The Smiths (1984)


Title: Dully eponymous. The band chose their everyday name as a reaction against contemporary groups with elaborate monikers such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

Cover: A still of actor Joe Dallesandro taken from Andy Warhol’s Flesh, a 1968 art-house movie. It’s been cropped to highlight his torso.

Best song: This Charming Man, which had been a single in October 1983, was on the cassette version of the original album. At the time of its release, the NME’s Danny Kelly called hearing it “one of those moments when a vivid, electric awareness of the power of music is born or renewed” – and it’s hard to disagree. This is a pop song par excellence: dynamic, upbeat, fun and catchy. It was kick-started when Morrissey watched 1972 film Sleuth on TV and noted Laurence Olivier calling Michael Caine a ‘jumped-up pantry boy’. The resulting lyrics convey everything and nothing all at the same time. They’re evocative and full of detail and emotional resonance, but what the ‘story’ actually means is anyone’s guess. (The lyrics are also short: just 88 words.) Like the rest of this debut album, the track was recorded multiple times before everyone was happy. This version positively *sparkles* with energy. A dozen or more guitar lines – some acoustic – create a kinetic energy cloud of music, under which there’s a funky bass riff driving everything along. The gleaming 12-second instrumental intro is amongst the most precious passages of sound in popular culture.

Honourable mentions:

* Reel Around the Fountain is a sumptuous opener to the album. Its ornate lyric vaguely recounts a first sexual encounter. However, it was misunderstood by idiots at The Sun, who argumentatively claimed that one line (“…you took a child and you made him old…”) means the song is about a paedophile. Such dreary literal-mindedness created a mini-furore, the track was temporarily banned on BBC radio, and a planned single release was shelved. Morrissey’s vocal is lovely, especially on the radiant verse that begins “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice…” And the music is fantastic – Johnny Marr delicately picks the notes out on his guitar, there’s a good bassline, while Paul Carrack of Roxy Music and Squeeze was brought in to add some nice piano and Hammond parts.

* Pretty Girls Make Graves is one of Morrissey’s playfully ambiguous lyrics – is it about virginity? Celibacy? Being gay? – and has a pleasant buoyant rhythm. There’s also real drama in sections when the song flies off into another realm for a few seconds (at 0.37, 1.26 and 2.16). This re-listen has been the first time I’ve ever noticed that Morrissey is quoting Hand in Glove during the fadeout.

* The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a very early Morrissey/Marr track, and another song that some claim is about child abuse. The lyrics sound more like an ode to parenthood – until, that is, a final verse that contains worrying phrases like “your mother she need never know…” (This verse is not included in the printed lyrics on the album’s packaging). Whatever the truth, there’s some nice alliteration and it fits the driving, hypnotic music really well.

* Still Ill was only written after a failed attempt to record this debut album had been written off. It starts and ends with a distinctive staccato passage and rattles along in-between, thanks in large part to Morrissey’s lyrics. By magpie-ing phrases from and references to a myriad sources he created something that sounds big and important and vital, even if it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. The album’s house style of production – it’s an oddly ‘small’, contained sound – is the only downside. You get the feeling the song could take flight a bit more.

* Hand in Glove – urgent, moody, a little bit punky – was one of the first songs the band ever recorded, and released as their debut single in May 1983. (This version is the same take as the 7”, though remixed by album producer John Porter.) Like the Beatles at the start of their recording career, the Smiths add some earthy harmonica to beef up the sound.

* What Difference Does it Make? is strident guitar rock with a powerful arpeggio intro, some big acoustic chord chops and an energetic, busy arrangement. Whether we need Morrissey’s high-pitched wailing is another matter. During its recording, the singer went AWOL and only returned after drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke agreed that he could have more money than them. What difference did *that* make? It led to a row years later in the High Court over royalties.

Worst song: Miserable Lie is unremarkable to begin with – but then a jarring descent into a thrash-punk beat at the 0.54 mark is irritating beyond belief. A bad mix, which sounds bass-light, doesn’t help.

Review: An entire version of this LP was produced by former Teardrop Explodes guitarist Troy Tate then junked before John Porter was brought in for another go. (The Troy Tate version is easy to find online. It’s rubbish.) Morrissey still wasn’t thrilled with the result, but having spent so much money it was felt they needed to release something. Despite all that kerfuffle, the album stands up well. The quality of the writing is certainly there, right from the start – but it does sound like a band working under restraints. The album sits shyly in the corner rather than dominating the room. Very good rather than great.

Eight sore lips out of 10.

One thought on “The Smiths (1984)

  1. I kind of wish they’d used a couple of takes from the troy Tate sessions. i prefer the Tate versions of ‘What Difference…?’ and ‘Reel’ (the Carrack keyboard stuff kind of leaves me cold, TBH). But then i love ‘Still ill’, whaich wasn’t on there. I must try to make my ideal hybrid ‘edit’ of the first album one day.

    Great idea for a blog, BTW! i shall follow with interest.:)

    Liked by 1 person

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