was the right kind of #1 for that week. Given the public hypocrisy and confusion over Diana’s death, quiet, gentle reflection was better than anything overbearingly pompous or another “I’ll be Missing You” which grabbed people by the throat asking them to cry, or God forbid, some tasteless anti
    SEVEN.

    The problem is, the dreaded Travis/Keane/Snow Patrol axis would carry on this quiet, gentle reflection long beyond any meaningful context. The tossers.

  26. 146
    weej on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Wichita @141 – I’m not sure what it says about me but I was probably more affected by the death of Denim’s career than the death of you-know-who.

    Patrick @145 I’m not in any way a fan of Travis, but I don’t think they deserve to be included in this lineage. They were just a deeply average rock group who, in the face of seemingly no competition whatsoever, somehow became the biggest group in the UK for a year or two, then disappeared back where they came from when the next actual thing came along.

  27. 147
    swanstep on 25 Mar 2014 #

    @143, Mark M. Fair enough, and in this crowd I’m guessing a few people will have heard a bit of H&C (they were definitely in the mix with the Birthday Party at the beginning) or even own their Human Frailty album, but it was their broader ‘not really being on anyone’s radar’ (i.e., when it came time to find perfect counterexamples to the Iron Law) that I was noting. Not that there’s anything wrong or even especially surprising about only some sounds translating world-wide. And, let’s face it, there’s ultimately some pleasure in a globalized/everywhere’s-interchangeable kind-of world in keeping a few top-class acts ‘just for the locals’ that only they really get. Powderfinger are a bit of a special case; they never really cracked NZ, let alone the rest of the world (just a little safe and generic I suppose, though they’re no Matchbox 20!).

  28. 148
    Martin F. on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Ah, Hunters & Collectors! A certain sector of the British population has undoubtedly heard a song of theirs, even if they don’t know it: “Throw Your Arms Around Me” plays over Shane’s death scene in Home & Away, back when the show was still getting some kind of viewing figures over here. (The episode continues with the double-whammy of Archie Roach’s “There Is A Garden” over the obligatory “tragic news spreads around town, shocked faces ensue” montage.)

  29. 149
    Auntie Beryl on 25 Mar 2014 #

    I regained consciousness after a stag night in my old university town that Sunday to the news that Princess Diana had died. Big news, but I had the mother of all hangovers to deal with; I was happy I’d taken the full week off in between the stag and wedding to explore the Lake District and generally potter about.

    This turned out to be quite a blessing. I suspect that if I’d been at work in the shop that week I’d have struggled to remain polite in the face of people faux grieving for somebody they’d never met. (I’d lost my father a few months previously and was still working my way through my own feelings on that; grief tourism was not something I was comfortable with).

    That week was spent driving around to various locations, often with Radio 1 on. The tracks I recall from the Monday / Tuesday, the soma-pop as WL accurately describes it:

    Songbird
    Aloof “One Night Stand” (instrumental)
    Shares Of Paradise

    From Wednesday the DJs were allowed to open up more. Big mistake. Jo Whiley prattled on about conversations with her daughter India. Nicky Campbell was as you’d expect. At this point, tracks like TDDW, Finley Quaye’s Even After All and U2’s Please started to move in, along with DJ picks like Squeeze’s Some Fantastic Place.

    The wedding went ahead, clashing directly with another ceremony down in London. Not one invitee cancelled.

  30. 150
    Mark M on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Re66/68 etc etc: I interviewed both Travis and Embrace early in their careers for The Face. I think this may have been a degree of mischief-making by the front section editor, who knew how little I cared for this kind of music and (probably) that I thought it had no place in the magazine. Travis at that point were more vaguely laddish late-Britpop than wet bed types – they were plugging the dubious U16 Girls. In line with that, they did their best to be amusing in the interview – asking what was in my notebook and happily answering the questions I’d asked Luke Haines (so if anyone wants to know what kind of terrorist act Fran Healy would commit given the chance…)
    Embrace on the other hand, unlike the comparatively modest quote above, tediously insisted there was no point in them making an album unless it was as good as Pet Sounds. This was depressing on various levels: a) it was a huge cliché by that point, b) it was ridiculous and c) how wearying that a band that young should be so hung up on the canon. Obviously, I expected no better having heard their dreary music. What I remember most about the trip up to meet them had nothing to do with the band, and everything to do with how fast food was changing in this country – you could get mozzarella and tomato on ciabatta in Huddersfield, quite unthinkable when I had left Yorkshire five years earlier.

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