To coincide with the 35th anniversary of The Smiths’ debut album, here’s a very special piece on The Smiths – from the March 2007 issue of Uncut (Take 118). Famous fans including 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
You can see Stephen Wright’s photos at www.smithsphotos.com
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.