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These Charming Songs: A Perfect 10 by The Smiths

A phonograph in black and white in front of a curtain in Twin Peaks

Regardless of what you might think of Morrissey and his politics nowadays, the music of The Smiths still stands as a testament to the brilliance, and also the loneliness of outsiderdom. A man ill at ease at the modernising of his beloved Northern English world, Morrissey was able to keep it alive in his songs—imbuing them with a poetry, sense of camp, music hall humour and kitchen sink drama that was very much in keeping with his idealisation of the Northern England he loved.

This Northern romanticism was very much complimented by the empathetic songwriting of Johnny Marr, who managed to distil his influences (Neil Young, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, Bert Jansch, Buzzcocks, The Rolling Stones, the classic girl group sounds of the ’50s and ’60s) into a melting pot that ultimately sounded like none of them, creating an individual, melancholic, non-macho rock that was used as a template by many but very rarely bettered.

The two were fortunate to be accompanied by such a solid rhythm section, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, who formed a solid bedrock for Morrissey and Marr to bring their songs to life on. The group’s later acrimonious relations only make the beautiful playing across their back catalogue all the more bittersweet. That the band burned so shortly (only four albums and plenty of singles) means they burned all the more brightly, and besides, there’s a light that will never truly go out. The songs bear testament to that.

Here is my perfect ten by The Smiths.

“The Queen Is Dead”

We begin with one of the group’s most bombastic songs; a state of the nation address from Morrissey and Johnny Marr leading the group through a cool rock groove that channelled the Velvet Underground and updated it for the eighties. It was unlike anything they’d ever done before, and it deserves its place at the head of my Perfect Smiths Ten.

Taking its title from a chapter of Hubert Selby Jr’s great and controversial novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (one of my favourite books, incidentally, Flackett Fact Fans!), Morrissey unleashed one of the great rock lyrics of all time, full of multi-meanings, documentary snapshots and camp wit, and aimed directly at the Queen, who was presiding as head of a country that at the time was very much in a mess politically and socially and not doing very much about it. This made the Queen redundant in Morrissey’s eyes: “I didn’t want to attack the monarchy in a sort of beer monster way. But I found as time goes by, this happiness we had slowly slips away and is replaced by something that is wholly grey and wholly saddening. The very idea of the monarchy and the Queen of England is being reinforced and made to seem more useful than it really is.”

Starting with a view of the Queen with “her head in a sling” and Prince Charles dressed in his “mother’s bridal veil”, we lurch from this to “nine-year-old toughs that peddle drugs”, the pub “that saps your body” and the church “who’ll snatch your money”. This is a picture of a Britain on the slide, full of sordid opportunism and class prejudice, and the working class, “lonely on a limb”. If Britain doesn’t seem much different today, that’s because it’s not—the difference is the technology and the range of access to luxury consumer goods (and the debts these can bring with them). Still, ‘The Queen is Dead’ is prescient in a way I sadly wish it wasn’t.

Musically, the band were at the top of their game. Johnny Marr remembers that “I had an idea to do a song that had the aggression of the Detroit garage bands, ‘cos I’m such a Stooges fan. And it’s influenced by the Velvets too— it’s The Smiths does The Stooges does The Velvet Underground. ‘VU’ [compilation of Velvet Underground outtakes, released in 1985] had just been released, so there’s a little nod to ‘I Can’t Stand It’ in there.”

You can hear the Velvet’s influence straight away in the furiously strummed guitars, a kind of white funk that rides the grove into tough, muscular territory as opposed to the dancefloor. The chords on the bridges, though (the bits with Morrissey’s wordless vocals), showed Marr’s love for autumnal, folky chord changes that gave the song its own flavour, and the lean, trebly, flanged and wah-wah guitars and clean production gave it a modern feel that still stands out now.

And it also features Morrissey’s funniest verse, which I present in full for your amusement: “So I broke into the Palace/With a sponge and a rusty spanner/She said: “Eh, I know and you cannot sing!”/I said: “That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano…”

“The Headmaster Ritual”

By all accounts, Morrissey never felt anything less than ill at ease at his school, St Marys in Stretford. He wasn’t the only one. Even by the standards of the time, St Marys had a reputation for extraordinary brutality. As Morrissey would comment later, “It was so abysmal—and you may snigger, you may not, I’ll chance it—that I’ve considered actually suing the Manchester Education Committee because the education I received was so basically evil and brutal. All I learnt was to have no self-esteem and to feel ashamed without knowing why. It’s part of being working-class, this pathetic belief that somebody else, somewhere, knows better than you do and knows what’s best for you.”

