By 1982 the punk scene in the UK had fizzled out but in its wake came an abundance of new young musicians eager to pick up their guitars and provide an new alternative to the mainstream. Independent record labels such as Rough Trade in the South and Manchester's Factory Records signed dozens of these new 'post-punk' bands. One of these bands comprised of four lads from Manchester would quickly become the voice for a whole new generation of outcasts. They called themselves The Smiths.
Over the course of their short career The Smiths changed the face of indie music forever. The band were founded in 1982 by guitarist Johnny Marr and his friend Morrissey (born Steven Patrick Morrissey). Drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke were soon recruited and that foursome would remain intact throughout the bands existence. After being featured on the radio by legendary champion of new music John Peel the band was signed up by Rough Trade Records and work immediately began on their first LP. With Marr's signature jangly guitar and Morrissey's romantic lyrics about love, loss and life the band's 1984 self-titled debut album was an immediate success and The Smiths became the first of the post-punk bands to make it big in the mainstream.
A key part of the bands appeal came from enigmatic front man Morrissey whose lyrics seemed to speak for a whole generation growing up in post-industrial Britain. Morrissey was different from the other front men of rock music at the time. He came across as vulnerable, sensitive and articulate. A voice for the voiceless. This created legions of fans whose devotion was second to none.
The Smiths mixed 1960s upbeat rock n roll with pop structure and a DIY ethic drawn from the punk movement and lyrical content ranging from the works of Oscar Wilde to infamous serial killers and cross-dressing vicars, often with a uniquely British 'tongue-in-cheek' attitude. For his part Johnny Marr was determined to avoid becoming just another rock guitarist. There were no power chords, solos, distortion or, most importantly, synthesizers to be found on their records. While Morrissey's lyrics may seem maudlin or depressing on the surface, always hiding just beneath was a dry sense of humour. He wrote about what he knew, namely growing up in the 1960s in a working class family and the experiences of love & despair those around him felt. It was something fans had never heard before - kitchen-sink social realism coated with the poetic styling's of Keats, Yates and other romantic poets.
The Smiths released four studio albums across four years between 1984-1987. These were their self-titled debut The Smiths (1984), Meat Is Murder (1985), The Queen Is Dead (1986) & Strangeways, Here We Come in (1987). By the end of '87 tensions within the band reached breaking-point and the group that had changed the face of British music disbanded. But, their legacy is one with few equals.
For me, the bands best album is their third effort - 1986s The Queen Is Dead. The album more than any other showcases Morrissey's ability to go from being sardonic and barbed one moment to heartbreakingly sentimental and tragic the next. Musically, The Queen Is Dead saw Johnny Marr experiment more with ambient soundscapes, keyboards and guitar tunings all to great effect. Simply put, everything that made The Smiths great is encapsulated on this album and it is, undoubtedly, a true masterpiece.
Interesting fact: The title of the album was dirived from the influencial novel Last Exit To Brooklyn by American author Hubert Selby Jr of which Morrissey was a fan.
The Queen Is Dead was released in the UK on 16th June 1986 from Rough Trade Records. It features 10 songs and runs only 38 minutes in length. Here are my top 3 tracks from this faultless album.
First up we have the a song that exemplifies every wonderful juxtapositions that make up The Smiths. 'Cemetry Gates' (accidently misspelt by Morrissey, who then never saw a need to fix it) tells of a young couple suffering through a sunny Manchester day. If you are Morrissey that doesn't mean it trunks on and down to the beach. Of course not, you head to the local cemetery and contemplate your own mortality. While wondering around our narrator reads the gravestones and notes that all these people too "had loves & hates & passions just like mine" and that the path of life from birth to death "seems so unfair, I want to cry". And that is Morrissey in a nutshell. The song is also littered with shout-outs to some of the Moz's favourite poets and authors including W.B Yates, Keates and Wilde. Morrissey has admitted to always having a fascination with death and a love for tragic, yet romantic figures and this song is maybe the clearest showing of that in all of The Smiths discography.
Musically the best element of this song isn't Johnny Marr but Andy Rourke whose bouncing bass-lines set the pace of the piece. Both Rourke & Joyce have much more to do on this record than the previous releases. All three instruments are in perfect harmony with each other and provide a great, upbeat contrast on this song to the maudlin lyrics of Morrissey.
