The Smiths Review
The Smiths debut album was released in 1984 on the back of the success of singles Hand in Glove and This Charming Man. The version widely available today was, in fact, not the first attempt the band had made at recording the album. The original album was recorded by former Teardrop Explodes member Troy Tate and was deemed substandard by so John Porter re-recorded the band during breaks in their 1983 tour. Morrissey still felt the new version wasn’t good enough but the record company refused to allocate additional budget to the project so the album was released.
From the start,The Smiths attracted controversy. Tabloid rumours circulated about the subject matter of Reel Around the Fountain and torpedoed plans for its release as a single. The BBC omitted the track from a broadcast of a session the band had recorded for DJ David Jensen. The song also received some criticism for Morrissey having used lines from playwright Shelagh Delany’s A Taste of Honey. Morrissey acknowledged this but the lyrics also bear resemblance to several other sources. All of which is a distraction from what is a stunning opening track. Musically, Johnny Marr was influenced by an old Jimmy Jones hit from 1960, Handy Man. The melody combined with Morrissey’s emotive vocals combine to create a powerful and majestic masterpiece.
You’ve Got Everything Now sees Morrissey declare he’d never had a job because he never wanted one. A sentiment he would back up in subsequent songs and interviews. As a guest on the BBC’s The One Show a few years ago, Morrissey expressed a lack of sympathy for those who had lost their jobs during the recession. The song discusses the fallout from the end of a friendship and features a striking coda where Morrissey declares in a disturbing falsetto that he wants to be tied to the back of the subject’s car.
The split personalities of Miserable Lie may have been about his relationship with Manchester artist Linder Sterling. The gentle, chiming start soon gives way to a punk rant about the futility of relationships. Morrissey again ditching his trademark croon for an unsettling falsetto which lends a new level of mania to an already manic song. Miserable Lie is an example of how The Smiths debut failed to capture the potential of the band. Live versions of the song produced a frenzy between band and crowd but this studio version sounds somewhat flat.
Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums provided the title of Pretty Girls Make Graves. This startlingly frank discussion of impotence tied in with the media’s speculation about Morrissey’s personal life. When probed about his sex life, Morrissey would invariably speak about the lack of one and Pretty Girls Make Graves would seem to back this up. The narrative discusses intimidation by an uninhibited female and her advances. By the end of the song the girl has gone with another man and is reprimanded by a spurned and frustrated Morrissey for her “stupid face”. The song ends with the opening lines of Hand in Glove so maybe the songs are part of the same story with Pretty Girls Make Graves the unhappy ending.
Patti Smith’s Kimberly provides the musical inspiration for The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. The first song that Morrissey and Johnny Marr completed together. The lyrics are rumoured to predate the Smiths with the existence of a demo tape featuring a young Morrissey singing the lyrics to a different tune. Johnny Marr’s intricate, multi-layered guitars are perfectly wedded to Morrissey’s poetic lyrics. The song was another that attracted unwanted and unjustified controversy amongst the tabloids amidst rumours the song was about child murder. The mood of the song is dark but this is one of the stand out tracks on The Smiths.
The fact that Reel Around the Fountain was considered too controversial to be The Smiths second single proved to be an outstanding piece of luck. In its place, This Charming Man was released. From Johnny Marr’s exuberant introduction, through its jazzy, complex riff, This Charming Man is two and a half minutes of pop perfection. Morrissey produces a memorable vocal and the humorous lyrics create an innocent facade to what surely must be a more worldly-wise tale. Once again Shelagh Delany provides some lyrical inspiration while the line “a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place” comes from the film Sleuth starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. Remarkably, This Charming Man didn’t make it onto the original pressings of The Smiths debut album. A sign of the band’s attitude towards singles, treating them as a separate entity along with albums. This is demonstrated by the vast number of singles and b-sides released separately to albums collected on the compilations Louder Than Bombs and Hatful of Hollow. Also, original b-side How Soon is Now was not included in the original Meat is Murder album. Thankfully, later versions of The Smiths included This Charming Man.
