Just reminding you that my number one choice is perhaps the most predictable number one choice I’ve yet chosen. It’s almost always selected as their best song and I agree with the assessment. The only way in which this is a spoiler is that it spoils my reputation for having “quirky” taste.
There’s a bunch of classic Smiths songs that were never released as singles, including “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” “Suffer Little Children,” “Cemetery Gates” (I know, right?), and “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours.” I mean, what?
There’s been a lot of volatility in this section of the list this week. There’s a couple of songs that I really want to move into the top ten (but what would I drop into this section?) and other that I want to push higher into the top 20 (but what would I drop into the lower half of the top 20?). I’m finally as satisfied as I’m going to be with this – and isn’t being unsatisfied and frustrated part of what draws us to Morrissey’s lyrics about the same subjects? So I’ll just take my vague dissatisfaction for a metaphor.
20. The Headmaster Ritual
From 1985’s Meat is Murder, Netherlands Single Only
There’s this thing that happens in certain songs that I just love. Basically, the band all repeats the same basic thing in a fast syncopation. You’ll hear it right away in “The Headmaster Ritual” – its like “da da da da da da da.” Morrissey later turns this into the “la da da da da da dee ay” bit. While this has a similar “English school life is awful and rife with abuse” theme to “Barbarism Begins At Home” (#22), I find the lyrics much more terrifying (particularly the part about “He grabs and devours/kicks me in the showers”). That open chord strumming (the da da da part) is gripping and a fantastic opening to both the song and to the whole Queen is Dead album.
19. The Boy with the Thorn in His Side
From 1986’s The Queen is Dead, First Single
This is Morrissey’s lyric about Morrissey. He is, by his own testimony, the boy with the thorn in his side. According to Morrissey, “The thorn is the music industry and all those people who never believed anything I said, tried to get rid of me and wouldn’t play the records.” This song has grown on me quite a bit since the 1980’s. It used to be just about my least favorite Smiths’ song but in the last decade or so something clicked – I hear its influence all over the place (particularly, but not limited to, when I listen to Belle and Sebastian) and I think that made me listen to it differently.
18. Shakespeare’s Sister
1985 Stand Alone Single
Well, here is a confluence of several things that I’m keenly interested in. First, I’m very interested in Shakespeare and this song is peripherally related to him. Second, I’m interested in feminism. The title of this song was inspired by a the Virginia Woolf essay A Room of One’s Own which proposes that if William Shakespeare had a sister who was a brilliant poet, the world would never know because she’d have been denied the same opportunities as her brother. Third, of course, I’m interested in The Smiths. I think this is a delightful Johnny Marr composition – it sounds just a bit like an American country music tune. It has that great driving guitar and piano. Next, it has a strange little dream-like bridge and I love when songs break into something strange and then resolve back into their groove. But wait! There’s more! I’m also interested in Tennessee Williams and the song’s lyrics are closely related to The Glass Menagerie. I can spend hours (or at least a dense fifteen minutes) breaking down the meaning of the song, but let’s just let that rest. It’s a great one.
17. William, It Was Really Nothing
1984 Stand-Alone Single
This might (might) be the second song on this list that is about Billy Mackenzie of the Associates (the other being The Cure’s “Cut Here” – #18). Billy certainly thought it was and The Associates’ released a response song titled “Stephen, You’re Really Something” (Stephen is Morrissey’s despised first name). Morrissey has stated that the lyrics are something of a pointed critique of marriage in general (this doesn’t rule out it being about Mackenzie). I didn’t know any of that up until this week – while I did recognize the song was about a love triangle and that Morrissey’s love interest in the song had taken up with a woman to conform to social pressure, I always thought the chorus was a big kiss off. Morrissey’s take is that the “it” in “it was really nothing” is marriage, not how he felt about the man in the narrative. I can get pretty wrapped up in writing about Morrissey’s lyrics and try to limit these paragraphs to about 300 words, but let me add that I really like Marr’s acoustic (?) guitar work on this one.
