Sunday, 6 February 2011
45 The Smiths - The Smiths
Purchased : August 1985
Tracks : Reel Around The Fountain / You've Got Everything Now / Miserable Lie / Pretty Girls Make Graves / The Hand That Rocks The Cradle / Still Ill / Hand In Glove / What Difference Does It Make / I Don't Owe You Anything / Suffer Little Children
This was bought from HMV in Bolton prior to a pre-season Manx Cup game at Burnden Park. As mentioned in the post on Hatful of Hollow I originally borrowed this the previous summer and fell in love with it so this was a no-brainer purchase.
Despite the album's difficult gestation and the band's reservations about the production, I think it's their best and a contender for my favourite LP of all time. I hadn't fully appreciated Morrissey and his worldview from the singles I'd heard before the LP but he was a hero now. In the summer of 1984 I was having particular difficulties in handling the conflict between Catholicism and sexual feeling so hearing a singer that set himself against sex was a great comfort. And the music was great too.
Mike Joyce's drums kick off "Reel Around The Fountain" a tale of Maggie May-esque sexual initiation or is it - "take me to the haven of your bed was something that you never said" ? With the aid of lines copped from A Taste of Honey and imagery from William Wyler's The Collector, Morrissey keeps us guessing. Marr keeps it moving with a descending riff and the sound is filled out with guest musician Paul Carrack's plangent piano and emotive organ. Morrissey's vocal is careworn but warm - whoever he's addressing is still worthy of his affection.
This seems less likely with the accusatory "You've Got Everything Now" seemingly addressed to an old schoolmate. One of Marr's best riffs bucks along on Joyce's fat bassline while Mozza lurches between recrimination and self pity until the glorious point where Carrack's organ comes in on the line "No I've never had a job because I've never wanted one " . Morrissey presents this as a badge of pride and it's a much more subversive show of defiance than Wham Rap .
"Miserable Lie" probably isn't anyone's favourite as it lacks the melodic subtlety of their best work. After a deceptively mellow opening with Moz bidding farewell to someone, Joyce comes crashing in with a pounding drum pattern that continues for the rest of the song, Marr trying to keep up with him with some doomy rockabilly licks. Here is Mozza's most explicit rejection of sex as a salve for a bruised life -" I laugh at yours, you laugh at mine and love is such a miserable lie" sung in the flattest, entirely joyless, tones he can muster before wailing the last lines and ad libbing in a tuneless falsetto. The last minute or so is actually quite difficult to listen to but maybe that's the point.
In any case there's instant balm in the form of "Pretty Girls Make Graves" which is as near perfection as makes no difference. Here is Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter or Bobby Goldsboro's Summer (The First Time) in reverse with Mozza fleeing from a sexually hungry girl and then watching in disgust as she finds a more willing beau at the seaside. But it's not one sided vituperation ; the girl is allowed to respond. "Give in to love, give up to lust, oh Heaven knows we'll soon be dust" is one of the greatest couplets in pop encapsulating the Northern fatalism of Elsie Tanner and Hilda Ogden in barely a dozen words. Little-used guest vocalist Annalisa Jablonska is allowed to insert a sarcastic "Oh Dear" after the second verse. Rourke nudges the story along with his melodic bassline, Marr gradually adding layers of acoustic and electric as the story reaches its climax. Mozza signs off with a ghostly echo of "Hand In Glove" indicating that this might be the end of the relationship in that song (in which case the LP is mis-sequenced) while Marr's gorgeous reflective arpeggios at the end (suggesting the empty beach after the drama has been played out) sound like a slowed down version of the Echo Beach riff.
Side One ends with the controversial "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" which was accused of having paedophilic undertones. For the most part its's clearly a declaration of an abandoned father's love for his son which now calls to mind Cormac McCarthy's The Road ; it's the second verse's references to giving way to temptation "just like a moth to a flame" that cause unease. Morrissey's pushing the envelope here but it occurs; are there any areas where art shouldn't go ? We'll come back to this point shortly. Musically it's the least interesting track with Marr's Pretenders-like riff endlessly repeating and the band even sounding a little out of time in places.
"Still Ill" opens Side Two and who else would have come up with a title like that ? Still performed by Morrissey it allows a scintilla of self-doubt to creep in amidst the defiant anti-work stance (the line "England is mine and it owes me a living" could be a manifesto for the likes of Shameless Mick) and throws in another unsatisfactory sexual memory for good measure. Marr strings pearls along the top of Joyce's punchy drumming and Rourke's prodding bassline.
Then we have the first and third singles. Perhaps with such an embarrassment of riches on the album it would have been better to put them on the first side but that's a minor quibble. "Hand In Glove" remains a great clarion call , a gesture of defiance against the narrow-minded but laced with characteristic despair -"I'll probably never see you again". The music is a stewing cauldron of acoustic and electric held together by Joyce's strong-armed drums.
"What Difference Does It Make" was a remarkable third single. Its unmistakable stinging guitar riff leads into a Gothic tale of confession and recrimination that still intrigues more than a quarter century later. What heinous fault or deed has Morrissey just confessed to ? Joyce's hi-hats accentuate the most dramatic points while a blast of playground chatter crops up unexpectedly two thirds of the way through (bizarrely recalling fellow Mancunian Mick Coleman's Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats And Dogs).
" I Don't Owe You Anything" was the only track I found disappointing at first ; its comparitively mellow sound seeming a bit bland in such exalted company. Then a few weeks after I purchased the LP it acquired a new resonance. Just after returning to Littleborough for the summer vacation I bumped into Sean (see the The Party's Over post) and we arranged another reunion meeting of the Travelling Society at his house that July. It went well so I suggested a follow-up at mine a few weeks later. I was playing this LP while waiting for people to arrive then I got a call from Sean to say that Michael , the great prize at such events had decided not to come (it was commendable of Sean to let me know that in advance). Crestfallen at this, the line in the song "You should never go to them , let them come to you" became all too relevant and sage and since then the song has been a favourite.
And then we have "Suffer Little Children" the subject of a belated Private Eye "expose" and still one of the most controversial songs in pop. Only the post-Lydon Sex Pistols had previously tackled the subject of The Moors Murders and then only by jokey allusion to Myra Hindley in the execrable No One Is Innocent. Morrissey tackles the subject head on in a song directly inspired by Emlyn Williams's seminal but not entirely factual account of the case, Beyond Belief. Williams's lyrical evocation of 1960s Manchester did much to fix the murders as a Northern rather than British tragedy - "oh Manchester so much to answer for" - however much the Daily Mail wound up its Home Counties readership against Lord Longford. Morrissey is merely following in his footsteps. All the band show great restraint in their playing and Morrissey's vocal is tinder-dry and curiously hollow-sounding (no falsetto histrionics or yodelling here) , all aware of the tightrope they were walking. Joblowska's imitation of a child's laughter is a dangerous addition but highlights the point about Hindley's exile from humanity effectively. It's not a song you want to listen to all that often but it's a powerful reminder that pop can go as far as other artforms in what it addresses.
A great, great LP. That's all that needs to be said.