of the week

This week’s request from Lee came via a discussion at the Sunday night quiz in which Lee said, “In the so-called demo version of The Drugs Don’t Work, Richard Ashcroft sings ‘They just make me worse’ rather than in the single version where he sings ‘They just make you worse’. I’ve often thought perhaps he realised there was more mileage in the song by changing it. Or perhaps like you say, something happened. for him to decide to change it. The CD single of The Drugs Don’t work which was issued in 1997 had the demo version as track three and Lee is right, so, let’s get to work.

Ashcroft was the lead singer with The Verve who had formed in Wigan in 1990 and, within a couple of years were heading for national success kicking off with She’s A Superstar in 1992. A succession of minor hits followed including History, based on William Blake’s poem London and two acclaimed albums, A Storm In Heaven (1993) and A Northern Soul (1995). In the summer of 1997, they really hit the big time with Bitter Sweet Symphony which, despite reaching number two, didn’t make them any money because of a court case following the use of a sample of The Rolling Stones’ song The Last time as performed by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. The band obtained permission from Decca records who were the copyright holders, but didn’t get permission from Alan Klein, former manager of the Stones and so, lost all royalties and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were permitted the addition of their names to the song’s writing credits.

The follow-up single was the downbeat but melodic anthem, The Drugs Don’t Work which took them to number one. The despair in the song echoes another drugs song, James Taylor’s Fire And Rain with ‘I always thought that I’d see you again’ becoming ‘I know I’ll see your face again’. He wrote the song two years previous and, in an interview with Select magazine, Ashcroft said, “There’s a new track I’ve just written which goes, ‘the drugs don’t work, they just make me worse, and I know I’ll see your face again’ and 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.” So, at the time it was attributed to recreational drug use, but the single has since been linked to both the passing of his father who died from a blood clot when Richard was just 11 years old and his wife Kate Radley’s father, who died of cancer.

Ashcroft was quite open about the song’s inspiration and because the song was released just a day after the death of Princess Diana, it resonated with the general public even more. It’s the song’s sombre string arrangement that captured the mood of the world and it did so for less than two weeks until Elton John re-recorded Candle in the Wind which took focus away from everything and knocked The Drugs Don’t Work off the number one spot and within weeks became the best-selling single of all time.

Ashcroft also learned that the record buying public were interpreting the song’s lyrics to their own situations and then made a point of not discussing them anymore. He explained in an interview with Songfacts, “What I’ve found with lyrics is sometimes people’s own interpretations are on another level to mine, certainly with things like The Drugs Don’t Work. I found that was the most sensitive tune to start. I realised then, 20 years ago, if I underline with a big marker pen, The Drugs Don’t Work equals whatever, then I’m killing it for people.”

The parent album, Urban Hymns can be viewed as a companion to Oasis’ work and Noel Gallagher wrote Cast No Shadow about Richard’s sensitivity as a songwriter and how his work has been tainted by success. Richard had a similar rock swagger to Liam Gallagher and he wrote A Northern Soul about the Gallagher’s feuding on a US tour.

The Verve followed The Drugs Don’t Work with a third Top 10 single, Lucky Man, but they soon disbanded, saying goodbye in front of 30,000 people at Haigh Hall, just north of Wigan. Ashcroft fell out two of the members: lead guitarist Nick McCabe, who was uncomfortable with a life of touring, and drummer Peter Salisbury who was punched on stage.

Ashcroft embarked on a solo career kicking off with the single A Song For The Lovers and a number one album Alone With Everybody, but he couldn’t understand the critical mauling the album received. His second album, Human Conditions (2002), contained two more Top 20 singles, Check The Meaning and Silence Of Silence. He charted a total of nine singles in a six year period before The Verve reformed in 2007 and were rewarded the with number four hit Love is Noise.

In 2009, The Verve split up again with Ashcroft, Jones and McCabe all not speaking to each other and the latter two believed that Ashcroft had instigated a reunion to enhance his solo career, which seems a little unlikely, but hey….

In a 2010, Ashcroft gave an interview to The Irish Times saying “There is an air of calm and peace in my life now, but you remember The Drugs Don’t Work? 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. That song is so misunderstood and when I won an Ivor Novello award for it, I was walking up to the stage – and really you would expect better from a serious music award such as the Ivor Novello – there were all these pictures of hypodermic needles all around the stage. Bloody irresponsible.”

In 1995, Ashcroft married Spiritualised keyboard player Kate Radley and currently live in the Midlands and still records as a solo artist with his last album being 2021’s Acoustic Hymns Vol 1 which peaked at number two.

In 2019, he had a change of fortune, when he won an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music and he announced that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had agreed to signed over the rights to Bitter Sweet Symphony back to him and have their named removed from the writing credit. He, once again, is the sole writer and will receive 100% of all future royalties.