16. Sheila Take a Bow
1987 Stand Alone Single
Is this the most optimistic Smiths song? Maybe, maybe. This might make no sense to me, but this was The Smith’s biggest chart success in the UK. It reached #10. It seems to celebrate Sheila’s right to not always be happy but also encourages Sheila to go and find the person who will love her (and who she will love). It’s interesting to contrast this with Morrissey’s anti-marriage stance in “William, It Was Really Nothing,” but there’s a difference between finding love and getting married, I suppose. Or its possible he’s being ironic, though it doesn’t come across that way. Or he could be creating a sort of meta-ironic song that pokes typical love songs. WHAT ARE YOU DOING MORRISSEY? LIGHTEN UP! Anyhow, usually when Johnny Marr writes an upbeat tune, Morrissey juxtaposes some pretty dark lyrics against it so its nice that there’s a couple of Smiths tunes out there (this and “Ask” spring to mind) that are of an entirely more positive tone (though not entirely positive, of course).
15. I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish
From 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come, Second Single
On the one hand, I can never quite remember how this song goes. On the other hand, I can name that tune in one note – as soon as Marr’s guitar kicks in, I know this whole song – every lyric, guitar buzz and horn blast. And then its gone. This is the most glam song The Smiths ever recorded – Marr’s guitar work is gloriously thick and swampy. I love it so much. And then there’s that great “typical me typical me” repeat that Morrissey wrote and sings. This wasn’t a bigger hit than “Sheila Take a Bow?” The world is a strange place. The Smiths had announced that they’d broken up by the time this came out as a single – you’d think that would have juiced up some interest in 1987, but apparently UK music fans were too busy listening to Rick Astley and Starship.
14. The Queen Is Dead
From 1986’s The Queen is Dead, 2017 Single to promote 30th Anniversary Edition
This was just released as a single to promote a rerelease of The Queen is Dead. Serendipity! I was going to include this song on my list at the start of this entry of Smiths’ songs that were never released as singles. When I first heard the music for this, I was blown away. Marr created something remarkable here.
There’s a lot I could write about this song, but I want to simply point out that Morrissey rhymes “Spanner” with “Piano” (Piannnneeer) while making an old Vaudeville joke. How can you not love that?
13. Shoplifters of the World Unite
1987 Stand Alone Single
Do I really like this song this much? I thought I was going to rank it much lower. Every time I play it, I want to move it up another notch. I just can’t move it up anymore. I’ve tried, but there’s nothing I can bear to move down. This is another song that I used to despise (because I really despised it? Out of spite? Because I didn’t understand the lyrics?). It’s really pretty brilliant. You know, in our century – perhaps always in our society – we seem to value things over lives. Like when somebody is killed during a protest, a portion of the world reacts with “well, they probably did something to deserve it.” But God forbid if a shop window gets damaged – an even larger portion of the world seems to go mad. Human lives are less valuable than glass and if that glass is threatened? Better beat or kill some humans. Oh, or please don’t loot during a natural disaster if you’re starving – somebody will have to kill you. I’ve never shoplifted but I have read Les Miserable and recognize that we have a complicated history of valuing property over starving people. So, yeah, shoplifters of the world unite.
12. What Difference Does It Make?
From 1984’s The Smiths, First Single
The first single from the first Smiths album (though not their first single overall) comes across – in hindsight – as a mission statement. You got your fantastic Johnny Marr guitar riff, a great Morrissey lyric and vocal (that soaring falsetto at the end! I smack my fingers to him!) and a tight, aggressive performance from the whole band. Morrissey apparently doesn’t much care for this tune but, as I’ve written before, there’s no way to control how people are going to react to your songs when you release them into the wild. It seems likely that the lyrics are about coming out as gay to a friend (or, perhaps, telling your secret lover that you’re sick of being secret), though when I’ve heard it I’ve incorrectly thought it was about unrequited love – you know, it doesn’t make any difference how fond you are of somebody else if they don’t fancy you back.
11. Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
From 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come, “Fourth” Single
I love the “Who said I lied because I never” section of this song so much. In fact, I love this whole song so much. I’ve delayed finished this segment of my rankings because I so wanted to move this song into the top 10 but there’s not a single song that I can rank lower without wanting to move it into the top ten. The only way to get this into the top ten would be to change our numbering system to base 11 and insert a number before ten (let’s call it “nen,” which combines nine and ten). Were we to do that, this song could be number ten. Is that cheating? I mean, if we did that, I’d be ranking 27 Smiths songs because we’d have a nen and a nenteen. I’d need to invent a symbol for that new number. Base 11 might be the solution, plus that way I could avoid making the obvious “this top ten list goes to eleven” joke.
The song itself is an ironic comment on typical love songs – you’ve surely heard this sort of love song before. I love the part about how he loves you only slightly (only slightly) less than he used to.
Coming Soon: The top ten are the songs I just couldn’t bring myself to rank lower, so they’re all pretty amazing.