The Smiths: The Complete Songs

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The Smiths

1987: Unite and Take Over

Shoplifters of the world uniteShoplifters of the World Unite
[Single; found on Louder Than Bombs]

Interpreters of the band’s catalog stretch to make this tune a theme song for stepping out of the gay closet. Morrissey himself was guarded about its meaning, suggesting only that the shoplifting was “spiritual” or “cultural,” appropriating objects or ideas around you in order to move the self forward. Released on a January 1987 single, the band do a little stealing of their own here as well. The song shares some notes and fuzziness with “How Soon is Now?” but is (a.) nowhere near as danceable and (b.) nowhere near as forlorn. Arrangement-wise, the band also tip their hand to show allegiance with and love for T. Rex and Thin Lizzy’s glam rock. – AB

Half a Person
[B-side, “Shoplifters of the World Unite”; found on Louder Than Bombs]

It’s funny to listen carefully to The Smiths’ catalog in the context of the 27 since they closed the book on it. The first thing that strikes me upon hearing the opening chords of “Half a Person” is that it could fit comfortably on Real Estate’s last two excellent albums, Days or Atlas. But less Jersey, more Manchester; Marr’s jangle is the city’s greatest export, after all. Here, Morrissey is at his most pathetic and sympathetic, pursuing someone (or, perhaps, an ideal) for six years only to ask for five seconds to tell the story of his life, wherein he checks himself in at the “Y… WCA” and asks if they “have a vacancy for a backscrubber.” It’s a bittersweet recollection of sacrifices and compromises and the open-endedness of having nothing to lose. – JT

[B-side, “Shoplifters of the World Unite”; found on Louder Than Bombs]

This is a fun one — a really fun one. As The Smiths discography goes, no song ever seemed like the wrong length. Their long songs never felt as if they dragged on (except “Meat Is Murder”), and their shorter songs never felt slight. No band before them (‘cept maybe, y’know, The Beatles) or since has had such a masterful grasp on a song’s economy. I’m not going to say that every note was always perfect, or that editing was entirely necessary. But when you hit the mark as often as The Smiths did, that’s all pretty arbitrary.

Morrissey’s lyric on “London” is pretty straightforward — a second-person reflection on self-doubt and personal decisions. He plays the ego to the unnamed, unidentified protagonist’s id, whispering in one ear, “Do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?” And the answer, ambiguous or not, feels a lot like a “No.” And maybe that’s just because of the tense urgency of the song, driven by the most punk arrangement they ever recorded. Johnny Marr’s guitar squeals out a cry of feedback before slashing out noisy jabs of one-note riff. Soon enough it gets entangled with his signature jangle, turning a harsh and direct hook into a sophisticated juxtaposition between the abrasive and the gorgeous. Anthrax later covered this for the Airheads soundtrack, which is both sort of funny and entirely appropriate. If you need a Smiths song that rocks hard with reckless abandon, this would be the one. – JT

You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby
[Scrapped single; found on The World Won’t Listen and Louder Than Bombs]

A surprising song, seeing as how it’s one of the few times Morrissey asserted his own positional privilege in the guise of underhanded encouragement. But it’s hard to argue against, especially with a chorus as great as it has. The Smiths’ early songs were flooded with youthful impatience, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether the singer has accumulated any satisfaction himself. Whether the accomplishment is being showered with adoration or bargaining for one’s own contentment, it’s hard to tell. But he’s right, it’s much harder to earn, and even harder to know when you’ve earned it. But that’s why we have the IRS, I suppose. – PP

Smiths Sheila Take a Bow

Sheila Take A Bow
[Single; found on Louder Than Bombs]

There’s an acoustic guitar figure in this track that echoes The Cult’s huge 1985 hit “She Sells Sanctuary,” except two years later it’s Morrissey selling sanctuary not in his own companionship but in the form of…escape? Yep, one of his most positive songs—almost anthemic, really—is an effort to convince a homebody girl to go out and have a good time. This A-side wrapped up a series of four non-album singles between The Queen is Dead and Strangeways, Here We Come. Yet for a track with such charismatic bounce it proved to be a destructive beast: The band burned through two producers and an extra vocalist before it was done right, and allegedly performed it only twice live. Somehow, it still matched “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as their highest-charting UK single.

