My experience with The Smiths was colored by my teenage homophobia in the same way that my experience with Madonna was tied in with my adolescent misogyny. Indeed, it wasn’t until I got to college and met some actual out gay people that I started to even realize homophobia was a thing. How straight and naive was I growing up? Like many of my classmates, I didn’t realize that the Village People were gay and was shocked to learn they were. That’s how straight and naive.
OK, so, growing up in New England in the 70’s and 80’s, the default boy to boy insults were almost entirely pejoratives that suggested the other boy was gay. Other than the occasional obviously out pop star (Boy George), we had very little exposure to positive gay culture in the press or in our lives. Indeed, I remember there being a lot of high school social pressure on boys to not just act in an accepted straight masculine way ourselves but to actively renounce and insult any male who exhibited traits that could be perceived as feminine or gay. I now know that I had gay classmates in high school and it must have been a pretty awful for time for them.
I’m not singling out my high school in specific – I think this was almost certainly typical to different degrees at every high school in the USA in the ’80’s. It’s still alarmingly common now (though many schools in Hawaii – especially mine – give me hope).
Anyhow, this is all a long preamble to get to how I initially felt about The Smiths. I was really into punk, jangle rock and synth pop (with a side helping of heavy metal) in the early 80’s. The Smiths came along with a very different sound and, at first, I wasn’t buying what they were selling because it wasn’t the kind of music I enjoyed at the time. Then they started getting a ton of airplay on WXCI and interest from my friends and I started to become irritated because their sound was pushing the stuff I liked off the air.
Then I read an interview with Morrissey where he discussed being gay and celibate and all that high school homophobia kicked in and I just rejected him and the band out of hat. Even as the decade wore on and I met gay people and become less overtly homophobic, I stubbornly rejected The Smiths. Even as I admitted I liked a bunch of their songs and even played them as a dj on WRBC, I did so with the belief that I didn’t like the band and this song or that song was just an exception. I stubbornly refused to accept the band because at some point admitting I liked them meant admitting to myself that the main reason I rejected them in the first place was homophobia.
When I moved to Hawaii in 1989 and no longer had anyone around me who’d known me in my homophobic high school days or during my recovering-homophobe college days, I embraced The Smiths entirely and acted like I’d always liked them. This whole progression wasn’t exactly a conscious one, but in retrospect that’s exactly what happened. So, yeah, homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, etc can dog you for a long, long time. I still say and do things from time to time that I’m not proud of but I try to improve every day (as humans should). First, it’s the right thing to do. Second (and selfishly), I was missing out on so many amazing people, so much great art and so many mind-blowing experiences because I was a young, dumb, prejudiced idiot. I’m older now, I can’t do anything about the “dumb” or the “idiot,” but I can work on the “prejudiced” part.
Basically, I apologize to everyone both for being overtly homophobic in my teens and for generally contributing to an atmosphere of homophobia after. I try to be an effective ally now and am always striving to be better.
So now its 2017 and I love The Smiths and recognize that they’re one of the most important bands of the 80’s and maybe even of all time. They released 29 singles that I’ll be addressing. Check out the About This Project page for details about how I approach this whole process.
Also, my #1 will be absolutely no surprise.
29. Still Ill
From 1983’s The Smiths, Promo and Flexi Single
Honestly, I don’t The Smiths actually have any bad singles. In fact, I’m not convinced they have any bad songs. The songs at this end of the list are here because they’re pleasant but forgettable or because they’re slight. This song, for me, is the former. All I’ve listened to for the past two weeks are these 29 Smiths songs and I can remember and sing parts of every single one except this one. I rather like Morrissey’s the lyrics – the folks at Genius suggest this is a song about being in the closet – but find Marr’s music to be atypically unfocused. Again, not bad just doesn’t stick to the ribs of my brain. I know this is a much loved song and if there’s any choice on this section of my list that generates controversy it will be this placement. Sorry world!
