Icon: The Smiths
Go ahead and argue about it, ask your sister or stare at your record collection until the truth falls out: Morrissey/Marr was the best British songwriting duo of the ’80s. In a furiously creative period from 1983 to 1987, singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, backed by drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke, staged an emotional counter-revolution in pop music. It was a protest of everything we tend to remember – correctly or not – about ’80s music: the self-indulgent guitar solos, the cold grip of synthesizers, the new drugs, the partying all the time. Morrissey’s sensitivity and wit rarely failed to go over the top, anchored only by Marr’s economical style and enduring melodies. Sons of Irish immigrants and raised in post-industrial Manchester, Morrissey and Marr are often cast as creative dipoles, one the foil to the other’s particular talents. But when I interviewed Marr in 2003 about his songwriting partner, the guitarist spoke about a bond that went far beyond differences in personality.
“The thing that brought us really close together is the essence of why Morrissey lives his life and why I live my life,” said Marr. “Without the art of pop music and pop culture, life doesn’t make any sense. It was a pretty serious, deep need. It wasn’t just the need to escape our social situation, because underneath it all, one of the things that makes us the same is that we’re both incredibly sensitive. There was this burden with serious mental problems that were taken care of by records.”
The Smiths died for your teenage pain, but not before they created some of the most affecting (and affected) songs to address the peculiarly adolescent feelings of loneliness, lovelessness and self-doubt that linger, in one way or another, throughout life. Morrissey came back as a plastic-Jesus version of his Smiths self, of course, but there is no substitute for the inspired work that resulted from one of pop music’s greatest partnerships.
In Chronological Order
Had the Smiths been interested in small-scale glory as members of the Manchester post-punk scene, they would have signed to Factory Records. Inking a deal with London-based label Rough Trade not only distanced the Smiths from their Northern contemporaries (New Order, the Fall), it also gave a small boost to Morrissey's goal of becoming a massive pop star. And this is where The Smiths becomes all the more astonishing and strange; it... aimed for the same 1984 chart popularity enjoyed by Wham!, Cyndi Lauper and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, yet it seems to orbit a different planet altogether. Devoid of drum machines and synths, the guitar-bass-drums sound of The Smiths is hopelessly "trad" — unsurprisingly, the lack of sonic gimmickry is also the reason why the Smiths' catalog has aged so well. Marr's relentlessly busy Rickenbacker melodies provide the spring for Morrissey to fire off plenty of wry, self-exposing lyrics about depression ("Still Ill"), murder ("Suffer Little Children") and loss of innocence. It's the last theme that dominates this debut, from the "Reel Around The Fountain" line "You can pin and mount me like a butterfly" to the sexual corruption in "Miserable Lie." Morrissey seems less like the 24-year-old he was at the time and more like an ingenue disappointed at grown-up life, a point of view that no doubt has helped endear him to generations of teenagers. Needless to say, The Smiths is dark and brooding, but it's not as if there's no humor. If it's the light you seek, Morrissey is happy to report on "Hand In Glove" that "the sun shines out of our behinds."more »
Befitting its sophomore-album status, Meat Is Murder captures the Smiths at their most adolescent. This is occasionally awkward, and there is no escaping mention of the title track in this regard. Petulant, unsettling, preachy and featuring the sound of cows crying, the accusatory vegetarian anthem "Meat Is Murder" is off-putting from multiple angles. But such a black mark on the Smiths' juvenile record is easily overlooked (it would be even more so... had it not been the album title) in light of what else the record has to offer. A slight rebellion against anything the Smiths had done before, "How Soon Is Now?" is the standout experiment, with its famously shuddering guitars and hypnotic beat; ironically, its danceability is undercut by Morrissey's sarcasm regarding the romance of nightlife ("There's a club, would you like to go?/ You could meet somebody who really loves you"). Elsewhere, the growing pains are more literal in the lyrics sheet, ranging from corporal punishment in schools on "The Headmaster Ritual" to physical violence against children at the hands of parents on "Barbarism Begins At Home." It may sound unbelievable, but when all the child-slapping and animal-killing isn't going on, Meat Is Murder is actually quite funny. It's dark humor, to be sure, but there is a trifecta of songs — "Rusholme Ruffians," "I Want The One I Can't Have," "What She Said" — that rarely, if ever, show up on Smiths best-ofs yet form the beating heart of this record. You can hear Marr developing his 12-string acoustic jangle just as Morrissey fine-tunes his narrative skills, roaming the fairgrounds and working-class settings of his youth to deliver songs that make the thrill and disappointment of love all too real.more »