Is It Really So Strange?
[B-Side, “Sheila Take a Bow”; found on Louder Than Bombs]

It seems funny that “Is It Really So Strange?” — which is placed conspicuously at track one on the band’s singles compilation Louder Than Bombs — only really exists as a Peel Session recording. It feels polished and complete, and fully fleshed out, which probably rendered an additional version of the song unnecessary, particularly given it was only a B-side. That and the band was going to break up pretty soon (not that they knew that at the time). A song about the complications of unrequited romantic feelings — possibly between people of incompatible sexual orientation — “Is It Really So Strange?” crams its rockabilly rave-up full of hilariously brutal imagery. The narrator stands tall in the face of an impending romantic faceplant (“You can kick me/ You can punch me… But I won’t change the way I feel“), but things still go absurdly awry (“I left the South/ I traveled north/ I got confused/ I killed a nun“). Pat Benatar may have been right when she said love is a battlefield, but only Morrissey could find a way to incorporate slaughtering the clergy into it. – JT

Sweet and Tender Hooligan
[B-Side, “Sheila Take a Bow”; found on Louder Than Bombs]

Morrissey has long had a fascination with troubled characters, some of which achieve a level of roguish anti-heroism. The best of these is probably “First of the Gang to Die,” from his 2004 album You Are the Quarry, which puts a James Dean halo around the crown of a fallen gang tough. “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” isn’t quite the anthem that song is; in fact, it’s remarkably similar to Oingo Boingo’s “Only a Lad” in how cynically it indicts those who would coddle someone so vicious and remorseless. The difference is in Morrissey’s satirical bent, in which he passively dismisses the strangling of an old woman (“She was old and she would have died anyway“) and wryly defends the hoodlum in question: “And he swore that he’d never, never do it again/ And of course he won’t/ Not until the next time.” In the end, the defense of this loathsome lad is, indeed, given in front of a jury, with the plea to look into his “Mother-me eyes.” Ones that, ironically, only a mother could love. – JT

Smiths Girlfriend in a Coma

Girlfriend In a Coma
[Single; found on Strangeways Here We Come]

You know that feeling where someone you’re supposed to love — even though you actually don’t — is in a comatose state, and things would just be easier for everyone if they never came out? We didn’t think so. But, that’s what’s happening in Moz-world for “Girlfriend In a Coma.”

Interestingly enough, it was a B-Side for this single (a cover of Cilla Black’s “Work is a Four Letter Word,”) that caused the dispute that led to Marr officially leaving the band. – AK

Work Is a Four-Letter Word
[B-side, “Girlfriend In a Coma”]

That rare moment the Smiths ever broached the shores of Beatlesque-ness. They didn’t lap the shores, mind you. They just saw them. Lovely and deceptively uncomplicated, it’s another modest reminder of the riches of the poor, the inherent power of choosing the course of one’s own existence. It’s a viewpoint a little unsuited to more recent times of worldwide economic strife and the rising cost of limes (seriously, have you seen the price of limes lately?), but Morrissey was never afraid of being forced into positions of fiscal vulnerability, and this song shows how he can recognize the gifts of nature and human connection. Of course he’s rich as God now, but still, nice of him to mention it. – PP

I Keep Mine Hidden
[B-side, “Girlfriend In a Coma”]

The Smiths had a richer catalog of b-sides and rarities than just about any band of the last 30 years, though not necessarily all of them are truly essential. Tucked away at the end of the “Girlfriend In a Coma” 7-inch, “I Keep Mine Hidden” feels curiously breezy and slight for a Smiths tune. It never makes it to the two-minute mark — which isn’t a hindrance to a track such as “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” though this track doesn’t quite reach the simplicity and elegance of that classic track. A jaunty bounce with a Morrissey lyric about keeping his emotions to himself, it seems an ironic — probably intentionally — take on public decorum. Indeed, there’s someone waiting in the wings with an “opinions and assholes” comment, deserved I’m sure. The thing is, Morrissey was always plenty self-deprecating; he just reserved the harshest criticism for others. – JT

The Smiths Strangeways Here We Come

A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

Perhaps the weirdest song on the band’s bow-out, “A Rush And a A Push And The Land is Ours” sounds what would happened if Bach would have lived to hear reggae music. Morrissey does manage a lyrical hook off the jab, “People who are uglier than you and I/ They take what they need and just leave.” – SC

I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

There’s a certain tradeoff that happens on most of the songs on Strangeways, Here We Come. While they boast a more sophisticated and adventurous approach to arrangement and production, Morrissey’s cunning was cut back a little bit on these tracks. The Smiths’ best songs feature big reveals in the second or third verse; songs like “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” feature plenty of coy lines, but the story suffers a bit — the poetry here is more focused on aesthetic than narrative. – AK

The Death of a Disco Dancer
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