28. You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet
From the 1987 Compilation Album Louder Than Bombs, Test Press Single
Louder Than Bombs was a collection of UK singles and rarities for an US audience. I’m not sure we all knew that in the US in 1987. I remember many people calling it “the new Smiths album” at the time. Well, it was new to us. “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet” was going to be a stand-alone single (UK bands released lots of stand alone singles – not so much with USA bands) but was rejected in favor of the superior “Shoplifters of the World.” However, test presses of this song were made and are considered among the rare of Smiths collectibles. If you’ve not heard this song before, you’ll know immediately why “Shoplifters of the World” was selected instead. While this is a quite good song, “Shoplifters” is much more musically compelling.
27. Meat is Murder
From 1985’s Meat is Murder, Acetone single
Right now, I’m a vegan. I’m a terrible vegan because it’s for health purposes rather than out of any sort of commitment to the ideals of veganism. I have eggs fairly regularly and, from time to time, want to have chicken or a steak. When this album came out, I wasn’t even a vegan for health reasons (I’m more of an omnivore – I like to eat almost every kind of food) but I wasn’t bothered by the implication that meat is murder. Indeed, if anything, I found the lyrics rather funny. I feel bad about this, but I still find the lyrics a humorous. I know Morrissey is deadly serious and his views on vegetarianism are true and noble, but the buzz saws and the moos at the start are so over-the-top and the images he creates of cooking as a murderous act are so grim that they delve into self-parody to my sensibilities. Of course, Morrissey also sometimes writes deliberately funny lyrics so I can’t always be sure when he’s being funny and when he’s just being ridiculous. Anyhow, yes, eat less meat. Its healthier and its better for the environment. But, you know, do your own thing dude.
From 1987’s compilation album Louder Than Bombs, Flexi-disc single
“London” sounds like a punked-up version of “Shakespeare’s Sister” to me. It was the b-side to “Shoplifters of the World” but was released as a Flexi-disc single in The Catalogue, a trade magazine released by Rough Trade “to promote independent music.” The song addresses a man who is moving away from a small town and heading to London and who probably isn’t planning on coming back. Leaving a boring or abusive or otherwise unsatisfying home for a more satisfying situation is a central theme to many of Morrissey’s lyrics. The Smiths rarely sound punk, but they approach that sound here. I find the song to be pretty catchy, but minor.
25. Sweet and Tender Hooligan
From 1987’s compilation album Louder Than Bombs, released as a single in 1995 to promote the compilation album Singles
Speaking of catchy but minor… “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” was originally a B-side for “Sheila Take a Bow.” It was included on the Louder Than Bombs compilation in 1987 but wasn’t released as a single until 1995. Here’s the twist – while it was released to promote the compilation, Singles, it’s not actually included on that compilation. Trippy. Johnny Marr composed a remarkably catchy piece of punk-leaning rock here but the lyrics are a bit of a let down – they tread the somewhat familiar ground of an ironic song about a genuine criminal who is being excused for his awful crimes because of his youth (See also “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Excitable Boy,” “Only A Lad”). The lyric is well constructed and enjoyable, but I expect more from my Smiths’ songs. As you may know, I am a fan of big dumb songs. This is the closest The Smiths ever came to recording a big dumb song.
24. Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
From 1986’s The Queen is Dead, German Single Only
I know this song has its fans and it’s not without its charms, but I feel like it’s a pretty minor tune. Again, Marr has composed an excellent song but these lyrics just seem slight compared to The Smiths’ best work. Essentially, the lyrics are about how its pretty boring that men spend so much time talking about the size of women’s breasts. Morrissey would like to talk about something more meaningful than that. I’m with you on that, dude, but the song puts so much focus on how some girls are bigger than others and some girls mothers are bigger than others that, by the end of the song, you’ve spent more time complaining about the thing you hate than talking about something more meaningful. I’m sure that’s the point – to invite us to experience these despised conversations. But, yeah, I leave this song singing the chorus not singing the “Send me a pillow/the one you dream on” part.
