The unexpected news of the death of Andy Rourke from cancer flooded my social timelines this morning. From his old pal Johnny’s numb statement onwards, the outpouring was long and plenty. Lauren Laverne was playing William… as I pulled into the car park at work and despite having heard its 2 min 12 seconds of pathos and sparkle a million times, I stayed put until it had played out, paying particular attention to Andy’s trebly, melodic bass runs because, well, that’s what everyone tuned to 6 Music at that point was doing. After work, catching up with the minutiae of life on my phone, the roll call of people paying tribute – fellow musicians, pals, strangers – was never ending. No one had a bad word to say, not even Morrissey, whose well-worded tribute seemed genuine and sincere and a million miles from the sneering auld grump he’s become.
It’s quite amazing that someone who was only a quarter part of a group who burned brightly but briefly for roughly just 6 years should leave such an indelible mark, but that’s the power of the formative years for you.
The Smiths meant the world to many, me included, and were a lighthouse on the rocky shores of mid ‘80s music. I wasn’t disenfranchised or marginalised or trying to find myself or any of those clichés. I just needed a break from bad hair and bad productions and jaggy guitars and what was being sold to me and my peers as essential listening. The Smiths, with their pint-sized and elfin guitar wizard and singer with funny – that’s funny, not depressing – lyrics came along at the right time. They jangled, yeah, and they wailed, but there was far more to them than that, as you well know. There was a proper toughness to their sound, driving and thuggish and tough as nails – see Handsome Devil and Hand In Glove as evidence, but there was a proper tenderness too. A real musicality. Listen to This Night Has Opened My Eyes or later tracks such as I Won’t Share You for proof. Much of this is down to Johnny’s mercurial way with an augmented chord and a hellbent mission to overdub everything with tracks and tracks of smirry, smartarsed guitar, but the bedrock for Johnny’s free form colouring comes from Andy’s solid and steady playing, a duo playing in simpatico as only old pals can. A band ain’t nuthin’ without their rhythm section and The Smiths were blessed to have Andy pinning it all to the floor.
Many today have spotlit Andy’s magnificently trampolining workout on Barbarism Begins At Home, an early Smiths track so packed with Chicisms and the funk, so out of step with their material that it took until album two before they’d release a recording of it, as proof of Andy’s greatness. And they’d be correct. But look, there’s not a bassline on any Smiths track that isn’t considered, clever, unique and so obviously Andy. Whether he was dripping in elasticated funk or slapping out rockabilly or meandering like McCartney around the melody, he left a mark as distinguishable as the haircut he kept for all those years. Johnny today pointed to Andy’s contribution to The Queen Is Dead’s title track, saying that as Andy recorded it, he knew it was a moment he’d remember forever. Rock solid, reliable, dead centre, a bass player who could play in the background yet step out as lead instrument when required.
Check out the Motown-by-way-of-Moss Side twang of his isolated bass runs on This Charming Man. Rubber bandy Andy.
This Charming Man – Andy’s Isolated Bass
When the news of any pop star’s passing is announced, it’s perfectly natural to feel something, especially if you’re a fan of their work. When Andy’s news gatecrashed my newsfeed this morning, a little bit of me, a little bit of every fan of The Smiths, died too. Memories of times soundtracked by The Smiths came blazing straight into sharp focus, along with the sudden realisation that while the memories remain, the principal player in creating those memories is gone. 59. No age at all, as they say.
God only knows what it’ll feel like when Johnny himself or, brace yourself, McCartney goes.