The Smiths’ 30 greatest songs – as chosen by the band and their famous fans
Morrissey releases his first new album since 2009, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, on Monday (July 15), so to mark his return we’ve dug out our March 2007 issue of Uncut (Take 118), and a very special piece on The Smiths. Famous fans including Ryan Adams, Craig Finn, Noel Gallagher and Ian Brown, as well as the band themselves, select the very finest songs written by Morrissey and Marr. Come on, let’s talk about precious things…
Interviews: Michael Bonner, Stephen Dalton, Simon Goddard, Rob Hughes, Sarah-jane, Damian Jones, Tim Jonze, Paul Moody, Sam Richards, Marc Spitz, Paul Stokes, Anthony Thornton, Stephen Troussé
Johnny Marr: “Well, well, The 30 Greatest Smiths Songs. It’s amazing to think that what we did still means so much to so many people.
“From the very first writing session that Morrissey and I had in my attic lodgings, we were excited and high with it. We couldn’t get our ideas out fast enough and that feeling remained in the studio for all of us when we were making the records.
“Greatness is the best achievement, greatness and recognition from your peers and other artists you respect. We had and still have that, plenty of other stuff too, good and bad and dramatic. But that’s The Smiths.
“We loved each other and we loved what we were doing more than anything. That’s probably why we still sound good. There’s love in it, inspired musicians, great words and some pretty good tunes, too.
30 BARBARISM BEGINS AT HOME
From the album Meat Is Murder (February 1985, highest chart position: 1)
The bluntest expression of Morrissey’s second album violence fixation. A real curio in the Smiths catalogue, unfurling into an extended funk coda where pained operatic wails meet Andy Rourke’s slap bass.
Ian Brown: I met Andy Rourke at a party when I was 16. My favourite memory of those days is that he used to wear a ’60s sheepskin coat, which belonged to the mother of my friend, Simon Wolstencroft [pre-Reni Roses drummer and later sticksman for The Fall]. I thought it was really funny that he had me mate’s mum’s coat on. But it was dead fashionable at the same time.
I didn’t meet Johnny until a few years later. There’s a great story of Johnny going into a pub in Sale called The Vine when he was 17 and telling everyone he was going to have a No 1 album – and a year or two later, he did! He always had that belief.
The thing about The Smiths that never got written about was that the pre-Smiths groups that Andy and Johnny were in, the Paris Valentinos and White Dice, were funk outfits. When everyone else was a punk rocker, Andy was into The Fatback Band and Parliament. I think that’s what gave The Smiths the groove; Andy played the melody like a McCartney, but he had that funk undercarriage that he learned when he was a kid, when he first picked that bass up. That’s what gave Morrissey the cradle to jump on top. So my favourite Smiths track is “Barbarism…” because that bassline is what Andy would’ve playing when he was about 14.
That Morrissey sang with his own accent was a big deal. Obviously, the lyrics are great. The way that he arranges his songs… no one else arranges their songs like that. He repeats lines, but each one’s got a different melody.
29 SHEILA TAKE A BOW
Single (April 1987). Highest chart position: 10
Following in the footsteps of “Panic”, “Sheila...” equalled the band’s highest ever single placing, paid mispelled homage to A Taste Of Honey author Shelagh Delaney, and even doffed a hat to Bowie’s “Kooks”.
Beth Ditto, The Gossip: For me, it’s like when you’re on tour and you have to associate with people you don’t like, and then you come home and go to your favourite dance night and the music connects with you. It reminds you that you do have a place where you belong and this song hits the nail on the head. It’s rare for a man to sing about a woman this way. To let you know that you’re not alone is empowering for me and I think it’s important in music to alienate the alienators and for the alienated to feel comfortable.
I used to hate The Smiths. Every time I heard them I got mad. It just brought up some creepy emotions inside me that I cannot explain. Now I can’t get enough, because one day the genius of it clicked in my head. Johnny Marr and Morrissey together were amazing. They’re the most dynamic songwriting duo of all time. The Smiths were about the pure ache of raw emotion and at that time for Morrissey it was all so secretive. It was very cryptic and the fact you had to break the code was interesting. It’s smart music. You have to sit down and appreciate it. The Smiths and Morrissey were very elitist, but only to the people who didn’t understand it – when you do, it’s a welcoming place.
28 YOU JUST HAVEN’T EARNED IT YET, BABY
From the compilation album The World Won’t Listen (February 1987, highest chart position: 7)
Supposedly Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis’ verdict on why success eluded The Smiths – a phrase that so irked Morrissey he recycled it both here and on “Paint A Vulgar Picture”. Marr and producer John Porter construct a dazzling wall of guitars, while Morrissey portrays himself as the hapless victim of petty thugs and bullies.
Brandon Flowers, The Killers: This LP had the biggest impact on me. I was living in a small town in Utah and kids my age were into Korn and Tool, but I was on the other end of the spectrum. Years later, I went to Salford Lads Club and took pictures. We played a gig at Manchester Academy, and across the street is the same church Morrissey sings about in “Vicar In A Tutu”. Even driving by a cemetery, I was thinking: “Is this the cemetery he was talking about?” You can walk down the streets and you can hear the songs come to life. “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” is the best Smiths song – it lit a fire in me when I heard it. I l loved it immediately.
27 LAST NIGHT I DREAMT THAT SOMEBODY LOVED ME
From the album Strangeways, Here We Come (September 1987, highest chart position: 2)
Following “Stop Me...” on Strangeways, “Last Night...” was another acknowledgement of lyrical repetition – but if the former was comically wry, here it was tragically pained: “This story is old, I know, but it goes on,” croons Morrissey, with a subtle lyrical homage to Joni’s “Amelia” and an orchestral flourish worthy of Morricone.
Gerard Way, My Chemical Romance: It’s the bleakest one. It’s even bleaker than “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” which I used to think was the bleakest. Waking up with the feeling described in “Last Night...” is the worst feeling in the world. It takes the cake for bleakness, irony and melody.
