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The Smiths by The Smiths (1984)

I didn’t find out about the British group The Smiths until 1988, which was my signature year for living self-indulgently, destructively, and aimlessly. I won’t go into too much detail, since I suppose it’s enough to say that if it was bad for me, laid waste to my mental faculties, and ruined my motivation to do anything practical, useful, or responsible, I was doing it at that time.

In theory, I was enrolled in college, but in practice, I never attended classes, and I spent every waking hour sitting on my butt listening to and playing music, and witnessing an endless stream of people, some known and some unknown, coming into my apartment to socialize and philosophize while intoxicating and disorienting themselves in several different ways.

At that time, I was so completely out of it that I didn’t even have the ability to get my act together to go down to the local supermarket and buy something to eat. So, instead, I would sometimes go for days on end without a bite of food until someone mercifully showed up with something, like a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.

I had a roommate at the time named Will who was older and wiser than I was. Will had been around the world in the military, had seen and done things that simple, sheltered people like me could only dream of, but he couldn’t talk about it too much, as he explained, because he had either been recruited or signed up ‑‑ I never was sure ‑‑ for some top-secret military assignments, the kind where you have to sign a sworn statement promising to never divulge what you learn in the process of carrying out your mission, otherwise, the government reserves the right to make your untimely death look like a suicide or something like that.

Will was convinced that government agents were monitoring his activities. One day, we were returning to the apartment where we lived, and we passed a guy with a short haircut taking his dog for a walk. After the man was out of earshot, Will told me that he was certain that the person in question was a government agent sent to keep tabs on him. I was pretty sure that if I shared such information with that fellow, it would have been news to him, but I said nothing to Will about it, since I knew how seriously he took himself about those matters.

Will’s special-ops background aside, there were two things about him that I was indeed genuinely impressed with. One was his admirable skill as a musician. He wasn’t flashy and he didn’t have any special technical abilities. But he had flawless timing as a rhythm guitar player, and he was quite good at getting a crisp, clean, full sound out of his instrument.

Two was his impeccably good taste in alternative rock music. When I met Will, I had pretty much exhausted myself listening to the best music of the 1960s and 1970s. Will showed me that there was plenty of good material from the current decade, the 1980s, worth listening to. You just had to turn off your radio and look elsewhere.

It’s interesting, because Will was feasting his ears on a broad catalogue of music that at the time was considered fringe and alternative, but is now largely seen as classic pop music. His discerning artistic judgment has been abundantly vindicated by the passing of the last twenty-three years. And one very good case in point is The Smiths, who at the time were virtually unknown in the United States.

When I first heard this group, my initial reaction was to be completely underwhelmed. The guitars sounded kind of jangly and poppy, and the lead singer didn’t even really seem like he could sing, at least not in the traditional hard-rocking style that I had been accustomed to. What did Will see in them? I didn’t get it and quite frankly wasn’t all that sure that I wanted to get it anyway. I put my favorite Zeppelin and Black Sabbath albums on when Will wasn’t around, and left the room when he put on The Smiths.

But after a while, and completely in spite of myself, I found that The Smiths had a certain kind of hard-to-define appeal that was beginning to subtly insinuate itself into my awareness.

They were kind of like a new group of unfamiliar people who show up at a party. You may not pay much attention to them at first. Your initial impression is that there doesn’t seem to be anything especially noteworthy about them. But then, you get the opportunity to sit down with them for a moment, hear what they have to say, and get to know them a bit better. Interestingly, you discover that they are a lot like you, and that you can identify with them on a certain level. And before you know it, you’ve developed a relationship that will last.  

It’s hard to know where to begin when describing why The Smiths are such a great pop group. But here goes. I’ll start with the lyrical content.

In my view, what made Morrissey such a landmark figure for pop music in the 1980s was the simple fact that he, maybe more than anyone else, stuck a sharp needle into the inflated pretentiousness that characterized so much of the era and knowingly smirked while it collapsed in upon itself. He was the sullen introvert living next door, the rather eccentric guy without a job, the young man on the sidelines listening to music and reading escapist literature while everyone else was rushing ahead full-steam to their schools, universities, and jobs. Since that basically described me in 1988, I could totally identify with him on that level.

Another aspect of Morrissey’s stage personae that I found so appealing was the fact that he adamantly refused to become yet another rock-and-roll stage rooster -- I’m referring to the usual idea of the pop music front man as an individual who, in one way or another, projects an image of himself as God’s gift to women.

No, Morrissey was the complete opposite, and the lyrics made that point perfectly clear. His relationships were strained and uncomfortable, and seemed largely to exist in his own mind. If he did manage to get somewhere with his romantic interest, it appeared that it was doomed to hit a dead end fairly quickly. He was able to rejoice in his solitude, but only up to a point, and only for so long.

Some of Morrissey’s lyrics with The Smiths appear to suggest matters related to the gay lifestyle, but this has proven impossible to verify. Morrissey himself would neither confirm nor deny any speculation in that regard. Was he celibate? Was he gay? Was he hetero? Was he all three? Nobody could say and Morrissey wasn’t telling. I suspect that he rather reveled in the ambiguity, and enjoyed mixing effeminate and macho posturing onstage. Maybe he himself was still trying to find out how he was oriented. But in any case, the lyrics to his songs can be interpreted so broadly as to apply to any kind of relationship, whether gay or hetero, so in the end, it’s a moot point. 

His lyrical personae felt at odds with himself and with society. He was uncomfortable in his own skin. He stuck his foot in his mouth and embarrassed himself. People criticized him and he relished returning the favor, and then, felt awful for having lashed out. “I am,” as he sung, “sick and I am dull and I am plain.”

