I remember watching Top of the Pops and The Smiths came on. I don’t remember the song they played, but I do remember Morrissey had like a tree branch sticking out of his pocket and it all just looked very odd. The music was somehow very different from everything else that was around at that time too, and the band and their fans were different to anything I’d witnessed or experienced before. They stood for a class and generation of people and a way of thinking that was kind of frowned upon by the establishment.
What The Smiths had to say – and the way that they were saying it – was such a clever way of rebelling. They represented a change that was definitely coming and lot of people in my parent’s generation found it hard to stomach. So when they came on the TV, my dad would say, ‘Turn this shit off,’ and I was left with the thought that they were somehow dangerous. But I couldn’t work it out because he sounded so happy and they sounded so poppy. That seemed so punk to me, but in a way that was so new and different. It was a massive ‘fuck you’ in the face of adversity.
I was really into lyrics growing up and as I got older and discovered The Smiths properly, they made me feel proud to be in this state of melancholy, rather than just being miserable about being miserable. I think that was a really important message for a lot of people, especially guys, who really felt for the first time that it was OK to have these feelings. It wasn’t directly homosexual, but they were showing that it was OK for guys to have feelings traditionally associated with girls and that very much opened up a whole new way of discussing male feelings, which I think we touched upon towards the end of Beastmilk. So The Smiths have always been very influential on me lyrically.
Here then, are my 10 favourite songs…
BIG MOUTH STRIKES AGAIN (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)
I feel like this could be their most iconic song as far as their sound and style goes, and I really like the drumming and the beats as well. Mike Joyce and the drumming in The Smiths is something that people don’t really discuss that much – people tend to talk about Morrissey or Johnny Marr – but those beats and rhythms are so very, very cool and influential, and you hear this song in a lot of British bands to this day. Grave Pleasures recently toured with a very good and up-and-coming band from Britain called Desperate Journalists, and I heard a lot of this song in their sound. It’s a very influential song across the board, and no one was referencing literature in their lyrics as excellently and succinctly as Morrissey. We didn’t have the internet in those days either, so books and literature was something I would turn to a lot to try and figure out the things I was going through as an adolescent, and Morrissey became the voice that represented that: he became like a shoulder to lean on to a whole generation of people. And all the small details that they put in their songs were almost dada-esque, and subliminally and subconsciously it just worked so well, like Morrissey’s helium-like high vocals in this song.
YOU’VE GOT EVERYTHING NOW (The Smiths, 1984)
Whenever I hear the lyrics to this song, it takes me back to school. I feel like he’s singing about this distinctly British class warfare. That’s just what I take away from it and I might be off the mark with what Morrissey meant, but this song for me is about being trapped in this British class system where you grow up with friends who are either all poor or rich, and behind closed doors all the parents talk about how much money the other families have. For me, You’ve Got Everything Now is about growing up and seeing that these inescapably imposing views have always been there and that you’re just as much a part of the system as your parents, but you’d really like not to be. It really describes the whole way I felt growing up, but I didn’t understand why at the time, and like a lot of Smiths songs it seems to be about the British class system and the various ways it imprisons you and brings you down.
CEMETARY GATES (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)
I got really obsessed with poetry in my teens, so hearing Morrissey sing about Keats and Yeats sealed the deal for me. This song is so beautifully written. You couldn’t find lyrics like this anywhere else, and it wasn’t until later on with black metal bands like Darkthrone that I heard similar lyrics that were more like poetry than words to a song. There’s so much within Johnny Marr’s guitar sound as well, from rockabilly to African influences, but it’s very much his own style and an amalgamation of lots of different things, yet still so distinctly British. He has this totally iconic and unique style, and once you get into The Smiths very deeply you realise what an amazing guitarist he is. They’re so much a part of the British music fabric now that they’re kind of ubiquitous, and you can’t claim to not be influenced by The Smiths because you just are, even if you don’t know it.
RUBBER RING (Louder Than Bombs, 1987)
This song isn’t as talked about as a lot of the others, and if you’re just casually into The Smiths then you might not know it, but it’s one of those songs about music and how it’s a great crutch for you. I think it’s a song about The Smiths themselves as well, because that’s what they’ve been for people over the years. A rubber ring is obviously what you throw to people when they’re drowning, and this song’s about how music can be your lifesaver and a good companion.