Still Ill was the last song to be written for The Smiths debut. On closer inspection this can perhaps be heard in the enthusiastic rendition. After all, most of the other songs on the album had been practiced and rehearsed almost to the point of tedium. The song shows development in Morrissey and Marr’s songwriting too. Marr’s arrangement becoming slightly more adventurous and Morrissey becoming less reliant on second-hand literary sources. Lyrically, it explores Morrissey themes that would resurface many times, anti-work, lost love, apathy. It explored these themes utilising some of Morrissey’s most memorable lines – “England is mine, it owes me a living”. One of the strongest songs on the album and a favourite for many years to come.
The Smiths first ever single was Hand in Glove. Taking Gimme Danger from Iggy and the Stooges Raw Power as it’s reference point. This was at the behest of Johnny Marr’s girlfriend, who wanted the track to sound more like Iggy, This first single for The Smiths delivered an instant classic. Although the track somehow managed to elude the top 40, it sold well on the indie chart for a year and a half after its release. Morrissey pours his soul into the song, achieving a lifetimes ambition of releasing a single. Lyrically, it covers what was to become familiar Morrissey territory, bitter-sweet happiness and love lost, expressed in the manner that only Morrissey can achieve.
The Smiths third single, What Difference Does It Make would also be their biggest hit to date. The song was one of the first written and therefore very familiar to the band at the time of recording. Producer John Porter wanted to rearrange the song, which caused some consternation amongst three-quarters of the band but Porter eventually got his way with the backing of Johnny Marr. One of the most direct songs in the band’s repertoire, it has a driving riff and cutting lyrics. The band kept the original arrangement during concert performances but stopped playing the song altogether within a year, seemingly disowning the track. This is a great shame as it still sounds effective today.
The towering ballad I don’t Owe You Anything benefited from organ played by Paul Carrack, who also appeared elsewhere on The Smiths, providing piano for Reel Around The Fountain and You’ve Got Everything Now. Like Hand in Glove, the song was later recorded by Sandie Shaw. It is a humorous and bitter-sweet exploration of the aftermath of an implied one night stand and is a welcome change of pace after the brisk What Difference Does It Make.
Can a darker or more harrowing piece of music ever have been committed to vinyl than Suffer Little Children? The Smiths elegy to the victims of the “Moors Murders” caused considerable controversy when it was released as a B-side to the single Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now in 1984. Between 1963 and 1965 Ian Brady and Myra Hindley abducted and murdered five children in the most appalling circumstances. They buried their poor victims bodies on Saddleworth Moor, on the outskirts of Manchester. Morrissey would have been six at the time and lived in an area close to some of the abductions so the killings had a profound effect. The controversy started when the grandfather of one of the victims heard the song and went to the Manchester press to protest. Any attempt to address the Moors Murders would meet with controversy today as in 1984 but Morrissey’s position as someone who grew up with the spectre of abduction cannot be overstated. The subject is dealt with poetically with sensitivity and intelligence by Morrissey. Here Porter’s production is perfect, bringing out Marr’s arrangement and Morrissey’s mournful delivery. The song is sympathetic and concerned about the victims and parents whilst unrelenting in its attack on Hindley. The song is difficult almost to the point of being unbearable to listen to given the gravity of the subject matter and the quality of the performances. The Smiths were able to abate the controversy when Morrissey met with and formed a friendship with the mother of one of the victims who accepted the sincerity in the sentiments expressed in the song.
The Smiths debut, as with the rest of their catalogue, now makes it onto the list of many reviewers as one of the most important albums ever released. This is in spite of it’s somewhat flat production, due to the album being re-recorded in haste. The quality of the song writing and musicianship shines through.
Rated Sound gives The Smiths a rating of 9/10.
The Smiths (1984) Track Listing
1. Reel Around The Fountain
2. You’ve Got Everything Now
3. Miserable Lie
4. Pretty Girls Make Graves
5. The Hand That Rocks The Cradle
6. This Charming Man
7. Still Ill
8. Hand In Glove
9. What Difference Does It Make?
10. I Don’t Owe You Anything
11. Suffer Little Children