For a dude who has an eye towards a solid knowledge base of rock music, it took me a long time to get around to The Smiths. First off, someone told me that Morrissey always sounds like he is yawning when he singing, which I couldn’t NOT hear anytime I heard a track he was singing on. Secondly, I’d sort of sussed for myself that The Queen Is Dead was the preferred album of the knee-huggers in the corner with the too-big sweater set, which really isn’t my deal. Specifically, I thought that their entire oeuvre sounded like “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, which is a two-minute slice of jangly twee pop on this album which works fine for its length, but I figured a whole album of that would be too cute by half. I kept my distance for awhile.
They are frequently included, however, in the discussions of best 80s bands and guitarist Johnny Marr seems to be as venerated as much as, if not moreso, than Morrissey (he played on Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and No One’s First and You’re Next, among other collaborations with bands comprised of young Smiths fans). I eventually decided that it was me the problem was with and that Strangeways, Here We Come was a cool album title, so I scoped a track off of that (“A Push and A Rush and the Land Is Ours”) and found myself pretty engaged. I figured the next step was to get into an album, so I picked myself up a) their only album at HMV I was at that wasn’t a compilation and b) their seminal album, The Queen Is Dead.
After a single grande olde English chorus of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blightly”, the band launches into the title track and they are, if I do say so myself, rocking out! Mike Joyce pounding on the toms in anticipation as Marr sends out a few electric washes from the guitar to get everyone in the mood before hitting the ground running. To my surprise, Morrissey doesn’t start off entirely introspective. He does state that “Life is very long/When you’re lonely”, but has a few ideas as to why that might be and takes aim at what he sees around him driving the rampant loneliness of 80s Britain with the aggression of the band backing him up, the bass never staying in one place for too long, in fear of being found: “Passed the pub that saps your body/And the church who’ll snatch your money/The Queen is dead, boys!”
After that first song, I was ready to pick up whatever the Smiths were putting down, as I found that my assumptions about them were totally wrong – they are a much more versatile band than I gave them credit for. Knowing what they have in their quiver, I was just happy to see what they chose to notch. It turns out I didn’t even give “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” a fair shake after I paid closer attention to what the rest of the band was laying down underneath Morrissey’s foppish vocal on that song. Not that the band needed to rock out to get my attention – I just didn’t mark their versatility when I dismissed them early on.
I also noticed they bore more than a passing resemblance to one of my favourite all-time bands, R.E.M. It’s the conversational tone of the lead singers reporting on the state of the world and how it affects them, combined the the guitarists’ knack for creating textures and atmospheres with intricate picking and sliding, making a quiet, ‘busy’ sounds to ably back-up and harmonize the vocals instead of a big loud one. The Smiths of course with a big dollop of Britannia on top, whereas R.E.M. deal chiefly in Americana.
Now that The Smiths and I are getting to be fast friends, it’s time to hit up that discography. Wait…four albums? Only four? Oh well. Such are the surprises that hit when a band gets a decent amount of fame over a short period of time – their reputation grows much larger than their body of work could hope to. Simon & Garfunkel only had five albums. Ditto The Police. Hell, The Sex Pistols only had one! Nevertheless, I think it’s time to turn my attention to the rest of Strangeways, Here We Come which, as it turns out, was their swan song.