|Track||Album / Single|
|This Charming Man||Rough Trade RT 136 A-side|
|Reel Around The Fountain||Hatful Of Hollow|
|Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now||Rough Trade RT 156 A-side|
|How Soon Is Now?||Rough Trade RTT 166 B-side|
|That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore||Meat Is Murder|
|Rubber Ring||Rough Trade RTT 191 B-side|
|The Queen Is Dead||The Queen Is Dead|
|Panic||Rough Trade RT 193 A-side|
|Half A Person||Rough Trade RT 195 B-side|
|I Won't Share You||Strangeways, Here We Come|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
A school yard in South Wales, November 1983. I can picture it clearly in my head – us boys leaning against one wall trying to look cool and/or aloof while still gazing at our objects of affection, the girls sitting on the opposite wall taunting us, teasing us, laughing at us but enjoying the attention. Then Dave said to me, “Have you heard that song, This Charming Man? I really like it …” Of course I’d heard it. That first hearing of it … Johnny Marr’s chiming guitar intro blasting through Radio One’s breakfast show one cold Autumn morning, hearing Morrissey’s not-quite-perfect voice singing words that shouldn’t belong in pop songs, like ‘handsome’ and ‘gruesome’ and ‘pantry-boy’ and that line “I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear”. Well yes, that struck a chord. Not that anyone did want me to go out but you get the picture.
It could be said that the Smiths were perfect for me. Or maybe I was perfect for the Smiths? Either way, that November I was 14, confused by life, very confused by communication and very very confused by the opposite sex. The Smiths could not have happened at a better time for me. I would travel through my teenage years with them, they would be part of the soundtrack to my youth, Morrissey would be my guide through the ups and downs of adolescence. Actually that last bit is a lie. I loved the Smiths (and still do) but I wasn’t devoted to them. They weren’t the most important band in my life – that was OMD and Durutti Column and the Teardrop Explodes and so on and so on – but they were always there, I bought the albums and singles when they came out, I taped the Peel sessions, I read the interviews in the music papers … I absorbed it all. I was a fan but I wasn’t a fanatic. I could understand how a devotion to Morrissey could take over one’s life, to the point where fans these days hang on his every word. I was never like that – thank God. But there were plenty of other people out there who loved them, who clung to each word as if it were a new commandment from on high. If Morrissey gave his blessing to something, then It Must Be Good. Bands, films, books – his blessing meant a nation of outsiders headed off for the record shop or the library. It felt like a personal connection – there was empathy there. Morrissey knew what it was like to be lonely, to be misunderstood, to be confused. And he wore that outsider status as a badge of honour, and gave people like me the confidence to admit that yes I’m different but hell I am human and I want to be loved, just like everybody else does.
But the Smiths were always around throughout their brief existence from ’83 to ’87 – always releasing a new single or album, appearing on TV, Morrissey making some controversial statement on some subject in the papers. In 1984 it was impossible to escape from them. Although it was This Charming Man which alerted me to their existence, I somehow missed their TV performances until their third single What Difference Does It Make? landed them another spot on Top Of The Pops. I was intrigued by them – Morrissey danced like – well – me. Johnny Marr looked like a young Keith Richards, and the rhythm section of Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums looked cool as hell. They didn’t look like a group – they looked like a band. Their debut LP issued that Spring was highly anticipated but a slight disappointment in reality – it felt flat and bland, not truly capturing the magic within songs like Reel Around The Fountain and I Don’t Owe You Anything. Even when it rocked it sounded stifled – the anger and spite in You’ve Got Everything Now should have been matched by a performance that kicked like a mule, but was stilted and muffled. A wasted opportunity of a debut then.
However, 1984 saw more records released and a firmer idea of the capabilities of the Smiths as a band and as an aesthetic brand. There was an old fashioned concept of value for money – singles not on albums, B-sides as good as A-sides – which harked back to the sixties. There was artistry in the sleeves – the tinted photos, the choice of fonts, even the inscriptions on the inner grooves of the records were clever and funny. And there was a distinct work ethic – always a new single or Peel session or tour to cement the bond between band and fans, By the end of 1984 there had been two more non-LP singles and a compilation LP Hatful Of Hollow containing those songs alongside Radio One sessions for John Peel and David Jensen from the previous year – songs which were soggy and slow on the debut LP were spritely and sharp in the BBC studios and Reel Around The Fountain finally had its chance to shine. As for the singles, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now hammered the final nail in the coffin for Smiths haters (“Well he can’t sing, and he’s depressed, and what’s with the flowers and hearing aid and …”) but was actually inspired by Sandie Shaw’s final 60s single, Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now.
William It Was Really Nothing was a two minute blast of fresh air (with another memorable TOTP appearance) and the other songs on the single were as good, if not better. One of the songs would be a great leap forward for the Smiths and over time would come to define them.
