Friday, 13 August 2010

'...The Story Is Old, It Goes On and On.': Why You Must Listen to The Smiths


It almost seems cliché to describe The Smiths as melodramatic. They are almost the go to band when looking for the typical teenage experience. Their songs embody the trajectory of adolescence: always tumultuous, marked by sexual repression, snide remarks, characterised by emotional hyperactivity as well as long periods of melancholy and depression. At least that is what every writer at Pitchfork would have you believe.

For me The Smiths were the band that was the soundtrack to the emotional degradation of my early 20s. I bought The Smiths Singles collection just before my 21st birthday and that CD got played into the ground as I experienced arguably the most emotionally exhausting period of my life. The Smiths are absolutely the perfect soundtrack for anyone who believes that love is a harsh mistress, which cannot be tamed. At that point in my life I was firmly in the Morrissey camp because Heaven Knows I Was Miserable… (Then)

Despite the debate over stereotypical notions in what the band represents, it is clear that The Smiths were the band of their generation, arguably the 1980s equivalent to Nirvana (As terrible and as shockingly overrated as they are) a decade later. Both tapped into a sense of dissatisfaction with the masses, both achieved huge underground and moderate mainstream success. Morrissey is Kurt Cobain without the martyrdom. For those who are unfamiliar with the work of The Smiths the All Music Guide describes them:

The Smiths were the definitive British indie rock band of the '80s, marking the end of synth-driven new wave and the beginning of the guitar rock that dominated English rock into the '90s. Sonically, the group was indebted to the British Invasion, crafting ringing, melodic three-minute pop singles, even for their album tracks. But their scope was far broader than that of a revivalist band… Morrissey and Marr also represented one of the strangest teams of collaborators in rock history. Marr was the rock traditionalist, looking like an elegant version of Keith Richards during the Smiths' heyday and meticulously layering his guitar tracks in the studio. Morrissey, on the other hand, broke from rock tradition by singing in a keening, self-absorbed croon, embracing the forlorn, romantic poetry of Oscar Wilde, publicly declaring his celibacy, performing with a pocketful of gladioli and a hearing aid, and making no secret of his disgust for most of his peers. While it eventually led to the Smiths' early demise, the friction between Morrissey and Marr resulted in a flurry of singles and albums over the course of three years that provided the blueprint for British guitar rock in the following decade.

There are two songs that define why I love The Smiths: The Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore and Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me. Both are overwhelmingly dark, orchestral in nature and represent the purest types of love song.

The Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore was released in 1985 on the band’s second album Meat Is Murder. It is a classic songwriting master class. It has Morrissey’s trademark homoerotic imagery: ‘It was dark when I drove home the point (his penis) home, and on cold leather seats, well, it suddenly struck me I just might die with a smile on my face, after all'. The typical interpretation of the song is that he is pining for a lost love that shall never be returned. The contentious line always seems to be ‘I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, but now its happening in mine.’ Originally I thought Morrissey meant that this represented a breakup. Recently I changed my mind and now interpret it to mean that he has fallen in love with a one night stand who he knows is not right for him, and he thinks it is ironic, hence ‘the joke’.

Whatever the interpretation there is no doubt that the partnership between Morrissey and Marr reached its apex with this song. Marr’s unforgettable guitar line matches Morrissey’s feelings of regret line for line. My highlight in the song’s production is the fade out just before the coda at 3:49 when Morrissey repeats that famous line ‘I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, but now its happening in mine’ almost as if both the song and the music will never let him forget that moment for as long as he lives.

Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me is more direct and perhaps more powerful. The last single to be released on their last album, 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come this is quite simply the best song about heartbreak ever recorded. All Music Guide again explains why:

The two-minute opening consists of only piano notes and samples of a raging mob, before the band kicks into a maelstrom of sweeping strings, weary guitars, and processed effects. The bombast and aggression of Johnny Marr's guitar seems a bit out of character, and Morrissey's vocals seem more emotionally distant and more produced than usual. With Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce all providing a backdrop of tension, it's up to Morrissey to bring the song back to earth, but he sounds more and more disinterested as the song reaches its conclusion. His vocals dissolve into higher and higher octaves until his breath runs out. Bombastic, but also energy-draining, Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me is a beautiful, sad song that sees The Smiths pulling away from each other at odd angles. One can imagine that its recording may have added at least a small helping of weariness and unease to the deteriorating relationship of Morrissey and Marr. It would seem more than reasonable to suggest that the song is symbolic of Morrissey's views toward his friend and musical muse Marr at the time

There’s such remarkable pain in the lyrics and in Morrissey’s voice that anyone who has lost a lover can understand. ‘Last night I felt real arms around me: no hope, no harm, just another false alarm… the story is old, I know but it goes on, it goes on, and on.’ The lyrics in Morrissey’s sweet anguished tones make me get a lump in my throat every time I hear them. It is so simple, yet so devastatingly effective. The song has unparalleled amounts of sorrow and perhaps that’s why I identify with it so much.

The Smiths only lasted seven years and released four studio albums. To anyone who is reading about The Smiths for the first time through this blog I cannot recommend them highly enough. If you want lyrics that you can think about for days on end, if you are into the great works of art, if you have ever pined for someone, felt bitter, or been treated as an outcast then you must listen to The Smiths. You will never look at love the same way again.

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