The Smiths: The Complete Songs

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The Smiths

1986: To Die By Your Side

The Smiths Bigmouth Strikes AgainBigmouth Strikes Again
[Single; found on The Queen Is Dead]

“Bigmouth Strikes Again” is a defense of Morrissey’s… er… the narrator’s tendency towards less-than-polite commentary (“Sweetness I was only joking when I said, by rights, you should be bludgeoned in your bed”). But, between Moz’s warped back up vocals and a funky breakdown at the 2 minute mark, the groove beneath this self-righteous tirade is one of the band’s most fun moments. And at least now he knows how Joan of Arc felt. – AK

Money Changes Everything
[B-side, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”; found on Louder Than Bombs]

A song with no connection to the Brains track or Cyndi Lauper cover of the same name, “Money Changes Everything” is an instrumental, and one that’s fine enough if neither as pretty as “Oscillate Wildly” nor as driving as “The Draize Train.” A bit synth-ier, a bit funkier, it’s most definitely B-side material, but still solid at that. – JT

[B-side, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”; found on Louder Than Bombs]

There’s an almost comical level of self-pity and misery in “Unloveable”; if there’s a specific point at which The Smiths (and specifically Morrissey) created a stereotype for young, sensitive misfit types, its ground zero is this song. It does, in fact, contain the line “I wear black on the outside/ Because black is how I feel on the inside,” which is nothing if not over the top. And yet, damn it, there’s something universal in Morrissey’s message of feeling hopeless and unloved — something romantic, even. One of the stronger b-sides in the band’s canon, it’s less about the band’s dynamics (which are solid) than of the emotions it conveys. “I don’t have much in my life,” Morrissey sings, “but take it, it’s yours.” Is it meant to be taken literally? Probably not. Morrissey’s lyrics are just as often more sardonic and satirical than they are about opening up a wound. But no matter how absurd or exaggerated “Unloveable” gets, it speaks to very familiar, very human feelings. We all — even the best among us — have been there before. – JT

The Smiths The Queen is DeadThe Queen Is Dead
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

It’s an odd coincidence that as I’m writing this paragraph about The Smiths’ greatest anthem and title track on their finest album — a hilarious and vicious six minute screed against monarchy, class and the British establishment — that Margaret Thatcher is watching over my shoulder. In my parents library in Connecticut Thatcher’s memoir “The Downing Street Years” is just off, appropriately enough, to my right on the shelf just above a biography of Ronald Reagan. In 1986, it looked like Thatcher and Reagan had made the both the UK and USA’s rive droite a permanent revolution. They won.

That mood, which is essential to not only the song, but the album as a whole, is something music writer Jon Savage noted on in a Guardian piece in 2010. This was in the aftermath of the ’84-85 miners strike — a prime cause not only for the British left, but for legions of post-punk musicians — was over and the points went to Maggie. And the losses where felt most sharply in the north of England. “The Queen Is Dead,” offers a glimpse into a rainy northern city — Manchester, for one — where unemployment and drug use is cast against a nation of burgeoning middle class Daily Mail-reading Thatcherites. “Some nine year old tough peddles drugs/ I swear to God I never even knew what drugs were.”

The song also takes inspiration from the famous Michael Fagan incident. Fagan, a painter and decorator, famously eluded security at Buckingham Palace and wandered the halls, eventually making it to Her Majesty’s bedroom. It was reported at the time that Fagan chatted with QEII for ten minutes — since deemed erroneous. But it gave the world a Wildean comedic gem from Morrissey — “She said ‘I know you and you cannot sing’/ I said ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano’.” “The Queen Is Dead” also ranks among Marr’s finest work with band. He stomps on the wah-wah pedal like he’s driving a getaway car, peeling out licks over a propulsive rhythm track.