This song is the revenge of the downtrodden schoolkids now grown into vulnerable, pained adults. Morrissey may have been poking his finger at the “belligerent ghouls” running “Manchester schools”, but kids all over the country at the time could relate to the descriptions of teachers who “knee you in the groin/elbow in the face”, leaving “bruises bigger than dinner plates”. The crustiness of the teachers, out of touch and nearly out of time, is described perfectly by their suits and their jokes coming from 1962 and 1902 respectively.

And while there may be no vindication in the lyrics, the song is the vindication itself; a creation of four working-class kids who were treated as if they would amount to nothing and were now one of the biggest guitar bands in Britain. No, sometimes ‘Sir’ doesn’t know best at all.

Musically the song flies in the face of the perceived wisdom that The Smiths’ music was soft, sensitive, jingle-jangle only. Sure, the guitars chime beautifully here, Stephen Street’s production giving them a clean, summery feel, but the intent is far from frail. The song is a direct, assured, confident assault, Johnny Marr playing in an Open-D tuning to create some vivid, droning and slightly unpredictable chord changes that created a new kind of rock, layered and textured yet lean, melodic and pop at the same time. R.E.M. were doing similar things across the water, and would be labelled ‘alternative’ and ‘college rock’.

Regardless, this is a fine example of The Smiths showing their tough side without having to revert to muscular power chords to do so. Morrissey’s yodelled, wordless chorus is one of the most absurd and brilliant things I’ve ever heard, and Marr essays one of his most inspired tangle of guitars.

“Rusholme Ruffians”

Located by Morrissey in the lyrics as taking place in Rusholme (home of the curry mile!) but actually inspired by an encounter Morrissey had at a funfair in Stretford where he was head-butted out of the blue by an unknown attacker, ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ (chosen for its brilliant alliteration, one assumes) is an excellently playful tale of life, love and death at the fair, Morrissey finding grand themes and emotions within a place many would find ordinary—mundane even.

The travelling fairs of Britain, much like the carnivals of America, are a great tradition, a big night out every few months for working-class kids keen to either take in the rides, the lights and the blaring pop music or otherwise get up to no good—sometimes both.

For Johnny Marr, visiting his local fair with his sister in his native Wythenshawe, he would get a buzz off the big, punchy pop songs stallholders and ride operators would use to lure people to their attractions and enhance the excitement. It’s appropriate then that Marr utilises a rolling, rollicking rockabilly groove, taut and bright, that pays homage to Elvis’ ‘Marie’s the Name (His Latest Flame) that evokes that feeling of crashing on the dodgems and candy floss. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce propel things with bouncy bass and drums and the whole thing cycles through over and over like a never-ending Ferris wheel.

Morrissey, meanwhile, evokes teenage lust and love and the way young teens will drop any pretence of manners in the pursuit: “From a seat on a whirling waltzer/Her skirt ascends for a watching eye/It’s a hideous trait (on her mother’s side)”. His fatalist sensibilities get an airing (“she said “how quickly would I die/If I jumped from the top of the parachutes”), while, of course, “the senses being dulled are mine”).

Still, Morrissey reveals, his faith in love is still devout. The pain and the faith: perhaps the essence of Morrissey in a nutshell.

“Half a Person”

Never has a song that features a line like “Do you have a vacancy for a back scrubber?” been so fundamentally moving at its core.

Over a soft bed of acoustic and lightly reverbed electric guitars (played by Marr and then-second guitarist Craig Gannon and reminiscent—in a more rounded, bittersweet sounding way—of the earlier song ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’), Morrissey gently lays down a tale of determination in the face of a lack of self-worth. Having spent too long chasing someone’s “tail” to give up now and yet, in a fatalistic sense, knowing he is doomed to failure as the story of his life has been and is to be “sixteen, clumsy and shy” eternally.

The second verse seems to intriguingly address Morrissey’s sudden transformation into a celebrity and the effects this had on his relationships with his prior friends, referring to a woman who was “left behind and sour” and lashes out at Morrissey by telling him haughtily “In the days when you were hopelessly poor…I just liked you more”. Although what going to London and booking oneself into the YWCA has to do with the matter is entirely open to debate!