23. Reel Around The Fountain
From 1984’s The Smiths, Test Pressing
With this song, we enter the second tier of this list. If the first tier were merely good, this is the start of the “really great” set of Smiths singles (there are two higher tiers). So let’s talk about The Smiths. Guitarist/composer Johnny Marr and singer/lyricist Morrissey formed a band with bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. The band lasted for fives years – from 1982 until 1987. I was in high school and college during their existence and those five years seemed like forever to me. Not in a bad way – I mean that time was moving differently for me when I was younger. Like now, five years whiz by. Back then, it seemed like a glorious eternity of radio shows, theater classes, and shenanigans. Looking back, its amazing how much they accomplished in such a short time. Marr and Morrissey were among the finest songwriters of the 80’s. “Reel Around The Fountain” was one of their earliest compositions and was, at one point, in the running to be an official single from their debut album. A test pressing of the song was made (and is now a rare Smiths collectible) but ultimately it was not released. The song generated a certain amount of controversy because some people thought it endorsed pedophilia. The lyrics are much less salacious – he’s singing about his own personal loss of innocence when he was child-like (but not a child). Anyhow, this is a lovely song.
22. Barbarism Begins at Home
From 1985’s Meat is Murder, Single in Germany and Italy released in the UK in 1988
I have the sense that school in England was a considerably more brutal affair in the 70’s and 80’s than it was in the USA. “Barbarism Begins at Home” is about corporal punishment in school. The underlying theme is that if a teacher doesn’t like you, they’ll find a reason to give you a crack on the head (either for asking or for not asking depending on which you do, for instance). British teachers brutally punishing school children is common enough that it figures prominently into a number of popular songs (notably this one) and its a frequently portrayed subject in other media as well (note how in the Harry Potter series, the very worst teachers cheerfully traffic in physically painful punishments – I’m looking at you, Dolores Umbridge). I don’t have a sense of whether this still goes on or not. We’d be (quite rightfully) fired for physically harming children in the US school system and I don’t recall ever once being threatened with school sanctioned punitive violence during my pubic school days. Just bullying, which was generally non-sanctioned punitive violence. Anyhow, the song is incredibly catchy (because Johnny Marr is a genius) and Morrissey’s lyrics are harrowing. One thing of special interest in this song is Andy Rourke’s bass work in the final 45 seconds or so of the song. He doesn’t have a whole lot of opportunities to be the spotlight on Smiths tunes but he really shines on this one.
21. Girlfriend in a Coma
From 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come, First Single
Before we address “Girlfriend in a Come,” we have to follow the rock journalism tradition of pointing out that this song’s B-Side – a cover of Cilla Black’s song “Work is a Four Letter Word” – essentially broke up The Smiths. Johnny Marr famously said “I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs” and split. At first, Morrissey thought he’d hire a new guitarist and keep The Smiths going but he swiftly thought better of it and just dissolved the band. I’m sure there were other factors at play, but something about this innocuous song destroying one of the most vital songwriting duos of our lifetimes is so gloriously ludicrous that I sort of hope it was the actual only reason.
Back at Bates College in 1987, this song got a ton of airplay on WRBC. This was both because our community genuinely liked the song, but also for a second tasteless reason. Student who visited Bates with the intention of attending the school were called Sub-frosh (for “sub-freshmen”) by current students. Around the time this song came out, a visiting sub-frosh fell into a come due to binge drinking. He was ultimately fine, but many of us got a cruel little kick out of singing “sub-frosh in a coma” to the tune of this song. With 30 years of perspective, let me offer this PSA – binge drinking is dangerous and drinking yourself into a coma is a terrible idea no matter what your age. I’ve always been a non-drinker, so I speak strictly from evidence and not from first hand experience.
I love Johnny Marr’s guitar work on this song (it was the final song The Smiths ever recorded together) and Morrissey’s lyrics paint a picture of a man who seems to both be concerned and ambivalent about his girlfriend’s condition. I’ve always assumed – perhaps incorrectly – that the singer was responsible for the girlfriend’s state. A closer reading of the lyrics (coupled with a close listening to Morrissey’s delivery) suggests that the singer is, in fact, in denial about the seriousness of the girlfriend’s condition – he’s moving from the stage of denial to acceptance over the course of the song. He’s admitting that they had a complicated relationship and (perhaps) didn’t actually harm her. Anyhow, the seriousness of the lyric is set in juxtaposition to Marrs’ light, happy music which further complicates interpretation. This is what I want from a Smiths song – a complicated subject explored and made more complicated by how the words and the music interplay. And this isn’t even in my top 20. I mean, The Smiths pretty much rule.
Coming Soon: Many songs that start with “S” – for Smiths.