The Verve had their first Top 40 successes in 1995 with 'This Is Music', 'On Your Own' and 'History'... Their return has produced two of 1997's finest tunes - 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' (No. 2) and 'The Drugs Don't Work' (No. 1)Three tracks in and the downbeat mood of Disc 2 continues. In fact, 'The Drugs Don't Work' seems to be a continuation of several themes from this album, including the fact that it's not an obviously ideal song for New Year's Eve. Rather like Chumbawamba (if perhaps less so) they were a surprise package, suddenly spawning two of the biggest singles of the year after being a relatively low-profile act for several years - none of their 1995 hits had made the Top 20, for example.
And of course the Diana factor comes back into play with this single having been released on the 1st of September 1997. History may record that this song was propelled to the top by her death, although I can certainly remember thinking in mid-August that they had a good chance after the success of 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' and decent initial airplay for this one. Still, it was probably helped by the fact that it was still considered suitable for radio play in the week it was released, given its sorrowful mood. At least it spared us a second return to the top by Puff Daddy's 'I'll Be Missing You', as would probably have happened were this single not out that way. Ironically, I didn't buy it myself, as I couldn't decide between the two CD formats: only one unique B-side on each and I wasn't going to pay six quid for both when I knew I'd buy the album anyway.
Although the song is part of their comeback album Urban Hymns and has Richard Ashcroft as the sole credited writer, it was in fact written and even performed live before they split in 1995. Presumably it was just too late for the A Northern Soul album, as it would otherwise have merited a place. Over the years, Ashcroft has been slightly vague as to the exact meaning of the song; note that between 1995 and 1997 the chorus lyric has changed from "They just make me worse" to "They just make you worse". The common supposition is that the later version of the chorus is about the death of his father (which would of course also fit the idea of "as you lay down on your side") and the latter perhaps about how he tried to cope with the depression afterwards. Tragic as it is, the song at least tries to sound a note of forlorn hope on "I know I'll see your face again." What really saves it as a record is that the arrangement is kept interesting with Peter Salisbury's increasingly prominent drums and Nick McCabe's ever-changing guitar parts. When Ashcroft realised that the solo tracks he was working on (with a backing group that included the other two members of the Verve) needed McCabe's input it was probably the wisest decision he ever made.
Also appearing on: Now 37, 39, 40, 71
Available on: The Drugs Don't Work