“There are no b-sides anymore, it’s all mp3s!” Mike Mills slyly said as a clever retort to a fan who yelled out “b-side,” at the highly-publicized rehearsal shows documented on R.E.M.’s Live at the Olympia. For the most part, Mills was right; there essentially aren’t any b-sides anymore. These days of downloadable mp3s most songs are being released commercially only online. But there are a few artists who are keeping the method of selling vinyl singles with the traditional A and B-sides alive. Beck, Jack White and Morrissey are three who believe in the classic idea of the single.
Morrissey has always been champion of the honoring time-honored tradition of the wax single. Simon Goddard said it best in his essential Smiths companion book “The Songs that Saved My Life.” Morrissey was “A boy out of time, cocooned in his bedroom, listening to antiquated sixties girl pop and forgotten b-sides by early British rock `n’ rollers like Billy Fury.” He grew up with a “fascination with vinyl obscurities” as he fell for the sounds coming through the crackling vinyl in vintage 45s of such female sirens like Sandie Shaw.
Throughout his solo career, Morrissey has put that same practice of finding his own songs hidden inside single treasures and anthologizing them for fans to cherish just like he used to as a wistful teen. Just go back to Bona Drag, World of Morrissey, My Early Burglary Years and even 2001’s Best of Morrissey added the b-side of “Lost” as a bonus track. Moz himself added songs like “Lost” and “Disappointed” from Bona Drag and “I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty” from My Early Burglary Years because of his need to showcase songs that some may have missed in their original incarnation as a forgotten b-sides.
Instead of criticizing the idea of repackaging these songs in compilations (like I have constantly done in the past), today I am honoring Morrissey’s need to revive songs like “Because of My Poor Education” as he unleashes again them into the world in his new b-side anthology Swords. I now understand his intention. Being a Smiths and Morrissey completist, most recently I’ve been having the most difficult time tracking down some of Moz’s b-sides from his most recent releases. Most of those obscure tracks on the singles from You Are the Quarry, Ringleader of the Tormentors and Years of Refusal have been hard to locate. Now I am thankful to Morrissey for releasing Swords.
Swords goes all the way back to singles from Moz’s 2004 album You Are the Quarry to unearth such classic b-sides as “My Life Is a Succession of People Saying Goodbye,” ” Munich Air Disaster” and my personal favorite “The Never Played Symphonies.” Some of these songs like “Symphonies” are so remarkable that they deserved inclusion on Quarry. Moz had his reasons to delegate these songs to b-side status. Though, if songs like “Symphonies” had been placed on a proper studio album there would be no Swords.
We finally hear the release of “Sweetie Pie,” featuring vocalist Kristeen Young, producer Tony Visconti said it best when he described this gem as “a macabre dreamscape.” It sounds like a twisted Disney lullaby with Young’s high pitched howls matching Moz’s croons to perfection. But it’s not all lush low-key ballads on this compilation. Swords starts off with a Middle Eastern flavored rocker “Good Looking Man Around Town” followed by equally riff-a-licious “Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice.” I especially appreciate Moz singing the Spanish lyric “No te divertes con papi…” as an ode for the legion of Latino disciples that worship Moz. Speaking of which, one of the songs that’s missing is Morrissey’s tribute to the country of “Mexico.” It would have fit perfectly on Swords. Oh well.
Just like 2008’s Greatest Hits album I reviewed, Swords is almost flawlessly sequenced. It flows like an actual studio album, as if electric b-sides like “If You Don’t Like Me, Don’t Look at Me” and “Ganglord” were meant to be heard back to back. You may recognize the backing vocals of The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde on “Shame is the Name.” Cinemaphiles will notice that the beginning of “Shame” contains a sample from the 1959 film Les 400 Coups by Francois Truffaut. Having dialogue from film is something that Moz has been incorporating since his days of The Smiths and solo recordings like “Spring Heeled Jim” from Vauxhall and I.
Swords does not contain only Moz originals; it also includes a live cover of David Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday.” You will notice that Morrissey changed Bowie’s lyric from “Jagger’s Eyes” to “David Johansen eyes and scored” to pay tribute to his own idol. You can hear the joy in Morrissey’s voice in this lively version that he makes his own on this tribute to Bowie and the New York Dolls.
Swords concludes with the grand “Because of My Poor Education” with the Mike Garson-esque piano stylings of keyboardist Roger Manning. This stunning b-side is quickly becoming one of my choice recordings in this very eclectic compilation. Swords‘ success that shows that Morrissey’s genius thrives in just about every song he crafted with producers Visconti and the late Jerry Finn. They seem to bring out the best in Morrissey’s voice, even in this album compiled of rarely heard b-sides.
There’s a strong maturity in Morrissey’s lyrics throughout Swords especially in “The Never Played Symphony,” as he alludes to perhaps his own mortality as he sings, “all I can see are the never laid/ that’s the never played symphony.” Many artists fear never being able to write the perfect song. And Morrissey brings these emotions to light in this very beautiful song. Morrissey has nothing to worry as you hear it in Swords, however, as it displays that he’s continuously writing and recording some of the most memorable songs of the last 20 years.
In case you haven’t heard, Morrissey was recently named the “Greatest Lyricist in British Pop History” by Scottish academic Dr. Gavin Hopps. I wouldn’t say he’s the best of all time—two Liverpool lads named Lennon and McCartney deserve that honor. But I do believe that Morrissey is the Greatest Modern Lyricist in British Pop Music. I’ve always stated that the finest artists have the best b-sides and Morrissey is no exception. Swords, with songs like “Never Played Symphonies” and “Sweetie Pie,” backs up this theory.
Throughout his illustrious solo career, Morrissey has written and recorded some of the most memorable hits in the last 20 years. But what I admire about Morrissey is the quality of his lesser-known material. Some artists would just add a forgettable instrumental or throw away number as a bonus cut on their singles. Maybe that’s why the idea of the single has faded away in this age of mp3 downloads. But artists like Morrissey are still attempting to keep this tradition alive. If songs from Swords are any indication, the greatest modern British pop lyricist still has plenty of gifts to share with us.
Morrissey – World of Morrissey
The Smiths – The World Won’t Listen
Suede – Sci-Fi Lullabies