The summer of ’84 was when I started listening to the John Peel Show in the evenings, and in August when this single was issued Peel played all three songs, but more than anything he played How Soon Is Now?. It was nearly seven minutes long, it throbbed and rocked, it didn’t sound like anyone at all until Morrissey started singing. And the words could have come straight from my diary: “there’s a club if you’d like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you …” Yeah sure … I’ve got tapes of Peel shows from that summer and he’ll play How Soon Is Now? then mutter “Brooding, boys, brooding” or “The Is-ness of being”. That song throbbed through the rest of 1984 and ended the year topping Peel’s Festive Fifty. “Why was such a great song a B-side?” I hear you cry. Well quite – and in early ’85 it was a single and reached the charts but the moment had passed.
After all, in early ’85 they had a new album out, Meat Is Murder. One night that spring, Peel played the whole of side one and yes I was there taping it, then feverishly playing the tape again and again, learning the songs, catching the nuances. In school the next day I spoke of nothing else; Dave was still the only other Smiths fan in my year and he’d missed the show and wanted descriptions of every song, wanted me to quote the best lines.
Meat Is Murder was a chance for the Smiths to show their true colours, what they were really capable of, from the rockabilly of Rusholme Ruffians to the heavy metal riffery of What She Said to the funky groove (yes I said funky groove) of Barbarism Begins At Home. There were more of Morrissey’s wise words on education – The Headmaster Ritual rang so true that term in school – and vegetarianism and life and death and everything in between. Best of all was That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, one of Marr’s loveliest melodies matched to a heartfelt Morrissey lyric – when he sighs “I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives and now it’s happening in mine” you can’t help being swept up in the emotion. And those soaring guitars at the end. Bliss. It was the only album they made which reached No.1 in the album charts, and it felt like everything was leading up to that point. They could only get better, right?
However, 1985 wouldn’t quite be the year it should have been. Singles like Shakespeare’s Sister and That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore stumbled around the lower reaches of the chart, not because they weren’t great but because they were even more out of step with the times. 1985 was about soul and passion and charity and caring and exclaiming how much soul and passion you have. It was a post Band-Aid world. Morrissey’s foibles didn’t seem important in the wake of a famine in Ethiopia. There were rumblings that the Smiths were unhappy with their record label – the bastion of independence that is Rough Trade. Why couldn’t they get in the charts? Even a pop single as perfect as The Boy With The Thorn In His Side struggled in the autumn of ’85. Morrissey even allowed a video to be made to promote it but still it failed to reach the top 20. Yet on the B-side of that single was Rubber Ring, one of their most important songs. Morrissey is addressing his audience, saying that their feelings – for him, for the songs – are transient and these awful times will pass. In effect he’s saying, “In the future you’ll look back on all this and laugh”. It’s a direct plea to the outsiders not to forget him, every line is loaded with so much meaning. It’s almost painful to listen to, but so self-aware and perfectly poised. That such a song was a B-side … well you know the drill by now.
The first half of 1986 was quiet. There were more rumours of Rourke being sacked and new members (extra guitarist Craig Gannon from Aztec Camera) and more trouble with Rough Trade. Then in May, the new five piece line up appeared on Whistle Test – Rourke was there, bottle blonde and cool in shades, Marr was playing a Gibson Les Paul – that symbol of rock – and they sounded cooler, sharper and more vital than ever. They played two new songs – Bigmouth Strikes Again and Vicar In A Tutu – and sounded like they could conquer the world. The next week Moz was on the cover of the NME, a black and white portrait with the only colour being his blue eyes, no headline, none necessary. I poured over the interview, drank it all in and anticipated the new album The Queen Is Dead.
Looking back, it’s hard to conceive how iconic the whole album would become. Sure I rushed to WH Smiths to buy it as soon as I could and I poured over the sleeve and the lyrics but … I never thought that in years to come people would make pilgrimages to the Salford Lads Club to have their picture taken, or that the NME would still be banging on about it almost thirty years later. Or that a future Conservative prime minister would choose it as a favourite album, making you wonder if he really understood it at all. Yes it’s a great album, but it’s not THAT great. For me, the title track was the best song – a scourging look at the world’s injustices, iniquities and quandaries through the lens of anti-Royalist sentiment. It is a perfect portrait of 80s Britain in decay. And it has jokes. And it rocks like a bastard. The Smiths weren’t feeble jingle jangle merchants now. The album swings from light-hearted to downcast and back again, sometimes within the same song. I Know It’s Over, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, Cemetry Gates … it was tough choosing one song for the Toppermost list but The Queen Is Dead, the title track, won. You can argue about it in the comments box.
The Queen Is Dead should have reached No.1 but was held off by Invisible Touch by Genesis. A schoolfriend brought his tape of that LP into school on the day of release and insisted on playing it to the common room, saying it was important and should be heard. It was bright and shiny and vapid and vile. I hid in a corner and sang, “Life is very long when you’re lonely“.
