Next week sees Rhino’s much anticipated release of The Smiths‘ back catalogue, tantalisingly remastered by Johnny Marr and available in any number of combinations, including a lottery winner’s wet dream of a vinyl ‘n CD box set. Old Morrissey’s disowned them already, but what does he know? You really should start sweetening up your other half. Tell them they’ve lost weight, or that that new haircut really takes the years off or…..you get the idea…..if you want one of these babies, you’re gonna have to do a lot of grovelling.
In preparation for my much more recession-friendly purchase arriving (and the fact that Craig Gannon is dropping by any day now with his Six of the Best), The Smiths have been on something of a heavy rotation round here. While The Queen Is Dead usually steals the headlines in any ‘Best Smiths Albums‘ polls, most folk would put the smart money on that particular accolade going to Strangeways, Here We Come, the band’s swansong recorded in (and on) good spirits while Smithdom collapsed around all 4 members like a quiff in the rain.
John Peel said something at the start of The Smiths perfectly-formed lifespan akin to the fact that you couldn’t tell who The Smiths had been listening to. There were no obvious Velvet Underground/Beatles/Van der Graaf Generator influences, that The Smiths arrived fully formed with a sound of their own. This may have been true on their first couple of records, but by the time they’d hit their stride, any number of influences were creeping in. Terrific as it is, you need only listen to the first 30 glam-stomping seconds of Panic back-to-back with T Rex‘s Metal Guru to recognise the chord progression, slide guitar and general hysterical rush to appreciate what Morrissey and Marr were listening to that particular day. (The ‘Hang The DJ‘ refrain came about after Steve Wright In The Afternoon, In The Afternoon! played Wham’s I’m Your Man straight after the news broke about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But I digress…)
“There’s so much buried in the past to steal from, one’s resources are limitless.” (Morrissey, interviewed in The Face, 1984).
By the time of Strangeways…., The Smiths’ influences had become much subtler. Johnny wanted to write a classic album in the vein of The Beatles’ The Beatles (“The White Album” dontchaknow), an album that was instantly recognisable as being by The Beatles, yet not in an obvious way. While Lennon, McCartney and especially Harrison broke free from what they felt were the constraints of Beatledom via a combination of pastoral fingerpickings and essentially solo recordings, Johnny Marr took the much more daring (and ultimately more rewarding) route of composing songs on instruments other than guitar. Across the album you’ll find autoharp, saxophone, traces of synthesized strings and that most anti of Smiths instruments, the drum machine. Listen closely and you’ll spot them all. Opening track A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours is a terrific piano-led stomper, augmented by vibesy percussion and the sort of arrangement that would have Chas Smash doing the nutty dance at the drop of a pork pie hat. And not a guitar in sight! Which brings us to Reparata & The Delrons 1975 obscurity ‘Shoes‘, which sounds like the sort of bazouki-led Greek goose-step that would’ve been foisted upon us during an era when Eurovision still meant something. All staccato rhythms and slightly stilted foreign accents, it was a huge favourite of Morrissey’s and Marr’s during the recording of Strangeways. Not surprising really once you’ve played it back-to-back with that jaunty opening track…….
And another thing…
To be fair, Johnny makes no secret of his love for Metal Guru, including it on his Dansette Delights compilation here.
Man, The Smiths were just about perfect, eh?