Dusting ‘Em Off: The Smiths – The Smiths

Led by guitarist Johnny Marr and vocalist Morrissey, Manchester’s The Smiths corralled a sound that was reminiscent of British pop while simultaneously deconstructing traditional songwriting structure. Marr’s songwriting maintained melody in its own right but avoided the trappings of the verse-chorus-verse template, catering the music perfectly to fit with Morrissey’s keening laments, self-absorbed croon, and often controversial content. With jangly rhythms and intricately layered guitar lines indebted to girl group pop, the British Invasion, and early rock and roll, The Smiths’ arrival in 1982 helped mark the beginning of the end of synth-driven pop and helped usher in an era of guitar-led rock that would form the base of what became Brit Pop in the 1990s. The music on the band’s self-titled debut album is so captivating, you might be unaware you are listening to songs about child abuse and murder and malevolent child-snatching creatures in the night.

The Smiths dropped in late February 1984 and was released on Rough Trade records. Recorded in multiple sessions that were scattered throughout a tour, The Smiths began working with producer John Porter in September 1983. Porter’s involvement began after receiving a demo tape of an earlier session produced by Teardrop Explodes’ guitarist Troy Tate and declaring the sessions “out of tune and out of time.” Despite the new producer (and eventual long term Smith collaborator), the band was still unhappy with the final product.

Met with controversy upon its initial release, tabloids accused Marr and Morrissey of condoning child abuse and supporting pedophilia through songs like album opener “Reel Around the Fountain” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”. The former is a dour number that opens with a reverbed snare and Morrissey’s distinctive baritone. Lyrically suggestive of a romantic (but not necessarily sexual) relationship, lines such as “It’s time the tale were told of how you took a child and you made him old” and “You can pin and mount me like a butterfly” fueled the accusations by many who misunderstood Morrissey’s words.

Telling folktales of monsters coming for bad children as a means of scaring them straight has been a storytelling tradition since storytelling began. Much of English folklore is laden with such tales of gothic haunts and creepy characters. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” switches up the tale by telling it from the point of view of someone or something that has taken a child from its mother rather than from the victim’s or a third person’s point of view. One of the first songs written by Marr and Morrissey, the song’s name was originally intended to be the album’s title before it became simply self-titled.

The supposition and vagueness of “Cradle” is set aside for true, factual horror in “Suffer Little Children”. Taking its name from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, this song quickly became one of the most notorious in The Smiths’ catalog for its shocking lyrical content. Singing from the point of view of the victims’ ghosts, Morrissey tells the story of “The Moors Murders”, a series of sexual assaults/murders of five schoolchildren aged 10-17, at the hands of Myra Hindley and her boyfriend Ian Brady that occurred between 1963 and 1965, when Morrissey was just child. Sparking controversy for stirring up a decades-old crime, “Suffer Little Children” contains easily some of Morrissey’s most personal and beautiful lyrics. Using the real names of the victims, Morrissey weaves a tale of sadness and horror but also one of vengeance from beyond, as he sings, “We may be dead and we may be gone, but we will be right by your side until the day you die…” He further suggests that Hindley’s and Brady’s victims will haunt their killers guaranteeing that “[they] might sleep, but [they] will never dream”.

When Morrissey isn’t singing about child murder or isolation, he is often found intrigued by sex, or more specifically his disgust with and avoidance thereof.  With a song entitled “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, first impressions would lead one to believe the subject matter may find itself aligned with the likes of “Suffer Little Children”; however, the truth is quite the opposite. Coined from a line in Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, the song tells the story of a sexually aggressive girl trying to get her boyfriend to have sex with her, much to his reluctance. With lyrics like “She wants it now, and she will not wait/ But she’s too rough and I’m too delicate,” if ever there was an autobiographical tune on the debut, it might be this one. As she says, “Give in to lust, give up to lust, oh heaven knows we’ll soon be dust” he simply responds with, “I’m not the man you think I am.” As the song ends, the protagonist finds himself watching his girl leave with another boy. Rather than lament his loss, Morrissey subtly and casually sings the opening to “Hand In Glove”, the band’s first single and perhaps one of Morrissey’s most openly homosexually-themed songs. “Not the man you think I am” indeed.

The “Hand In Glove” found on The Smiths is not the same as the original version released as the band’s first single. Two months after the original release, the band re-recorded the song to make up for the failed Troy Tate sessions. This version has a shorter intro and is in a different key. They recorded the song again with John Porter; however, Morrissey rejected it. For the final version that appears on the debut album, Porter remixed the original session mixes, creating more separation between the tracks and pulling Mike Joyce’s drum beats up front a bit more.

It is interesting to note that The Smiths’ second single, “This Charming Man”, released in October 1983, was not originally on The Smiths. Rather, the song was added to all US releases of the album distributed by Sire Records and onto the Rough Trade cassette version in the UK. When The Smiths’ catalog was obtained by WEA in 1992, virtually all versions of this album since featured the single, with the exception of a 2009 vinyl reissue by Rhino Records.

A lot of controversy, some based in truth, some in people’s misunderstanding of lyricist Morrissey, surrounded the band’s debut in 1984, and would continue to hover over the band for its entire existence. But in the years since, much of it has been laid to rest as the true merits of The Smiths, and Marr and Morrissey in particular, outshone any tabloid’s accusations and lies. Though the band only existed for a brief time, in its five years together they produced some of the strongest, most influential music in decades, laying a foundation that was built upon over the next two-plus decades.


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