A Taste Of Honey was written by playwright Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19. Set in Salford in the mid 50s, it tells the story of a 17 year-old girl, Jo, and her mum, Helen – ‘a semi-whore‘ – who leaves her daughter to go and live with a younger, richer man. Jo begins a short-lived relationship with a black sailor. She gets pregnant but he is sent to sea, oblivious to the situation he has created. The girl takes in a lodger to help pay the way. The lodger, a gay man, cares for her and looks after her – “you’re just like a big sister to me!” – and promises to be there for her at the birth of the child, until Helen storms back into Jo’s life and he is forced to take a step back.
As openers go, it doesn’t get much more scene-setting than that. The whole play is a brilliantly-written kitchen sink drama that zings along with unpretentious Northern honesty and questions class, single-parenthood, ethnicity, misogyny and sexuality. Choosing not to sweep the irregularities and complexities of life under the carpet, but to highlight that such things are in fact normal, I can only imagine that for the times it was fairly groundbreaking.
Born in Salford in the 50s, Morrissey was naturally drawn to the writings of Shelagh Delaney.
‘You told me not to trust men calling themselves Smith,’ says Jo to Helen at one point in A Taste Of Honey, and, like a flying bullet, the words leap of the page.
Seed planted firmly under the quiff, when the time came to name their band, the singer presented the group with the perfect, Delaney-influenced moniker. In an era of forward-thinking acts with multisyllabic names and the latest in musical equipment, The Smiths had defiantly set out their stall.
Morrissey would use Delaney’s image on a couple of Smiths sleeves – that’s her on the Louder Than Bombs compilation and the cover of the Girlfriend In A Coma single – and in reshaped form in the title of Sheila Take A Bow – and in the early days, the moping magpie wasn’t shy of stealing a line or two (or more) to help flesh out the narrative in his songs.
Reel Around The Fountain‘s “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice,” for example is taken straight from A Taste Of Honey. And the phrase ‘Marry Me!‘ – scrawled on Morrissey’s skinny torso and revealed in heart crushing fashion midway through a Top Of The Pops performance for William It Was Really Nothing is a recurring phrase in the play.
Then there are key lines such as ‘six months is a long time,’ ‘I’ll probably never see you again,’ ‘I’m not happy and I’m not sad‘ and ‘the dream has gone but the baby’s real‘ – the line around which he based the entire plot for The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes.
A Taste Of Honey, it’s fair to say, provided a rich seam of lyrical plunder for Steven Patrick.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Peel Session, Sept 83)
‘In a river the colour of lead‘, it goes, again a straight steal from A Taste Of Honey, ‘immerse the baby’s head.’ (also a reference to a line near the end of the play.) Hot on the heels of the Suffer Little Children/Moors Murderers scandal, this line caused many a management bristle when it was first heard. ‘Wrap her up in a News of The World, dump her on a doorstep, girl.’
The song is basically A Taste of Honey set to the perfect musical acccompaniment; downbeat, introspective, black and white in epoch yet technicolour in ambition. It features a prime slice of brooding, counter-melody Andy Rourke bass. Johnny’s dual lead and rhythm guitar playing is soulful and considered, mercurial and slinky yet choppy and jazzy, a zillion miles away from what most other 20-year old guitar players with a Stooges fascination might conjure up. It’s a great example of the early Smiths in action.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Hacienda, 24.11.83)
This Night Has Opened My Eyes is a bit of a mongrel within The Smiths small but perfect, imperial catalogue. An early staple of live shows, its melancholic and delicate undertones were considered a bit too fragile for the debut album. It was first magnetised to tape at the band’s second Peel Session in September 1983, just a month or two after the aborted Troy Tate sessions that largely failed in capturing The Smiths electrifying live sound.
A year later, just as the group was recording another version with John Porter, the Peel Session version appeared on Hatful Of Hollow. It remains the only recorded version of the track to be officially released.
Quickly dropped from live shows as setlists changed to keep up with the rapid, prodigious writing talents of the prinicpal Smiths, This Night Has Opened My Eyes wasn’t played live again until, serendipitously, at The Smiths final show in 1986 – “There was a sense of resolve and closure,” relates Johnny Marr, “which is why we played that song that night. I remember when we made the decision to do ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ feeling a strong sense of awareness of our own history.”
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Brixton, 12.12.86)
Had they been happy with the John Porter-produced version – faster, sparkling with effervescence and slighty jauntier than the Peel Session take from the year previously (although that may just be pitch issues with the bootleg tape from whence this version was borne), it remains to be seen where This Night Has Opened My Eyes would’ve fitted into The Smiths discography.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (John Porter, June 1984)
Certainly, it wouldn’t have been out of place on the debut album at all, but the next 12 months were ridiculously productive. With classic singles being frisbeed out on an almost bi-monthly basis, by the time of Meat Is Murder, Morrissey and Marr had proven themselves to be in a unique world of their own.
Perhaps, like so many of the best Smiths tracks, it would’ve been the ideal stand alone single. Maybe released between the feral and stinging What Difference Does It Make and the stellar Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, a soulful interlude amongst a peerless run of releases.