26 REEL AROUND THE FOUNTAIN
From the album The Smiths (Feb 1984, highest chart position: 2)
Sublime opener from the band’s debut album. It established Morrissey as a new kind of pop romantic comedian, the rueful, amused spectator of his own emotional tragedies.
Brett Anderson, Suede: This track perfectly captures The Smiths’ dark beauty and brooding soul. Looking back, the debut album was flawed, but I still loved every bruised moment. I was fascinated with the wordplay in this song; the way the phrase “15 minutes with you” seemed to allude to the pursuit of fame in the Warholian sense. But The Smiths were always about so much more than the lyrics, and like any great band, they blended the interplay between melody and meaning expertly. They went on to make better records, possibly making the LP of the decade in The Queen Is Dead, but those early moments like “Reel Around The Fountain” are still special.
25 HALF A PERSON
B-side to “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” (January 1987)
Great late Smiths song that makes Velvets-y tragi-comedy from blighted lives, doomed obsessions and a backscrubbing career at the YWCA.
Craig Finn, The Hold Steady: It’s about a girl going to London from I guess Manchester, looking for something. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent too long on your trail…” That song and “Lost In The Supermarket” by The Clash, where Mick Jones talks about the fence in the suburbs over which he couldn’t see, remind me of when I was a kid and I knew there was something else out there, but I didn’t know what it was. I grew up in a suburb outside of Minneapolis, and remember visiting an independent record store in the city for the first time. I looked at every record because I knew I couldn’t see those things where I came from. I couldn’t drive yet and I didn’t understand why, if my parents could drive, they didn’t leave the suburbs every day. That’s the feeling this song reminds me of.
B-side to “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” (September 1985)
One of the few unremittingly bleak moments from The Smiths canon, yet even here, entirely in love with easeful death, Morrissey holds out the promise of “a better world” over Marr’s plangent piano lullaby.
Devendra Banhart: I had a friend, Abdi, who’s a member of the Baha’i faith. When we were 15, he gave me a Smiths album. Around the same time, another friend, Rick, this 15 year-old gay Goth kid, made me Smiths tapes. I hadn’t heard anything like them, it was music from a different culture. It took going to London on my first tour to “get” it. The first time I met my English PR, she said: “Here we are, this is the land that brought you The Smiths.” It was a summer’s day, but it was grey and raining. It looked like The Smiths to me, elegant, sad and beautiful.
Any time in my life that I felt that it might be the end, when I’ve felt like I’m in some sort of life-threatening situation, I go to “Asleep”, and I get lost in it. It submerges me, enfolds me. It’s the most embryonic feeling. It’s almost like being chained to freedom. The dream that there is another world, and I’m leaving for it. But also there’s so much love for the person he’s singing to. It’s beautiful. Apparently, many people want that played at their funeral, and it makes complete sense to me. It’s like setting the Viking longships on fire and watching them drift off into the night. But I always wanted Hanson’s “MMMbop” played at mine.
23 THE HEADMASTER RITUAL
From the album Meat Is Murder (February 1985)
Even more than Elvis Costello, Morrissey was motivated by revenge and guilt, and vengeance comes no sweeter than the opening couplet of The Smiths’ second album: “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools/Spineless swine, cemented minds”. Marr, meanwhile, made good on his ambition to splice Joni Mitchell and The MC5 with a bravura 12-string performance.
Andy Rourke: This one has always been a favourite of mine. I dig it out when I’m DJing, along with “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, “Ask” and “Panic”. It was good fun to play and well recorded. Johnny had been working on it for a while. I think when you slow it all down, those intro chords are very close to something by Joni Mitchell. So it started as a ballad, then Johnny doubled the speed until it became the rock tune you hear today. Whenever we performed it live, it was a joy. It always went down really well. I remember doing it on [BBC2’s] Oxford Road Show [February 1985]. That’s when we first aired it.
22 SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD UNITE
Single (January 1987). Highest chart position: 12
After 12 singles, the guitar hero in Johnny Marr finally breaks free with an oddly Brian May guitar solo, while Morrissey yawns at the real world and plots global insurrection.
Suggs: A fantastic song with a great sentiment. Every boy of a certain age has stolen a packet of Smarties from a sweet shop at some point – it certainly took me back to being a spotty child with my nose just over the counter. The idea of all these shoplifters uniting was an image only Morrissey could have come up with. The idea that everyone could take a little bit for themselves if they didn’t have too much.
I came to The Smiths quite late. What struck me was that bands like Madness, Dexys and The Smiths all had identifiable personalities. At first I didn’t get Morrissey. A lot of the DJs thought it was boring and depressing, and the humour took a long time to reach me. But then you’d read interviews and realise he was a witty and amusing person.
I went on to work with Morrissey because he professed to being a Madness fan. He was working with our producer, Clive Langer, and he asked me to do some backing vocals on “Piccadilly Palare”. He said, “Just sing the first thing that comes into your head!” So I did!
A lot of people remember Madstock. It was two nights in Finsbury Park, a comeback thing, and Morrissey wanted to play with us. The first night, he got his Union Jack out. It wasn’t the best reception, although I didn’t think it was that terrible. Unfortunately, there weren’t many Morrissey fans there, so he pulled out. I rang him up the next day and he was like, “Oh I can’t possibly do it, Suggs. I nearly lost an eye.”
Then, on the second night, there were 3,000 Morrissey fans there and no Morrissey! So they gave us a hard time. But in that ubiquitous way of his, he still ended up getting all the headlines!
21 THE BOY WITH THE THORN IN HIS SIDE
Single (September 1985). Highest chart position: 23
In his best Frank Ifield yodel, Morrissey offers a “plundering desire for love” as the alibi for his long list of murderous grievances and perhaps disingenuously presents himself as a martyred apostle of peace, while Marr plucks out a limpid, pastoral take on Chic-funk.
