By David D. Robbins Jr. ♦ Their Bated Breath
The Smiths are one of the best and most influential bands of the modern era. Ask any indie artists today which bands are at the top of their artistic pedestal and you’ll likely hear The Smiths as much as any other. The band was formed in Manchester, England in 1982, but only lasted five years. The Smiths were made up of misanthropic lead singer Morrissey, the severely underrated guitarist Johnny Marr (who later played with TheThe), bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. It was an odd grouping of talent. The technically gifted Marr liked to rock out and work meticulously in the studio — while Morrissey, a singer who crooned lyrics with a beautiful sort of stylized affectation; seemed to regard society and his peers with great disdain and had a fondness for Oscar Wilde. Marr would later say that sometimes he would spend days in the studio mixing songs with a producer and Morrissey would saunter in, do his part quickly, and leave. Before those irritations would contribute in part to the band’s demise — The Smiths would pen some of the most romantic, elegant, despairing and darkly-comic music ever to come out of England. Smiths fans are loyal as hell and would often throw roses and gladioli on stage to Morrissey — who more than likely believed he deserved every fawning pedal and then some.
Making a list of my favorite Smiths songs is much like a parent being asked which kid they love best. There really is no definitive answer, other than to say I love all of The Smiths work. The only certainty is, right now, “Death of a Disco Dancer” is my favorite Smiths song of all time. But I may change my mind and switch out every song in this list for another. Who knows? But for now, I’ll start with these 10 gems. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Smiths reunion, ever. Morrissey has stated, after Joyce won a lawsuit against him for $1 million pounds sterling for withholding earnings, that he wishes the worst on his former drummer for the rest of his life. Ouch.
Thanks to Simon Goddard for writing the book “The Smiths: Songs that Saved Your Life” — the most comprehensive book I’ve ever read about the songs the band created. I looked back to his work in order to find out a bit more of the details of the making of each song. Goddard writes about every song ever created by The Smiths. Also, thanks to Mark Simpson for writing “Saint Morrissey” — showing that fan obsession doesn’t always lead to stalking.
THE SONGS: MY TOP 10
Death of a Disco Dancer
Memorable lyric: “The death of a disco dancer/ Well, it happens a lot ’round here / And if you think peace is a common goal / That goes to show how little you know / The death of a disco dancer / Well, I’d rather not get involved / I never talk to my neighbor / I’d rather not get involved.”
Note: This song is their masterpiece. The Smiths say “Death of a Disco Dancer” evolved into every band member “letting go.” The Smiths hit on all cylinders, including Morrissey banging out scattered notes on piano. (His only instrumental credit on a Smiths song.) This track is everything great about this band: Ironic lyrics, smashingly well-timed drumming, soft harmonies competing with jarring discord, Morrissey’s delicately unfolding vocals melting over the top of a building sonic chaos that explodes into a destructive crescendo. This song is method loosely wrapped around musical madness. It’s perfect, period. Beginning at the 2:54 mark of the song, all the way to the end, is some of the finest, complex music any band has ever made.
How Soon Is Now?
Memorable lyric: “I am the son and the heir/ Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar/I’m the son and heir, of nothing in particular.”
Note: The Smiths were an intelligent band, but that didn’t mean songs were always created in a traditional sense. Apparently, the band had been smoking a number of joints in the studio while Morrissey laid around in his Kensington flat. Morrissey later joined the boys with his lyrics and reportedly finished the recording in two takes. The memorable opening lyrics were misinterpreted by producer John Porter, who was quoted as saying, “Oh, great. He’s written lyrics about the elements.” (If you notice, the words son/sun and heir/air are audibly the same.) Truth is, Morrissey ripped the lyrics from George Elliot’s famous 1871 novel “Middlemarch”: “… to be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.” (This was nothing new for the singer, who also appropriated the diaries of the brilliant playwright Joe Orton for his song title, “Death at One’s Elbow” — among many other prettily phrased pilferings.) Morrissey’s voracious reading led to the lyrical beauty of the track, but it was Marr’s encyclopedic love of music that inspired the sound. Believe it or not — Marr says this song’s sound originated in his attempt to create the mood of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Marr also says, Bo Diddley and the band Can were equally as important. This song is about as close as The Smiths got to a band anthem. Here’s a piece of Smiths lore many people don’t know: This song was originally titled “Swamp” (before the introduction of lyrics or a basic structure) — because of the weird tremolo effect Marr created with his guitar. Marr recorded a dry track with his guitar, relayed it to four Fender reverb amplifiers — each with it’s own tremolo switch. Then he layered a slide guitar over it. Pretty inventive, back then, with standard analog equipment.