Fun(ish) Fact: Morrissey did frequently wander through Southern Cemetery in Manchester during the summer holidays of his youth.
Next up we have one of the bands most beloved tracks that also happens to be my personal favourite Smiths song of all time. The magnificent - and now somewhat prophetic - 'Bigmouth Strikes Again'. It's hard to know where to start with this thinly-veiled attack on the music press?
This song is Morrissey's sarcastic apology for any and all 'offensive' remarks he may have made, claiming he was only joking. The front man compares the treatment he had received from the press to the persecution of Joan Of Arc. An odd comparison but one that allows for one of the greatest pieces of lyricism in rock history - "Now I know how Joan of Arc felt. As the flames rose to her Roman-nose & her hearing-aid started to melt". There is something undeniably genius about the use of imagery in that lyric. It is funny, poetic and depressing all at once. Morrissey at his finest. At the time Morrissey began wearing a hearing aid on stage as a show of support to a hearing-impaired fan who had written to him about the stigma they faced. He continued to do so even after complaints from some sections of the press and disability campaigners.
As well of invoking images of Joan Of Arc, Morrissey also puts himself in the mind of the late James Dean - with whom Morrissey feels a deep connection. Morrissey saw Dean as a figure ahead of his time. A tragic, misunderstood & sensitive soul & one who also faced the barbed criticism of the press. The influence of Dean on the song is further cemented by the fact that Morrissey chose a photo of Dean as the cover art for the single release. Interestingly, Johnny Marr had to fight to have the song released as the first single from the album. The others preferred the next song on the list, but Marr, correctly, felt that this track would have a wider appeal and would persuade the unconverted to buy the record. He was correct.
Musically, this song is the high point of the record for Marr, who set out to write their version of the Rolling Stones classic 'Jumping Jack Flash'. Marr's low-end riff plays throughout the song which also features a second guitar-layer for the pre-chorus bridge. It is the closest The Smiths ever came to writing a straight-up punk song. It is their fastest, most biting song of the record showing the groups more aggressive side.
Fun fact: the high-pitched voice heard during the choruses is in fact Morrissey's voice re-tuned in production. On the liner notes the voice is credited to a 'Ann Coates', a pun on the Ancoates area of Manchester.
Although not my favourite Smiths song it is hard to argue that 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' is not their finest moment. Heart-breaking, beautiful and tragically-romantic it is everything a great Smiths song should be. As with many other songs on this record 'There is a light..' opens with striking chords from Marr's guitar before the rest of the band joins in. Beyond guitar work this song is a rare example of a Smiths song featuring symphonic accompaniments. These are used to re-enforce the feelings of longing and love in the lyrics. Morrissey & Marr fought over their inclusion & eventually, Marr won the day. While musically innovative the real star of this song and the reason it is so beloved is the lyrics.
Morrissey puts himself in the position of a young lover in his partners car, pleading not to be dropped at a home where he doesn't feel wanted or accepted. The mid-80s were a time where homophobia and non-acceptance from parents were common place and I'm sure part of this songs continuing resonance is that it speaks to those young people's experiences directly. Such is the love Morrissey feels for his partner in that moment he sings that "If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die." Now that is a testament to love if ever there was one. Morrissey later admitted the song, like many others on the album, was influenced by James Dean. Specifically, a dream the singer had about the 50s star after watching the movie Rebel Without A Cause (1955).
Johnny Marr believes that this song is the best one The Smiths ever wrote. I'm sure many millions of youngsters from across the 30+ years agree with that assessment and even if they don't, it is undeniably one of the most important anthems of the post-punk generation. Interestingly, the recording used on the album was the first take in the studio. It was also the first time all four member had played the finished song and if you turn up the volume very high and listen closely at the end once the music dies down you can hear Johnny Marr exclaim "That was amazing!".
The only odd thing about this song - it isn't the final track on the album. That goes to 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others'. A fine song, but not one to follow this and a strange choice to close out the album. But hey, maybe that's just me.
Fun fact: The Smiths received exposure to a whole new audience when the song was used in the acclaimed 2005 indie classic (500) Days Of Summer. In fact the song is playing when the films two protagonists Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) & Summer (Zooey Deschanel) first meet.