A beautifully written lament for wanting the one you can’t have, the band are beautifully understated, complimenting one of Morrissey’s greatest and most underrated vocals. He doesn’t go into theatrical, music hall territory here (not a criticism, by the way). Instead, He applies a tender subtlety that underscores the sad resignation he comes to by song’s end. Just listen to how he delivers the line “that’s the story of my life” at the end of the song. Spine-tingling.

“Stretch Out and Wait”

Having always been seemingly troubled by the very idea of sex, Morrissey, in his work, has often focussed on the overwhelming, overpowering and disorientating impact the unquenchable thirst of desire can have on a person and their ability to make reasoned decisions. ‘Stretch Out and Wait’ might be Morrissey’s definitive statement on the matter.

Morrissey could never quite decide if he was for or against on the sexual matter, having regretted the announcement of celibacy earlier on in The Smiths career as the media used it as a stick to beat him with, but also because he could never quite deny the impulse of arousal. He would embrace it occasionally in his lyrics: “a double bed and a stalwart lover for sure/these are the riches of the poor” being a good example, one he gave without looking to patronise the working-class but as an understanding of how simple physical desire could compensate for a lack of material belongings. And you’re not telling me a man who used to pose as he did and throw himself around the stage in ecstatic writhing while wearing those diaphanous shirts doesn’t enjoy the feeling of sexuality on occasion!

This ambiguity to sex is present in the song’s lyrics which crudely reduce the role of the ‘passive’ partner in the sex act to someone who will just ‘stretch out and wait’ while denying them the empowerment of being viewed as an object of desire by referencing their “puny body”. And yet he cannot completely rid himself of the attraction of sex. As he sings over a sudden sweep of anthemic, wistful chords that seem positively cinematic, and borrowing liberally from Rebel Without a Cause, “will the world end in the night time?/I really don’t know/Or will the world end in the day time?/I really don’t know/And is there any point ever having children?/Oh, I don’t know/All I do know is we’re HERE and it’s NOW!” It almost sounds like a valediction. After all, “nature must still find a way...God, how sex implores you!”

Somehow evoking the mood and sound of fifties pop and doo-wop without really sounding like either, the band run a wonderfully happy-sad gentle chord sequence that (Manchester cliché, I know) always brings to mind sunlight cracking through a slate-grey Northern English sky, a glib metaphor, if you choose to see it that way, for the elements Marr and Morrissey each brought to the group.

“How Soon is Now?”

The song Seymour Stein called the “Stairway to Heaven’ of the eighties”, ‘How Soon is Now?’ is one of the group’s signature songs and is also indicative of the creative tension at the heart of The Smiths. The group never really further explored this territory again, besides in a lesser, imitative way (‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’).

Morrissey’s lyrics are pared down and to the point and are all the more powerful for it here, from its aggressive, incredibly Northern retort that leads the chorus in (“you shut your mouth!”) to its unbelievably concise description of another failed night out (“There’s a club if you’d like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry and you want to die”). It also gives love an almost-political dimension, asserting it as a right and demanding it for the individual as well as the many.

Musically, though, this was the most un-Smiths song they had recorded to that point and perhaps overall. Without Morrissey, a telling detail, the three other Smiths found themselves in a late-night studio jam with producer John Porter that took in Elvis’ ‘That’s All Right’. From there, Marr evolved the riff into a demo he called ‘Swamp’ and would soon become the basis for ‘How Soon Is Now?’ The song’s dense groove came from several sources; the Bo Diddley rhythm pattern, of which Marr was a big fan; the desire to write a song around one chord (F#, if you’re wondering); and lastly the stoned fug of a massive smoking binge that had informed the session—drummer Mike Joyce later remembered how they swapped the studio light bulbs during the sessions to red ones to provide the correct level of ambience! Method-jamming, we could perhaps call it…

That the resulting track is equally dense, thick and slow-grooving is no surprise, based on this description. But this was no throwaway jam. Marr and Porter spent much time adding overdubs and various effects to give the track the right texture and mood. The result is a celebration of the studio as much as a vindication of the jamming process. Marr was also keen to nod towards then-contemporary club culture, adding a harmonic part that quoted a symphonic vibraphone part on Lovebug Starski’s ‘You’ve Gotta Believe’.

It was this dichotomy between songwriter and singer that played out the band’s demise. However, Morrissey was impressed with this track and added his vocals in two takes the following day using lyrics put together from various excerpts from his notebooks (perhaps the reason the lyrics are so wonderfully spare), he was not attuned to eighties club culture in the slightest; whereas Marr was and enthusiastically so. While not wanting to turn The Smiths into the Happy Mondays, Marr did want to explore parts of then-contemporary dance music with the group and see how they can be fused with their traditional sound. Morrissey wanted nothing to do with it at all.