NEVER HAD NO ONE EVER (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)
This songs starts with vocal lines which are so avant-garde and weird. It’s so not pop music – you’re really in another place – and it’s really hard to place the tempo and where this song actually sits. It still boggles my mind, and the vocals, the beat and the guitars all seem to be doing different things but they still all somehow gel, and musically the song really captures that vibe of not knowing where you belong and not having anything to hold on to. There’s something about this song that’s so weird and rebellious and cool to me, and it’s so very avant-garde and artistic but it still fits under this umbrella of pop music. The Smiths, like a lot of other 80s pop bands, took weird experimental music, wrapped it up, and gave it back to the mainstream in this pop packaging. That’s why they seemed so dangerous at the time: they had this undercurrent of politics and witty commentary that left people feeling a little bit undone. They were so cutting edge for their time.
BARBARISM BEGINS AT HOME (Meat Is Murder, 1985)
The bass guitar riff that drives this song is just the perfect sound of the 80s. You could sample it and it could fit into any era, but it’s that thing that’s influenced so many bands and so many sounds. And the guitar work in this song is some of the most sublime in their entire back catalogue. It’s so weird and spidery and scaly, and it’s so good. The song perfectly describes the snotty, stuck-up English attitude towards children and youth as well: the old idea that children should be seen and not heard. For a generation of young people that was acutely switched on, Morrissey helped them become aware that the society they were living in wasn’t really progressing very fast, and it was still really stuck in the dark ages in a lot of ways. So this song really talks about that, and the way the fight and the anger in the lyrics were married with this dancey pop music was such a big fuck you. And people complain about The Smiths being a whiny band, but the truth is that there was a lot to whine about back then.
PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES (The Smiths, 1984)
I first heard this song when I was in my goth phase, and it was one of the ones that really drew me into The Smiths in the first place. ‘And sorrow’s native son’ has always stuck in my head, too. I think it’s such a beautiful line. It was like someone reading my thoughts at that time. Morrissey really gave a voice to people who felt depressed, and I can’t really think of another band from the 80s that really spoke for miserable people so well. There was this sort of thing with a lot of those New Romantic bands that felt a bit elitist, and like they believed they were better than you, which kind of fit in with the whole 80s culture. But The Smiths were never a part of that: they had this very down to earth allegiance with the working class people, and that made them so much more relatable.
HEAVEN KNOWS I’M MISERABLE NOW (Hatful Of Hollow, 1984)
This is another really iconic track. The absurdity of the lyrics in this one is so dark whilst the music is so happy, and it makes you feel exactly the way that you do at a party when you’re pretending to be happy but inside you’re dying. People always go back to this song, and you’ll see quotes from it posted up online all the time when people get really desperate. It’s one of those songs that really gives words to something that wasn’t expressed before, in music at least. He brings up Caligula [a Roman emperor known for his cruelty, sadism and sexual perversity] and all sorts of stuff in the lyrics too, so it’s very heavy and epic in its content, and again you just hadn’t heard that done in pop music before.
SOME GIRLS ARE BIGGER THAN OTHERS (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)
This was one of the first songs by The Smiths that I really got in to, and the lyrics are just so funny. This is probably the first song that I’d play to anybody that I wanted to introduce The Smiths to, to give them a good picture of what was to come. It’s a nice light, funny, entry level Smiths track. Who else would sing a song about this particular topic, too? It’s so bizarre, but so refreshing. It’s got a lot of that Edward Lear, nonsense sense of humour about it as well, that’s just so very British. No one else would be able to get away with writing a sort of Spike Milligan comedy song, but make it so dark and cutting at the same time. And the problem with genius writers like Morrissey is you can’t separate their work from their character. As soon as he dies it will become much easier for people to appreciate the work on its own, and that’s sad for him but I think he’s aware of that, and part of the thing as a writer is you realise your work will never be truly appreciated whilst you’re still alive.
THIS CHARMING MAN (The Smiths, 1984)
This is another basic entry level Smiths song, but it’s too iconic and incredible not to mention. Again, the lyrics are so unconventional and they give voice to feelings that people had but felt like they weren’t supposed or allowed to have. The Smiths turned everything on its head and made it OK for men to express their emotions too, and they helped people’s attitudes towards gender and equality in that way. That’s why there was always that whole discussion around ‘Is he gay? Isn’t he gay? Does it matter? Are the fans gay?’ Some probably were, but a huge portion of them were just of the opinion that it was great to have someone like Morrissey come along and sing about his emotions and feelings, and not making it obvious where his sexuality lay, and that was so fresh because most pop music before them was all about a very conventional sense of romance and love. It wasn’t glammed up with high heels and sequins either, and it was very much from the mind of a man stuck in a working man’s town, so it just seemed so real and relatable. It was what we were all going through, and The Smiths put it all into music.
Mat was talking to Matt Stocks. Listen to the songs on our Spotify playlist: The 10 best songs by The Smiths
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