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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 214
    xyzzzz__ on 21 Apr 2014 #

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

  5. 215
    Cumbrian on 22 Feb 2016 #

    All the way back at #50 on this thread, I noted that Richard Ashcroft had not seemed to have done anything in music since 2010 and might actually be retired. I must be signed up to some ancient mailing list because, today, a link to his new single dropped into my inbox. To be honest, he should have stayed retired – the more I think about (T)he Verve records that I still play (and unlike some of the bands I listened to in my youth, I do still play them), the more and more obvious it is that they were at their best when he cleared off out of the way and let the instrumentalists get on with the serious business of creating something worth listening to. Indeed, the more indecipherable and down-mixed his voice is, the more I like them – so up to about half of A Northern Soul then.

    One assumes that this is simply an excuse to get back on tour and take some appearance fee money. I can’t imagine he’s going to make any money off the insipid dreck he’s just landed in my email.

  6. 216
    Patrick Mexico on 23 Feb 2016 #

    NME in “being unpretentious, straight to the point and genuine in my lifetime” shocker, c. Christmas 2005:

    Letter: “What’s wrong with Richard Ashcroft comparing himself to Jesus Christ? Since when did he write a song as good as Bittersweet Symphony?”

    Editor’s reply: “And since when did he write a song as shite as Money to Burn?” :D

  7. 217
    Andrew Farrell on 19 Jan 2017 #

    #30: not just the video – along with the song name, they also brought in Wil Malone, the string arranger from Unfinished Sympathy.

  8. 218
    Music Marketing on 18 Oct 2017 #

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  9. 219
    Gareth Parker on 3 Jun 2021 #

    I don’t mind the Verve in places, but I’m sorry to say I find this single to be a bit of a dirge. 3/10.

  10. 220
    Mr Tinkertrain on 4 Apr 2022 #

    I don’t care for The Verve all that much (most of Urban Hymns, bar the four singles, is a bore and the earlier material does nothing for me) but this is magnificent, even better than Bittersweet Symphony. Just a beautiful track. Maybe it is a “big ballad with big, sad chords and big, obvious, sad lyrics”, made by 4 or lads in leather jackets, as comment #208 puts it. So what if it is? It’s an outstanding example of the form. 10/10 for me and just about the best chart-topper of the year.

    It is, as widely commented, representative of indie’s slide from the livelier Britpop music of a couple of years ago into more maudlin territory though. I did like a lot of the Embrace and Travis singles of the time, but yeah, this wasn’t a great development. Fortunately, by the time I hit my teens at the end of the decade, nu-metal and pop-punk was around the corner to liven things up, but that’s for other threads.

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