From a landmark debut single to the epics of love and loss, here are 10 classic Smiths songs to warm you up for Morrissey’s forthcoming UK tour…..
The Smiths’ first single was everything one might want a debut to be: an extraordinary statement of musical and lyrical intent, in which Morrissey and Johnny Marr laid down a manifesto. Morrissey’s was one of difference: “No it’s not like any other love/ This one is different because it’s us!” and “We may be hidden by rags/ But we’ve something they’ll never have”. It showed his gift for unexpected vulgarity (“Hand in glove/ The sun shines out of our behinds”). And it displayed his gift, despite having long left his teens, for understanding the desperate, romantic solipsism of the teenager (something that would become more of a problem as he got older and as his lyrics increasingly suggested he was not so much empathetic as desperately solipsistic himself). Consider the line “And everything depends upon how near you stand to me”, (actually an adaptation of a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s Take This Longing). Marr, meanwhile, raced out of the traps with that soaring, triumphant opening harmonica riff, the dramatic stop-start in the verses and the umistakable air of a man who knew his rock history and was determined to plunder it without ever repeating it. Hand in Glove sounded like a teenager’s heart rendered in song – a staggering initial outburst.
Throughout their career, but especially at its start, the Smiths would debut new songs on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show, unveiling four songs at a time. The best of the sessions, and many of the remarkable number of great non-album singles and B-sides they recorded, ended up on the compilations – Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen and on their US equivalent, Louder Than Bombs. Reel Around the Fountain was recorded for the group’s first Peel session, in May 1983, a few days after the release of Hand in Glove, in a take that makes the version on their debut album sound like a bad cover. Marr discovered the melody during an attempt to play the R&B song Handyman by Jimmy Jones, when “this string of strange chord changes fell from my fingers”. Yet on this version, you’re hardly aware of chords: Marr’s guitar seems to shimmer and hover, flitting across the rhythm section, Morrissey gliding atop it all (if never the most supple of singers, his vocal here is perfectly judged). Reel Around the Fountain – a song about the loss of innocence, and one tabloid papers suggested was condoning child abuse – was stately and mournful, but never let its melancholy topple over into self pity. Again, the wit was there (though the line “I dreamt about you last night/ And I fell out of bed twice” was lifted from Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey), along with a delicious understatement (“Fifteen minutes with you/ I wouldn’t say no”) that makes love and lust and despair seem human rather than, as so often in pop, superheroic. Reel Around the Fountain was arguably the Smiths at their most perfect – a band who understood the dynamics and complexities of both music and life.
Proof that empathy could be part of Morrissey’s armoury came with this song, recorded for the second Smiths Peel session in September 1983. It’s a tender portrait of a young mother giving away her baby, in a lyric that reads like a kitchen-sink drama: “Wrap her up in the News of the World/ Dump her on a doorstep, girl.” The child “could have been a poet or she could have been a fool” – but the mother will never know. Marr, meanwhile, offers a spindly version of lounge pop in the background – this is a musical prototype of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, with none of the lushness – all precise stabs of guitar, then weeping chords. The Smiths were so good this song’s only release on record came on Hatful of Hollow – it was never recorded for an “official” album or single.
Four songs in, and we’re only up to the second single, from October 1983. This Charming Man was written for the band’s second Peel session, but rearranged for release as a single after Rough Trade made the suggestion it might be a better choice than Reel Around the Fountain. The Peel version shuffled, but the single turned the beat into a straight four-to-the-floor, which gave Marr’s guitar – which hinted at African pop, the Byrds and so much more – greater space to shine. Crucially, the change in the rhythm also sharpened Andy Rourke’s bassline and brought it to the fore, and this is the undersung element that lifts the song from the excellent to the great. That line was the central part of the two dance remixes Rough Trade commissioned from François Kevorkian, much to the band’s annoyance (they’re well worth seeking out, in fact, just to hear the bassline without Morrissey and Marr over the top). It was a song that summed up what Peel said was attractive about the Smiths: that you couldn’t tell exactly what they’d been listening to from their music. Lyrically, perhaps, this was not the perfectly formed world of the very best Morrissey efforts: it’s more a collection of fragments than a narrative, but the fragments were so perfect that it barely mattered: “Punctured bicycle on hillside desolate/ Will nature make a man of me yet?” was a line so arresting – and so perfectly cued up by the pause at the end of Marr’s intro – that Morrissey could have read the football pools check afterwards and it would still have sounded marvellous. It’s important to remember that acclaim was not universal and immediate, and that many were very sniffy about the Smiths. When it was reviewed on Radio 1’s Roundtable, the assembled celebrities were lukewarm, Adam Ant noting that he quite liked the line about not having a stitch to wear.