Dan Gillespie, The Feeling: When I was about 15, my 17-year-old brother sneaked me into an indie club, The Dome in Tufnell Park. The night was called Looney Tunes and this was where I first properly heard The Smiths. It was 1994 and I was a Suede fan. I recall every Suede song played that night being followed immediately by a Smiths hit. The DJ clearly felt the need to make a point. This song is about a love that’s doomed to fail, possibly because the lovers aren’t prepared to admit to their true feelings. Morrissey sings, “Behind the hatred there lies a murderous desire for love”. He ends with some of the most delicious yodelling he’s ever put on record. It has all the elements of a perfect Smiths song.
20 FRANKLY, MR SHANKLY
From the album The Queen Is Dead (June 1986, highest chart position: 2)
A vaudevillian take on Billy Liar’s resignation scene, with Morrissey at his most waspishly inspired: “I want to live, I want to love, I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of”.
Ben Gibbard, Death Cab For Cutie: Lyrically it’s so typically Morrissey: narcissistic and insecure, craving fame and adulation while at the same time questioning if he’s up to the task of being an idol. Musically I like the offbeat upstroke, it’s quite audacious. It’s not everybody’s favourite Smiths song, but I like the way it sits on the album.
It’s amazing that The Smiths made – and continue to make – an impact on US teenagers, given that their music has never been played on the radio, and they’re so English to the point of being unrelatable. Where their lyrical themes touch on what it feels like to grow up awkward and isolated with such poignancy, I suppose that’s universal. They’ve always had a cultural relevancy in America above and beyond any other British band. Any band that gets hyped in Britain will always garner a certain cachet with trendy Anglophiles, but The Smiths transcend that. They mean something to American teenagers on their own terms.
19 BACK TO THE OLD HOUSE
B-side to “What Difference Does It Make?” (January 1984)
A poignant take on nostalgia. Although the full band played on the B-side version, it’s best heard on Hatful Of Hollow, where Marr’s reverbed finger-picking perfectly frames Morrissey’s moving account of childhood longing.
Billy Bragg: When we were recording Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, and we were up in Wood Green with [producer] John Porter. Johnny was there, too. In fact, The Smiths came in and recorded “Panic” for a couple of days in between. I did “Greetings To The New Brunette” with Johnny and Kirsty [MacColl]. Later, Johnny did “Sexuality” with me. There’s a demo of it on the second boxset – it sounded like “Louie Louie”. But then Johnny came along and played all these beautiful, glistening chords. He took it and made this shining pop vehicle. He raised the bar. But this was the song that convinced me that Morrissey and Marr were geniuses. I love it because the tune is to die for and the lyric manages to convey in two verses what it takes me five verses and a trumpet solo to say in “The Saturday Boy”.
18 HAND IN GLOVE
Single (May 1983). Highest chart position: 124
A magnificent debut: Marr’s clarion harmonica intro purposefully echoes The Beatles’ similarly auspicious start, while Morrissey sings with the rapture of a man released from a decade of solitary confinement.
Mike Joyce: I had a dream the other week. Myself, Johnny, Andy and Morrissey were in a rehearsal room. We’d decided to reform and put our differences aside. Morrissey asked what we should open the set with. At exactly the same time, in stereo, Johnny and I said “Hand In Glove”. We all burst out laughing. I suppose my reasoning was because it was the first record we ever made. Then I woke up with a jolt. I never realised you could put words in other people’s mouths in a dream. But for two people to say something at exactly the same time was disturbing. It was strange – the sort of dream that stays with you for a few days.
Once we’d heard it all come together in the studio, it added to our self-belief. We weren’t arrogant, it was more a feeling of pride. I remember looking at Morrissey – and him looking at me – and we both had the same knowing smile. He couldn’t contain his joy. It was like, “How great was that?”
This was the first record I’d played on that I’d have gone out and bought. I recall listening back to it over speakers for the first time and being shocked. I thought I’d just recorded the best record I’d ever heard in my life. I’d heard Johnny’s guitar-playing in rehearsals, but I couldn’t get over the layering and thickness on playback. And I’d never heard a record that faded in and faded out. It nearly made me physically sick. The immensity and beauty of it was amazing. All the hard work – the times Morrissey and I stood outside the rehearsal room in the freezing cold, waiting for Johnny to turn up with the key – paled into insignificance. Suddenly, I realised we had something special.
17 RUBBER RING
From the 12” of “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” (September 1985)
Morrissey’s acknowledgement that his most profound love affair is between him and his audience, here pleading not to be outgrown or forgotten. Marr’s slinky orchestration, meanwhile, conjures up a profoundly English rock’n’roll.
Preston, The Ordinary Boys: Obviously everyone knows Morrissey is a great lyricist, but his unique singing style is underrated. On “Rubber Ring” he sings a weird, polyrhythmic counterpoint to the guitar part and it’s incredible, unlike anything that had come before. I got into The Smiths retrospectively. My brother bought me the 12” single of Morrissey’s “Boxers” for my 11th birthday and I became obsessed with that, so I was a Morrissey fan first, before I found out he had been in this other band called The Smiths. For me, it was like discovering The Beatles. One of The Ordinary Boys’ first ever TV appearances was on Later… With Jools Holland and Morrissey was stood five feet away from me singing “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. It was the most incredible experience.
16 BIGMOUTH STRIKES AGAIN
Single (May 1986). Highest chart position: 26
Over a Marr riff worthy of Keef, Morrissey teases and indulges his own martyr complex, all his murderous daydreams resulting in a sublime hangover of very Catholic guilt.
Nicky Wire, Manic Street Preachers: I distinctly remember them play this on The Old Grey Whistle Test. It stuck with me. It was a brilliant sound and they looked incredible; I thought they were like the indie Stones. Johnny was Keith Richards-esque, in a fey way. There’s that proper rock guitar break, the first time The Smiths had done that. On first impressions, Morrissey seemed kind of self-effacing, but with a serious point as well, which was always his genius.
