A Look Back At The Smiths Debut Album
It's all about sex you know!
No really...it is! Listen:
Early 1984, Interviewer; "It's been said that your songs are not so much 'love songs' as 'sex songs'..."
Morrissey; "Yes....though it sounds almost brutal, but....yes".
Ask anyone what The Smiths greatest album is and more often than not will come the reply 'The Queen Is Dead'. Morrissey and Marr both claim that it's 'Strangeways, Here We Come', but they're both well off the mark. For me, everything that is great about The Smiths, everything that raises them well above any other band or cultural phenomenon that has existed in my lifetime, is their eponymous debut album. Everything that, for me, defines The Smiths can be found within their debut album and the accompanying singles and B-sides....everything, in fact, pre-'Meat Is Murder'. From 'Meat Is Murder' onwards The Smiths became a different(though still magnificent) band, but
'The Smiths' offered something totally anomalous, something totally out of step with the times, something loaded with menace, longing, dread, lust and of course....sex.
But first, a bit of contextualising.
Back in mid 1983, when I was still at school, I saw the movie 'Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush', a swinging 60s romp in which our hero played by Barry Evans(who would later find infamy as the teacher in the gruesome racist sit-com 'Mind Your Language') spent the movie trying to win the girl of his dreams and lose his virginity....though not necessarily at the same time. Through the course of the movie he gives a direct-to-camera running commentary, kind of like Michael Caine in 'Alfie'. A short time after this my folks decided I was old enough to watch mid-70s sex comedy 'Confessions Of A Window Cleaner', in which Robin Askwith as our hero Timmy Lea finds himself waist deep in sexual situations, again all the while delivering his thoughts to camera.
What, you may be asking has all this got to do with 'The Smiths'? Well, because of these films I imagined that my own adolescent fumblings would be accompanied by my giving some kind of running commentary to the waiting public. Obviously it wouldn't, but the reasons I fell in love with The Smiths is that the lyrical content, especially of 'The Smiths' sounded like the commentary I should have been giving.
'The Smiths' is an album full of sex.....straight sex, gay sex, bi-sex, underage sex, sex in cars, sex at the hands of a woman more masculine than the male protagonist, clumsy sex, sex that leads to unwanted pregnancy.....
It's an album that creates it's own world entirely, a perfectly contained world housed in bruise/lovebite coloured sleeve featuring a naked man. A world where Morrissey doesn't have too much of a past to conjure poetry from....you get the feeling that these are lyrics he HAD to write out of necessity rather than as a vocation. He still references school and the clumsiness of youth as though they were still occurring. These are the thoughts and words of a young man bursting to express himself in a way that would be incongruous to anything else happening in pop or rock at that, or indeed any time.
Back in the long cold Winter of 1983 my friends and I used to prowl the streets at night, bored senseless and literally busy doing nothing. We used to congregate at a cafe called The Fountain, an unglamorous greasy-spoon affair that no longer exists but which has become a fixture of our teenage folklore. Hence, it only seems appropriate that 'The Smiths' should begin with lumbering epic 'Reel Around the Fountain', a song that would take on a different meaning looking back. "It's time the tale were told// Of how you took a child// And you made him old...", not lyrics detailing child abuse as the right-wing press ranted at the time, but a gentle unfurling of the flag of manhood. Is it a kiss, is it sex that has made the child in Morrissey come of age? "15 minutes with you// Well, I wouldn't say no// Though people see no worth in you//....I do" The camaraderie of the outsiders....the love of the weird for the weird....YOU were young once, right? You know how it goes! "Reel around the fountain// Shove me on the patio// I'll take it...slowly" Remind me what this album is about again!
A crash of drums and we pound into 'You've Got Everything Now', Morrissey reflecting back to his school days when he was on top and his downtrodden companion wilted in his shadow. But now it's all change and Morrissey's jealousy and frustration at his former friend's good fortune leads to a perplexing infatuation that he struggles to handle; "But I don't want a lover// I just want to be seen...in the back of your car".
