For me The Smiths were one of the greatest bands of the 80’s, if not the best. At a time when people were body-popping and learning to play the Yamaha along came The Smiths, with their Jangly, guitar pop. What was distinctive about The Smiths was they were quintessentially British, nostalgic and fronted by an eccentric and charismatic front man who had a penchant for wearing NHS glasses and a hearing-aid as opposed to the dressed-up, glamorous, archetypical pop-star. As well as being a handsome devil, Steven Patrick Morrissey as The Smiths front man had an out-spoken sardonic wit, effeminate persona, whose gladioli-swinging, cavorting stage-presence appealed to both sexes, making him a refreshing antidote to the testosterone-filled 80’s glam-rockers. Morrissey also remained sexually enigmatic, declaring himself as “asexual”, whilst wearing his adulation for Oscar Wilde and James Dean on his sleeve. Unlike many bands around at the time, The Smiths had a cerebral vulnerability which emphasised with the angst-ridden, making Morrissey a spokesman for the youth of his generation. It seemed Morrissey was fixated with post-war Britain, the era from his childhood, which he romanticized and perhaps grieved through his misery and wry lyrics. What’s more, The Smiths used distinctive artwork in their album sleeves, to pay homage to the cult icons prevalent around the golden-age of 1960’s “kitchen-sink realism”.
Although it was Morrissey who co-ordinated the album sleeves and cultivated the group’s image, it was Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke who provided the instrumental calibre of The Smiths, along with Craig Gannon, who replaced Rourke following his temporary dismissal. However, it was due to the virtuoso guitar playing of Johnny Marr and his song writing partnership with Morrissey which catapulted The Smiths into the spotlight. As a song writing duo Morrissey and Marr were considered one of the best of their generation, likened to Lennon and McCartney. From their first hit “Hand in Glove”, to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, to “Big Mouth Strikes Again”, Morrissey and Marr penned songs which managed to resonate with the alienated youth of Thatcher’s Britain. Despite the lyrics being predominantly a catharsis for Morrissey’s inner torture, Morrissey also perpetrated songs which were of social and political significance. In particular “Meat is Murder” evoked a principled conscience for animal rights and “The Queen is Dead” criticism of the monarchy was considered one of the best songs lyrically. The Smiths also produced songs which delved into the darker sides of society and were criticised for their lyrical content. In particular, “Reel Around The Fountain”, was deemed inappropriate as it was widely interpreted to be about crimes of paedophilia along with “Suffer Little Children” which was an explicit account about the Moors Murderers. Despite those songs being drenched in aloof sensitivity, it highlighted The Smiths forte for controversy, whilst moving away from Morrissey’s “self-obsessed loneliness”. In addition, The Smiths were also a band whose songs reflected Morrissey’s alienation towards the opposite sex, with the songs “Some girls are bigger than others” and “Girlfriend in a Coma”. Despite The Smiths tendency to push the boundaries with lyrical content, they successfully produced an array of songs which were radio-friendly and crossed over into the Indie elite. From “Shoplifters of the World” to “William, It Was Really Nothing”, to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, all were chart-hits and placed The Smiths firmly in the history books of British, alternative music.
This Charming Man:
“This Charming Man” is a song whose impressive opening guitar intro jangles and shimmers against the bouncy bass and disco drums. It’s a song whose intro famously rolls longer than normal, before the pleading youthful vocals jump on board. It’s a supreme pop song, which is paradoxically uplifting whilst being saturated in angst, muttering those immortal words: “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear…” It’s a song which sounds like it’s been shot in one take and thrusts with a youthful energy that scrambles and crashes. With Marr’s counter-melody guitar and Andy Rourke’s bending bass, “This Charming Man” is a criss-cross of restless threads which are meticulously woven together. Apart from the mid-pause, “This Charming Man” doesn’t stop to breathe, but leaps with a cerebral, sprightly pace. With the idiosyncratic “Aahh” from Morrissey, “This Charming Man” jolts with more up-tempo drum’s, racing bass and contrary guitars, which soon mesh together creating an impetuous frenzied out-tro.
What Difference Does it Make:
“What Difference Does it Make” is a song which bobs and stomps with a rockabilly, Country & Western undertow, which races robustly against the versatile vocals of Morrissey. It’s a fast mover, whose horizontal riffs synchronise with the resilient drums leaving the layer of steady short-circuit riffs, trailing behind. Lyrically “What Difference Does it Make” are distinctively sexually ambiguous with lines such as “All men have secrets…”, strongly hinting at unrequited love. It’s also a song which showcases Morrissey’s falsetto vocals during the out-tro, cementing “What Difference Does it Make”, very much a metro-sexual song of its era.