That lyric, the Joan of Arc comparison, burning at the stake – Morrissey seems to be inferring that if you say anything, you’re castigated as some kind of evil person. As a complete gobshite myself, even at a tender age, I identified with that totally. It was the first time Morrissey showed a slight frailty, almost saying, “Do I really deserve to get this much stick just for saying the Queen is bad, or meat is bad?” His comments were always logical, never stupid or inane. God, Morrissey thought he had it bad then, but if he said those things now… Nobody says anything any more. That’s symptomatic of the times. Nothing means as much as it used to.
I don’t think they could have survived without each other, Morrissey wouldn’t have made such great records without Johnny. Morrissey was patently the obvious symbol for outsiders, but it was done with such intelligence, never just for show. His deviancy was always subtle, that’s what I loved about him, because the Manics always had to be much larger than life. Coming from Wales, that’s just the way it was. But with Morrissey it was always a bracelet, a necklace, a hint of eyeliner – it was just brilliantly done. It’s almost harder to be like that.
15 WILLIAM, IT WAS REALLY NOTHING
Single (August 1984). Highest chart position: 17
A two-minute sun shower of Marr guitar soundtracks Morrissey’s succinct revision of the Billy Liar pop-myth: this time the northern fantasist triumphs through the force of his unshakeable narcissism.
Bernard Butler: I was 13 when this came out and 17 when The Smiths split up, so it couldn’t have been more perfect. The Smiths were my adolescence. I was the archetypal Smiths fan: a skinny white boy who was inspired by Johnny Marr to pick a guitar and who thought every word was about me. “William...”, “Please Please Please...” and “How Soon Is Now?” were released together on one single. Together they encapsulate everything about The Smiths. “William...” is breezy and beautiful, listening to it makes you feel fantastic; “Please Please Please...” is maudlin but funny, too; “How Soon Is Now?” is simply a monument in rock history. I can clearly remember everything about the record, down to the colour of the sleeve. I played it over and over again.
The homo-eroticism of “William...” never occurred to me because at the time I believed it was all about me. The lyric articulated everything I felt, that I was an outsider in my own country. Every line spoke to me: “Too fucking right, this town does drag me down!” The song is delicate but celebratory. It’s life-affirming. I can’t remember where I was when loads of important historical events occurred, but I know exactly where I was when I first heard “William, It Was Really Nothing” on The John Peel Show.
14 PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE LET ME GET WHAT I WANT
B-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing” (August 1984)
The Smiths’ Irish roots came to the fore than on this 110-second ode to desperation, easing into a classic coda of cascading mandolins. Perhaps the closest they came to writing a pop standard.
Alex Kapranos, Franz Ferdinand: It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, probably the best reaction you can get from any piece of music. Although “What Difference Does It Make” is the song that got me into The Smiths. I remember that when I first heard the riff, I loved it – then when Morrissey started singing, I hated it. So it was Johnny Marr’s guitar-playing that got me into that band. All of Franz have been fans of The Smiths since being teenagers. We had heard through a friend of a friend that Morrissey really liked our first album. When we met, we were worried he wouldn’t somehow meet up to the expectations we’d placed upon him – but he was fantastic, just as enigmatic and witty as you’d expect.
13 STOP ME IF YOU THINK YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE
From the album Strangeways Here We Come (September 1987)
One of Marr’s greatest arrangements, this was a glimpse of how the group might have flourished with EMI. It would have made a superb valedictory single had post-Hungerford unease not scuppered its release.
Luke Pritchard, The Kooks: It’s an underrated Smiths song. The beginning is quite progressive, then it becomes a simple, classic guitar pop song. It defines the sound that most people refer to as ‘indie’. The lyric is typical Morrissey. He’s singing about his favourite subject – himself – with that trademark wit. I went through a phase of listening to this song every night before I went to bed and it reminds me of innocent, happy times.
The Smiths are so important. They embodied the independent spirit, as well as patenting that classic ‘indie’ sound. They’re a band’s band, too – there’s so much to learn from them. Now that their music has had 20 years to marinate, their influence is more obvious than ever.
12 CEMETRY GATES
From the album The Queen Is Dead (June 1986)
Marr’s breezily acoustic figures naturally inspire Morrissey to graveyard elegy, musings on literary coffin-robbing and bookish oneupmanship. A perfectly placed comic interlude on their finest album.
James Mercer, The Shins: I love the way Morrissey expresses melancholy. I moved to England in 1985 [aged 13] and left my friends behind and was so shy. I didn’t hang out with anyone outside school or class for the first year and I’d just come home and go to my room. I bought The Queen Is Dead soon after I got to the UK and it was a big deal for me. At that time I was craving something that expressed that sense of melancholy. It was so gentle. I needed somebody to just be accepting of me – you felt that the guy singing this song wouldn’t judge you.
I remember learning to sing properly after listening to Smiths records and they shaped my understanding of music. I was profoundly affected by them, and the way I perceived music was heavily altered. There was just no going back after The Queen Is Dead. You can’t undo that kind of influence.
11 HANDSOME DEVIL
B-side to “Hand In Glove” (May 1983)
Marr’s cut-throat riff prompts a lascivious lyric: “A boy in the bush is worth two in the hands/I think I can help you get through your exams”.
Richard Hawley: A great pop song. What I loved about them was that it was like listening to an endless chorus. I remembering hearing them for the first time as a kid, with headphones on in the dark, listening to Peel. It was fast and aggressive, but had a real beauty to it, too. To me, The Smiths were as far away from one-hit wonders as you could get. Pretty much every single they released was brilliant. You have to judge them on their whole body of work. They rank up there with the Pistols and The Clash in that a huge proportion of people who heard “Handsome Devil” or “This Charming Man” went out and started a band. There aren’t many bands who can say they’ve influenced people to that degree. That’s their greatest legacy. It’s not just great melody and lyrics. It’s an attitude.
