Rusholme Ruffians is The Smiths at their sticky-fingered peak. From the alliteratively-alluring Ealing comedyesque title down, it’s a masterclass in Morrissey’s stolen kitchen sink observations backed by a Johnny Marr riff flat-out filched from Scotty Moore via Elvis Presley’s (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame 1961 single.
By the time they came to record Rusholme Ruffians for second album Meat Is Murder, The Smiths were at the top of their game. As was usually the way, Johnny would present the band with a cassette demo. The musicians would go off and shape Marr’s ideas into a band performance while Morrissey would twist and turn what lyrics he had into the new tune, writing and re-writing as he went along until, between band and bard, they had the genesis of a song. “Let’s do a song about the fair,” suggested Morrissey. “For some reason my association was to pull out that Elvis riff,” explained Marr.
His appropriation of the riff as a frantically scrubbed rockabilly knee-trembler alongside Mike Joyce’s rattlin’ and rollin’ percussion is in stark contrast to Andy Rourke’s slap happy elastic band of a bassline. Played at half the speed, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any mid-period Sly and the Family Stone record. Played as it was, it gives the tune that certain je ne sais quoi; the essential ingredient that turned an average Elvis pastiche into an undeniable Smiths’ tune. To use what is surely by now a cliche, Andy Rourke really was the unsung musical hero in The Smiths. And by the time the vocal went on top, well, an undeniable Smiths’ tune had become an undeniable Smiths’ classic.
“As a child I was literally educated at fairgrounds. It was a place of tremendous violence and hate and stress and high romance and all the true vital things in life. It was really the patch of ground where you learned about everything simultaneously whether you wanted to or not.”
The lyrics that poured out of Morrissey for Rusholme Ruffians are pure 24 carat gold. Every line features classic Morrisseyism after classic Morrisseyism; perfectly executed observations on what happens when the fair comes to town;
The last night of the fair, by the big wheel generator…a boy is stabbed and his money is grabbed and the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine…she is famous, she is funny…..an engagement ring doesn’t mean a thing to a mind consumed by brass (money)….and though I walk home alone…..I might walk home alone ….but my faith in love is still devout…..From a seat on a whirling waltzer …her skirt ascends for a watching eye …it’s a hideous trait on her mother’s side…someone falls in love, someone’s beaten up…..the grease in the hair of the speedway operator is all a tremulous heart requires…how quickly would I die if I jumped from the top of the parachutes….scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen, this means you really love me….
Classic Morrisseyism after classic Morrisseyism.
Or are they?
Morrissey was, and remains, a fan of slightly posh, slightly batty northern comedienne Victoria Wood. Her dry ruminations and reflections clearly struck a chord with him, mirroring as they did his own skewed and melodramatic views on life and living. Sonically, she’s about as far removed from The Smiths as Take That are from the MC5, but her skits and sketches have proven a rich seam for mining lyrics and snippets that pop up across many Smiths recordings – ‘ten ton truck‘, ‘singing to the mentally ill‘, ‘not natural, normal or kind‘, the list goes on….
Wood’s 1983 concert album Lucky Bag was a big favourite of Morrissey’s. On the LP was a track called Fourteen Again. A track featuring a spoken-word intro, including a line proclaiming “they didn’t even know what drugs were” that the eagle-eared amongst you will recognise from the title track of The Queen Is Dead, Fourteen Again includes such lyrics as;
I want to be fourteen again, tattoo my self with a fountain pen….free rides on the waltzer off the fairground men for a promise of a snog….. the last night of the fair…..French kissing as the kiosks shut…..behind the generators with your coconut…..the coloured lights reflected in the Brylcream on his hair…..when I was funny, I was famous…
OK, so he didn’t steal them all, and he came up with some genuine crackers of his own – tremulous hearts and minds consumed by brass (money) and jumping from the tops of parachutes (the ‘skirt ascends‘ line is my favourite) but old Morrissey certainly utilised his love of Victoria Wood to full extent, that much is clear. And just in case you still aren’t convinced, the ‘my faith in love is still devout‘ line was taken from another Wood song, Funny How Things Turn Out, where she proclaims ‘my faith in myself is still devout’.
Hear for yourself:
Elvis Presley – (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame
Victoria Wood – Fourteen Again
Victoria Wood – Funny How Things Turn Out
The Smiths – Rusholme Ruffians (demo, first take recorded with John Porter July 1984)
The Smiths – Rusholme Ruffians (Peel Session 9th August, 1984)
The Smiths – Rusholme Ruffians (Meat Is Murder LP version, February 1985)
…and, acknowledging their debt to The King….The Smiths – His Latest Flame/Rusholme Ruffians (Rank LP version, recorded October 1986)
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