In the U.K., music magazines and other listmakers usually rank The Queen Is Dead in the top 10 or so albums of all-time. Who knows what the critical consensus is elsewhere; it's certainly less beloved, and with good reason. The Smiths' masterpiece was made for England, for old Oscar Wilde and the uptight Anglican church, for double-decker bus crashes and, yes, breaking into Buckingham Palace to threaten monarchy with a rusty spanner.... What's remarkable is that the Smiths forced American listeners to embrace British idioms and culture in a way that contemporaries U2 and the Cure never even attempted. Rather more like the Kinks than the Beatles, the Smiths relied on Anglophilia and scathing wit, and The Queen Is Dead showcases those attributes at the peak of Morrissey and Johnny Marr's powers. The album is well balanced between funny (the letter of resignation to a bumbling boss that is "Frankly, Mr. Shankly") and parodic ("Vicar In A Tutu") at one end of the scale, and self-pitying ("I Know It's Over") and romantically macabre (the die-by-your-side fantasy of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out") at the other. Sonically, producer Stephen Street raised The Queen Is Dead to another level of sophistication, adding a pop-radio gloss to the Smiths' clean but ragtag-rockabilly sound. Marr completely embraces the symphonic bliss of an acoustic 12-string guitar playing rapid-fire 16th-note chords on "Bigmouth Strikes Again," which gives the Byrdsian jangle an aggressive edge that suits the opening line, "Sweetness, I was only joking when I said I'd like to smash every tooth in your head." Morrissey relishes this kind of shock value — or at least titillation — and can expertly deploy it whenever he feels like hanging a DJ or knocking off a disco dancer. What Morrissey is really doing on The Queen Is Dead, however, is unearthing the hidden thoughts of the world's misfits — from the cross-dressing vicar and boys crippled by their feelings to the supreme loneliness of the Queen herself — and channeling those repressed voices, it turns out, is the secret weapon of a cardigan-clad superhero.more »
Did we already crown The Queen Is Dead as the Smiths' masterpiece? Because Strangeways, Here We Come is hardly a descent from the mountaintop. Call the band's final two albums twin peaks, because there is a similar feel to these black comedies that made them, at the time, perfect partners for sides A and B of a 90-minute Maxell. "I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday, 'cause you're evil and you... lie/ And if you should die, I may feel slightly sad but I won't cry," sings Morrissey on "Unhappy Birthday," which only places second in the album's macabre sweepstakes. The real award goes to "Girlfriend In A Coma," another brightly jangling number that portrays decidedly mixed feelings about a loved one's hospitalization. Its title referencing the name of a Manchester prison, Strangeways seems to recognize that hell is other people, and sometimes you might just be better off walling yourself in. These sentiments are wrapped in brighter-than-ever melodies, including the effusive power pop of "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" and the tale of a fading pop star that is "Paint A Vulgar Picture," the latter sporting the first-ever Smiths guitar solo. It would also be Marr's last, as the guitarist left the Smiths a few months after Strangeways was completed. The album's final track, the acoustic elegy "I Won't Share You," sounds like Morrissey's farewell to Marr only in retrospect. The two had burned so brightly, there was hardly energy left to give the Smiths a formal burial. "[Morrissey and I] were trying to set ourselves on fire all the time," Marr told me in 2003. "It really takes it out of you."more »