I once auditioned for Morrissey as guitarist around the time of “Everyday Is Like Sunday”. I was very young and had only been in local indie bands up to that point. I remember sitting in the flat with fuck-all money and getting a call from Morrissey. I don’t think I made a great first impression because I smoked. But I started playing with his band. Then I made the fatal mistake of singing “One Night” by Elvis. He said “What are you singing for?” I said, “I thought you might need backing vocals.” That was the last of that!
10 I KNOW IT’S OVER
From the album The Queen Is Dead (June 1986)
On an album full of Big Girls – Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Joan Of Arc – it’s perhaps fitting that the pivotal, most heartbreaking song on the record is addressed to Morrissey’s mother. With the most powerful vocal performance of his career he casts himself as love’s eternal sweet exile, Marr’s moonbeam-dappled arrangement providing a strikingly epic backdrop.
Steve Diggle, Buzzcocks: It touches on the depths of despair in that human, Smiths way. Just listen to that opening line: “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head”. And there’s that other line which is chilling – “If you’re so funny, then why are you on your own tonight?” Whether you listen to that in a bedsit or a fairy palace, it still hits you. It’s straight to the point. Only Morrissey could get away with that. The sparseness of the arrangement is incredible, too. Johnny Marr always did the right thing on the guitar. He was so concise. Andy and Mike were perfect. It would have been great to hear Elvis do a cover of “I Know It’s Over”, albeit in a rhinestone suit. I think he would have done a fantastic job.
The Smiths were never depressing to me. You understood the human condition, so you could enjoy it through Morrissey. If you don’t get The Smiths, you don’t get life itself. The Queen Is Dead is their definitive album. The others are fantastic, but when that record kicks in, you realise they’ve achieved greatness. It’s a band in full voice.
Morrissey used to come to our Buzzcocks gigs in grey coat and National Health glasses. He’d be sat at the back taking notes. I remember he was very shy. He’d say hello, but then be stand-offish. When The Smiths got going, Morrissey did take the non-gender lyrics from us. I’ve never taken him to task about it, but I’m pretty sure that’s the case. But Pete [Shelley] and I were doing that with our songs. Listen to “Fast Cars” or “Promises”. It’s left open. I love Morrissey’s solo albums, but find them a bit stiff. But with the chemistry in The Smiths, it flowed. He’ll never capture that again.
9 GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA
Single (August 1987). Highest chart position: 12
Released following Marr’s departure, “Girlfriend...” was the perfect farewell from the band, fading out with Morrissey’s urgent “Let me whisper my last goodbyes...”. An homage to The Shangri Las, and an appropriate trail for an album overwhelmingly concerned with the Pyrrhic victory of love over death.
Ricky Wilson, Kaiser Chiefs: The Smiths have this reputation for being a miserable, wrist-slitting band when in fact they’re hilarious. I could say that I hate the way they’re misunderstood, but I secretly like it, because it makes the people who get them feel more like part of the gang.
This song is a perfect example of their humour. The line “Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, it’s serious” isn’t funny like a joke, but it makes you laugh. They’re not flowering anything up, it’s conversational, and I think that’s why they appealed to so many people.
With a lot of classic music, you lose something because you weren’t there at the time. It’s different with The Smiths. You don’t need to have been around in 1986 to understand The Queen Is Dead. I guess that’s why they’ve had such lasting appeal. At our club night, Pigs, we made sure the DJs never played The Smiths. We just didn’t want to be like every other indie disco and they’ve really become the ultimate soundtrack to that. In fact, we didn’t like half the records we played and went home to listen to The Smiths afterwards!
8 THIS NIGHT HAS OPENED
From the compilation album Hatful of Hollow (November 1984, highest chart position: 7)
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey set to music, as even Morrissey admitted, but he stole with style and the best lines are his own. Marr’s spare, jazzy setting was a masterclass in understated grace.
Ryan Adams: I first heard The Smiths almost by accident. When I was 13, a buddy of a mine got a crate of his brother’s old records that he was planning to smash, but he let me pick out three to listen to first, one of which was Hatful Of Hollow. I got home, listened to it and just couldn’t believe it. It’s beautiful. The Smiths have these melancholy melodies that just resonate. It sounds pretty and sad at the same time, yet also very urgent. They don’t sound like anything else.
It’s hard to categorise The Smiths as just a regular rock’n’roll band. Obviously, they’re musically superior to most bands while Morrissey is a natural frontman – he’s funny and deadly serious at the same time. There are just so many different things going on.
They worked one song at a time, it seems, rather than thinking about albums, because they cared so much about creating the music. Morrissey would choose a grandiose song title afterwards but they weren’t pretentious about the process, it’s almost as if they wrote songs backwards. Most people start with a lyric, whereas Johnny Marr said he’d start with the guitar outros and then work backwards through the song. That makes a lot of sense to me now. Convention is hard to break, but they did it. In fact, I could listen to their music my whole life and still not really know what it truly is. My folks’ generation had The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but to me The Smiths are my Beatles and my Rolling Stones. That one band covers it all for me.
Single (August 1986). Highest chart position: 11
The Smiths’ triumphant re-emergence as a classic singles group, taking nuclear holocaust, homicidal fantasy and a hefty chunk of “Metal Guru” to the verge of the Top 10.
Mani, Primal Scream: I first saw The Smiths in the early ’80s when they played the Hacienda with my mates’ band La Voyota Lakota. There was a buzz about The Smiths at the time. I was curious to see if they were as good as I’d heard, and was completely blown away. The chemistry between them was really strong and Morrissey seemed an interesting frontman. He didn’t talk much, but he moved around the stage a lot and threw gladioli into the crowd. My mates couldn’t afford flowers so they threw tampons at the audience!