To my musically uneducated ears back in 1983 'Miserable Lie' sounded positively startling; a slow ponderous intro, "So goodbye// Please stay with your own kind// And I'll stay with mine", what is Morrissey's 'own kind' do you reckon? Then the song suddenly bursts into vibrant life, with a whole bizarre collage of clumsy, awkward, typical teenage sex; "Please put your tongue away// A little higher and we're well away" and "I look at yours// You laugh at mine// And love is just a miserable lie" This is followed by an insane coda in which Morrissey shrieks falsetto "I need advice// I need advice// For nobody ever looks at me twice!!" Surely the best use of Janov's primal scream therapy heard in music since John Lennon's scathing 'Mother'! It's often been said that this song along with 'Jeane' and 'Wonderful Woman' document Morrissey's infatuation with Linder Sterling.
And Morrissey's obsession with strong women continues into 'Pretty Girls Make Graves' in which Morrissey finds himself at the hands of a woman who is "...too rough// And I'm too delicate", a brave statement for any rock star to make unless they are fully prepared to dodge the brickbats of lazy, prejudiced opinion. As Morrissey's companion begs "Give in to lust//Give up to lust// Oh heaven knows we'll soon be dust ... " Morrissey refuses and watches as she goes off with another man. When you're 16, clumsy and shy, to hear someone actually put all this into the words of a pop song is incredibly liberating and inspiring. It's songs like these that, on hearing them at the right time, changed my DNA...Songs That Saved Your Life? You bet!
At this point I realise I haven't mentioned Johnny Marr yet, but with the next track it's impossible not to. 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle' is quite unlike anything else from that time, it features no chorus or middle eight to speak of, just a continuous guitar pattern over which Morrissey delivers a stream of consciousness tale of wanted/unwanted pregnancy, childhood and parenthood(what it's certainly NOT about is child abuse....is it, Garry Fucking Bushell??) Morrissey takes on the role of a (possible) parent looking in on the cradle which may contain his baby son and we're suddenly immersed in some of the most beautiful lyrical poetry; "Ceiling shadows shimmy by// And when the wardrobe towers like a beast of prey// There's sadness in your beautiful eyes// Oh, your untouched, unsoiled, wonderous eyes// My life down I shall lie// Should restless spirits try// To play tricks on your sacred mind// To tease, torment or tantalise" Oh frabjous day!! Oh joy!! Some of my friends mock or fail to understand my devotion to Morrissey and/or The Smiths, but I still recall the first time I heard this....it made me cry then, and it makes me cry now.
(If you're expecting 'This Charming Man' next then you obviously don't have the original vinyl version of the album. TCM was only included on the WEA CD reissues)
Side Two then....
How do I begin to write about 'Still Ill'? 'Still Ill' is THE song, the hook that ensnared me and pointed my life in a different direction. Truth be told, 'This Charming Man' is one of two songs that changed my life entirely; the other is 'Dog Eat Dog' by Adam & The Ants but I'd have to write an entire spiel about that song to try to explain why. 'This Charming Man' alerted me to The Smiths, the road to Damascus moment, but it was 'Still Ill' that sowed the seeds of a second heart.....one that would only ever beat or break for The Smiths. I can still recall when I first heard it....the John Peel show, early 1984...he'd just been given a copy of the album and played 'Still Ill' for David 'Kid' Jensen who WAS ill at the time. When Morrissey's voice first comes in, my entire life stopped in it's tracks....the old 'me' was gone, the new 'me' had arrived. That life affirming refrain, "Under the iron bridge we kissed..." OH Yessss!!!! Stirling is full of old bridges, iron or otherwise, and our lives seemed forever cast in their shadows....all teenage life was carried out under those bridges; underage drinking, messy fumblings, swaggering braggadocio, broken hearts and skinned knees.....Sore lips? We could but dream.
Morrissey has often regarded 'Hand in Glove' as the most important song he ever wrote and it's position as The Smiths' debut single(again housed in a twilight purple/grey sleeve with a naked man upon) bears this out. "The sun shines out of our behinds", their arrogance is not misplaced, "Yes we may be hidden by rags// But we've something they'll never have" ....once again, love amongst the outsiders.
