So next to the question “What is the Smithiest song that the Smiths ever Smithed,” I’m sure your major question is “will you be ranking Morrissey’s solo work?” Yes, I will be eventually but he’s not on my “ready to roll” list (check out the “What other bands will fall victim to this fel project” list here). I’ve only sort of followed Morrissey’s career since the bulk of it fell during a period of time that I think of as my “music dark ages” (from around 1994, when I stopped being a DJ at KTUH, to around 2000ish when the Internet started to become a really effective way of finding new music).
I’ve sort of held off finishing this list so I could have an excuse to wait a little longer before moving on from The Smiths, but its time to finish this.
10. Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
From 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come, Third Single
I’m not sure how, but I completely missed this song until the last decade (when I picked up The Smiths’ Singles collection). Part of the process of making these lists is that I take an initial stab at ordering the songs in a playlist but I put all the songs I don’t think I’m ready to rank at the beginning of the playlist. That way, I have to listen to all of them before I move on to resorting the songs I’m already familiar with. This was the only song I placed at the start of the list for this purpose. It has a really “Smithy” title but it’s absolutely gorgeous. The way that intro resolves into the lush opening of the song-proper (which, to be fair, didn’t happen on the 45rpm single of this song)? And Morrissey’s heart-felt singing? It’s really genuinely lovely. I could listen to thirty minutes of this song and always feel a little cheated that its not even longer. It is 5 minutes long but it’s too short at that length. Please enjoy Eurythmics’ version of this song.
9. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
From 1985’s Meat is Murder, Second (First) Single
So, “Barbarism Begins at Home” is technically the first single from Meat is Murder, but it wasn’t released in the UK, so “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” is usually regarding as the first and only single from that album.
Mel Brooks famously said “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” To whit, what we find funny can be based on our perspective. The lyrics of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” are built around the singer’s realization that something he found funny when it happened to somebody else isn’t funny when it’s happening to him. Specifically, he’s singing about feeling lonely and suicidal.
Unsolicited brief comedy treatise: In comedy, we often talk about “punching up” vs “punching down.” “Punching down” is when your comedy targets people who are in a weaker position than you and “punching up” is (as you’ve likely surmised) targeting people more powerful than yourself. In general, “punching up” is encouraged and “punching down” is discouraged. I’m a middle class cis-gendered straight white man and the only group I am in any position to punch at all are wealthier-than-me cis-gendered straight white men. I know there are other people with similar identities to mine who resent that they can’t punch more people for laughs. You know what, though? There’s like a million billion other things to do to create comedy that doesn’t involve punching anybody (many of us like to make comedy about ourselves and our limited MS Paint abilities for example). Anyhow, the thing is, as you become a more empathetic person, you realize that you don’t want to be that jerk on stage making people feel bad (or, worse, making people feel bad while they pretend to laugh about it so they seem like good sports). Certain jokes cease to be funny when you recognize some weaker-position people are being laughed at.
Of course, empathy seems to be going out of style as a thing right now which suggests that more people are going to keep laughing at what’s happening in other people’s lives until it happens in their life. Listen to more Smiths, humanity, and stop acting like jerks to each other. Or listen to the religious figures that preached variations on “do unto others.” The Smiths have better singles, though.
8. This Charming Man
1983 Stand-Alone Single
This was the first Smiths song I ever heard and is a front-runner for “happiest Smiths song,” though I think “Sheila Take A Bow” (16) ultimately owns that title. I have only just discovered while working on this list that this charming song is about a man with a broken bicycle being rescued by a dashing motorist and then engaging in some literate flirting. I honestly have no idea how I missed that or what I’ve thought this song was about all of these years. I was 15 when I first heard this song and think it fell into the “it has a good beat and you can dance to it” category that many songs do when you’re a teenager. Or perhaps I was so homophobic at 15 that I missed what was obvious about this song in the same way that I missed that the Village People were gay – like my cognitive dissonance so powerful that I couldn’t accept that a song I really liked could possibly be about something that I was prejudiced against. That all said, even when I was vocal about disliking The Smiths, this was one of their songs that I was willing to admit I liked anyways. I’m 49 now and I like it even more that I understand the lyrics.
7. Hand in Glove
1983 Stand-Alone Single
In 1983 on WXCI (my local college radio station when I was living in Newtown, CT), I remember hearing “This Charming Man” constantly. I don’t recall hearing “Hand in Glove” at all. I must have heard it at some point in my life because when I picked up The Smiths’ Singles, I knew this song instantly. Perhaps it got played all the time and everywhere and it just faded to the back of my mind. This was The Smiths’ first ever single and thought it was not a huge hit on the UK Pop Chart, it was an enormous indy hit. This is important – The Smiths are regarding in the UK as being one of the most successful independent acts ever. Marr and Morrissey (and Rourke and Joyce) were making the music they wanted the way they wanted pretty much from the start. Musicians aren’t always afforded that luxury. “Hand in Glove” is one of the loneliest pop songs ever – it’s essentially about doomed love – a frequent theme of Morrissey’s lyrics to be sure, but this was the first recorded Smiths song to address that theme and holds up as one of the best.
1986 Stand-Alone Single
Man, context is everything. I was a college DJ when this song came out and immediately got that this song was meant to be about the shallowness of most popular music. When I heard that people thought the song was racist, I was shocked and denied that it could be. You know, though, context is everything. The language choices – hanging the DJ and burning down the disco – do suggest that Morrissey was at least obtuse regarding how people would perceive this song when it was released into the wild. I mean, I was (and often continue to be) obtuse. Morrissey, according to the Wikipedia article I linked just now, defended this song by claiming that “reggae… ‘most racist music in the entire world.'” He and Marr belligerently kept digging a hole for themselves as they tried to demonstrate that neither the song nor they were racist. Sometimes, it’s better to say nothing and sometimes, well, bigmouth strikes again. That all said, if I invoke my magic powers of white privilege to erase everything they said about the song and everything the lyrics imply (accidentally or otherwise) and if I hear it the way I originally did, I still love it because I dig a good, catchy take down of the shallowness of popular music.
