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Mar 14

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. 151
    Mark M on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Re147: I think it’s very easy to overplay how globalised culture has become, and underplay the persistence of local tastes. For instance, unlike 30 years ago, there are no prime time imports on the two most-watched TV channels in the UK. Admittedly, you could watch 24-hour US TV on other channels – but that’s deceptive: most people don’t (In fact, it’s a weird sign of the times that the Murdoch empire’s transparent bid for the love of chattering classes is called Sky Atlantic and mostly has American programmes). Nor are there neat across the board rules – as I probably mentioned in the Love Is All Around thread, while most Brits seem to see other Brits on TV, that flips entirely when it comes to cinema.

  2. 152
    tm on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Re 150: And how unfortunate that Danny MacNamara should choose to compare himself to the Beach Boys, a band remembered by most for vocal talent!

  3. 153
    Ed on 25 Mar 2014 #

    @147 So do Hunters & Collectors sound like late-period Can? And do Powderfinger sound like Neil Young?

    I guess that rule doesn’t always work, though. ‘Radio Head’ is about the most cheerful and perky song Talking Heads ever recorded. If Radiohead had called themselves The Overload, that would have been more appropriate. And IIRC, Big Fun were about as close to Inner City as they were to electric Miles Davis.

  4. 154
    iconoclast on 25 Mar 2014 #

    @150: Is there a definitive statement of “the canon” somewhere?

  5. 156
    Ed on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Other canons are also available:

    http://www.discogs.com/lists/Q-Magazine-100-Greatest-Albums-Ever/118720?page=1&limit=100

    http://consequenceofsound.net/2013/10/the-top-500-albums-of-all-time-according-to-nme/

    ‘Urban Hymns’ at #16 for Q in 2006, #128 for the NME in 2013.

  6. 157

    ^^^definitively definitive

  7. 158
    Rory on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #142, 143, 147, 153: Hunters & Collectors did have a strong 1970s art-rock sound in their early years, but mutated in the 1980s into more mainstream Australian pub rock. They were big locally, but not at the very top: the mid-80s ranking of “big Australian bands”, I would have said, would have gone something like Cold Chisel/Jimmy Barnes, AC/DC, INXS, Midnight Oil, Icehouse, Crowded House, the Angels, Hunters & Collectors, Divinyls, the Church, the Hoodoo Gurus, in roughly that order. (Men at Work, in case you’re wondering, had pretty much shot their bolt by this stage.) The Birthday Party and Go-Betweens were very much the arty fringe – where INXS and Hunters & Collectors would have been a few years earlier, and indeed where the Church and the Gurus still somewhat were. I’m not surprised that they’re the bands remembered by a UK music fan today, but what’s interesting is that 20 years ago there are other names from that list that a Brit or American could easily have named: INXS had their biggest US hits in the late 1980s and biggest UK hits in the early 1990s (oddly, not the same hits), Crowded House likewise, Midnight Oil had some US success in the late 1980s (not here, I expect), Divinyls had some international hits in the early 1990s, and the Church had one big international hit with “Under the Milky Way Tonight”. Oh, and John Farnham had his big comeback around that time too, with an international hit in “You’re the Voice”.

    As for Powderfinger, they did indeed have some echoes of Neil Young in his Rust Never Sleeps guise, which is the album with the track of that name, but they also had elements of Australian pub rock and 1990s grunge/alt-rock, neither of which would have meant a lot to a UK audience, so I’m not at all surprised that they’re unknown here. I was never a huge fan, although I have bits and pieces of theirs in my iTunes library; their biggest hits were pretty anthemic. (I never got into H&C, either, and don’t think I’ve got anything by them, except indirectly in the form of Crowded House’s live recordings of “Throw Your Arms Around Me”.)

    Another big Australian band – tremendously important for understanding Australian rock of the 1990s and 2000s – is You Am I, and I’ll bet none of youse lot know ’em, Antipodeans excepted.