It's true that this b-sides/singles compilation is the poorer cousin to Louder Than Bombs (which is nearly identical yet contains seven additional tracks), but still: what an embarrassment of riches. The Smiths were a phenomenally productive singles band, as much a result of the Morrissey/Marr creative impulse as a psychological need to remain in the public eye and etch their name on the holy tablets once known as weekly pop charts. The... World Won't Listen begins with "Panic" and "Ask," which together define what the Smiths were all about. The former track asserted that pop music had become largely irrelevant, the second is proof of how a song can speak to the individual, a lifesaver for the lonely and shy; neither track earns Morrissey the sad-sack reputation he's been saddled with since he first warbled his way out of Manchester. The World Won't Listen is also notable for the perennially underrated "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby" (a punchy, chorus-loving song that could've belonged to a '60s girl group) and the instrumental "Money Changes Everything," which is the sole track here not also found on Louder Than Bombs. Bottom line: There are lots — maybe a few too many — Smiths compilations, and if you're still reading this far into the Morrissey/Marr evangelist tract, you'll probably end up owning quite a few of them.more »
A compact summary of the Smiths is a challenge to memory, chronology and history because, decades after its break-up, the band still seems very much alive. The group, led by singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, existed in the '80s in Manchester, England, but it had little to do with that decade's agreed-upon definition of pop music. The Smiths — the band-next-door name chosen to distance itself from its flashy contemporaries —... were immune to both the excesses and guitar solos of the American Big '80s sound, as well as the now-kitschy keyboards and drum machines of England's new wave movement. Even within the sphere of Manchester's indie scene, the Smiths were outliers to the Factory Records era depicted in 24 Hour Party People. The things that set the Smiths apart (Morrissey's romantic and funny take on isolation, Marr's melodic and evocative guitar playing, a wholesale dismissal of the sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll lifestyle) helped the band forge an unusually tight emotional connection with its listeners. Though the Smiths are often invoked as a lifeline to the lonely — especially for those in the thick of adolescence — the band's songwriting transcends nostalgia, an Anglocentric worldview, the maudlin cult of personality that later formed around Morrissey, and the ravages of time itself.more »
The Sound of the Smiths is the most accurate available guide and the best one-stop opportunity to visit the band's songs for the first or 500th time. The compilation is arranged chronologically, cherrypicking from the group's four proper albums and many singles. The Smiths released music from 1983 to 1987, and the 23 tracks here amount to one of the most furiously creative five-year periods in rock history. As a straight listen, the band's relatively brief window of existence bodes well for the compilation format, as there's little disconnect between Marr's chiming, busily fingerpicked Rickenbacker on 1983's "This Charming Man" and the chiming, smoother jangle on 1987's "Girlfriend in a Coma." Of course, it's Morrissey who takes center stage, sounding ever-exasperated by life's major and minor difficulties: lovelessness, unemployment, flat bicycle tires. Yet for all the complaints and (often inwardly directed) clever jabs, Morrissey's lyrics argue that aesthetic beauty can rescue you from boredom, a dead-end job, a night alone or the biggest misery of all — other people. So for every bit of gloomy navel-gazing ascribed to songs such as "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Still Ill," there is an empowering counterpoint; "Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to," sings Morrissey on "Ask." Elsewhere you'll find no sympathy for loss prevention ("Shoplifters of the World Unite") and a more eloquent rephrasing of the disco-sucks sentiment ("Panic," featuring its "hang the DJ" chorus). Melodrama and self-pity may play a significant role in Morrissey's repertoire, but he's almost always balanced by Marr, his musical foil. Without the famously shuddering guitars of the often-covered and sampled "How Soon Is Now," Morrissey's lyrics would be more exposed as a frightening statement of self-affirmation: "I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does." But hey, some people need to hear that.
Of particular interest to those repurchasing material, Marr oversaw the remastering of the songs on The Sound of the Smiths — it's the first best-of to have the band's blessing — and several tracks are of noticeably brighter quality, particularly "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby." The Peel Session version of "What Difference Does It Make" is included here, and it's the smart choice, highlighting the considerable punch provided by bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce that is otherwise buried in album mixes. Several other songs appear in their seven-inch-single versions, virtually unnoticeable to anyone but completists. The Sound of the Smiths can serve as either introduction or revival, depending on your perspective; going from bedrooms to bars, from Walkmans to iPods, these songs have legs.