This song also marked the debut of Craig Gannon, a short-term “fifth Smith.” Before joining The Smiths, he was a member of a group called The Bluebells. I mention this as an excuse to link my favorite song by that band, “I’m Falling.”
5. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
1984 Stand-Alone Single
During my “I hate The Smiths” phase, I wrote a sort of pastiche parody of The Smiths that was partially inspired by this song titled “Heaven Knows I’m Very Rich Now” that featured the following rhyme:
I’ve got some moooney
To buy aaaaa cemetry.
I know that doesn’t rhyme very we-ell, oh no, oh no
There was more and I might even have a recording of myself singing it a capella somewhere. The early 80’s were a cynical time and I had a hard time processing Morrissey’s earnestness. As a result, when he sang about being miserable or lonely or depressed I (an often miserable, lonely and depressed person) felt uncomfortable and even hostile. I think recognizing that I do have depression went a long way to making me hear this song in particular (and Morrissey’s work in general) in a different light. Almost the opposite of a joke you used to find funny not being funny when it’s about you, I realized that I was rejecting some of The Smiths’ songs because they spoke to my depression and I didn’t want to acknowledge that. I just thought everyone felt miserable all the time and we just had to suck it up.
Anyhow, great song.
4. Bigmouth Strikes Again
From 1986’s The Queen is Dead, First (Second) Single
In some ways, my friend Asaf Ronen ruined (improved?) this song for me by lip-synching the little high-pitched parts of this song like a muppet. I can’t listen to this song without seeing him wide-eyed and smiling, mouthing the word “Bigmouth” with a crazed glee. For years, I believed Morrissey was comparing himself ironically to Joan of Arc in a mock self-aggrandizing way that was meant to suggest he surely wasn’t suffering the way that she did. The commentators at Genius suggest that he is earnestly comparing himself to Joan of Arc because she was an inspired truth-teller. Hmm.
Morrissey has said his share of controversial things in his life and doesn’t seem to particularly care if people like him or not. He’s also been exceptionally generous with his fans and his support of causes that are important to him. In brief, humans are complicated.
1986 Stand-Alone Single
Newish band member Greg Gannon sued Marr and Morrissey and won over the composition of this song – Gannon was responsible for the main guitar line. He was paid a settlement but I don’t see any further acknowledgement that he wrote part of the song. I guess asking for a writing credit is one thing Morrissey and Marr could say no to. After the band broke up, there was a great deal of acrimony over royalties for the songs. There was a 40/40/10/10 split between Marr, Morrissey, Rourke and Joyce. Rourke and Joyce ultimately sued over this and they won as well. Asking for a Smiths reunion is likely something that would receive the answer “no” as well. Love didn’t keep them together, but litigation brought them back to the same room several times.
In the 80’s, it wasn’t unusual for song to reference nuclear annihilation because we were all pretty terrified of that (unlike now when there seems to be a growing number of people who think it’s maybe something worth trying). You’ll note that if it’s not love, then its the bomb that will bring us together.
The funny thing is, I love this song to death but all I’ve written here sounds like critique. No, this is a great song. Absolutely top-notch. I love it – especially the little shuffle thing that happens on the choruses. It’s just so good.
2. How Soon Is Now?
1985 Stand-Alone Single (Later added to Meat is Murder in the US)
I’ve loved this song from the moment I heard it and will love it for my whole life. I loved Soho’s “Hippy Chick” because it sampled this song brilliantly. The process the band went through developing this track is described in detail at Wikipedia and is worth reading if you’re interested in that sort of thing (I am). The lyrics have likewise been broken down and analyzed by far brighter minds than mine. I have no one special event or moment that I associate with the song – just a general feeling that this song sprung into existence and into my life-like a bolt from Zeus (or, perhaps, more like a spear from Athena) and described something I think we’ve all felt. Will we ever be loved? By anyone? If so, when? How long do we have to wait? That tremolo riff that opens the song and underpins it (and eventually gets sampled by Soho) is the sound of that longing. During the song, it never resolves just like it feels like longing for love will never resolve. It’s just the most brilliant thing and if it doesn’t sound like any other Smiths song, well, I’m not sure that any other song sounds like this one. It’s practically a genre unto itself.
1. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
From 1986’s The Queen is Dead, Released as a Single in 1992
This, my friends, is the Smithiest Smiths song. Longing for a romantic relationship but too shy to do something about it? Check. Description of the death as a potential gateway to happiness? Check. Incredibly catchy and moving composition and performance? Check. This is the greatest Smiths song that sounds like The Smiths and it wasn’t a single in 1986 because Johnny Marr was stubborn (and presumably because they had a bunch of great songs on The Queen is Dead). It managed to be a top 30 single in 1992 despite the fact that everyone who loves The Smiths already owned a copy of this song. I despised this song in 1986 for the same reason I disliked “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (the “suicide by double-decker bus” thing irked me to no end) but as I’ve gotten older, I hear the romance, the loneliness and the desperate need in this story of two car-crossed lovers. Johnny Marr said “when we first played it I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard.” This would be on my short list for “the best song I ever heard” too. If I could leap back in time Quantum Leap-style into my own teenage self with the intent of stealing songs from my future and recording the greatest album ever, I’d totally steal this one.
Next Up: Fiona Apple