  8. 159
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Mar 2014 #

    A Questionable Consequence of the globalization of tastes and Australia, just announced
    http://www.eurovision.tv/page/news?id=australia_to_take_part_in_eurovision

    (unless it is the excuse for a Hummingbirds reunion)

  9. 160
    Ed on 25 Mar 2014 #

    @158 Many of those featured in the Guardian’s nice series on Australian anthems:

    http://www.theguardian.com/music/series/australian-anthems

  10. 161
    Mark M on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Re: 158 – Now You Am I, I’ve actually heard some of their songs – some (British) friends of mine are big fans. And Midnight Oil got to No6 here. Whereas Cold Chisel? Absolutely none the wiser…

  11. 162
    Rory on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Mark M @161 – the entry at Ed’s Guardian link on “Khe Sanh” is worth a read, and includes a YouTube video. But for the full-on Barnesy wail, try “You Got Nothing I Want.

    Genuinely impressed that you know You Am I!

  12. 163
    Conrad on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Oh Five Long Days you’ve brought me out of Popular retirement with your post at 47. Marvellous. The Verve nailed. If only the drugs had worked, Richard

  13. 164
    Tommy Mack on 25 Mar 2014 #

    A slightly more sympathetic view of TDDW’s coda: as a standard modern response to grief: where people might once have said ‘well, I guess it’s just God’s will’, now we’re more likely to lean on vaguely hippyish ‘all part of life’s journey/the greatest adventure of all’ tropes to deal with our loss, hence Richard’s retreat into the comfort blanket of his Cosmic Traveller Rock Shaman persona after his unguarded expression of grief.

    Still the worst part of the record, mind and only marginally less unsatifying than Oasis’ ‘let it all descend into a wall of noise’ approach as a lazy way to end a record.

  14. 165
    Rory on 25 Mar 2014 #

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

    I’m sure we’ll have this debate many times between here and 2008 (when the one band you haven’t mentioned will finally appear here), but seeing that we’ve started discussing Dad Rock or whatever it’s being called now (“bedwetter music”? For God’s sake, McGee): until 2008, we won’t meet any of these bands in Popular, and none of the three in this “dreaded” axis at any point, unless all of them start lifting their game considerably; yet from 1999 onwards, Punctum will encounter them regularly at TPL. This was the post-Napster decade, when it seemed that the main people buying CDs were Fifty Quid Men like… me. I was in my 30s, had disposable income but no kids, and would go into Fopp or Avalanche every week and buy a few more albums. It does seem that the tastes of Gen X buyers were disproportionately influential in the 2000s album charts, if not the singles charts. Which brings me to “meaningful”.

    True, The Man Who may not have been meaningful to a teenager in 1999/2000, and doesn’t really speak to its millennial moment. But to a then-32-year-old me, who was travelling the world, moving cities, going from short-term contract to short-term contract, “Driftwood” was about as meaningful as it got – to the point where I can’t really listen to it now. It was perfect music for that particular moment in my life; that, and the quiet, gentle reflection of XTRMNTR.

    Throughout the 2000s, I was often drawn to that more melodic, anthemic, sometimes (but not always) quiet and reflective brand of rock… and to lots of other kinds of music. Two of my bands of the decade were the Chemical Brothers and Muse, who I suppose could cause bedwetting, although not in the way Alan McGee meant. I was still up for experimentation and loud noises.

    But at least one kind of music was falling fast in my affections at this point, not that it had ever been high in them: the aimless rock jam, psychedelic or otherwise. Which is why I reckon Be Here Now and Urban Hymns both could have lost half an hour each. It’s why, when I worked my way backwards through the Verve’s catalogue yesterday, I found less and less to like, to the point where I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to A Storm in Heaven for the last time. It reminds me of my attempt as a teenager to listen to side six of All Things Must Pass. Thanks for the pepperoni, guys, but after the fifteenth slice, gentle reflections on death come as blessed relief.

  15. 166
    Tom on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Important text here (not meant as a diss on Rory!) – Nick Hornby’s review of Kid A!

  16. 167
    Rory on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #166 I hadn’t read that before, but Hornby’s conclusions certainly wouldn’t have been mine. I loved Kid A in 2000. Still do.

