Monday, 10 October 2011
66 Strangeways Here We Come - The Smiths
Purchased : 28th September 1987
Tracks : A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours / I Started Something I Couldn't Finish / Death Of A Disco Dancer / Girlfriend In A Coma / Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before / Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me / Unhappy Birthday / Paint A Vulgar Picture / Death At One's Elbow / I Won't Share You
This was bought as soon as it came out from Woolworths' in Ashton-under-Lyne on a Monday afternoon.
I was looking forward to revisiting this one because it's had a good press in recent years whereas I'd always assumed my disappointment with it was generally shared.
Let's get the history right first . This is The Smiths' final original studio LP but it wasn't intended as such. Recording it was not a particularly painful process; the tensions in the band only really erupted during the later recording sessions for the B-sides to its lead single. It was intended to be the final record under their contract with Rough Trade with the band having signed for EMI earlier in the year. It wasn't actually released until after the band's split was announced with Morrissey abandoning his futile attempt to keep the group going after the departure of Johnny Marr. I think that's unduly influenced people's ( including my own ) perceptions of it ever since.
My expectations of it had been lowered by the sub-standard singles that had preceded it in 1987 although their singles had rarely represented the best of their work. The prevalence of long unwieldy titles was another danger sign, "A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours" betrays Morrissey's Irish roots, the title being a slightly mistranslated version of a traditional Gaelic battle cry. There's no political content in the song which is delivered by the ghost of a young suicide victim who, beyond a few disconnected musings about love, appears to have no real message for the living ( by coincidence, an observation you could also make about the ghost in a Douglas Coupland novel inspired by another track on this LP ) . By this time Johnny Marr had gone on record as being disenchanted with his guitar hero status and was trying to broaden out The Smiths ' sound so here he's replaced the guitar with music hall piano and glockenspiel. The result is that bar not having a sax solo and cockney-accented vocal it sounds like the also recently deceased Madness which probably wasn't the intention.
With "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" it's brass that infiltrates the sound blaring away behind Marr's glam rock swagger and Mike Joyce's sledgehammer snare. Morrissey contributes a risky lyric seemingly about regretting a sexual assault. Amusingly this was thought to be more appropriate to be a second single than track five which has a throwaway line about mass murder ( this being shortly after the Hungerford massacre ). The whole thing anticipates Suede a few years down the line but it's melodically weak and Morrissey's vocal is over-mannered.
"Death Of A Disco Dancer" has a late night feel with Rourke's prowling bass and Marr's echo-laden guitar ( suggestive of The Edge). The actual song is rather slight, possibly about a suicide before demolishing the hippie ideal with the subtlety of a sledgehammer - love peace and harmony well maybe in the next world ". It makes you think that the similarity of Marr's main riff to Dear Prudence is deliberate. After three minutes Morrissey stops singing and starts some atonal piuano plonking - his one and only instrumental contribution to the band's music - heralding a lengthy instrumental coda which is much better than the song it' s decorating , Joyce brewing up a storm over Marr's corruscating guitar and eerie Farfisa .
The lead single "Girlfriend In A Coma" follows . It's an interesting combination of elements, a propulsive bassline , dainty acoustic guitar and heavy ELO-strings on the chorus. Inspired by the cause celebre of Karen Ann Quinlan , the first great right -to - die test case it in turn led to Douglas Coupland's 1997 novel of the same name ( two thirds brilliant, last third terrible ). It's Achilles heel is its brevity - just over two minutes - which makes it seem glib and heartless.
"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before " is the stand-out track, the only one that really measures up to the music on their other LPs. Despite the defensive title the song is a catalogue of physical mishaps incurred in pursuit of a loved one with Morrissey singing in his most plaintive tones and Marr consenting to play the guitar hero once more. The only criticism is that his stinging guitar solo at the end is too short.
Side One is patchy but the second side is simply poor. "Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me " ( released as the third single ) begins with an over-long irrelevant intro setting mob screams ( strangely reminiscent of the start of The Plastic Age on the previous entry ) against doomy grand piano chords. It's nearly two minutes before Morrissey comes in accompanied by strings. The song isn't strong enough to support all this melodrama, a lachrymose reiteration of the themes on "How Soon Is Now " delivered drowsily by Morrissey. There's a brief spark of life from Marr's guitar towards the end but too little too late.
"Unhappy Birthday" is weaker still with its bluntly spiteful lyric. Marr seems content to just strum along on acoustic with only an occasional background sigh from his electric. Rourke does his best to move things along with a cajoling bassline but it's an umemorable song to say the least.
The problematic "Paint A Vulgar Picture " is a five-and-a-half minute diatribe against the music business in general and Geoff Travis and Rough Trade in particular. Marr and the rhythm boys set it up nicely with a fine tumbling riff over which Morrissey sometimes has difficulty cramming in all his bilious words.Nevertheless there's a fine instrumental break halfway through and if that had closed the song it would be a good'un. Unfortunately Morrissey picks up his rant where he left off and it just gets boring. It hasn't aged well either in the light of Morrissey's collusion with EM|I's constant re-packaging of the archive since the group's demise.
The final two tracks pass by in a blur of disappointment. The sound effect of a coffee percolator is the best thing about "Death At One's Elbow" ( my nomination as the worst song in the group's canon ) a tuneless rockabilly thrash in which Morrissey exhorts someone called Glenn not to go in a house or face being murdered with an axe. This is a clear reference to the murder of Edward Evans - yes we have heard this one before ! It's less than two minutes long but still outstays its welcome.
"I Won't Share You " is also forgettable, a limp acoustic strum on which Joyce is absent and nobody else does anything interesting . It's been universally assumed to refer to Marr's desire to work with other musicians but you'd think if that was the case Morrissey would come up with better lyrics than "Life tends to come and go , just as long as you know." There again it does fade out just as it seems Marr's about to begin a solo so there may be some truth in it. Whatever it sounds unfinished and a very poor note on which to make your exit as a group.
Sharp-eyed readers will have realised that there was still one Smiths LP missing from my collection at this point in time so this isn't really the end of the story for me. Nevertheless the group's relatively sudden exit was a profound shock to me as to many others and cast a long shadow over the British music scene for some years to come. In a way this LP's obvious deficiencies went some way to tempering that sense of loss; maybe it was for the best if the magic had gone ( something I'd bet Noel Gallagher ruefully ponders from time to time) . I'm not revising my opinion of it but it's a chapter in one of music's great stories and so will endure for all time.