For all its comedy and Stooges-style guitars, “The Queen is Dead” leaves on a bleak note — “Life is very long when you’re lonely.” It’s an indictment of both the selfishness of the Thatcher years and the painful knowledge that life in opposition can be isolating. – SC

Frankly Mr. Shankly
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

Supposedly aimed at Rough Trade Records founder Geoff Travis — who, as Morrissey tells it in Autobiography, was quite skilled at ensuring the Smiths were broke after tour and manufacturing expenses were hashed out — this music-hall polka manages the rift between art and commerce with the grace of hedge-clippers carving salmon. Having worked at a corporate monolith I can vouch for the blowtorched dreams and humiliation, but Morrissey’s got a better game plan than I ever did: “I’d rather be famous than righteous or holy any day.” Then he starts attacking Shankly’s “bloody awful poetry,” suggesting that office dehumanization has its roots in terrible aesthetics. All of this is true. – PP

I Know It’s Over
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

There’s a school of thought that The Smiths are a band whose lyrical messages speak most strongly to adolescent feelings. That’s only true if you ignore the anti-Thatcherite critiques, social commentary, rich literary allusions, nods to obscure singles from the ’60s and ’70s, subtle sexual wordplay and record-industry inside baseball. But then you have songs like “I Know It’s Over,” which concerns maybe the most teenage feeling of all: Wanting to die because you’re alone.

Maybe “wanting to die” isn’t quite right; more like “might as well be dead.” The very first line of the gentle, dramatic ballad is “Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” But it doesn’t end in the narrator’s own offing. In fact, it doesn’t really take long for him to turn his focus toward others: “Sad veiled bride… Loud, loutish lover…” And he reminds himself in the ways that he’s got charms that they don’t (“It takes guts to be gentle and kind“), but while the grown-up in us wants to say “Buck up, kid! Ain’t the end of the world!”, there is one particular section that will hit you in the sensitive spot right and proper, no matter where you are in your own life path. The dagger: “If you’re so funny/ Then why are you on your own, tonight? … If you’re so very entertaining/ Then why are you on your own, tonight?” And here, Morrissey, a grown man who has surely moved past these questions and was well onto the proto-Beyoncé Knowles school of “Fuck you, I’m awesome,” hits us all in the gut with one well-timed and accurate blow. – JT

Never Had No One Ever
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

Paired with “I Know It’s Over,” “Never Had No One Ever” comprises half of a suite of loneliness and misery that only The Smiths could make feel so real and so relatable. Where “I Know It’s Over” is the half that concerns being alone in the sense of being without the warmth of a companion, “Never Had No One Ever” is about feeling isolated from your surroundings, and feeling as if you have no place. “When you walk without ease/ On these streets where you were raised,” sings Morrissey, casting an even darker shadow on an already sinister dirge. It’s neither the darkest nor saddest Smiths song (the latter may well be its predecessor), but it speaks to a very common and, ironically, universal kind of angst. – JT

Cemetry Gates
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

Because Marr didn’t find his guitar part for “Cemetry Gates” very interesting, the track almost didn’t make it onto The Queen Is Dead, and gothic recluses everywhere were almost robbed of this dreary little anthem. But, thankfully, Morrissey insisted on recording the track; that ‘boring’ melody is one of The Smiths’ catchiest, and carries some of Stephen Patrick’s juiciest lyrical gems to date. As if the narrator hanging out in the graveyard on a “dreaded sunny day” wasn’t moody enough, Moz goes on to remind us that every possible human idea has already been done — and done better and more brilliantly than you ever possibly could. Thanks, bud. – AK

Vicar in a Tutu
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

The Smiths pretty routinely killed it at rockabilly-style numbers, and “Vicar In a Tutu” is one of the most fun. It’s practically cowpunk, except for how English it is (not that such a thing would have stopped, say, The Mekons). Likewise, Morrissey generally had/has more fun than most at jabbing religious institutions with his satirical wordplay, and there’s no shortage of church-bound grotesqueries in these hallowed halls: The monkish monsignor, alms collector Rose, and the title character — a carefree clergyman who “dances again and again and again.” But here’s where it gets interesting. The vicar? He’s spared the ill will directed toward the other greedy figures in the church with heads full of plaster. He’s a symbol of acceptance and of liberation, and of well — corny as it sounds — being yourself. “He’s not strange/ He just wants to live his life this way.” It’s a curious gem of a song in the Smiths catalog — satirical, yet compassionate. And ripe to be spun again and again and again… – JT