There weren’t many people there because it was a midweek gig and the Hacienda was always empty back then, but it was obvious they had the potential to be a great band. I saw them a couple of times after that and of course, I bought the albums. Like everyone else in Manchester, I was smitten by Johnny’s swagger and confidence, but as a bass player I was in complete awe of Andy. I used to study his riffs and try to work out how he came up with them. He was a definite inspiration to me in the early days of the Stone Roses.
“Panic” is one of the best pop songs of the last 30 years. All my favourite songs usually make me want to dance or sing along and this makes me want to do both. I remember listening to it over and over with a big bag of weed, dreaming of forming a band and doing it myself. The rhythm section is really tight, the melody is tremendous and the lyrics are really witty.
I’ve always seen Morrissey’s songs as great pieces of social satire. Who else would come up with a chorus like “Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/It says nothing to me about my life?” I can’t think of anyone else in the ’80s who wrote songs that reflected my life and my mates’ lives so well. He didn’t grow up in the same area of Manchester, but he spoke to us in our language and completely captured the loneliness of someone who can’t get a girlfriend and is stuck in a bedsit with nothing to look forward to. The fact he managed to make these brilliant statements about poverty, class and growing up in Thatcher’s Britain sound so joyous and uplifting is just astounding.
Over the last few years there’s been a lot of talk about Morrissey being a great British Cultural Icon, but to me the whole band are icons. They saved British music in the ’80s and then we did it again in the ’90s with the Roses.
6 HEAVEN KNOWS I’M MISERABLE NOW
Single (May 1984). Highest chart position: 10
The song that established The Smiths in popular consciousness as moping misery-merchants was ironically their funniest single to date, Marr’s sunny, strummy C&W the perfect foil to Morrissey’s bitchy quips.
Kurt Wagner, Lambchop: The whole of Lambchop are pretty fanatical about The Smiths and the legacy they left behind. I was living in Chicago when they first emerged but I didn’t get them until a year later when I moved to Nashville. I’m always dubious about bands that people are crazy about and The Smiths seemed too poppy and accessible.
The penny dropped one day and I was able to see and hear what it was everyone had been talking about. I started with the first album then gradually bought everything they released. I even bought tickets to see them play Nashville, but they split up during the tour and the show was cancelled. I often wonder what it would have been like if they’d stayed together for just a couple of extra shows…
It would have been wonderful to have lived in England when The Smiths were around. There was a great joie de vivre about the band and I would have enjoyed that. You have such a legacy for singles over there because you have radio stations willing to support and play them. In the States we only have mainstream stations that wouldn’t dream of playing a single by an indie band, especially one named “This Charming Man” or “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”.
I love both those songs but the one that always cheers me up is “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. The moment I hear the opening chords it never ceases to put a smile on my face. Johnny’s guitar tunings sound amazing and the way Morrissey delivers the lyrics is astonishing. The lyrics always strike a deep chord with me too because at the time I was “looking for a job and then I found a job” – and as predicted, I felt thoroughly miserable and depressed. The one highlight of chopping wood all day was getting to go home and listen to music, and whenever I played “Heaven...” it was like the whole band coming together to create this alchemic piece of pop just for me!
5 THIS CHARMING MAN
Single (October 1983). Highest chart position: 25
This tale of punctured bathos and hillside seduction might have been at home in an Alan Bennett script, but delivered on Top Of The Pops – with Morrissey’s jubilantly pained “Ow!” – it was revolutionary.
Noel Gallagher: I’ll never forget when I first heard this. I was working for a signwriting company in Levenshulme. My job consisted of using this bloody big staple gun to pin these signs together. I was working late one night on my own and it was dark, and “This Charming Man” came on the radio. I’d heard “Hand In Glove” and read an article on them in the Manchester Evening News, but the second I heard “This Charming Man” everything made sense.
I’d been a bit too young for The Jam, and they’d split up the previous Christmas just when I was really getting into them, but this was different. The Smiths were my band. The sound of that guitar intro was incredible. The lyrics are fuckin’ amazing, too. “I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.” Genius. I didn’t know anything about the literary references. I just liked the spirit. People say Morrissey’s a miserable cunt, but I knew straight away what he was on about. I thought everything about him was side-splitting: the hearing aid, the lot. Maybe it’s the fact we’re both Anglo-Irish, that piss-taking thing.
I saw them on Top Of The Pops later when they did “What Difference Does It Make?”. Johnny has this white polo-neck on and the Brian Jones hair and that was it for me. I just said to myself: “I’m going to be like you!” It made me realise what I was going to do with my life.
None of my mates liked them – they were more hooligan types. They’d come into work and say “Fuckin’ hell, did you see that poof on Top Of The Pops with the bush in his back pocket?” But I thought it was life-changing.
I saw Morrissey play in Australia the other year, got all my old Smiths records out and played them all again. Hatful Of Hollow – what an album. Why don’t people make albums like that any more? It’s still one of the greatest records ever made, and it wasn’t even a proper album! How cool is that?
4 WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
Single (January 1984). Highest chart position: 12
Sturdy third single that consolidated The Smiths’ chart presence thanks to a classic, bluesy Marr riff and Morrissey’s seedy yet devout comic-book confessional.
Kele Okereke, Bloc Party: I’ve only been a Smiths fan for a short time. To me, they were always a band to avoid because of the reverence people placed on them, just like you might feel with Dylan or Led Zep.
“What Difference…” is quite obviously about someone falling in love with a friend of the same sex and that’s quite a risqué subject matter for a pop song. I guess someone’s revealed this close, dark secret to a friend and it’s all gone a bit awry, but still the character has deep emotions with this person. I think that’s such a beautiful image. Although everything’s gone wrong, the passion and desire and longing is still there.
The thing I most love about The Smiths is Morrissey’s lyricism and the way his lyrics are fully formed. They’re a celebration of the mundane and what’s actually happening in people’s lives. I think that kind of kitchen sink aesthetic was important at the time, what with so many bands adopting that exaggerated New Romantic pose. I’m not a particularly big fan of his voice or persona, but I like the fact he straddled weighty ideas with simple language. Nobody seems to give words much of a thought any more.
