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Genre: Alternative Rock, Indie Pop
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Meat Is Murder (1985)
Related to: not available yet
No history book gives a better insight into the UK of the 1980’s than The Smiths’ self epynomous debut album: a country under the reign of Thatcherism and confronted with dangers like AIDS and crimes like the Moors murders. Besides, the album reintroduced the guitar in a world of synthesizers, laying the groundwork for how music would sound like in the UK of the 1990’s. Like that isn’t enough for an album review.
Thank God The Smiths were there during the mid-eighties, reshaping the musical landcape while standing on the remnants of post-punk, a genre pioneered by bands like Joy Division. The charts were ruled by bands like Culture Club, and there simply wasn’t a way out of this decade yet, it was only 1982! There was only one option left: be an eigties band in the sense of being against it. Call upon this lost generation you see around you and see how many followers you can get. It happened to be a very successful call, as it meant the birth of alternative rock in the UK, more specifically indie pop, which means it principally sticks to melodies. ‘Indie’ basically means they did everything themselves, according to punk’s DIY-strategy: make your own records with your own artwork, release them by yourself and write your own fanzine about it.
To be a little more specific, it was down in Manchester where Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr met each other, being both children of Irish immigrants. The first one had already fronted a punk rock band (and would soon drop his first names) and the latter was a guitarist-songwriter. After recruiting Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce as definite band members on bass and drums respectively, Morrisey called them The Smiths, as it was the most ordinary name out there. The recipe for their sound was a great dose of post-punk filled up with sixties rock, a straight outcome of Morrisey’s and Marr’s background. It’s well-known that Morrissey is a huge fan of punkrockers New York Dolls, but also of sixties icons like Dusty Springfield and Marianne Faithfull, while Marr’s jangly guitar sound was obviously influenced by The Byrds‘ Roger McGuinn and (by consequence) George Harrison.
After releasing some singles, the band would come up with their debut album in 1984: The Smiths, featuring the actor Joe Dallesandro on the cover. The album met with a lot of controversy, as a number of songs would deal with the theme of pedophilia, which was always denied by the band. If you give the songs a closer look, the central theme of the album would rather be the loss of innocence instead. Let’s run over them.
It all starts with a short drum intro before Morrissey’s voice kicks in on opening track ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, the longest track on the album. Morrissey sings about losing your innocence with someone who just sees you as a sexual object, while Marr’s Rickenbacher quietly follows on the background. The main character knows this other person just wants sex from him, but his love is too big to refuse another 15 minutes of pure lust. ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ also has this solid rhythm section, with some really fantastic lyrics. Some people will without any doubt recognize themselves in this story of a guy leaving school feeling he has more talents than his peers, but ending up jobless while these other people have success. But are these people actually happy? Because ‘I’ve seen you smile, but I’ve never really heard you laugh’.
Another favorite of mine is the next one: ‘Miserable Lie’. It all starts off slowly with a some smooth guitar playing and drums, but suddenly explodes when Morrissey lets free all his rage about the lie love often is, when just being an excuse to get in somebody’s pants as fast as possible. In a third section, the vocals become much higher (sounding desperate) and an occasional guitar solo is added. Alltogether, this is an awesome track which still has that raw Joy Division sound, revealing the bands post-punk roots. In case you wondered if Morrissey had any confidence in women left, the fourth track gives you the answer: ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’. More than any other song on this album, it really idealizes the concept of innocence, guided by a delicous funky bassline and closed by a very melancholic solo riff from Marr.
It seems that this riff continues in a more amplified way on the next track: ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’. This is another song meeting a lot of controversy, which isn’t surprising if you listen to the slightly repulsive lyrics for a first time. Of course it could as well be about just protecting your children, I leave the interpretation to the listener. ‘This Charming Man’ (you got to love Morrissey’s song titles), didn’t appear on the original release, but it did on all other versions that followed. Marr wrote this up-beat song with very catchy guitar riff, while Morrissey added this mysterious story about an encounter with a stranger using a very vulnerable voice.
‘Still Ill’ shows the melodious tandem that Morrisey-Marr certainly was, as vocals and guitar playing are perfectly adjusted to eachother here. The song reaches its peak for me personally on the line ‘If you must go to work tomorrow, well if I were you I wouldnt bother’, which is I believe a clear but subtle rejection of Thatcherism, which ideas were really hated by Morrissey. Another highlight (musically as well as lyrically) then, when ‘Hand in Glove’ starts. Seldomly was loneliness (Morrissey often was lonely and depressed during his adolescence, but this shouldn’t surprise you anymore by now) better portrayed than in this song. But wait a minute, what’s that sound on the background? Oh yes, in a time where even the guitar was almost replaced by synthesizers, an harmonica is suddenly thrown in, completely in Beatles‘ ‘Love Me Do’-style.
Three songs left then, but ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ (although featuring another nice guitar riff) and ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’ are in my opinion among the least tracks. But the album closes in a beautiful way with ‘Suffer Little Children’. Although the theme is very sad, the Moors murders that took place between 1963 and 1965 near Manchester, it’s another fine example of the chemistry between Morrissey’s voice and Marr’s guitar.
After their debut, The Smiths would release another 3 albums (of which their second, Meat Is Murder, was their only to reach number one in the UK) before breaking up in 1987. Morrissey would pursue a solo career later on, while Marr started other projects with all kind of other atists. The Smiths would (and will) never reunite again, so please enjoy the music they left us.