Memorable lyric: “I know I’m unloveable/ You don’t have to tell me / I don’t have much in my life/ But take it, it’s yours / I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside / And if I seem a little strange/ Well, that’s because I am.”
Note: This Smith’s song was never performed in public. Marr wrote the music while watching a Clint Eastwood movie with the volume down. He took it to Morrissey who softened it and added his stamp. This song was originally meant to be on the highly regarded album “The Queen Is Dead” — but failed to make the cut after “Vicar in a Tutu” was swapped in its place.
What Difference Does It Make?
Memorable lyric: “The devil will find work for idle hands to do /I stole and I lied, and why?/ Because you asked me to.”
Note: Morrissey says he wrote this song to poke fun at people’s neuroticism. People fussing over their hair, their clothes, their teeth — all things he felt were of little consequence. (Although, let’s be honest, a coif like Morrissey’s didn’t come naturally.) In the end, Morrissey asks, “What difference does it all make?”
This Charming Man
Memorable lyric: “I would go out tonight/ But I haven’t got a stitch to wear / This man said it’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care.”
Note: It’s believed that Morrissey appropriated dialogue from two movies into this song — one called “Sleuth” starring Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier — and the other “Taste of Honey.” It’s a song The Smiths deliberately made more pop-like — and it eventually became the song that most Brits associate with the beginning of the band’s stardom.
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
Memorable lyric: “In my life, why do give valuable time / To people who I’d much rather, kick in the eye?”
Note: I think the above lines are classic Morrissey lyrics. A sort of snide tongue-in-cheek. The song is a hilarious litany of misery. Sadly, this track solidified The Smiths as a depressing kind of band in the minds of the non-adoring public. But most people didn’t understand that the lyrics are purposefully over-the-top. It’s a sweeping piece of humor. Morrissey’s penchant for punning resulted in his taking singer Sandie Shaw’s chart failure “Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now” and changing it to create his own new song title. The brilliance of this song is the tragicomic juxtaposition of Marr’s jangly blissful guitar and Morrissey’s lyrics about the Roman emperor Caligula and not having a job. This bit from Morrissey is brilliantly funny to me: “Two lovers entwined pass me by/ And heaven knows I’m miserable now. / I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/ And heaven knows I’m miserable now.” In other words, he sees two happy lovers and they make him miserable. He’s no longer unemployed — but the job is insufferable. Hey, it’s not Richard Pryor here. But it is humorous irony.
This Night Has Opened My Eyes
Memorable lyric: “In a river the color of lead/ Immerse the baby’s head / Wrap her up in the news of the world/ Dump her on a doorstep, girl / This night has opened my eyes/ And I will never sleep again.”
Note: Some of the public found Morrissey’s lyrics about drowning a newborn outrageous. But what he was really doing was something altogether astounding. In this song, Morrissey condenses Shelagh Delaney’s entire play, “Taste of Honey,” into three minutes of song. A stunning accomplishment — and a wonderful nod to a playwright. Morrissey plainly admitted many of his ideas came from her writing. Delaney, who was born in 1939, was pictured on the sleeve of two Smiths albums.
Memorable lyric: “I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday / Because you’re evil/ And you lie/ And if you should die / I may feel slightly sad/ But I won’t cry.”
Note: Some Smiths fans think this song consists of Morrissey’s laziest writing. Admittedly, the lyrics are simple. And it’s difficult to tell if Morrissey is genuinely pissed about being jilted by a lover or if it’s all tongue-in-cheek. But I think that dichotomy is a Smiths idiosyncrasy. And I love it. “Unhappy Birthday” is full of genuine hate, but I’ve always believed Morrissey wrote it knowing he was also being hyperbolic. I mean, come on, an “unhappy birthday” wish?! Now that’s hilarious.
Memorable lyric: “So if there’s something you’d like to try / If there’s something you’d like to try / Ask me, I won’t say no/ How could I? / Spending warm summer days indoors / Writing frightening verse, / To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg.”
Note: John Porter, the original producer of the song, said that Morrissey hired Steve Lillywhite to remix the song after Porter was finished. (Porter was insulted.) In Porter’s words, the song was “fucking amazing.” Anyway, he believes the song was ruined by Morrissey and Lillywhite. Despite the lyrics and the melody being a bit pedestrian, I love this song. (I sure would kill to hear the original Porter version — considering he thinks this song is junk.) I think Morrissey still showcases his gift for the clever phrase: “Nature is a language, can’t you read?”
Memorable lyric: “The passing of time / And all of its crimes / Is making me sad again / But don’t forget the songs that made you cry / And the songs that saved your life.”
Note: This song is loved by most Smiths fans. It’s Morrissey’s song to them. He’s telling all the band’s lovelorn fans that one day, when they’re older, they’ll forget about him. The lyrics include this nice request: “Hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.”