The Smiths are part of my Manchester heritage, though by the early 80s I was living in Nottingham and therefore one step removed. Even so, there is something special about Morrissey and the boys: they were iconic in so many ways – and who could forget the sight of a thin and beautiful Morrissey in nerdy glasses, vertical hairdo, open shirt with beads, waving his arms around and throwing gladioli to the audience?
They sang songs that were musically and lyrically different yet strangely hyponotic on both counts; and they were decidedly individual – they followed no trends and went their own way. All of the above were attractive in a world of me-too music-by-numbers designer bands.
The cliche about Morrissey-Marr songs is that they were suicidally depressing, though they spoke to a generation of young people who struggled to survive and manage their introspective view of life, much in the way that Dylan songs spoke to a previous bedsit generation. His deliberately vague sexuality created an identity for Stephen Morrissey, a young man who was otherwise unemployable and who wrote about his life’s failures on all counts.
Morrissey’s views on life are these days more obnoxious though as a solo artist he still has a massive fan base. I saw him perform at the Hop Farm in Kent in 2011, where his ultimate challenge was following a stunning set by Iggy and the Stooges. He was good, not great, singing a mixture of Smiths and solo songs.
Somehow the post-Smiths songs are not the same to me as the magic days of the 80s, so here is my top 10 list of Smiths songs, approximately in order:
- What Difference Does It Make – An absurdly catchy riff and a song about self-sacrifice to an unnamed but manipulative person. A historic moment in musical history – not many songs sound this thrilling 36 years on.
- Never Had No-one Ever – I’m struggling to think what it is that makes this song so special but it always stuck in my head and I love it. Perhaps as a teen I felt like that, but there’re a delicate melody that haunts the imagination too.
- Meat Is Murder – A very deceptively lilting song, if you exclude the animal noises and the sound effects designed to mimic chain saws. Strangely beautiful veggie song with militant lyrics.
- Suffer Little Children – Also very deceptive, for this gentle song with twangy guitar accompaniment is about the Moors Murders and the lack of remorse from Myra Hindley. Heart-rending.
- How Soon Is Now – At the time I’d never heard anything remotely like Johnny Marr’s guitar sound on this song, and it sounds fresh and unique to this day. Technically how it was created is fascinating too. My favourite bit is where the humming background riff is picked up by Mike Joyce‘s drum beat: delicious!
- Frankly Mr Shankly – Another catchy pop song about a bored employee writing a hilarious letter to his arsehole of a boss about his plans to leave his job and become a musical icon. How many have thought the same?
- Barbarism Begins At Home – Another song with a hypnotic instrumental coda led by Andy Rourke‘s cheerfully spiky bass line. Lyrically it tells of wicked behaviours by teenage boys and girls in need of discipline. I expect the Smiths were all like that.
- This Charming Man – How we were first introduced to the band, and a charming song with a chirpy riff that brought a smile to many a face around 1980.
- Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me – This song begins with what sounds like a riot going on to a background of well-chosen chords. It develops into Morrissey’s most heartfelt plea for love draped over another gorgeous Marr riff.
- Rusholme Ruffians – more quirky tales of life among Manchester youth in the early 80s, set against the last night of the fair.