It remains though a curio that has aged well through lack of over-familiarity. Whatever, I wonder, became of the young, handsome, literate, funny, unique, quirky, lovable and worshipped Morrissey? The dream has gone but the baby’s real, you might say.
David Gedge introduced The Wedding Present’s breakneck run-through of Orange Juice‘s Felicity with those words, delivered in a perfectly-sighing, world-weary Yorkshire brogue. I first heard TWP version on Tommy, the album released in the wake of George Best‘s success, a stop-gap of odds and sods and radio sessions – Felicity came from a Peel Show – that would keep the growing fanbase happy and dipping into their pockets until the second album proper was ready. For reference, think Hatful Of Hollow at a hundred miles an hour. “William Shatner?” I pondered. “What on earth does Star Trek have to do with The Wedding Present?”
Well, nothing, as was plainly obvious to everyone but me. Shatner’s Captain James T Kirk was the lead character in Star Trek. James Kirk also happened to be the name of the lead guitar player in the definitive line-up of Orange Juice. It was quite the epiphany when I joined the dots on that one. “Aaah,” I mused, safe in the glow of triangulation. It’s the simple things that matter.
It must’ve been great to have been in Orange Juice in 1981 and 1982. Just a hop and a step on from punk, these leaders of a brave new open-minded world channelled the sublime- Velvets/Buzzcocks/Chic with the ridiculous – Davy Crockett hats/Boy Scout shorts/open-toed sandals and white socks with no fear of ridicule. Bands these days, with their marketing strategies and social media channels and Spotify demographics might take all of this for granted, but believe me, Lewis Capaldi and Foals and Blossoms, it wasn’t always thus. Orange Juice had the reference points and the in-jokes and the fantastic haircuts. The world was theirs for the taking. By the time of You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, they’d outgrown Postcard Records but hadn’t yet fiddled around with the magic ingredients in their sound, so that first album rattled and rolled majestically. The cover of Al Greeen’s L.O.V.E.…Edwyn’s incredibly tender In A Nutshell…the Motown by way of Mount Florida Falling & Laughing…. it really was the sound of young Scotland.
Orange Juice – Felicity
Felicity made itself known towards the end of side 2. The key word for it is collapse. From the wobbly woah-woahs onwards, it’s never more than a beat away from potential disaster. The guitars, brilliantly-shimmering and sparkling are forever a half-trip and stumble from being an unlistenable out of tune mess. The timing is slightly off, the game backing vocals admirable, the frothy enthusiasm of the four players clear for all to see, but when they clatter their way into the galloping key change near the end, it’s the four to the floor disco beat that keeps it all together, striving to maintain the semblance of musicality that helps Felicity come to a still-standing stop.
Look closely and you’ll see Edwyn’s magnificent, blow-dried quiff teeter on the verge of limp collapse, wrung out and hung out to dry. Look closer still (around the 2:15) mark) and you might even spot David Gedge forming yer actual Wedding Present. And who could blame him?
And then listen again. Really listen! Listen to the slo-mo piano line at the start. Zoom in on that bouncing bass line. Pay attention to those well thought-out guitar lines. The tremelo! The triple-string riffing! The referee’s whistle that was so de-rigeur in early 80s New York dance records! Even in a light years-away Glasgow tenement, Orange Juice clearly had a collective finger on the pulse. Then there’s Edwyn’s joyous James Brown cop near the end. “Take me to the bridge now!” he shouts with dizzy abandon. It’s a proper jangling racket, Felicity. The sound of happiness, as Collins sings, but also the sound of fishermen’s stripy t-shirts and pleated waists and eyebrows forever-arched; feisty and fey, young punkish enthuisasm bottled forever. Sexy, as Gedge remarks at the end of his band’s version. Sexy.
So the big milestone birthday came and went in a week of extended celebrations, Indian food, mislabelled birthday cupcakes and enforced fun with the family who found themselves gathered in the living room last Saturday night with no chance of escape until they’d participated in argumentative games of Family Fortunes and something called ‘Shout Out’, a rapid-fire general knowledge game that, we all agreed, had all the makings of a prime time Danny Dyer-fronted quiz show. “Shaaaaat Aaaaaht!”
My sister Shona and her husband Terry pulled out all the stops on the presents front. The week previously, Shona had been at the run of 3 Billy Bragg shows in Glasgow and hung around afterwards to grab a photo opportunity and a quick chat with old Bill. In one photo he was wearing a customised Smiths t-shirt, replete with the logo ‘Morrissey Sucks‘. It’s a cracker of course, reflecting the fact that these days Steven Patrick very much does indeed suck, not only for his increasingly watered-down records and hideous parallel jeans, but mainly for his questionable and indefensible political views.
After a bit of persuading, yer actual Billy Bragg offered to email Shona the digital artwork for what was a one-off t-shirt and so it came to be that I now have my own Billy-fashioned Morrissey Sucks t-shirt, only the second of its kind in the world. I’m very much looking forward to sporting it wherever it might get under the skin of the most vocal of Morrissey apologists.
