No conversation about the more literate, melancholic side of rock makes sense without mention of The Smiths. Post-punk predecessors like Joy Division and The Fall tended to fill one more with dread and anxiety than the Smith’s unique blend of dourness and beauty, and content wise they are Romantic observers compared to Mark E. Smith’s beatnik insanity. Nearly all British music after The Smiths – from Radiohead to the Britpop movement – takes influence from them in some way. In simple terms, The Smiths are an important group.
So it certainly helps that they are so goddamn listenable. And that you could listen to their whole catalogue in a day. Twice.
The Smiths are a band made of so many wonderful contradictions. Forlorn vocals with the brightest guitar sounds. Miserablists with a bitingly funny wit. A focus on image without plastering their own faces on covers. A frontman accused of pretention who picked a bland name to avoid those accusations. The two loosest melody men in music (Morrissey and Johnny Marr) backed up with one of rock music’s tightest rhythm sections (Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke). But all these elements are precisely why they arrived so readymade and fully formed. The Smiths are kitchen sink fantasy, effeminate machismo, and their self-titled debut album shows all these traits and more from the very inception.
The Smiths is an album full of nostalgia, class struggle, sexual supressing, unfulfilling coital encounters and even child death. You know, typical Smiths topics! With a reputation as being song artists as opposed to album artists – hell, around half of all Smiths’ songs never made it onto studio albums – it is surprising just how cohesive each of their records are thematically, and here is no exception. The Smiths begins and ends with childhood lost (though in very different ways!), and in between are a selection of couples all struggling in their own way to make a connection.
That last part is also true for the first song, “Reel Around the Fountain,” a song that is about, if not paedophilia (as the linguistic colostomy bags at The Sun outraged), then probably still a relationship with a considerable age gap; it is sometimes hard to tell with the ambiguous way that Morrissey constructs his lyrics. Being the longest track on the album is a somewhat reversal on how albums are typically constructed, and Morrissey gets some of his trademark poeticism in there, including pinning and mounting someone “like a butterfly,” and references to A Taste of Honey resulting in one of many “Oh, I get it now” moments of this listen. There is also the abnormal use of keyboards (also used on “I Don’t Owe You Anything”) to give the melody a different texture, but for me the standout aspect track is Mike Joyce’s drums, which introduce the track with a Joy Division-like atmospheric rhythm and keep for the whole six minutes. Yes, I do intend to give every member their deserved kudos.
The next two songs emphasise their change of pace in different ways. After the slow intro to this album, “You’ve Got Everything Now” comes out with force as an ode to the perils of nostalgia; this could have been Gary King’s theme song. Meanwhile, “Miserable Lie” starts off as a punk ballad with patronising pleas to “stay with your own kind,” that then takes a turn for the awesome by the sudden tempo and perspective shift, which results in everything from the vocals to the guitars to the pulsating bass and drums becoming much more biting. Both of these songs also have Morrissey exploring the upper ranges of his voice, and I have to say that I definitely prefer it as a tool for on more aggressive tracks (“Miserable Lie” and “What Difference Does it Make?”) as opposed to the more ‘brighter’ tracks (“You’ve Got Everything Now” and “Pretty Girls Make Graves”).
The next two tracks are great examples of Andy Rourke’s bass playing, if only because they are pushed further in the album mixing. “Pretty Girls Make Graves” probably has the simplest structure of any of the songs here (though interesting use of repeating lines in “I’ve lost my faith in womanhood/ I’ve lost my faith), but the main propulsion of that song come from Rourke’s bounciness working around Marr’s trademark jingle jangles. Meanwhile, the long introductory notes from “The Hand that Rocked the Cradle” that quickly snap back down help set the tone of that whole song.
Although all the songs previous songs of the album range from good to great, it is at “The Hand that Rock the Cradle” that the album really takes off. This song’s edge mainly comes Morrissey, who pens what I think is one of his top five lyrical performances. He has to find that line between the romantic and psychotic, the ambiguous and the abundantly clear, the love of men and the anger of men, and he hit it with such a precision that this demented lullaby comes across as truly remarkable.