Proof of the strength of the Smiths B-sides was that this, perhaps their defining statement, crept out on the flip of the 12” single of William, It Was Really Nothing, alongside the almost equally loved Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, though that was apparently because Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis didn’t fancy it as an A-side. The band, though, knew they were creating a landmark. “I wanted an introduction that was almost as potent as Layla,” Marr would later say. “When it plays in a club or a pub, everyone knows what it is.” As for how he got the sound of the record, which is like nothing else in the Smiths’ repertoire, he told Guitar Player magazine in 1990: “The vibrato sound is fucking incredible, and it took a long time. I put down the rhythm track on an Epiphone Casino through a Fender Twin Reverb without vibrato. Then we played the track back through four old Twins, one on each side. We had to keep all the amps vibrating in time to the track and each other, so we had to keep stopping and starting the track, recording it in 10-second bursts … I wish I could remember exactly how we did the slide part – not writing it down is one of the banes of my life! We did it in three passes through a harmoniser, set to some weird interval, like a sixth. There was a different harmonisation for each pass. For the line in harmonics, I retuned the guitar so that I could play it all at the 12th fret with natural harmonics. It’s doubled several times.” Marr’s monumental riff, swampy and glowering, was paired with what amounts to an ur-lyric from Morrissey, one that would be ridiculous were it not so heartfelt: “There’s a club if you’d like to go/ You could meet somebody who really loves you/ So you go and you stand on your own/ And you leave on your own/ And you go home and cry and you want to die.” There was only one problem with the song: it was so much a product of the studio that it was impossible for the Smiths to reproduce live. There was no way Marr, on his own, could reproduce what sounded like an army of guitars. So what should have been a firework, on those rare occasions when it was performed live by the band as a four-piece, tended more towards the damp squib, though it was more effective in the brief period when they had Craig Gannon as a second guitarist.
Morrissey’s Autobiography made plain his feelings about his schooldays: a procession of sadistic teachers taking it in turns to beat him while simultaneously lusting after his lanky frame. It was, pretty much, a prose version of the lyric to The Headmaster Ritual: “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools/ Spineless swines, cemented minds … Please excuse me from the gym/ I’ve got this terrible cold coming on/ He grabs and devours/ Kicks me in the showers/ As he grabs me and devours.” Not many people were singing about abusive schoolteachers, and none of them were doing it with a band as muscular as the Smiths had become behind them. Marr, by this point, was an astonishing rock guitarist – all his loves were making their presence felt in his work without ever overwhelming his own character. Morrissey appreciated what he had behind him, remarking that singing in front of the band felt like having a vacuum cleaner shoved up his behind, and they never let him down. The Headmaster is bold and bullish: the lyric, on paper, would seem to demand something maudlin, but the strength of the music turns it into a cry of defiance.
Mancunian rockabilly seemed to be a genre of its own in the 1980s. The Fall and the Smiths both adopted the rockabilly shuffle and paired it with lyrics that Carl Perkins would have been baffled by. The 1985 album Meat Is Murder had featuredRusholme Ruffians, a crib from Elvis’s His Latest Flame, over which Morrissey told the stories of the people at the last night of the fair, where “a boy is stabbed/ And his money is grabbed/ And the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine”. Shakespeare’s Sister, yet another stellar, non-album single (though one some Smiths fans are a bit dismissive of), was Morrissey’s version of a 60s death ballad. Except, it being Morrissey, the lyrics were a little more florid: “Young bones groan/ And the rocks below/ Say, ‘Throw your skinny body down, son.’” Marr’s music was a racing heart, a pulse quickened by the prospect of death, yet swirling like the sea beating against the rocks below. And in one couplet Morrissey made a joke that even now, 30 years later, is routinely taken and adapted by people familiar with the lyric: “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar/ Then it meant that you were/ A protest singer/Oh, I can smile about it now/ But at the time it was terrible.”
