Where Do I Start With the Smiths?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 21 2013 10:06 AM

Where Do I Start With the Smiths?

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Morrissey is back in the news with his autobiography, but what if you never listened to the Smiths? Where do you start?

Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images

Desert Island Discs is a British institution, a BBC radio program in which a celebrity chats about his or her life and chooses eight records he or she couldn’t live without. In 2006, the leader of the Conservative Party (now Prime Minister) David Cameron chose “This Charming Man,” “an iconic moment for people of my age and generation,” he said. The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr expressed disdain, but what realistically could he do? In the 30 years (to the month) since that “iconic” single was released, the Smiths have gone from anti-establishment outsiders to rock royalty. Last week I went to buy Morrissey’s autobiography—deliciously published under the Penguin Classics imprint here in the U.K.—only to find that the chain bookstore had sold out. I wonder if David Cameron’s been buying copies for his G20 chums to peruse between summits.

It would all be so surprising, were it not for the fact that the Smiths may well be the most unlikely rock band in history. The only normal thing about them was their name, and of course even that was ironic. How does a group release songs about murderers, abusive teachers, the cruelty of the meat industry, and bouts of literary one-upmanship in cemeteries, and still get to No. 1 on the charts? And that’s before we even consider their image. In the MTV-dominated mid-1980s, amid the stench of hairspray and the gleam of stonewashed denim, Morrissey donned NHS spectacles, claimed he was celibate, and trashed the music industry with a bunch of gladioli, a quiff, and a catalogue of cheeky quips. There followed the adulation of a million misfits the world over. And though he’s said some pretty objectionable things in his ongoing quest to be the indie Oscar Wilde, beefy middle-aged men and college girls in berets still want to do unspeakable things to him. Surprising? Nothing should surprise where the Smiths are concerned.

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Except the music itself, which so frequently surpasses expectations and is always better than you remember. Once you’ve got used to Morrissey’s singular delivery—that droll Mancunian croon—it can be extraordinarily expressive. And Johnny Marr knew exactly what to do to coax the best from his partner, to eke out the humor and the heartbreak. One of the most resourceful pop guitarists of his (or any) generation, he quietly but repeatedly takes the breath away throughout these 10 tracks. Sometimes he seems to be playing rhythm, lead and countermelody all within the same part. The antithesis of Jimmy Page, he nevertheless is one of the true octopuses of pop; there is nothing his fingers cannot do. From this selection, it is almost impossible to choose his finest moment, though many would undoubtedly plump for 1985’s “How Soon Is Now?,” an epic ode to the nonperks of being a wallflower with an inimitable two-note guitar lick—economy and expanse in equal measure. While it’s a classic, it may well be in the more intricate arrangements that Marr really excels. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” sounds so simple when you first hear it. Don’t be fooled: It’s interlaced with fine, finger-picked filigree threads of almost jazzy countermelody. The song is a pop-music oxymoron: It cannot fail to make you smile.

The Morrissey-Marr interplay—literate takes on impossible romance meets impeccable musicianship—reaches its zenith on 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, represented here by four tracks. “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” may be the most seductive song they ever wrote: Morrissey’s sensuous yodel and Marr’s spiralling chords mesh together in an outro that is almost giddily beautiful. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is just as gorgeous. A wistful night-ride (or is it a death drive?) packed with libido and longing, it’s a song that surely many an indie kid has earmarked for his funeral. To attest to the sheer variety of the album, I’ve also included “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” a triumphant and hilarious riposte to Morrissey’s critics, and the title track, which surges along like a battering ram knocking down Buckingham Palace. Read its couplets and weep into your cuppa.

On one side of these mid-career highlights are the two singles that started it all off, 1983’s “Hand in Glove” and “This Charming Man,” statements of splendid isolation and self-confidence whose otherness (not to mention sexual ambiguity) still seem thrilling and vaguely threatening even now—be sure to give Marr’s almost highlife-like riffs and Andy Rourke’s dizzying bass their due. I’ve also included “The Headmaster Ritual,” a tale of childhood trauma in agonised chromatic chords and yelping falsetto. Reluctantly, I’ve only included one track from their final album Strangeways Here We Come: “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” a tearjerker of cinematic proportions, replete with sumptuous strings and piano. Morrissey never needed to dream: People adore The Smiths, to an obsessive degree, from Japan to L,A. to Italy and back again. Even world leaders love them. “I am human and I need to be loved,” Morrissey sings on “How Soon Is Now,” “just like everybody else does.” After listening to these 10 highlights, how can you not oblige?

Hand in Glove” (The Smiths, 1984)

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