There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

There’s a long history of car-crash songs in rock’n’roll, but Morrissey was probably the first singer to literally beg the crash on, pleading for tragic death as a preferred option over reality. Sure, the narrator winds up chickening out, but the song is dark, even by Moz’ standards; depressed characters were his staple, but suicide was rarely part of the picture. But despite (or perhaps due to) its darkness, the track is a standout — even on what is quite arguably the band’s best record. Paired with one of Marr’s most beautiful, longing arrangements, even Morrissey would be hard-pressed to come up with a more perfect ballad of suicide glorification. – AK

Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
[found on The Queen Is Dead]

For as tenderly as Morrissey sings “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” you’d think the song was about the love of his life or some worldwide struggle. Alas, “Some Girls” seems to be intentionally frivolous, especially given the sarcastic profundity of the opening lines: “From the ice-age to the dole-age / There is but one concern…” In framing waist size as an eternal concern, Morrissey slights the popular, superficial trend of commenting on a woman’s shape before her personality. The guitar work is delightfully light; Marr turns in one of The Queen Is Dead’s most accessible riffs, an effort that could have produced a single had Morrissey chosen to sing a more radio-friendly tune.  Instead, The Queen Is Dead closes with a beautifully sarcastic and biting tune that embraces the ridiculousness of its subject matter. – DG

Smiths PanicPanic
[Single; found on Louder Than Bombs]

Leave it to The Smiths to write a radio hit about how much radio hits suck. Morrissey starts off by describing a riot in London — wondering “could life ever be sane again” — and by the second verse, he reveals the source of this upheaval: That god-awful disco music. By the end of this 2.5 minute romp, Moz is joined in solidarity by a children’s choir, urging the listener to “hang the DJ” as the track slowly fades out. The camp is high on “Panic,” but not nearly as high as the sonic payout. – AK

The Draize Train
[1986; B-side, “Panic”]

The Smiths only had a few instrumentals in their catalog, and they always seemed curiously out of place among the rest of their songs. It’s not really a Smiths song without the wit and poetic rancor of one Stephen Patrick Morrissey — which is probably why the handful of instrumental tracks they did record would inevitably end up as b-sides. And yet, to simply give all the credit to Morrissey would be to overlook just how tight and dynamic a musical unit Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke were. “The Draize Train” is a B-side for good reason, but even as a piece of lesser Smiths, it shows off that instrumental dynamic with plenty of flash and drama. Imagine that — drama without Morrissey. – JT

Smiths AskAsk
[Single; found on Louder Than Bombs]

This perky track features many of Morrissey’s most quotable moments. From his musings on shyness and coyness to his declaration that “if it’s not love, it’s the bomb that will bring us together.” Add in some country-tinged grooves and elegant backup vocals by the late Kirsty MacColl, and you have one of the band’s last great singles. – AK

Golden Lights
[B-side, “Ask”]

Even rarer than — or at least on par with — instrumentals in The Smiths catalog were covers. Not that they didn’t occasionally play them live (and Morrissey to an even greater degree after going solo, having performed Bowie and Patti Smith songs with some regularity). But “Golden Lights” is an island in the band’s catalog, a reworking of a UK hit by two-hit wonder Twinkle. It’s a perfectly fine song, if unremarkable when held up against the band’s originals. (If you made it this far, it should be fairly apparent that the band was on fire during their short run.) But the nifty vocal effects and added backing by Kirsty MacColl do help it to stand out a bit among the rarities and b-sides. – JT

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