But for one magical moment, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was able to point to a future never taken and the group’s demise, all in one soothsaying song.

“This Charming Man”

The group’s second single, but the song that really dropped The Smiths into the laps of mainstream Britain and rubbed fragrant gladioli in their faces, ‘This Charming Man’ was an example of the past could inform the future without sounding like a carbon copy of what had gone before.

Marr wrote the music in response to the poor commercial showing of first single’ Hand in Glove’ and the success of label mates Aztec Camera getting a hit with ‘Walk Out to Winter’, bring out what Marr called his “competitive spirit”. Bringing the riff in for their first John Peel radio session, the group worked further on it, with Rourke and Joyce adding a Motown/Northern Soul-type rhythm section, while Marr’s guitar’s chimed in the manner of a mid-sixties folk-rock group like The Byrds.

But the end result sounds nothing like these things, working together to transcend their influences and become its own sound. Marr’s guitar playing on this track, for instance, was not done in typical folk fingerpicking style but utilised patterns of single notes and thirds to create a melodic pattern that sounded lean and lithe and ran counter to the sixties soul of the rhythm section. Also, the track was much denser in production, featuring no less than 15 tracks of guitar: “There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar – that comes in at the end of the chorus.”

This density gives the track a loud, busy arrangement that the typical sixties beat group would not have been able to feature. And for all the sixties elements we can isolate in the song, it’s to the song’s credit that it never comes across as a sixties-style song. It is, however, great pop music, highly melodic, with a driving rhythm and all over and done with in an urgent two minutes forty-one seconds.

And then there was Morrissey.

When the song was performed on Top of The Pops, Morrissey was, to most observers, like an alien from another planet. The way he swayed and sashayed around the stage effeminately, while swinging bunches of gladioli flowers and singing with those strange, archaic, very English phrases and straining Northern croon, it was enough to drive parents into an angry frenzy in the same way Bowie had in 1972 by draping his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder while performing ‘Starman’. And in the same way, it sent thousands of schoolchildren into the playground the next day absolutely transformed.

Written as an attempt to counter what he saw as the trivialising of gay culture in pop, Morrissey was picked up by a charming man in his car. As they talk, further details emerge that cut through the playful flirting, such as the fetishisation of objects such as the car and materials such as leather (“why pamper life’s complexities/when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?”), and the trauma of a closet existence, pursuing a heterosexual romance out of fear of the societal and social consequences of being true to one’s self (“he said ‘return the ring’/he knows so much about these things…”)

A demonstration of how subversive pop at its finest can be, ‘This Charming Man’ is not only a classic song but a great cultural moment too.

“Back to the Old House” (‘Hatful of Hollow” version)

Originally recorded for a John Peel session in September 1983 (the version included on the compilation ‘Hatful of Hollow’), and later re-recorded in the studio and released as a B-side, ‘Back to the Old House’ is an exercise in how simplicity is sometimes the best strategy when it comes to arranging a song.

Written on guitar by Johnny Marr, but unable to get a full band version into proper shape, the version laid down for the Peel session (the version included here) featured just Johnny Marr on a single guitar, with Morrissey singing alongside him. It remains, to this day, one of the most stunning moments in The Smiths’ catalogue.

Marr was influenced at the time of writing by the slightly jazzy fingerpicked folk of Bert Jensch, and the influence emerges in the gently rising and falling guitar lines, highly melodic and wistful, like a resigned sigh, and some beautifully atmospheric sigh.

Morrissey matches Marr pound for pound with a mournful picture of longing for a time that is passed, revolving around a specific person in a particular house, a person who Morrissey never really told how he felt about them. “I would love to go back to the old house/but I never will”, he sings gently, letting the note hang like his feelings, receding in power but never truly leaving.

The reason I’ve picked the BBC’ Hatful of Hollow’ version over the later B-side version is simple. The BBC version picks at something in the heart of the song and gives it space to breathe. With a single guitar the only instrument, the natural acoustics of the BBC studio give the guitar a sense of reverb and echo that makes it sound larger than it is, while still giving it the space for the melody of those picked lines to ring out and caress the listener’s ears. It’s intimate and I always feel like I’m intruding on something special when I listen to it. It’s wonderful.