I had to get honest with myself at that time in my life. Could I identify more with Morrissey or with Robert Plant? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my dream of becoming like the lead singer of Led Zeppelin had about as much chance as an ice cube in hell, whereas I’d sort of been like Morrissey my whole life without even trying. I put away my Zeppelin records for a while.

As far as the music goes, I think it’s fair enough to say that everything The Smiths did was either constructed around or dependent upon Morrissey’s vocals.

Again, technically speaking, Morrissey is not a particularly good singer. When he hits high notes, he sounds kind of like a very bad Victorian-era female soprano at a penny opera. When I first heard him sing high, I was ready to turn off the record for good. But after listening a few times, I finally understood why it worked -- his emasculated, eunuch-like high notes were an in-your-face parody, whether intentional or not, of the arena-rock high notes of the previous two decades.

However, when he sings within his usual low tenor or high baritone range, that’s when he really delivers the goods. He ranks up there with the very best, such as Frank Sinatra or Jim Morrison, in terms of dramatic phrasing and smooth artistry in the delivery. The voice itself is not particularly exceptional, but no fair mind can deny that he’s done rather exceptional things with it.

And as for the lyrics, as I’ve already noted, they were custom-made for alienated young men and women such as me and the people I hung out with in 1988. I would be hard-pressed to name a spokesperson for my generation, but if I had to choose one on the spot, Morrissey would most definitely come to mind.

With regard to the rest of the band, the more I listened to Johnny Marr’s intricate, innovative, and inventive guitar, and Andy Rourke’s melodic, highly complex, and groove-heavy bass, all held together so well by Mike Joyce’s spirited yet always unobtrusive drums, the more I understood that they were some of the most talented pop musicians of the decade. Certain songs are simply a marvel to listen to, since you find yourself paying attention to each instrument individually and wanting to learn how to play each part yourself, and of course, before you know it, you’ll be singing along with Morrissey.

Also, The Smiths had a knack for heading off into separate directions on the same song, yet making it all work together somehow. For that reason, so many of their compositions are skillfully woven melodic and rhythmic tapestries, in which separate melodies and rhythms simultaneously contrast and complement one another. When you add the fact that Morrissey often put grim lyrics to otherwise peppy songs, you’ve identified yet another aspect of the group’s complex and fascinating artistic chemistry.

Will had all four Smiths studio albums. He played them all on a constant basis, and had a glint of supreme satisfaction in his eye when he realized that my initial indifference had melted away and that I’d been hooked. I liked each of them, but found that my favorite one was their self-titled release. After listening to the group’s complete catalogue, I came to the conclusion that the fundamental essence of the band was fully contained within their first album.

My favorite songs off The Smiths are the following:

“You’ve Got Everything Now”
This is an interesting story, made all the more intriguing by the fact that Morrissey never makes it clear if he is speaking as himself or is instead speaking as if he were someone else. Who is the “you” in the song? Is it Morrissey himself, or is it someone Morrissey knows? In other words, is Morrissey himself the guy who has “everything now,” or is he the one who has nothing? Perhaps to purposely confuse the matter even further, he sings, “Who is rich and who is poor I cannot say.” Since I would imagine that numerous music critics have already tried to decipher this one, I’ll refrain from putting in my two cents. I suspect that Morrissey knows the answer to my questions and will never tell. Good for him -- really.

“Pretty Girls Make Graves”
Before I heard this song, I had never in my life listened to a tune in which a pop star talked about turning down a pretty girl who was practically prepared to rip off her clothes and jump on him. It was about time for somebody to put to music that panicky, sinking feeling of being dragged at high speed into a relationship that you don’t want to be in. The Smiths were evidently the ones to accomplish the deed.

“The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”
I have a hunch that there is some kind of larger background for the lyrics to this song, but I’m not sure what it might be. After listening to it many times, I get the impression that the story was pulled from some old Irish folktale or some other popular source from the nineteenth century, such as a Charles Dickens novel. It’s obviously not Morrissey singing about himself, talking about a child that he has fathered, or anything of the sort. Also, the language sounds rather antiquated, another sign to me that the words were in part lifted from an outside source. But in any case, the inspired vocal improvisation on top of a very elemental, repetitive guitar riff is pure artistry. It’s a unique and evocative song.

“Still Ill”
“Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know.” Great line. What else? “And if you must go to work tomorrow, well, if I were you I wouldn’t bother. Cause there are brighter sides to life and I should know because I’ve seen them, but not often.” Other awesome lines. And all of it sung over some of the most interesting guitar work of the decade, in which Marr somehow manages to play a rhythm part that sounds like a lead, or perhaps rather a lead that sounds like a rhythm part. Classic.

“Suffer Little Children”
This song was based on a series of grisly murders that took place in Manchester, England in the early 1960s. At the time, Morrissey was a small child living in that city, and some of the victims were also small children. The events left a deep impact upon him, which he channeled into this piece. It’s eerie and disturbing, yet somehow strangely calming and peaceful. The singer grimly assures the murderers that “you might sleep but you will never dream.” Speaking as if he were the young victims addressing their imprisoned killers and haunting their thoughts forever, he warns, “I’ll watch you when you laugh,” and adds, “We will be right by your side, until the day you die, this is no easy ride.” A difficult song to listen to, but an unforgettable one nonetheless.

If you like music from the 1980s and have a taste for thoughtful British pop, this album most definitely belongs in your collection. If you like it, go ahead and buy the other three albums by The Smiths. But I won’t give you any advice on buying music from Morrissey’s extensive solo career after leaving The Smiths in 1987, because I haven’t listened much to it.

Reviewed by Somebody Else 8/1/11

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