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.
Let’s call it here and now: Meat Is Murder is The Smiths best album.
It’s certainly not the debut, the band’s unsatisfactory attempt to chase a sound worthy of the songs. Compared to the Brasso-bright, spit ‘n polish, ring-a-ding-ding of those early Peel versions, the debut album weighs heavy; lumpen, and one-dimensional. The drums sound leaden and lifeless. The guitars – it’s always about the guitars with The Smiths – sound as if someone has taken a fat thumb to their edges and rubbed the sparkle clean off. Flat and uninspiring, the production doesn’t do those fabulous riffs any justice at all. Unique, extraordinary songs, but assembled badly.
Don’t even consider The Queen Is Dead. Those songs…man, great, great songs…but whoever signed off the running order needs their head examined. The title track aside, every other song is misplaced. Side one collapses from the music hall titter of Frankly, Mr Shankly into the death doublet of I Know It’s Over/Never Had No One Ever – undeniably serious mood music pieces, yes, but totally misplaced. Stick I Know It’s Over at the end of side 1 instead and you’ve got a great closing track. Never Had No One Ever? That’s totally ripe for the graveyard slot of second last track on side 2. Pick any ten records from your collection and look at the running order and then tell me that the second-to-last track isn’t the weakest on the album. It’s certainly not where There Is A Light That Never Goes Out should be hiding. That should be sitting up front with Bigmouth… and the big boys, or maybe even afforded the honour of being the big statement closing track. Good as Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is – and it’s one of their very best – go out on a romantic, swaying high, Smiths. Don’t relegate your best songs to the twilight zone.
Yeah, and the smart money (even Johnny’s, they say) might be on Strangeways Here We Come, but for every crashing gothic masterpiece (Last Night I Dreamt...) there’s The Smiths-by-numbers (Stop Me If You Think…), for every barely-disguised love letter from singer to guitarist (I Won’t Share You) there’s the instantly skippable Death At One’s Elbow. It’s a good album, Strangeways, probably even great, but it isn’t their greatest. That honour goes to Meat Is Murder. Here are half a dozen reasons why.
Reason 1. Little elfin Johnny, in his blown-up Keith Richards hair-do and diamante clutter, is on fire across every bit of Meat Is Murder. He runs the whole gamut of his nimble-fingered arsenal; alternative tuning on the title track…alternative tuning and Nashville tuning on the cosmic and zinging Headmaster Ritual…that fine, layered coating of acoustic liquid mercury across Well I Wonder…the Stooges Metallic KO of What She Said, the rockabilly knee-tremble of Rusholme Ruffians…the proud Chic-isms that give way to those great, ringing discordant jazz chords near the end of Barbarism Begins At Home…the clattering chatter he conjures up across Nowhere Fast‘s multiple overlapping tracks and kaleidoscope of chords…
Johnny came up with them all. On Meat Is Murder he is barely 22 and he’s not yet reached a peak that his peers, never mind his guitar-strangling lessers in bedrooms up and down the country, can only dream of.
Reason 2. Morrissey. Separating the art of the 26 year-old singer from the 63 year-old artist is necessary here. Look, not at what he’s become, but at what he was once capable of. With every lyric on the album, he’s extremely funny and articulate and political and opinionated and principled and, above all else, loveable. ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen,’ ‘heifer whines could be human cries,’ ‘belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools, spineless bastards all,’ ‘What she read, all heady books, she’d sit and prophesise, it took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead to really, really open her eyes.’
Even if he pinched large chunks of Rusholme Ruffians from Victoria Wood, no one was crowbarring lyrics like this into pop songs in 1985. Arguably, no one has crowbarred stuff as unique and searing and insightful and right-on since.
Reason 3. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore is one of The Smiths’ finest torch songs. From its bright-as-brass-buttons opening to its layered and textured false ending, it’s a beauty. It’s the perfect marriage of Morrissey’s moping introspection and Marr’s guitarchestra, the singer identifying with those who are kicked when they are down, the guitarist going to town with studio effects and multi-layered riffs.
The Smiths – That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
Those little echoing triplets that fall from his fingers to create rippling pools on still pond water still tingle the back of my neck when they come in (around the minute mark at first, then forever after) – an ear-opening epiphany in 1985 when I realised that guitar players enhanced their electric sound with gizmos and wizardry to create the sounds they imagined in their heads. The haunting (and haunted) backwards effects he weaves through the ‘happening in mine‘ section before the fade out are ace.
Johnny has since said (OK, he told me, right?) that The Smiths never quite managed to do it justice live, but with the technology available today, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore would have undoubtedly been the centrepeice of The Smiths live experience. We’ll never know.
Reason 4. The Smiths changed lives. Saved lives, even. Like, literally. The title track is responsible for a whole swathe of impressionable teenagers – and at least two Smiths besides Morrissey – to forego eating meat and adopt vegatariansim as a way of life.
“As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian,” Mike Joyce told me in 2017. “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. ‘Meat Is Murder’ is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.
Accompanying the lyric, all sorts of magic is going on. Suitably doomy and disconcerting for the words being sung, Johnny plays around on an open D riff, cyclical and repetitive, hynpotic and ethereal.
The Smiths – Meat Is Murder
It’s matched by a jangling piano – not noticeable on first listen, buried as it is underneath the abattoir grinding and cattle cries, but it’s there, tinkling along like springtime Manchester rain while studio-treated guitars echo and scrape and scratch their way through the murk, Andy’s bass as elastic and stretchy as tendons.
Reason 5. Ah. Andy’s bass. The unsung hero of the band, the thinking man’s favourite Smith, Andy Rourke can play the fuck out of that thing. While Johnny gets all the spotlight, Andy quietly goes about creating tunes within tunes, fret-surfing melodic runs that could easily stand on their own two feet (or four strings).
The Smiths – Nowhere Fast (Peel Session, 1984)
The trampolining rubber bandisms that carry the aforementioned Rusholme Ruffians…the counterparts he plays to Johnny’s guitar in The Headmaster Ritual…the driving force in Nowhere Fast that allows Johnny to fly off-piste and back again…Andy is a key ingredient here.
The rather-too obvious track to highlight is the extreme funkability of Barbarism Begins At Home, all slap ‘n thunk, an old tune of his and Johnny’s from pre-Smiths days that wouldn’t have worked on that debut album, but here, on Meat Is Murder‘s inclusive, catholic patina, it shines brightly.
Reason 6.The Headmaster Ritual. Rusholme Ruffians. I Want The One I Can’t Have. What She Said. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore. Nowhere Fast. Well I Wonder. Barbarism Begins At Home. Meat Is Murder.
Perfectly sequenced, perfectly pitched, it is, rare for the era, an album of few single releases; Headmaster and Barbarism in foreign countries only, That Joke in the UK (a chart-busting number 49 with a bullet). The Americans couldn’t handle an album with no hit singles though, so they crassly wedged How Soon Is Now? right before Nowhere Fast at the start of side 2. They have form for spoiling perfectly perfect albums, the Americans – look at what they did to some of The Beatles’ catalogue for proof – and while How Soon Is Now? is an undoubted Smiths classic, it should remain standing alone as the greatest 3-track Smiths single ever. But that’s an argument for another time.
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.