Perhaps even better than this – actually, definitely better than this – was the book Shona had published. Going back to the beginning of Plain Or Pan, she very methodically picked out the highlights from almost 13 years of writing and had them complied into a coffee table-sized hardback book – definitely the only one of its kind in the world; coloured pages, the odd collage of pictures, but mainly the best of the writing about outdated music for outdated people, ordered non-chronologically, with sections on some of the more-regularly featured bands – there’s plenty on Teenage Fanclub, The Smiths, The Trashcan Sinatras, a decent selection of Six Of The Bests (an almost extinct feature these days, given how difficult it now appears to be to hook in a second division pop star and have them yap away about their favourite records) and more than a few forgotten-about articles that have aged pretty well.
Of course, there are a handful pieces that cause me to wince slightly when I re-read them a decade on from when they were first fired off and out into the ether, and there are maybe 2? 3 at most articles (OK, there are another 16 articles!) that I’d have looked to include had I done this myself, but over all its an absolutely fantastic thing – a really brilliant present – and it’s extremely impressive to see your own work in such tangible form as this.
Best present ever? Aye, it’s certainly right up there.
Echo & The Bunnymen – Read It In Books (Peel Session, 22.8.79)
Dead Beat Descendant by The Fall was the first track of theirs that really piqued my interest. Until then, I’d pegged Mark E Smith’s rattling racket as irritating and annoying, the atonal sound of Regal-stained fingers slowly scraping their way down a blackboard. When it popped up in the middle of an episode of Snub TV, Dead Beat Descendant had me hooked.
It wasn’t just the stinging garage band guitar riff, played on a Rickenbacker by a sulky, peroxide shock-wigged Brix that pulled me in, or the gnarly, relentless and repetitive Stray Cats meets Stooges bass, or the occasional daft parp of a one-fingered keyboard, or the metronomic tribal tub thumping that held the whole thing in place that got me – it was the group’s leader that grabbed me by the short ‘n curlies and demanded my attention. That, and the ballet dancer. I’d heard The Fall, but I’d never seen The Fall. And that was apparently important.
Smith is hunched over his microphone and ready to spring, the German army-issued leather greatcoat he’s wearing letting all present know who’s in charge. “Come back here!” he demands with barely under the surface menace. The omnipresent smouldering fag, more ash than cigarette, is lodged at a downwards 30 degree angle between his fingers as he delivers the vocal, a lip-curled sneer the equal of a Mancunian Gene Vincent. Between lines he delivers terrific little off-beat Supreme handclaps and chews on an invisible glob of gum whilst staring his musicians down, lest they consider veering from his well-chosen path. Maybe that’s where the “Come back here!” line comes from. The band, as slick as the gears in a Victorian workhouse, are in tune with their leader and dutifully do what’s demanded of them.
Well, stone me! It turns out there was no German army greatcoat after all. Or a shock-wigged Brix. Or long-burning Regal King-Sized ‘tween the digits. It’s funny how your 30 year-old version of events turns fiction into reality. And it’s funny how, as it turns out, it’s the music that endures rather than the vision. Those hand claps, though… And the told-you-so smug grin on Mark’s face at the end. They were real.
It’s a great clip mind you. The ballet dancer (the awkward piece of the Mark/Brix split jigsaw, if you believe what you read online) pirouettes obliviously around the studio in the middle of the racket, in practise for her stint on stage with The Fall as they prepare to provide the musical backdrop to Michael Clark’s I Am Curious, Orange ballet at the Edinburgh Festival.
A weird pairing, it’s certainly something that’d have been worth seeing, with Brix sitting cross-legged atop a giant hamburger while Mark prowls betwixt and between the ballet dancers, spitting venom about King Billy and barking out Cab It Up and Wrong Place, Right Time amongst others. I Am Kurious Oranj isn’t the top of the list of critics’ favourite Fall albums, but it’s right up there alongside Extricate on mine.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Mike Joyce is best-known for his time as the drummer in The Smiths. In six short years he provided the uncluttered back beat upon which Johnny Marr’s ringing melodies rang and Morrissey’s unique vocals hiccuped and hollered and swooped and swooned. Between 1982 and 1987 he was part of The Only Band That Mattered, helping to produce a perfect discography that, in this house at least, has been pored over, scrutinised and played back-to-front, upside down and inside-out. I know all The Smiths’ stuff to trainspotter levels of obsession. And I’m far from alone.
Mike’s old band are possibly even more revered nowadays than they were during that brief spell 30 or so years ago. They burned briefly but brightly, blazing a trail for ‘indie’ music and all that followed in its wake. Other bands may have had bigger chart success, or benefited from being on a major label, or had the suss and swagger to look to the future and plan a long-term career, but by the time The Smiths had bowed out with Strangeways, Here We Come, the musical world as I and many others knew it had changed for ever. That they’re still a ‘thing’, that people still walk around in Smiths t-shirts, that RIGHT NOW you could walk into a supermarket and pick up a copy of The Queen Is Dead is testament to their legacy. They’re still, for a growing gang of disciples, The Only Band That Mattered.