The Smiths were now in their imperial phase. They were a ‘nun eating rock monster’ live and issued more stand-alone singles which kept knocking on the door of the top ten. Suddenly they were popular again. Panic was the sound of the summer of ’86 – a big T.Rex glam stomp with a message. You don’t need me to remind you what that message is but it felt quite radical hearing a record about pop music not speaking to people was being broadcast on Radio One alongside music that wasn’t speaking to people. The next single, Ask, may have sounded breezy but hid a lyric about shyness and spending “warm summer days indoors writing frightening verse…“. Oh yes these feelings were familiar.
But still there were problems. There was violence at Smiths gigs in Newport and Preston, there were accusations of racism over Panic’s chorus of “Hang the DJ”, there were cries of “Sell out!” as the Smiths announced they were moving to EMI after one more LP for Rough Trade, there were problems with management… Everything they did, every move they made was scrutinised by the music press and their fans. It must have been incredibly wearing for the four members stuck inside the bubble of being The Smiths and eventually that tension would blow them apart.
1987 started with more singles – Shoplifters Of The World Unite and Sheila Take A Bow. Both were great and featured excellent B-sides from which I chose Half A Person for this top ten. A delicate folky strum with another funny yet sad Morrissey lyric, “Do you have a vacancy for a backscrubber?” It struck a few nerves with this clumsy and shy seventeen year old. Then a silence again while they recorded another album. I sat my A Levels and waited for the results, prepared to leave for Sheffield Polytechnic, bought the music papers before dropping into the dentist, sat in the waiting room and opened the NME and read the news today (oh boy)
SMITHS TO SPLIT?
For some reason it didn’t come as a shock to me. It almost felt right, natural. They couldn’t last forever, the tension had become unbearable for Marr – too much pressure to create, to be there for Morrissey, to always be a Smith. The end was messy, there were stories of getting a replacement guitarist but could anyone really replace Marr? It just wouldn’t be the Smiths. Then Morrissey was a solo artist, signed to EMI now and reactivating the HMV imprint now the contract to Rough Trade was fulfilled.
The final Smiths LP Strangeways, Here We Come was far from a contractual obligation. The music was richer, glossier but still defiantly Smiths-like. Even the opener, A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours was deliberately guitar-free but just sounded like a tribute to Morrissey’s beloved Sparks. Death Of A Disco Dancer grew from quiet beginnings to a discordant climax (and yes, that’s Morrissey on atonal piano proving what he said back on The Queen Is Dead – that you should hear him play piano). Girlfriend In A Coma and Unhappy Birthday mix bright music with sad words.
It moaned about their record company (Paint A Vulgar Picture), it rocked with assurance (Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before) and it brought a tear to your eye (Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me). And at the close was I Won’t Share You, short and bittersweet, Marr playing an autoharp, Morrissey singing like it’s the last song he will ever sing – a beautiful end. All four Smiths claim Strangeways as their best album but it’s hard to separate the music from the circumstances of its release. And for me it is hard to hear the LP without thinking of buying it on my first day of being a student, searching the unfamiliar city of Sheffield for a record shop, heading back to my barely decorated student room, hiding under the blankets because the heating wasn’t working, listening with my headphones on … I always believed Strangeways was deliberately issued at the end of September to capitalise on new students buying it. Well it worked for me.
It was easy to caricature the Smiths, and people often did – from Steve Wright on Radio One to Steve Coogan (the first time I saw him on TV he was mocking Morrissey on The James Whale Radio Show in the late 80s). But the Smiths affected a lot of people, not just nerdy teenagers hiding in the bedrooms (cough) but people around the world. Morrissey spoke for a silent army of the misunderstood, the misfits and the weirdos. Marr was a six-string wizard with an ear for melody, and the rhythm section were far from just “the boys at the back”, having nimble grace and skill. The Smiths were a magical combination of talents, they were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for their generation and their music lives on today. They were influential – Blur, Oasis, Radiohead and more wouldn’t exist without them breaking down the door for guitar music in the 80s.
And strangely, their music doesn’t sound dated at all – they eschewed the obvious 80s sounds, the synths and gated snare drums, so the music sounds timeless. I’ve only scratched the surface of their greatness – no time for how they championed Manchester as much as Factory Records did, the strange sexuality of Morrissey’s lyrics, the instrumental B-sides, the importance of John Peel championing them and so much more.
Picking ten songs was ridiculously hard – they recorded so many great songs in their small canon – and I tried to include songs from across the full spectrum of their output. Feel free to comment about what’s missing or what you would choose instead. As you can probably tell, The Smiths weren’t my life but my life was enriched and made better by them being part of it. Yes I’m older now (and I’m a clever swine) but these were the only songs that ever stood by me.
Read more of Rob Morgan’s musical memories at his website
A Goldfish Called Regret.