The fixation with death and misery was bound to reach its conclusion at some point, and did so with Asleep, the B-side of The Boy With the Thorn in His Side. It’s the Smiths at their starkest, musically, little more than a piano to accompanyMorrissey declaring his desire to die. It could be tacky or tasteless, but instead it’s delicate and empathetic: “Don’t try to wake me in the morning/ For I will be gone.” Morrissey’s one-man death cult could at times be tiresome, especially from someone who seemed to relish in his grievances so much, but Asleep is another exhibit in the case that he was the greatest chronicler of teen mindset to have written a lyric. It’s hard to view Asleep as the last statement of someone in the terminal phase of a depressive illness; it reads and sounds like the words of someone consumed by emotion who’s lost the will to deal with those emotions any more – the classic melancholy teenager. It’s the inverse of “everything depends upon how near you stand to me”, for if everything depends on that, what is left if instead the object of one’s affections stays distant? That is not to diminish Asleep: it is a moving and profound piece of work – the emotions of teenagers are no less real or significant for being those of teenagers. And, lest we forget, rock’n’roll was invented for teenagers – its greatest statements must necessarily speak to them.
For all the greatness of their career – and this list could have been so much longer – the Smiths never made a wholly satisfying album, which is why Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen remain so beloved. They came close with The Queen Is Dead, but were let down by two lyrics in particular – Frankly Mr Shankly, Morrissey’s spiteful dig at Geoff Travis, and Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. Marr would later recount his astonished despair at having written what he thought was his best music, only to have Morrissey pair it to a lyric whose chorus asserted that not only were some girls bigger than others, but also that “some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers” (though even then he pulled out a perfect miniature for the song’s fade out, as he crooned “Send me the pillow/ The one that you dream on”). I Know It’s Over was the album’s grand, melodramatic centrepiece – a banquet of self pity in which Morrissey feasts on the wretchedness of life as he feels the soil falling over his head. Behind him, Marr, Rourke and Mike Joyce play a slow blues – not that Eric Clapton would have been likely to cover this – for at heart this is a blues song, a tale of the unending struggle that always ends in death (Morrissey’s Smiths lyrics were, in effect, an unending memento mori, and on Sweet and Tender Hooligan he even threw in a snatch of the requiem mass: “In the midst of life we are in death etcetera”). The music picks up, gaining energy and rising a key as Morrissey goes into the lyric that’s the song’s most profound message: “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate/ It takes guts to be gentle and kind.”
It seems criminal to complete the list without including anything from the final Smiths album, Strangeways Here We Come – but so many of that album’s lyrical themes had already been covered by Morrissey. Instead, we’ll finish with a 1987 B-side, which backed Shoplifters of the World. London is the Smiths at their punkiest and most frenetic, Marr scratching and chopping at his guitar, like the train that’s heaving on to Euston, then for the coda picking a circular arpeggio as Joyce rolls around his drums, the engine now pelting down the tracks at full speed. The Smiths had made enemies in Manchester by relocating to London early in their career, and its hard not read London’s portrait of someone leaving their hometown as a direct commentary on the band’s own departure: “You left your tired family grieving/ And you think they’re sad because you’re leaving/ But did you see the jealousy in the eyes/ Of the ones who had to stay behind?” London might be minor Smiths, but they are one of the few groups whose minor songs can be very nearly the equal of their greatest – and often better than supposedly more important songs, because they don’t strive for meaning or portent. The Smiths were as adept as miniaturists as they were as musical landscape artists.
Thanks to the Guardian Website for this article……well I love the b-side ‘Rubber Ring’ and what….no ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, surely some mistake! Tell us what should have been on list, we’d love to know…
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