  17. 168
    Cumbrian on 25 Mar 2014 #

    The most dated part of that Hornby review is probably the bit where he complains about Radiohead having a go at Tony Blair on the grounds that a band who took a year to record a song would have made a hash of dealing with Kosovo or the NI peace process. Looked on now though, I’d take that sort of introspection over the rush to judgement that resulted in our “adventures” in Iraq, Nick, you daft beggar.

  18. 169
    Rory on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #168 Indeed. And my best guess for the song they spent a year recording but didn’t include on Kid A is “The Pyramid Song” (see 9/12/99 entry here), so aha ha ha ha ha. (By which I mean, Pyramid Song >>>>>>>>>> Iraq War.)

    I take Tom’s point about the relevance here of Hornby’s comments about competing demands interfering with one’s patience for “challenging” music. But I don’t really buy Hornby’s argument.

  19. 170
    James BC on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Someone should re-record Urban Hymns, except that every song has a TV Burp ending after two and a half minutes.

  20. 171
    Tom on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #167 Yeah, it’s more that Hornby’s disappointment with Kid A was framed with a sort of dark cousin of the argument you’re using. You’re simply bearing witness to your changing tastes and to the appeal of a particular kind of thoughtful ‘grown-up’ rock at a particular age – Hornby takes that impulse and turns it into a moral imperative: Radiohead were actively wrong to get weird because, let’s face it, that’s not what their audience has time for any more.

    (This is the question lurking behind the intro to this review – what is rock (or any music) FOR? What does it do well? It is important that this stuff sold more on album than on single. If you look at TPL, four out of the last five LPs Marcello has written about had #1 singles on them – there are times when there’s a link between the album and single charts, but sometimes this link snaps, and the next five or so Popular years feel to me like a time when the two charts are targeting very different groups of people.)

  21. 172
    Cumbrian on 25 Mar 2014 #

    I think what rock music does well, at least on Popular, is comments threads running over 150+ comments wondering what’s wrong with rock music (or what was wrong with it in as regards bands who got #1s in the late 90s at the very least).

  22. 173
    tm on 25 Mar 2014 #

    I always hated that argument of Hornby’s. Not least because I had very little patience for the experimental as a youth and my tastes have expanded considerably since then.

  23. 174
    tm on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Several people have mentioned Urban Hymns benefitting from the disappointment around Be Here Now but what about OK Computer. Had it not been for the critical collapse of dad rock would OkC have been hailed as the groundbreaking rock rebirth that it was?

  24. 175
    Tom on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #172 ha! it gets the commenters going for sure.

    #174 OKC came out in May, didn’t it – so before any critical collapse, and it was praised to the skies then.

  25. 176
    tm on 25 Mar 2014 #

    Oh, bang goes that theory then.

  26. 177
    Rory on 25 Mar 2014 #

    If it was an age thing in my case, it was much more a “these are your transient circumstances at this age” thing, rather than a rule forever after. My own tastes around that point were also influenced by moving into a flat with a cranky elderly neighbour who complained about loud music, which prompted me to explore quieter stuff more than I had before. But it didn’t stop me from listening to whatever I liked on headphones during my daily commute, and I still listen to all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff that way. Nowadays I listen to hardly anything on my home stereo (unless it’s kid friendly), so almost everything goes through headphones on my journeys to and from work. The quiet stuff can’t cut through traffic noises very well, so I’m trending louder again. Also weirder, poppier, all sorts. Hornby: denied.

  27. 178
    flahr on 25 Mar 2014 #

    #165 – lol at the suggestion that teenagers don’t listen to Travis/Embrace/Coldplay etc

    just because they’re young doesn’t mean they’re not allowed to be boring too, daddy-o

  28. 179
    Ed on 26 Mar 2014 #

    So what do middle-aged people listen to?

    Here you go: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-21995177

  29. 180
    Ed on 26 Mar 2014 #

    Although actually that seems like some kind of weird constrained poll, where people picked their favourite from the 100 most-played on R2.

    Here’s the full list, FWIW: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/vote/top-albums/

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