Along with Andy Rourke, Mike created a rhythm section that gave Johnny and Morrissey the space to shine. There’s not one Smiths’ recording where Mike succumbs to any scattergun windmilling Moonisms. He has his moments – there’s the metallic clatter of ‘What She Said’, of course, and there’s a particularly frantic take of ‘London‘ from a Peel Session that can be found online fairly easily, and on the Rank live album, Mike’s drums add a mighty muscle to a band at their peak of live performance. On This Charming Man, Mike and Andy provided a four-to-the-floor Motown backbeat upon which Johnny’s sparkling guitars dazzle, and on some of the early Smiths recordings, Mike’s technical shortcomings are made up for in sheer punk-like enthusiastic energy. Mainly though, Mike’s playing was sympathetic, understated and the perfect framework for his twin foils out front. He was exactly the sort of drummer The Smiths needed. “If Elvis had had Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke in his band,” Johnny Marr once claimed, “he would have been an even bigger name.”
Like all great bands, in the intervening years there’s been a well-publicised and damaging court case, guest appearances on his former singer’s solo material and a smattering of live performance with his old sparring partner on the bass guitar. Since then, Mike’s played, recorded and toured with a fantastic selection of bands and artists; Sinead O’Connor, Buzzcocks, Julian Cope, Public Image Ltd, PP Arnold and Pete Wylie to name but a few. If I stuck my iPod on shuffle there’s a good chance it would throw up a Mike-related track.
Mike’s also carved out a career for himself as a DJ for hire, either as a stand-in on BBC 6 Music whenever a regular presenter goes on holiday, or on his East Village internet radio show, or in his monthly residency in The Drawing Room in the Didsbury area of Manchester. On March 4th, he’ll be spinning the wheels of steel at The Record Factory on Glasgow’s Byres Road as part of a night that features up-and-coming new bands. If you’re local you should probably go.
It is The Smiths though that everyone really wants to know about. Mike knows it too, and it’s clear after just 20 seconds of conversation with him that Mike is the biggest Smiths fan of all. You can see that in many of the promo shots taken at the time – Mike is rarely snapped without wearing some Smiths t-shirt or other. He talks passionately and fondly about the music, referring to everything the band did as ‘we‘ rather than ‘I‘ . He’s no different to any other Smiths obsessive the world over, except for the four words that appear on the back of every single Smiths record. Mike Joyce – The Drums. It’s undeniable. He was the drummer in The Smiths, The Only Band That Mattered.
I asked Mike about his time in The Smiths and we focused on the six tracks he’s most proud of having played on. Potentially, a Sophie’s Choice Six Of The Best, but here we are…
Right. I’ve given this serious thought and, y’know, it’s an absolutely ridiculous task. I have 3 kids….it’s like asking me to pick my favourite one. I just can’t narrow it down to six. Can I have seven instead?
I’m gonna do this in reverse order. Drum roll, please!
At 6, it’s I Don’t Owe You Anything. I remember playing this at one of our really early gigs, 1983 in Dingwalls. It was a sweltering hot summer’s night. As we played it I began to cry. This had never happened before, or since, but something in Johnny’s playing and Morrissey’s singing- it just sounded so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘Everything’s coming together.’
The Smiths – I Don’t Owe You Anything
Before The Smiths I’d been into punk; The Pistols, Angelic Upstarts, Generation X, early Adam & the Ants, Buzzcocks, of course, so to be playing a song like this or ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ took me right out of my comfort zone. Up until then I had three speeds I played at – fast, faster and fastest, so on this song I learned to really properly play. It was great watching people’s reactions to it. It wasn’t normal for a band like us to play music like this. At gigs, people would clap after songs, sometimes because they were obliged to, or just out of courtesy, but that night in Dingwalls, for the first time people were saying ‘What. The. Fuck. Is. This. ?’
At 5. Death Of A Disco Dancer. The ‘Strangeways’ album was our Sgt Pepper, written in the studio and jam-inspired. When we first played ‘…Disco Dancer’ as a group, it got heavier and heavier. (At this point, not for the last time during our conversation, Mike ‘sings’ the outro down the phone to me.) There was a great spontaneity and communication between us that only comes from playing together. It’s all on ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’.
The Smiths – Death Of A Disco Dancer
4. I Know It’s Over. It was unusual for Morrissey to show us any lyrics beforehand. When we heard Smiths’ tracks being played back in the studio, we usually heard them just as you would have heard them for the first time. Morrissey’s vocal performance on I Know It’s Over is perfect. An emotional delivery, he really bared his soul on it.
The Smiths – I Know It’s Over
As a lot of singers prefer, the lights were turned off when it came time to record Morrissey’s vocals. When he was finished, Morrissey came back into the control room. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. There were lots of tears, big swallows, “I’ll be alright in a minute!” kinda stuff. Then lots of hugging. We were our own biggest fans. To create a track like this out of thin air, there’s nothing better. Being in that control room when Morrissey laid down his vocal was like, I dunno, being in the control room when Elvis did his vocals. Seriously! It was that big!
At 3, it has to be Meat Is Murder. As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian. Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it.
The Smiths – Meat Is Murder
I really appreciated his conviction with this song. Its emotive. Sincere. Incisive. There’s a moral responsibility for anyone in the public eye to stand up and say it like it is, but it doesn’t happen very often. Meat Is Murder is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.
