I’ve often mentioned my wish to have an app or something similar that can erase your favourite song from your mind so you can hear it again for the first time. A couple of Sundays ago in a local garden centre café I came about as close as is possible to experiencing this. Suddenly with no warning over the music system came that jangly ear worm of an intro from This Charming Man. Completely out of context, completely unexpected and completely wonderful. By the time Morrissey sang “punctured bicycle” I’d put my knife and fork down and left my eggs to go cold until the last drop of the song had passed. Bugger me if it wasn’t followed by What Difference Does It Make another unexpected smash between the ears. Since then I’ve found the time to listen to their four studio albums and A Hatful Of Hollow again.
My history with The Smiths is mixed. As a young man in 1984 I was between friend groups, old college friends and new nightclubbing mates but when The Smiths crashed into my world via Top Of The Pops I couldn’t ignore them. I was lucky enough to see them live. I bought the albums The Smiths and Hatful Of Hollow and all the singles up to How Soon Is Now and then met a girl more into 5 Star and Madonna and fool that I was that was that.
In early 2000’s I picked up Best 1 and Best 2 on CD during a miserable shopping trip while drifting around HMV. It set me on voyage of rediscovery collecting everything I could studio albums, compilations and live albums. I devoured them all ultimately deciding that Strangeways, Here We Come wasn’t the same standard as the rest and that it was probably a good thing that they split when they did. It was only later via social media that I realised that I was in a minority. Since then I’ve only listened very occasionally and with all the Morrissey stuff I’ve had no real inclination to listen again until now.
What struck me instantly with the eponymous first album was just how dark it was. Of course it was dark Dave I hear you say. Well yes but bloody hell. Maybe a life lived, experience and my job now meaning that safeguarding is front and centre on a daily basis I was quite shocked. I remember the accusations of paedophilia, the morbid obsession with death and serial killers, the bleakness and the sadness hidden in plain sight behind the music but it was always as Morrissey the protagonist. It hit me that maybe Morrissey was a victim. Yes he was always odd and carried himself with this ridiculous arrogance but… Reel Around The Fountain, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle etc could be perhaps from memories of his own childhood. Let’s be honest if a teacher in 2022 came across this stuff in a students writing all sorts of alarm bells would ring. I must dig out and try again with the Morrissey autobiography, maybe answers lay there. Maybe he is an awful human being or maybe….
Hatful Of Hollow was more of the same. This stuff is raw, open, profoundly troubling and quite extraordinary when taken as 3 minute pop songs hoping to gain broad appeal. It’s quite remarkable.
On to Meat Is Murder which was always my favourite although I think The Smiths has taken over on this revisit. It certainly retains the rawness and that sense of reality. Like it was all drawn from actual experience. I have to confess that Well I Wonder stopped me in my tracks and almost drew a tear.
Well I wonder Do you hear me when you sleep?
I hoarsely cry
Well I wonder
Do you see me when we pass?
Please keep me in mind
Please keep me in mind
Gasping but somehow still alive
This is the fierce last stand of all I am
Gasping, dying but somehow still alive
This is the final stand of all I am
Please keep me in mind
Those words with Marrs light touch just exquisite. (Man up Dave ffs!)
It also reminded me how important Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke were. Barbarism Begins At Home for example being as much about those two as Morrissey and Marr. This was a rare collection of musicians thrown together with Morrissey’s unique qualities to produce a run of three albums that on hearing again, now, for some reason have been elevated beyond how I previously remember them.
With The Queen Is Dead it starts to feel forced. I know there are some brilliant songs. But…. it’s all a bit we need to be quirky and lacking that feeling of the personal. Vicar In A Tutu, Frankly Mr Shankly, Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others? Mmmm. It’s great album obviously and it contains There Is A Light That Never Goes Out which is one of their best but it doesn’t make me feel what the first three do.
Strangeways hadn’t improved with age and still feels just wrong and again all a bit forced and fake. Last Night I Felt Somebody Loved Me the standout.
The Smiths legacy as one of the most important British bands achieved in just 4 years, influencing much of what came in the 90’s has been tainted by the fall outs and Morrissey’s increasingly bizarre offensive behaviour. He’s an adult and needs to take responsibility, if he even cares. Im certainly not making excuses for him. What I have learned over the years is that we all have a story, something that makes us the people we are. I can’t listen to the first three albums without wondering what made Morrissey the man he is and whether he is a product of something nasty in his early life. Marr, Rourke and Joyce though deserve better. Marr’s guitar work never bettered for me and Rourke and Joyce one of the great rhthym sections. The songs survive as unique, provocative and thrilling snapshots of a very different 80’s. I’m glad I can, on this occasion, continue to listen, even if the world won’t anymore….