How Soon is Now:
“How soon is Now “is a song where Morrissey’s self-defensive lyrics resonate against the interwoven riffs of oscillating guitars. It’s a song steeped in emotions, whose vocals are delivered in isolation, standing up for themselves against the intruding guitars, which snarl and tease, trying to tear chunks out of the “shy heir”. Yet despite those sharp, jagged guitars which saw through the vulnerable veneer, Morrissey’s combatant yet defensive spirit is personified through the classic lyrics: “You shut your mouth how can you say I go about things the wrong way I am human and I need to be loved just like everybody else does”. Along with the backdrop of jagged guitars, “How Soon is Now” is also defined by the wounded whale-sounding guitars which sway and tantalize across the visceral waves. Despite the strong presence of these whale-esque guitars, there is something really pensive about the swaying motion, a sort of melancholy which later evolves into a more opaque arrangement. Lyrically it’s probably one of The Smiths’ most heartfelt, encapsulating Morrissey’s perpetual alienation:“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 you cry and you want to die…”
“Panic” is a song which courts controversy, invites you for a dance and is perhaps The Smiths’ most anthemic song. It’s a bouncy number whose rhythmic guitars, of Marr and Gannon, curve with fragments of T-Rex’s “Metal Guru” around the jovial drums. Although “Panic” boasts a billowy backdrop, behind the facade is an acute craftsmanship whose loitering guitars ascend like flames before nose-diving during the interlude. Ingeniously, Morrissey simultaneously sings the audacious lyrics with a wistful, wry delivery, remedying his egocentricity. “Panic” perpetrates the eternal music warrior, inflamed very much by Morrissey’s provocative lyrics. With lines such as: “Burn down the disco. Hang the blessed DJ. Because the music that they constantly play it says nothing to me about my life…” Panic is consumed by Morrissey’s signature sardonic sense of humour. It’s a student classic which unites revolts and one you can sing along to, half-cut on the Indie dance-floor. It also takes perverse pleasure in its rebellion, in particular with the use of the triangle-tinkling children, singing the closing lines: “Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, …”
“Ask” is a classic autobiographical song by the Smiths which is an emphatic take on “shyness”, which both characterises and connects Morrissey with his legion of fans. Making no allowances, “Ask” bravely unearths teenage taboos with the endearing opening lyrics: “Shyness is nice, and Shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to” It’s an affectionately up-beat song which crystallises Morrissey’s social misfit demeanour, trajected by the trickling and swirling guitar riffs. It’s a song whose brooding, monochrome, vibrato backdrop acts as a springboard for the bopping drums and robotic, guitar synchronised side effects. Like many of The Smiths’ songs “Ask” is wonderfully nostalgic, enhanced with the dreamy seaside side-effect, reminiscent of 1950s Britain. With subtle backing vocals from Kirsty McColl, “Ask”, has a gentle charm, even when Morrissey is spurting the words: “Because if it’s not Love then it’s the Bomb, the Bomb, the Bomb, the bomb…That will bring us together.”
Sheila Take A Bow:
“Sheila Take A Bow” is a song whose intro of brass and a droning guitar heralds a wave of anticipation and British eccentricity. It’s a song whose thumping drums, stagger and stamp around the ploughing guitars. Whether “Sheila Take a Bow” is about some love forsaken female or not is irrelevant as it’s the angular and acrobatic vocals of Morrissey which hogs the limelight. What’s interesting about “Sheila Take A Bow” is how Marr’s usual jangly guitars sound more 70s glam-rock, which coincide with the lyric: “Throw your homework onto the fire”, which is reminiscent from a line taken from Bowie’s “Kooks”. It’s a song whose guitars provide a dense backdrop as well as subtly customising the soundscape. On one hand you’ve got the predominant guitar which zig-zag and curl around the strolling bass. Then you have the more fleeting arrangements, which skid, screech and echo against those thumping drums. However, for me what defines “Sheila Take A Bow” is the dramatic interludes, where Marr’s dexterity synchronises and slides with the spacious pounding drums, stylistically taking on a more upbeat rockabilly vibe.
There is a light that never goes out:
“There is a light that never goes out” is a song whose prominent bass could represent the sorrow etched in the lamenting lyrics delivered by the immaculate semi-crooning of Morrissey. It’s a song which is quintessentially British, with its gallow romanticism depicted in the lyrics :”And if a double-decker bus Crashes into us To die by your side. Is such a heavenly way to die”. Coated with an elegant grandiose, “There is a light that never goes out” is a song where the tinny guitars are swept to one side by the waves of orchestral synthesized strings. Possibly The Smiths’ most romantic song, the spirit of “There is a light which never goes out” is emblematized by the translucent flute melody which flickers like a reluctant light refusing to be turned off…