Next up, How Soon Is Now?
(increduously) Because……….?!? Just fucking listen to it!!
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?
It’s got such a distinct style. I mean, what style even is it? Listen to any band – UB40 or Jamiroquai or Spandau Ballet or Anti Nowhere League or The Exploited. They all have a sound. They rarely vary from it. They might stick a slow one on the album or whatever, but it’s still their sound that you’ll hear.
When we recorded ‘How Soon Is Now?’ we’d had a few spliffs. We took the bulbs out of the lights and replaced them with red ones. It felt like a darkroom. It felt trippy. It felt like it had never been done before. And the song, woah! We stuck it on the B-side. Geoff Travis said to Johnny, “Stop writing A-sides!”
Playing it live gave us such a buzz. It was a big, big track. I knew that nightly, the crowd were getting right off on it.
Right. I have one choice left but I have two tracks that must be included here. First equal is Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. About 8 years ago, we had friends round, Tina and I. We’ve got a CD jukebox in the house and Tina convinced me to put Strangeways… on it. It’s not really the done thing, putting your own music in your jukebox, but anyway, there it was. During dinner the jukebox was playing on random and Last Night… came on. “Is this The Smiths?” asked my friend. We were all listening to it and the atmosphere changed. It was probably the first time I’d actually sat down and listened to it since we’d recorded it. “That’s pretty good!” seemed to be the general concensus.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
Johnny really was the Brian Jones of the band, not just because of the haircut, or the fact he had a teardrop guitar in the early days, but because he could pick up anything and get a tune out of it. There was a zither that sat on the windowsill of the studio during the Strangeways… sessions. He picked it up one time and played a tune on it, just like that. (That tune was I Won’t Share You, but you knew that already).
We couldn’t afford real strings on the recording so we used an emulator synth. Watching Johnny play the string parts on it was like watching a genius at work. He didn’t seem to learn it anywhere. The music just appeared. He heard things other people couldn’t hear and put it down. No trial and error. He always got it first time. The layering and production on Last Night… is fantastic. There’s some really odd, wonky piano. It’s all out of time. Johnny broke the rules and created a masterpiece.
And finally, back to the start. I couldn’t discuss my favourite Smiths tracks without mentioning Hand In Glove. This was where it all began. The life-changer. It’s my favourite Smiths track. Certainly the most powerful. Until we’d recorded we’d never properly heard ourselves. I’d only ever heard us from behind the kit in our rehearsal room; over the top of my drums I’d get a bit of Johnny’s guitar, some of Andy’s bass – I was always locked into Johnny ‘cos Andy played tunes within the tunes – and Morrissey’s vocals. I could hear him most of all, but I had no idea what we really sounded like.
The Smiths – Hand In Glove
When I first heard this back, with the sound balance and the extra guitars, it was truly shocking. I really mean that. I knew we sounded good, but this record was absolutely massive! The importance of it, the effect it had, it was the beginning of everything…..
So there you have it. Mike Joyce’s Six Of The Best. Or should that be Mike’s Magnificent Seven? He’s an engaging chap, is Mike. For someone who rarely does interviews these days – “I’m always being asked to give a quote on the date of some Smiths’ anniversary or other, but really, it’s not me,” he’s full of chat about his time with the band. And for me, from one Smiths fan to another, I’m very grateful.
William It Was Really Nothing is the sound of The Smiths in miniature. A breathless rush of brilliantly ringing descending arpeggios, bright as brass buttons, topped off with a vocal that distills everything about Morrissey’s much-loved kitchen sink dramas into a handful of lines worthy of Alan Bennett;
‘The rain falls hard on a humdrum town, this town has dragged you down……Everybody’s got to live their life, and God knows I’ve got to live mine……….How can you stay with a fat girl who says, “Would you like to marry me? And if you like, you can buy the ring”……‘
Johnny’s playing is at its most stellar, riff upon riff upon riff of layered guitars nattering and chattering away like Elsie Tanner spreading ghastly gossip about goodness-knows-who over the garden gate. He was in a rich vein of form when he wrote this, was Johnny. He worked the chords out in the back of The Smiths’ van on the M1 somewhere between Manchester and London. Arriving at his flat in Earls Court, he committed his frantically scrubbed faux flamenco pièce de résistance to tape, where it would sit alongside his other new compositions for that weekend, vying for the attention of producer John Porter come Monday morning. That the other 2 new tracks he’d recorded were How Soon Is Now? and Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want (the tracks that would turn up on the b-side of the single itself) just goes to show how prolific a tunesmith (tune-smith! See what I did there?) the barely 21 year-old Johnny was. Frightening, if you stop to think about it.
William It Was Really Nothing – Peel Session (August 1984)
The Smiths clearly loved William It Was Really Nothing – they played it in concert before recording it (first for Peel, above) and continued to play it throughout the tours of 1984 and 1985. It still had its place in the ’86 setlists when the briefly 5-piece band were at their most rockist and was the second-last song The Smiths ever played live.