This song probably influenced me in the way Morrissey chronicles desire, and its ugliness and desperation. That’s definitely something that’s influenced Bloc Party. We talk about not flinching from those ugly, violent feelings that everyone in life tries to hide away from. And as a band, The Smiths have influenced how, lyrically, I try to be as honest as possible when writing words.
3 THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT
From the album The Queen Is Dead (June 1986)
Unbelievably not released as a single in the group’s lifetime. Topped John Peel’s Festive 50 for 1986 and for many remains The Smiths’ defining achievement. Morrissey’s fantasy of glorious death by double-decker focused all his extravagantly morbid romantic Englishness into one singular image.
Russell Brand: I have to say I’ve crossed over into that religious devotional area with Morrissey. When I interviewed him, he was saying how much happier he is these days. So I asked him “Have you accepted yourself now?” He looked at me all pleased and gave me a knowing, congratulatory look that said, “Well done you, for turning that song back on me”. It gave me a nice warm glow.
I didn’t get to see the last tour, but I know that he introduced himself on stage as Russell Brand – twice! It was unbelievable. He did it at Wembley Arena and Birmingham. And he mentioned me in Glasgow, too. When I interviewed him, I wasn’t overwhelmed in a gushing way. At one point, it got a little confrontational. I told him I’d seen him perform at the Palladium and he came back with “I don’t perform. Seals perform.” On a personal level, he speaks to me. In my entire life, there have only been two people I’ve ever asked for an autograph. The first was [Dutch footballer] Marco Van Basten when I was about 12, and the other was Morrissey a few weeks ago.
With “There Is A Light...”, I can’t think of another lyricist who can use humour without compromising pathos. And I can’t think of anyone else who could have used that “10-ton truck” line. It sounds laughable, but still sounds beautiful. The marriage of sentiment and humour is perfect. Me and my mate Karl Theobald – who plays Dr Martin Dear in Green Wing – were debating “There Is A Light...” recently. We were thinking about what the light that never goes out actually is. I took it as an abstract, metaphorical light of hope. But Karl’s interpretation was more literal. He took it to be the light from the room of a lad who never goes out. There’s always a light on because he’s a teenager alone in his room, thinking, “Take me out tonight.” I prefer that. Somehow it’s more poetic. I remember being that lad myself. That was my light that never went out – sat alone in my room, smoking draw, listening to The Smiths, watching telly.
2 THE QUEEN IS DEAD
From the album The Queen Is Dead (June 1986)
Epic, agitated whirl of garage funk and ghostly feedback provoked Morrissey’s most mysteriously profound lyric: a surreal sequel to the Pistols’ “God Save The Queen”, replacing snarling, nihilistic sarcasm with bereft longing and dismay at the havoc wreaked by Thatcherism.
Carl Barât, The Libertines: As a youngster I listened to Love, The Mamas And The Papas and The Velvet Undergound while The Smiths were grabbing the music business by the throat and administering a well-deserved kick in the shins. The Smiths were more Peter [Doherty]’s sort of thing. When we got The Libertines together, I think he thought I’d be Marr to his Morrissey... It became clear what I’d missed and I devoured every record I could get hold of. I loved their sense of Englishness and some of that came through in The Libertines’ songs. A little bit less ’60s kitchen sink perhaps and more, well, squat life and music hall.
Marr was always a brilliant guitar player – the best of his generation. I met him the first time The Libertines went to America, at Coachella in California. He was that rarest of beasts: a real gent. I’ve got one of his plectrums that I really value.
I keep coming back to “The Queen Is Dead”. It’s the perfect melding of Morrissey’s idiosyncratic vision and Marr’s sonic assault. Even now, people think that Marr’s playing was all sub-Byrds jangle. But it was clear he was questing for new sounds. “How Soon Is Now?” is arguably his sonic masterpiece but for me, it’s “The Queen Is Dead” that showcases the passion in his playing.
Over and above the sound was Morrissey’s singing. Although singing is too small a word. The music sounds like the end of the world and it’s like the spirit of England, from Boudicca through to Betjeman and beyond, is proclaiming the last rites. The fact it’s royalty that’s getting the well-aimed boot only adds to the thrill.
“Charles don’t you ever crave/To appear on the front of the Daily Mail/Dressed in your mother’s bridal veil…” Hilarious yet damning, and delivered seemingly off the cuff: the very definition of wit. Morrissey is taking his voice where it’s never been before, somewhere angry. The fury of the guitars is matched only by that bile-flecked delivery.
Early on in The Libertines, we were asked to support Morrissey at Brixton Academy. Critically, he was in the wilderness at the time. We were told not to do it because we were up-and-coming and people thought he wasn’t cool enough. But our minds were set. How could we not do it? Come on, it’s Morrissey. When we played, no-one knew who we were, and there were some pretty grim-faced fans there; but we won a few over that day. It was definitely an important gig. We got to meet him backstage and he just... glowed with presence. He gave us the Morrissey thumbs up.
1 HOW SOON IS NOW?
From the 12” of “William It Was Really Nothing” (August 1984).
Re-released as a single February 1985. Highest chart position: 24
This was their most brazenly rock moment to date – a swampy, queasy Bo Diddley beat, engulfed by a crashing wave of reverbed slide, while Morrissey ditched the quips and cut to the quick: “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”. The profligate genius of The Smiths was such that they initially considered it worthy only of B-side status.
Peter Buck, REM: The lyrics are great, but for me, I approach it as a musical thing. If nothing else, all the guitar tones are just so wonderful. There’s the tremolo and then the slide has this amazing texture. It’s a great ensemble piece, with the four musicians all playing together really well. It’s so evocative and so kind of eerie. “How Soon Is Now?” is very un-Smiths-like.