Another single, 'What Difference Does It Make?" and another song seething with pent up lust. The way Morrissey growls "Oh, the Devil will find work for idle hands to do" followed shortly by "And now you make me feel so ashamed// Because I've only got two hands" you have to wonder just who Morrissey is attempting the dual-backed beast with....and more to the point, why does he need so many hands? Even though this was released as a single, The Smiths grew weary of the song very quickly and it disappeared from the live set after only a few plays. Still....that coruscating guitar intro gets me very time.
Let's jump a song now(which we'll come back to) and let's look at the closing track, 'Suffer Little Children'. Again, quite remarkable in it's set-up, no verse-chorus-middle-eight-brake-fade here, again Johnny Marr conjures a piece of extraordinary music leaving all peers in his wake. And Morrissey's lyrics? Well, these are the lyrics that convinced Johnny that he had a partner of equal genius here. Aaah, Morrissey and Marr....together as beautiful as a sunrise....apart, occasionally as ropey as an old cardigan. In 'Suffer Little Children' Morrissey exorcises his own personal ghosts by dealing with the Moors Murders, a crime which he was a potential victim of, given that he lived in that area at that time and was only 5 years old. Of course, the right-wing gutter press went apoplectic, again shrieking about child abuse, but Morrissey had pre-empted this and sought the blessings of the families of the victims, which he was granted. A tender, gorgeous ending to a remarkable album.
And there's still one song we've not spoken of....
There was a time that if you asked me my favourite Smiths song I would have replied 'Sweet and Tender Hooligan' but I think I was just trying to be a little clever. Then, for many years, it was 'Well I Wonder' from 'Meat Is Murder', a song that could easily have sat on this album, so beautiful, striking and exquisitely played it is. But, in truth, my favourite Smiths song is 'I Don't Owe You Anything'. No other song EVER captures my youth, my teenage frustration and exhilaration's like this one does. In our teenage years, my friends and I seemed to forever prowling the streets, doing nothing, going nowhere....just being. We'd walk the frozen pavements lit by the orange streetlamps, ill-dressed for the plummeting temperatures but uncaring. What were looking for? Where were we going? Was some great revelation about to be disclosed to us? Who knew? When my musical cohort Griff and I formed ~Sighrens~, one of the first lyrics Griff wrote was called 'The Last Of The Lights' which dealt with this very subject. In 'I Don't Owe You Anything' Morrissey is out on his own streets and his words resonated deep within me. "Bought on stolen wine// A nod was the first step// You knew very well what was coming next"; well maybe not stolen wine, but certainly underage purchased Merrydown Cider! "And did I really walk all this way// Just to hear you say// Oh, I don't want to go out tonight..." This is where it get's me...all those nights, walking to friends or a girl's house just to be casually knocked back...."...Oh but you will// For you must", and it's that tremor in Morrissey's voice on the word 'must' that does it! He knows that this is a time in which EVERY night is important, every night is an adventure, every night will be recalled and spoken of as the dulling grey of adulthood descends. In your mid/late teens EVERY night is SO important....OF COURSE they are going to come out with you....for they must!! "Too freely from your lips// Words prematurely sad"....more tear stained poetry far, far beyond his contemporaries, "You should not go to them// Let them come to you// Just like I do...", sage advice Steven, that way you don't look like an idiot and face constant rejection, I wasn't just listening, I was learning. And then, "Life is never kind// Oh, but I know what will make you smile tonight", and it's the way he quite audibly grins during this line that brings us back to what this album is all about.
'The Smiths' is easily the most played record in my entire collection, and time has been very kind to it. Some people used to argue that 'Hatful Of Hollow' was the better album as they believed it's lighter touch made it more palatable....Poppycock!! 'HOH' is whimsical and slender compared to it's dark, drunken, dangerous, delirious brother; it's leaden pall covering it like that first aching hangover. 'The Smiths' is a bruise that never fades, a keratoid scar upon my soul, a recollection of when my heart was full of hope and my head full of hormones. When I walked the streets with a layer of frost on my jacket and the taste of Revlon lipstick on my tongue. When a pop band could batter you senseless and leave you weeping on the pavement.
The most important album of my lifetime?
You've really have no idea...........