When John Porter got ’round to working on it from Johnny’s demo (and who knows how he chose what track to tackle first) he sprinkled a magical dusting of fade-ins and fade-outs, backwards bits and bursts of guitar that are the aural equivalent of one of those time-lapse videos of a flower blooming you see on nature documentaries. It’s just perfect, and even after 30 (gulp!) years, every listen reveals new things.
William It Was Really Nothing – Single Version
William It Was Really Nothing is over and out in little over 2 lean, mean and meat-free minutes, which, if I’ve timed it right, is just about as long as you needed to read this piece. Beat that!
Keeping It Peel is the brainchild of Webbie, who writes the excellent and informative Football And Music blog. An annual celebration of all things Peel (this year’s event is especially poignant, given that it’s 10 years since John died), it’s purpose is to remind everyone just how crucial John Peel was to enlightening and expanding listening tastes up and down the country; to ‘Educate and Inform‘, as was the motto of his employer. Be it demo, flexi, 7″, 10″, 12″, EP, LP, 8 track cartridge, wax cylinder or reel to reel field recording, the great man famously listened to everything ever sent his way, and if it was in anyway decent he played it on his show. Sometimes, he played the more obscure records at the correct speed. Sometimes he didn’t. And sometimes, no-one noticed. John Peel is the reason my musical tastes expanded beyond the left-field avant-garde edginess of Hipsway and Love And Money and the reason why my mum stopped singing her own version of whatever it was I was playing (“Take a ri-ide on the Suga Trayne!”) and started asking me to “turn that racket down” whenever she passed my teenage bedroom door. Thank you, John.
This year’s Peel Session selection features Pixies from October 18th 1988.
The thin ‘n hairy years
Pixies in 1988 were betwixt and between releases. Surfer Rosa (their best album, and don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise) was 7 months old and still stuck to the turntables, and Doolittle was but a sparkle in Black Francis’ eye. They were a PHENOMENAL live act around this time; full-on and feral and could do no wrong.
Their session for Peel in October was a cracker. Half of the songs were barely a minute and a half long, little blitzkrieg blasts of wonky time signatures, heavy breathing, strange chord structures and larynx-loosening primal screams from Black Francis – “Uriah hit the crapper! The crapper! Uriah hit the crapper….DEAD!” – what the devil was he on about? Who knows, but who cares? This was a thrilling taster of the new stuff still to come. Tame, Dead and There Goes My Gun would all end up on the Doolittle LP the following year. Dancing The Manta Ray would eventually see the light of day as the b-side to that LPs big single, Monkey Gone To Heaven.
I thought I still had the old TDK of this session with Peel’s introductions, but I fear it’s lost and gone forever. It’s certainly not in the first (and only) place I looked. For authenticity’s sake I was going to post those versions, but instead Tame comes from the Rough Diamonds bootleg and the other three come from the official BBC Sessions CD.
That’s the haunted figure of Robert Johnson, womanisin’, gamblin’, soul-sellin’ deep South bluesman with a hell hound on his tail. Robert had the uncanny knack of channeling all sorts of bad voodoo via his unnaturally long fingers into his music and into the ether forever. To this day, the dusty grooves on his old 1930’s 78s spark with the crackle and pop of a life gone wrong.
Robert Johnson – Stop Breaking Down:
His songs, all rudimentary strumming and picking, have been picked up and picked apart by all manner of blues-influenced groups, not least the Rolling Stones.
No strangers to a stolen blues riff and a Robert Johnson tune (their version of Love In Vain is the definitive country/blues weeper), the Stones really out-did themselves when they came to tackle Stop Breaking Down. It’s a completely different song to the original.
Rolling Stones – Stop Breaking Down:
A total groove with Charlie playing just behind the beat, it’s a beautiful soup of chugging, riffing rhythm guitar and an asthmatic wheezing lead hanging on for dear life like the ash at the end of Keith’s ubiquitous cigarette. Between Jagger’s verses, the band swagger in that tight but loose way that no band has ever since equalled. Listening to it you can almost see Jagger prancing around some massive American stage or other, wiggling his 26″ snakehips to those lucky enough to be able to see them from the back of whatever enormodome they happen to have found themselves in.
Totally telepathically in synch with one another, the Stones in ’72 would be my time machine moment. Actually, they wouldn’t. Given the chance I’d be going back to 1965 to watch my team win the Scottish league for the last time, hang around a year and catch Dylan go electric then hope for some malfunction or other that would allow me to wait around for 6 years until it was fixed. To be Keith for a day while recording Exile On Main Street. What a time of it. Great hair. Great clothes. Great guitars. Great women. And everything else that goes with it. Like your own plane…
…or drinks cabinet on stage…
The Rolling Stones version of Stop Breaking Down comes towards the end of Side 4 on Exile On Main Street, the loosest, funkiest, grooviest Stones LP of the lot. But you knew that already. That they chose to sequence it where they did (although sandwiched between the blues rock of All Down The Line and southern soul gospel of Shine A Light makes for a strong ending) suggests the Stones had no particular fondness for it, that they considered it an album track at best, perhaps even (gasp) album filler. It certainly never gets a mention in the same breath as the big tracks from the LP (Tumbling Dice, Happy, Rocks Off, Loving Cup…I could go on and on) but to me, as something of a hidden Stones gem, that’s kinda what makes Stop Breaking Down so special.