I bought it in America, where it was the B-side to a single, though I can’t remember which [actually a double A-side with “Shakespeare’s Sister”]. That was in the days when you’d buy the single just to hear the B-side, because they were so special. I heard Seymour Stein call it “the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ of the ’80s”, but I like it better than that. “Stairway…” was played on radio stations in Georgia 10 times a day, but “How Soon Is Now?” was greatly underplayed. I don’t think I ever heard it on the radio.
Johnny and I share influences, which come out in a very melodic way. I met Johnny about a year ago, and we were hanging around together. And we started talking about The Smiths. I said, “Sure, I always loved The Smiths, but I can’t tell you how much I resented being compared to you all the time!” I’d come to England and everyone would say that I’d obviously learned everything from Johnny Marr. And I’d point out that REM had two albums out before The Smiths had released their first one, so it would have been really hard for him to influence me. And then Johnny would say: “My God, you should have seen what it was like for me when I went to America! They’d say the same thing about you!”
I followed The Smiths’ career very closely. Both REM and The Smiths put out a record every single year and played a bunch of dates. It was great, because if we had a record out, they would always put something out a couple of months later. It felt, in our own small way, what it must have been like to be The Beatles and the Stones. We’d say: “I wonder what those Smiths guys are up to?” We’d all take their records home. I remember once bumping into [Smiths producer] Stephen Street and he said: “Oh, it was exactly the same with us. We’d take REM records home with us to see where you guys had gotten to.”
These days, I see more of the legacy of The Smiths in America than in Britain. The world that Morrissey painted – lyrically – was so far removed from the American experience that it was kind of magical.
“It’s our most enduring record” – Johnny Marr on “How Soon Is Now?”
People say “How Soon Is Now?” isn’t a typical Smiths song, but neither was something like “Sweet And Tender Hooligan”. It all depends what period you’re talking about. Some people say “This Charming Man” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, while others say “Back To The Old House” or “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”. But I know “How Soon Is Now?” tends to stand apart. We were trying to evolve all the time. I remember I left the studio around seven in the morning when we’d finished recording it. And in the cab on the way back to my flat in Earls Court, I remember thinking we’d really gone somewhere with that song. I was spinning out.
I wrote it in that flat. I’d just done “William…” and “Please Please Please…” and needed another song for the extra track. I think the working title of “Please Please Please…” was “The Irish Waltz”, while “How Soon Is Now?” was originally called “Swamp”. And because, musically, the A-side and B-side of the single were very contrasting, I gave myself some freedom to see what I could come up with for the third tune. I could kick back a bit, which probably explains why “How Soon Is Now?” is the way it is. There’s a lot of space in it. If you think of it in context – having spent Friday and Saturday writing the other two – it gave me that freedom. I’d written “William...” in the van on the way down to London after we’d just played [Manchester’s] Free Trade Hall. Putting those three songs together was a real creative blast.
In my usual lateral way of explaining things, I was trying to get a Creedence Clearwater Revival vibe on “How Soon Is Now?”. I was a fan of The Gun Club, and their version of [Creedence’s] “Run Through The Jungle” turned me on to the idea of a long, expansive track with a groove, but that still rocked. This concept of trying to do something that was still rock, but with the chord changes not coming too quickly. It wasn’t a groove in a traditional sense.
Somewhere along the line, right from being a teenager, I’d wanted to put a tremolo riff on somewhere. The genesis of it really goes back to when I was a kid and being obsessed with “Disco Stomp” by Hamilton Bohannon [a Top 10 hit in 1975]. It doesn’t really have tremolo on it, but it’s propelled by a certain kind of rhythm playing that took up all my time for a couple of weeks.
I also liked “I Want More” by Can, but hadn’t thought about its influence until probably five seconds after I’d put the tremolo on. It was more of a sub-conscious thing. I’d used tremolo before, but I’d never used it in such a rhythmical way. I’d used it on “Wonderful Woman” and a couple of other songs. But for “How Soon Is Now?” the tremolo is the original rhythm guitar part put through four Fender Twin Reverb amps.
With the slide part, my demo had the figure on it. But it was more major key and a little more daytime and prettier. By the time I came to put it on in the studio at three in the morning – and we started to build it – it seemed appropriate to make it more intense. That was the atmosphere and that’s where I was at in that moment in time. It sounded cooler, really. [Producer] John Porter and I just followed our noses. I knew we’d nailed it the first time we played it back. It took about an hour to do it. We were pretty focused. And we were all stoned on that session. It would have been unusual for us not to be.
“How Soon Is Now?” was originally a B-side, but it was the first time in our career that the choice of an extra track seemed unduly generous. We prided ourselves on recording B-sides and extra tracks that were as strong in their own way – if not as commercial – as the A-side. But when we’d done “How Soon Is Now?”, we knew it was something else. There was definitely a debate over what we should do with it. When we’d mixed it, I remember [Rough Trade boss] Geoff Travis coming down to the studio. My recollection is that he wasn’t that into it. There was definitely negativity about it. I remember having to defend it a few times to the label – the indie police. We were aware that it was a very weighty track, but by that time, we had our heads around all aspects of the release and that “William...” was the A-side.
Where does “How Soon Is Now?” stand in The Smiths’ career? It’s possibly our most enduring record. It’s most people’s favourite, I think. The sound is very distinctive and still holds up. I was very proud when it became an A-side in its own right. It was like the radio had been invaded by the Head Police – a bunch of heads. It is heady music, especially the intro. And it’s the guitar trick I’m still most asked about. The last time I played it was at the Manchester Evening News Arena with Andy Rourke last year. [Marr and Rourke shared a stage together for the first time in 19 years in January 2006]. And the new Healers do a really good job of it. I know Morrissey still does it live, too. But TATU’s version was just silly. Plastic music.
It’s hard to speculate on The Smiths’ legacy. We were just doing what came naturally, with full-on, passionate intensity. I think it was all more accident than design, or a little of both. But all bands that stand the test of time have a certain chemistry. Ours was peculiar and unique.
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