The full band version, by comparison, is stunted, neutered of its natural beauty. The band never really feels it or imbues it with the magic they were so capable of. Even the band were never truly satisfied with this recording. Does this make the track the one that got away? No, not at all. The version on ‘Hatful of Hollow’ is complete in itself, its spare feel enhancing its intimacy in a way the band never could.

A truly great song.

“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”

What else can I say about a song that has rightly been eulogised about so many times before? If you’ve been to an indie club and seen the dancefloor occupied by earnest men (women too, but it’s mainly men), with their hands on their hearts and eyes cast solemnly skywards while they sing along to the chorus, then you know how important this song is to people. It is arguably the heart of The Smiths’ back catalogue and the jewel in its crown.

Morrissey is on extraordinary form, most successfully transforming his fatalist, emotionally hysterical side of his persona into a universal romanticism that appeals to every man in a way he had strived for but never really achieved as fully as he did here outside of, say, ‘How Soon is Now?’

Melodrama is the key here. On paper, the chorus lyrics “And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die/And if a ten-ton truck/Kills the both of us/
To die by your side/Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine”
look ridiculous, OTT, unsophisticated almost. And therein lies the point: desperate pledges of love are full-bloodied and never sophisticated. The heart, when overflowing wildly, will sometimes spill in all directions, however crude or ridiculous. And when filtered through such a soaring, anthemic melody and chord sequence, such melodramatic becomes transformative. It allows the sensitive sides of us to become heroic, to take strength in our passions, however ridiculous.

Meanwhile, Marr’s minor-key strumming is full of heart and is empathetic to its lyricist’s emotional outpouring. But Marr was also becoming more creative as a songwriter and was able to drop in a reference to some of his heroes as a test to his audience.

In 1985, The Velvet Underground were experiencing a revival in interest with the release of their album of previously unheard recordings, ‘VU’. While being a fan of the Velvets, Marr wanted to test how far back his audience’s listening tastes went. He put in a stuttering intro and bridge that quoted Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”, a song Marr’s beloved Rolling Stones covered in 1965, but also was used in The Velvet Underground’s ‘There She Goes Again.”

With Velvet mania in the air, Marr wanted to know if his audience and the music press would link the song back to the Velvets or whether they would go back further: “I knew I was smarter than that. I was listening to what the Velvet Underground were listening to.”

Very much, then, a song of sophisticated tastes and hearts on sleeves, ‘There Is a Light’ is perhaps the Smiths at their most universal and vulnerable. It’s possibly their greatest song, too.

“Suffer Little Children”

So, we end as we start, with one of Morrissey and Marr’s first compositions, a sobering song to finish off my Perfect Ten and yet a wonderfully climactic number, one that indeed closed their debut. ‘Suffer Little Children’ laments Manchester as being host to an awful series of killings. Yet, it does so with considered lyricism and a warm, wistful chord cycle, like sunshine through autumn leaves, the shade of a sunny day, respectful and restrained.

Morrissey was painfully aware that he was the same age as the victims of the infamous Manchester’ Moors Murderers’ and unlike a lot of his peers who were able to shake the sickly feeling off, Morrissey carried it with him. Being a son of the city, it was reasonable to assume that if he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, he could have been a victim also. Not for Morrissey, the glamorisation of serial killers that films like Natural Born Killers dealt with. Morrissey saw first hand what trauma such hideous violence could impact on an entire community (and the feeling in the city hasn’t dwindled any; when Brady died in prison in 2017, my workmate turned to me and said “they should just chuck him in a bin bag”. Manchester still wears its scars).

Over Marr’s lovely, end-of-summer (end of childhood innocence?) guitar picking, Morrissey lays down a dramatic treaty against Hindley and Bradley, assuming the guises of both the parents and the victims at various points but in a way that never feels cheap or sensationalist. The lyrics are so well-written and clearly on the side of the victims that such personification feels justified, if still uneasy.

Adopting the voice of one of the children from beyond the grave, Morrissey lays down his damning verdict on the murderous pair and passes sentence: “Find me. Find me, nothing more/We are on a sullen misty moor/We may be dead and we may be gone/, But we will be, we will be. right by your side/Until the day you die!/This is no easy ride/We will haunt you when you laugh/Yes, you could say we’re a team/You might sleep, you might sleep/, But you will never dream!” Terrifying, but it’s still a light sentence you could say…

What do you think, did I nail this Perfect Ten? Are you outraged that I didn’t include ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ or ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’? What would you have included? Let me know in the comments!

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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