It’s the halfway mark of the Smiths’ underrated shuffle off, Strangeways Here We Come, but “The Death of a Disco Dancer,” might as well be the band’s final word. Marr opening guitar tickling spreads out into Velvety hypnotism, backed by thumping drums and screechy synths. And Moz sings what could be the Smiths’ elegy: “Love peace and harmony, very nice, very nice, very nice… but maybe in the next world.” It’s also one of the more timeless Smiths songs, as it doesn’t sound at all like it’s hemmed in by the ‘80s. No wonder then that Morrissey often includes it in his live sets. – SC

Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

There are Smiths tracks made legend by Morrissey, and those made legend by the players behind him. This is one of the former; we have heard this jangle before, chaps, but those lyrics are pulling your lazy asses out of the fire. Moz’s skillful slow-reveal delivery of the first verse and its refrain—”Nothing’s changed, I still love you/Only slightly less than I used to“—could have made this 1987’s other great anti-love song alongside R.E.M.’s “The One I Love.” (Well, that, and him spending the rest of his 3:34 making excuses for a missed rendezvous.) Sadly, Morrissey used the phrase “plan a mass murder” in otherwise relatively harmless lyrical context. It ran up against the real-life Hungerford massacre that claimed 17 lives in England, so the BBC would only play the song at night and the band didn’t release it as a UK single. What might have been The Smiths’ last splash on the pop charts instead never had the chance to find its audience at home. – AB

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

Musically forceful, full-in on nightmarish anguish, with a gothic, two-minute introduction featuring digitized piano and tortured screams (human this time), “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me” is the ideal closing song on the Smiths’ final proper album Strangeways Here We Come. Except it’s not, it’s fifth from the end. Morrissey’s epic loneliness gets as seductive and hopeless a treatment as possible, and like in “Please Please Please” there’s no point in belaboring the lyrics. “The story is old, I know” — he’s aware of his own criticisms, did you really think he wasn’t? — “but it goes on.” It certainly does, but once it’s really finished, once the set’s taken down and the players are paid (unless they work for Geoff Travis), this is the song for that bleak, unpromising sunset. – PP

Unhappy Birthday
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

When putting together the invitation list for your birthday party, there are just certain names you should leave off. Mozzer, with his dark and charming wit makes clear which list he’s on in this sulking ballad. Because, really, no party needs any extra encouragement for the honoree to “drink and be ill tonight.” – AK

Paint a Vulgar Picture
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

Morrissey surely must have known — or at least had an inkling — upon writing “Paint a Vulgar Picture” that it wouldn’t take all that long for his own lyrics to be spat back at the band’s own body of work. Reissues and compilations of The Smiths’ material far outnumber the four lone studio albums. They have five singles or hits collections; think about that for a minute. So here, in one of Morrissey’s signature record industry takedowns, he characterizes executives as ghouls, selling off the remains of a dead star with “an extra track and a tacky badge.” Of course, this is really one of the only profitable business models that labels have left now, so I suppose we’ll have to take what we can get? – JT

Death At One’s Elbow
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

“Death At One’s Elbow” is a bit of a mystery. The main hook implores someone named Glenn not to come to the house. Each of the three verses provides an alternate, dramatically different rationale for Glenn staying put. The first reason doesn’t seem to be much of a reason at all: “because there’s somebody here who really really loves you.” The second reason turns violent: “because there’s somebody here who’ll take a hatchet to your ear.”  Finally, Morrissey claims that if Glenn does come to the house, he’ll “slip on the trail of all my sad remains.” And who is Glenn? On a few forums, fans seem to think it’s a reference to Barbara Glenn who makes a couple appearances in Morrissey’s book, “James Dean is not Dead.” Whoever Glenn is, he/she is a vehicle that once again highlights Morrissey’s emotional anxiety over a playful, rockabilly instrumental. – DG

I Won’t Share You
[found on Strangeways Here We Come]

Johnny Marr found an old autoharp at the Wool Hall studios in Beckington, England, where Strangeways, Here We Come was being recorded under the eye of engineer-turned-producer Stephen Street in early 1987. They ended up loving the sound and recording the results. (No surprise there: Marr had unconsciously recalled the chords from The Smiths’ 1986 single “Ask.”) Morrissey added lyrics a few days later, and while they contain nebulous proclamations—”I want the freedom and the guile“—and mention a female subject, there’s a big school of thought suggesting Moz wrote the song for Marr. Well, maybe “wrote it at Marr” is more appropriate, as Morrissey beyond the microphone seemed unhappy with Marr’s desire to work with other musicians. That inflexibility helped send Marr packing, and unable to find a replacement the quickly legendary group would break up. This song—the pair only coming together through technology, Morrissey’s supple vocal ultimately fading into the ether—was more than just a knock-me-over-with-a-feather ending to a great album. It’s a metaphor for Morrissey and Marr as a dynamic musical duo, and a strangely fitting epitaph for The Smiths as a band. – AB

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