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The Story Behind The Song: How The Verve created their tearjerker 'The Drugs Don't Work'

Music has an uncanny ability to speak to the soul. There’s something inherently powerful about music that enables it to capture the essence of a time or to tap into the zeitgeist or what the collective conscious is feeling at any particular moment in time. We’ve seen it so many times over the years, off the top of your head, it’s easy to recount numerous instances where songs have spoken to something a lot deeper than, say, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’.

Smells Like Teen Spirit‘, ‘Live Forever’, ‘Imagine’, and countless others, there have been so many brilliant songs that have managed to capture the present juncture where society finds itself, cementing their place in pop culture history. One of these such songs is by Wigan’s favourite sons, The Verve.

Formed in 1990 and initially a four-piece, the band would release two albums before truly cementing themselves as British icons. 1993’s psychedelic masterpiece A Storm in Heaven and 1995’s alt-rock classic, A Northern Soul confirmed the band were one of British music’s best offerings. However, it was not until 1997, with the release of their seminal third album, Urban Hymns, that The Verve would establish themselves as one of the defining bands of the era, with a distinctly unique, dreamlike sound.

Urban Hymns spawned massive singles such as ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Sonnet’ that captured the hopeful feel of the time. Although, arguably the album’s most significant offering was the single ‘The Drugs Don’t Work‘. Released on September 1st, 1997, it tapped into the British collective consciousness in a way that wasn’t originally intended. 

Frontman Richard Ashcroft wrote the song a couple of years prior, in the opening stages of 1995. The band would even play it in support of A Northern Soul, teasing audiences of its greatness. Ashcroft even briefly mentioned the material in an interview at the time. He spoke of the song’s explicit reference to his drug usage, explaining: “There’s a new track I’ve just written… It goes ‘the drugs don’t work, they just make me worse, and I know I’ll see your face again’. That’s how I’m feeling at the moment. They make me worse, man. But I still take ’em. Out of boredom and frustration, you turn to something else to escape.”

Considering when the song was released in 1997, the ’90s were starting to be engulfed by the negative effects of drug abuse and hedonism, much as the ’60s had done some 30 years prior. With that, the song assumed an incredibly pertinent meaning to many listeners who were becoming concerned at the declining mental and physical states of either themselves or loved ones.

Since its release, the track has also taken on another life. Many now attribute the song to the death of Ashcroft’s father, who died from a blood clot when the singer was just 11-years-old. Some even sources claim that the song was written beside his wife’s father’s deathbed, with a segment of the lyrics supporting the claim: “And I hope you’re thinking of me/As you lay down on your side” as well as, “Now the drugs don’t work/They just make you worse/But I know I’ll see your face again”.

However, there is another reason why the song was so well-received. Apart from it clearly being an ingenious lyrical exercise for the two reasons outlined above – and an emotive piece of music – the day before the song was released, a huge tragedy had occurred in Paris, France, that was to send the nation into a state of shock and mourning for years to come.

The ‘People’s Princess’, Diana, Princess of Wales, tragically lost her life in a car crash on August 31st. Loved by every corner of society, this came as a shock to the entire world. The sombre nature of ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ spoke to the British nation during this time of mourning. Given that the track is driven by the iconic, candid string section, it was so well-received that it became The Verve‘s only number one in the UK.

Eventually, it was knocked off the top spot by Elton John‘s classic rework of ‘Candle In The Wind’, his direct tribute to the late Princess, but the effect of ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ was to be everlasting. A highly touching song, it took on a life of its own for people everywhere and has remained a tearjerker ever since. Although the band officially split in 2009, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ is an everpresent reminder of their greatness and will live on as one of the most moving pieces of music ever written by a British band.

Listen to ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, below.

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