Side A ends with what is probably the first or second most beloved song in The Smiths canon. “This Charming Man” has so many things going for it to be the uber classic it is: the tightness of that drum and bass; How Morrissey rides that iconic vocal line of celebratory sourness; the wonderful images of punctured bicycles and stitch unwearing that are just fun to sing and a famous Top of the Pop’s fuckyou performance that would great even if the song wasn’t so good. But it is here that we highlight that other main reason for The Smith’s success. Johnny Marr is one of my favourite guitarists, and it is because how much he is able to both restrain himself and display his playing prowess (see this documentary clip where another guitarist struggles to play this very riff). This riff – like many Marr riffs – is so melodic, but still manages to maintain a sense of rhythm, which apart from the trademark jinglejangle Rickenbacker is the thing that distinguishes him technically from the other eighties guitar gods who come from Metal.
Noel Gallagher gave the best description of Johnny Marr: “even he is not as good as he is.”
“This Charming Man” is the undisputed classic, but if you were to ask me right now, in this frame of mind, what my favourite Smiths song is, I would say “Still Ill.” From the opening muted hits to the travelling allowing the fret board this is just as good of a riff as on the previous track. Rourke’s bass playing is at its most frenetic, and check out all the intricate and subtle drum fills and rhythms going on in Joyce’s end. But my main love of this song comes from the fact that is exemplifies Morrissey’s glorious persona more than many a Smith song, with “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/England is mine and it owes me a living” being probably his best introduction. The song then gracefully moves from topics of the benefit system and homosexuality – England certainly hasn’t changed in thirty years – and uses the said “iron bridge” and “sore lips” to represent the disgust and love of both subjects. Morrissey’s sexual asexuality has always been complicated for many a term paper writer, but for me it is the reason he is able to take on so many different personas and identities, and yet still coalesce them into the Smith’s Song.
So yeah, favourite Smiths song, but ask me again by the end of this week. Anyone who says they have always had a favourite Smiths’ song is probably lying.
We go from the favourite to the first with “Hand in Glove,” and I do have to say that I personally prefer the production of single version (The Smiths problems with producing this record resulted in them becoming much more autonomous in later recordings) but this song is fantastic whatever version you hear of it. I mean, how many bands would kill for this to be their released song? An instant taste of everything that was to come, the rings from Marr’s guitar are as pronounced as ever, the cymbal work is incredibly moody, and Morrissey decrees of love to his “little charmer” is probably the closest he ever came to being little r romantic.
“What Difference Does it Make?” was the only true single to come from the album, and is the most traditional track next to the pop and ballads of much of The Smiths. The sounds of children are a great precursor of what was to come in this records finale, Marr’s layered guitar work remains as great as ever, and Morrissey’s falsettos are the best on the whole record. I don’t care if neither Marr nor Morrissey care for this song, this rules. What rules a little less is “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” which compared to the rest of this side of the album is definitely the weak link. The ultimate song for sex entitled wanker, this still has a lot going for it, such as the almost funky guitar chords and organ, and Morrissey’s imagery of buying the cheap wine that remains sadly familiar. Unfortunately this tone is not one I wished to stay at the mopey level it did (thus why I love “Miserable Lie”), but if this is the album’s worst track we don’t have to worry. Just another album suffering from penultimate song syndrome.
The album ends with what is The Smith’s darkest and probably most controversial track, a literate examination of the Moors Murders in “Suffer Little Children.” Everything musical about this finale is great: Marr’s arpeggiated chords; the rolling drums and dark bass, and the sound effects placed are perfect for the tone. But just the topic alone was going to be enough to make people angry, but those people shouldn’t have worried: Morrissey was just as mad as you. “Manchester has a lot to answer for” is the infamous line, but the tone of this line could extend not just to this whole song, but the content of this whole album.
The Smiths remains a singular artefact of music even after thirty years, and the fact it isn’t even the best Smith’s album is indicative of just how much greatness we have left to cover. Its aesthetic predates both the indie rock and emo that was to come, but even knowing that doesn’t stop this from being a unique band showing just what is was that made them unique. Ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye.
What did you think of the album, though?
The Smith’s Album Rankings
1. The Smiths