Evoking the spirit of the early, earthy Stones with a punk/blues ferocity not heard since, ooh I dunno, Pussy Galore or someone were whipping up a frenzy at the end of the 80s, the White Stripes version of Stop Breaking Down appeared on their first, self-titled LP. If you’ve not heard it before, it’s just as you might imagine it to sound.
Two folk standing in a room with a handful of basic instruments between them has never sounded so feral and primal. Nowadays, it’s all the rage. Isn’t it, Black Keys? I know Jack White splits opinion, but for what it’s worth I love the White Stripes.
Later on, they tackled the same track for a BBC session, extending it to twice its length and playing it as a walkin’, talkin’ slow blues.
Thump. Crash. Thump. Crash. Thump. Crash. “Whooo!”. Screeee. Thump. Thump. “Whoooo!”. Screeeeeeeeeeee! At half the speed.
White Stripes – Stop Breaking Down (BBC Session);
Whatever happened to The Bees? I had them pegged as the equal of the Beta Band. Terrific players with a slightly psychedelic take on things. Not so much under the radar as off it completely, they deserved better. Their take on Stop Breaking Down is clearly modelled on the Stones’ version, but with a dual vocal and a nice, understated Hammond holding the whole thing together.
Keeping It Peel is the brainchild of Webbie, who writes the excellent and informative Football And Music blog. An annual celebration of all things Peel, it’s purpose is to remind everyone just how crucial John Peel was to expanding and informing listening tastes up and down the country. Be it demo, flexi, 7″, 10″, 12″, EP, LP, 8 track cartridge, wax cylinder or reel to reel field recording, the great man famously listened to everything ever sent his way, and if it was in anyway decent he played it on his show. Sometimes, he played the more obscure records at the correct speed. Sometimes he didn’t. And sometimes, no-one noticed. John Peel is the reason my musical tastes expanded beyond the left-field avant-garde edginess of Hipsway and Love And Money and the reason why my mum stopped singing her own version of whatever it was I was playing (“Take a ri-ide on the Suga Trayne!”) and started asking me to “turn that racket down” whenever she passed my teenage bedroom door. Thank you, John.
This year’s Peel Session selection features Roxy Music from February 1972. It’s a cracker……..
But first, a history lesson.
1972 was a pivotal year in music. The number of influential/classic albums released in those 12 months is nothing short of staggering (I’d like to say “off the top of my head“, but Google is a handy wee tool now and again).
Take a deep breath and off we go; Neil Young‘s Harvest (and the unreleased Journey Through The Past), Nick Drake‘s Pink Moon, Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side Of The Moon (hey – I’d never spotted that before – Pink and Moon…anyway…), The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, both by Captain Beefheart (2 albums in one year, nae bother), Todd Rundgren‘s Something/Anything, Talking Book AND Music Of My Mind by Stevie Wonder (2 albums in one year, nae bother), T Rex‘s Bolan Boogie and The Slider (2 albums, one year…), Big Star‘s #1 Record, The Stones’Exile On Main Street, Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust, the soundtracks to Superfly and The Harder They Come (Curtis Mayfield and Jimmy Cliff), Black Sabbath4, Steely Dan‘s Can’t Buy a Thrill, Greetings from LA by Tim Buckley, Can‘s Ege Bamyasi,Transformer by Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye‘s Trouble Man, and the debut eponymously titled LP from Roxy Music. Crikey! That’s almost a classic album a fortnight! And there’s a ton more I haven’t even mentioned! Oh to have been a teenager with a disposable income in the early 70s……
Roxy Music looked as if they’d been beamed down from the first spaceship from Mars and sounded just as other-worldly. Dressed in a clash of tiger print and tinfoil, faux fur and flares, and with a sound giving as much space to the clarinet and oboe as to yer more traditional rock instruments (and we haven’t even mentioned Brian Eno’s synthesiser), they were so out of step with the fashion of the day (compare them to the list above), it’s easy to see why John Peel would champion them. Between January 1972 and March 1973, they recorded 5 thrilling John Peel sessions. Their session recorded in February 1972 (although not broadcast until 1st August – anyone know why?) is particularly brilliant, featuring the yin and the yang of Roxy Music in two tracks.
A full six months (a light year in 1972 musical terms) before being released as their debut single, Virginia Plain was recorded as part of that February session. Over a minute longer than the released version, the Peel version is a proto-punk glam slam, overloaded with fizzbomb guitars and a seemingly improvised solo, all whammy bar and feedback sturm und drang. Hogging the limelight, Phil Manzanera made sure there was no room for the single’s twangy bass solo here.
Virginia Plain Peel Session, 18 Feb 72
Years later he would indeed be flying down to Rio! but, when he wasn’t purloining other bands’ equipment, I’m sure sticky-fingered street urchin and future Sex Pistol Steve Jones was cribbing notes on Manzanera’s guitar sound during this transmission. A verse sung over 2 open chords….. stray wafts of controlled feedback….. a fantastic, fluid and free-form guitar solo….. a four-to-the-floor jackboot stomp. A full 4 years before UK punk was ‘invented’, Roxy Music were doing it, maaaaan. If this version of Virginia Plain doesn’t make you want to go and learn a couple of chords and start a band in a desperate middle-aged attempt at hipster cool, nothing will.
