Prepare to feel ancient – The Smith's eponymous debut album turns thirty on February 20th. Luckily it's still brilliant and everything you want from guitar-pop, with Johnny Marr's effortless jangling meshing sublimely with Morrissey's lyrical mixture of the morose and the hilarious. To celebrate this milestone of British culture, our resident musical luddite Kyle Walker adjusts his hearing aid and his thick-rimmed glasses, swings his flowers about a bit and discusses seven Smiths songs that deserve your attention...
1 – This Charming Man
The song that started it all – it's utterly incredible just how good this is. A tale of two men enjoying each other's company, cars and leather, Morrissey delivers each line with a knowing wink – and Marr's riff in this is just fantastic. This was a staple of my university years. Every club that even purported to be slightly edgy would blast this, causing a dance epidemic to sweep the place like a rhythmic plague. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was always up strutting my stuff. I am however ashamed to admit that my moves were terrible.
Did You Know?: The line "A jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place" is borrowed from the 1972 film “Sleuth”, starring Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine.
2 – Suffer Little Children
“But fresh lilaced moorland fields / Cannot hide the stolid stench of death” sings Morrissey in this, undoubtedly the most controversial song that The Smiths ever produced. It's a song that dissects the Moors murders in biting, visceral terms. Morrissey's voice remains low and dispassionate throughout, but to express vocal anger would be to obfuscate the words, which remain amongst his most powerful.
Did You Know?: Although the song was highly controversial at the time, Morrissey later established a friendship with Ann West, the mother of Moors victim Lesley Ann Downey.
3 – How Soon Is Now
What can I really say about this song? It's so unrepresentative of the rest of The Smiths' back catalogue, yet it's one of their most interesting – that riff, for heaven's sake, that riff! It's just absolutely incredible, the wavering harmonics by themselves making this song an instant classic. However, the lyrics are particularly good in this one too, Morrissey acquitting himself well with an ode to loneliness (I know, he's pushing the boat out). Yet this song's all about Marr. That. Bloody. Riff.
Did You Know?: The most famous part of the song – the guitar bit that goes “bwaaa-OOOOOOOW” (specific, I know) – is the part that Johnny Marr can't remember. “I wish I could remember exactly how we did the slide part,” he said. “Not writing it down is one of the banes of my life!”
4 – Meat Is Murder
This is the song that, more than any other, defines Morrissey – or at least the modern image of him by his detractors as a self-serving hyper-vegetarian windbag. Don't get me wrong, it isn't subtle – but then not every song has to be, and there's a bluntness to the song that's genuinely unnerving. “And the flesh you so fancifully fry / Is not succulent, tasty or kind / It's death for no reason / And death for no reason is MURDER” Morrissey practically wails as cows scream in the background. I'm a meat eater myself, yet every time I listen to this song I feel like the most depraved monster in the world.
Did You Know?: Even though the album “Meat Is Murder” made it to number one, this song was never played on radio at the time due to what was ridiculously regarded as controversial subject material (yes, vegetarianism will corrupt your children apparently).
5 – The Queen Is Dead
The Smiths' crowning achievement was this album, and the title song is one of the best they've ever done, period. It's political – controversially so, perhaps – yet it's full of an almost joyful self-lacerating wit. As Morrissey sings, “So I broke into the palace / With a sponge and a rusty spanner / She said I know you and you cannot sing / I said that's nothing you should hear me play piano”. Very few calls for a British republic have been made with such knowing humour. The drums in this song particularly stand out, a constant heavy presence that gives it a real sense of urgancy.
Did You Know?: After David Cameron stated his favourite album was “The Queen Is Dead”, Johnny Marr was furious and stated that The Smiths would get back together if he resigned as Prime Minister. Alas, it was not to be.
6 – I Know It's Over
This song is just beautiful, easily among the top five breakup songs ever written. This is where Morrissey shines – he fills every single syllable with such a gasping sense of longing and despair that takes the breath away. The Smiths are often categorised as a bunch of mopers, yet this is a haunting, eloquent ode to lost love that few have equalled since. Just fantastic.
Did You Know?: Although “The Queen Is Dead” is critically regarded as The Smiths' finest album, both Morrissey and Marr have cited the following (and final) album “Strangeways Here We Come” as their best. Seeing as they rarely agree, this is quite something.
7 – Shoplifters Of The World Unite
This is just utterly fabulous. A thinly veiled critique of the anti-gay laws at the time (referencing the derogatory slang “shirtlifter”)? Or just a defence of petty criminals? Morrissey says the latter, yet he is known to be a tricksy gentleman who gleefully obfuscates the truth on occasion for his own amusement. “My only weakness is a listed crime / My only weakness is...well, never mind, never mind,” he sings. Make your own minds up.
Did You Know?: Regardless of what it means, Morrissey has stated that this is his favourite Smiths song, and regularly does live performances of it on his solo tours.