On the debut album you’ll find If There Is Something, a countryish clip-clopping slide guitar and piano-led song in (prog alert!!!) three distinct parts. According to that bastion of trusted information Wikipedia, it ‘s been said that the first part of the song is a youth wondering about love, the second part adults in the heat of passion and the third part the singer in old age thinking about their past love. Gads. Whatever you think, in length and libido it manages to invent both prog rock and Pulp. Heavily-effected saxophones waft in and out, guitars get fuzzier and quieter as the track progresses and the ending is bathed in synthesised melancholic heaven, Ferry crooning in his collapsed quiff like a pub singer after half a dozen Guinesses.
If There Is Something Peel Session, 18 Feb 72
The Peel Session version is free from slide guitar and twice as long as the released version, clocking in at over 12 meandering minutes, the track ebbing and flowing like the champagne at one of Bryan Ferry’s socialite soirees. A few short years later they’d be making syrupy cocktail dross like Avalon. Remember Roxy from 72; weird, wonky and wonderful, unparalleled and untouchable.
No Roxy Music feature is complete without the funniest bit of telly ever. Johnny Vegas as Eno? Oh aye!
Recorded between London and Manchester almost 30 years ago (September/October 1983), This Charming Man was the record that transported The Smiths up and out of the late-night, Peel-championed margins and into the mainstream, Top Of The Pops and all.
A giddy rush of walkin’ talkin’ Motown basslines and chiming staccato guitar riffs, topped off with Morrissey’s yelping yodel, it still sounds exhilarating to these ears as I type right now. Even the much-maligned New YorkMix, with its none-more-80s ricocheting rim shots and ghostly guitar fade-ins still does it.
The Top Of The Pops appearance (the band’s first of 11) a few months later in November was superb, with Morrissey battering about his oversized bunch of gladioli in a show of high camp, while the other 3 played like seasoned telly regulars in matching M&S polo necks. Save a select, hip few, this was the first time many folk had actually seen The Smiths and the effect was seismic. It’s no surprise that by that weekend, sales of Brylcreem had risen 110%, old men’s barbers up and down the country were queued out with boys wanting flat tops, “but just leave the front bit, thanks” and any number of grannies were wondering what had happened to that nice chiffon blouse they’d been keeping in their wardrobe for that special occasion. Your David’s wearing it, gran. Teamed up with that cheap glass-beaded necklace our Doreen gave you when she was eight. And he’s off to the Red Lion where there’s every chance he’ll get himself half a light ale and a right good kicking. Me? I was still in my bedroom, listening to Frankie’s Relax until the wee small hours.
Much has been made of the speed at which Morrissey and Marr wrote in the early days. This Charming Man was one such song. Johnny had heard Aztec Camera’s Walk Out To Winter on regular radio rotation and felt his band should be getting the same attention. With a John Peel session coming up (14th September, to be aired one week later), Marr pulled out all the stops to write a catchy, radio-friendly tune in a major key (G, if you’re asking, though really A, as he tuned his guitar up one whole step). According to Johnny, the tune took him all of 20 minutes to write, although he would spend far longer with producer John Porter to perfect the sonics in the studio.
“There are about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it’s really a ’54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar — that comes in at the end of the chorus.”
Listen for that wobbly doiiiinnnngg every now and again – that’s the two Johns (Porter and Marr) dropping kitchen knives on an open-tuned guitar. You can’t do that with GarageBand, kids.
Morrissey, on the other hand, was studio shy. He often had to be coaxed into doing more than one or two vocal takes. His lyrics for This Charming Man were impossibly impenetrable to this 13 year old, and to be honest, not much has really changed over the past 30 years. Singing about some sort of clandestine sexual initiation or other, Morrissey’s words were “just a collection of lines that were very important. They seemed to stitch themselves perfectly under the umbrella ofThis Charming Man.” The lyrics were almost certainly taken from Morrissey’s faithful notebook, his collection of words in search of a tune, but they weren’t entirely Morrissey’s own.
The 1972 film Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier features a scene where Olivier points a gun at Caine calling him ‘a jumped up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place‘.
The 1961 movie adaption of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey features two characters discussing their evening. ‘Are you going dancing tonight?’ ‘I can’t, I haven’t got any clothes to wear.’ Delaney would prove to be a rich source of material for Morrissey’s lyrics. But more of that another time.
Stolen words or otherwise, what’s undeniable is that This Charming Man ramped The Smiths up a notch or two and set them off on their all-too brief trail-blazing journey through the mid 80s.
Here’s the music:
This Charming Man (London mix)
This Charming Man (Manchester Mix)
This Charming Man (New York Vocal Mix)
Howsabout some more of those studio master tape tracks? Below you’ll find the bass, the guitar, the vocal and a guitar/percussion track. Isolated parts, perfect for your inner George Martin. Or indeed, inner John Porter.