Simply consider this a minute “Aside” from the cascade that is Higher Culture
Regular readers know that my “Higher Culture” VIP columns are a multi-layered, intricate exploration of arts and culture topics. I cover everything from music to movies to (sometimes) more weighty topics like the airlines and mask mandates.
Usually, though, they’re about something fun and upbeat. But they’re more of a cascade of info, while you can instead consider this a minute aside touching on culture. The big picture idea is the same: there is so much more to life (wherever you find yourself politically) than politics, after all. The late cultural warrior/blogger Andrew Breitbart, lest we forget, insisted that politics is downstream from culture. It’s something I try to keep in mind.
Besides, since we can now call it the weekend (hey, the White House said so!), let’s just pretend we’re on vacation, too, and talk about music. Something like fun, like favorite songs from the band you most admired and obsessed over in your youth.
For a GenXer like me, that will fall into the Eighties. And the music that most consumed me during the high school years was by one of Manchester, U.K.’s most stalwart of groups to rise from the decade’s independent milieu, the Smiths.
An important note up top: And yes, I promise to talk about more U.S. pop charts connected ’80s music sometime, in the VIP column, which a few readers have suggested/asked about in comments and letters. Yes, yes, people.
Over time, some of the players changed, but the primary band is usually thought of as singer/lyricist Morrissey (he was born Stephen Patrick Morrissey), guitarist Johnny Marr, bass player Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce.
And a five song list makes a nifty introduction, for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of “meeting” the band’s music, for whatever reason. And honestly, you’ll find that most people think of only two of the members as “The Smiths” — Morrissey and Marr.
Morrissey and Johnny Marr during The Smiths’ performance on The Tube, 1984 pic.twitter.com/PXFsHtgh3h
— Eric Alper 🎧 (@ThatEricAlper) April 7, 2021
It’s not overstating things to compare the duo to Lennon/McCartney, whose youth-time friendship created a little band you may have heard of from nearby Liverpool. Morrissey might have contributed a higher percentage of the words than the rest of the Smiths, but together with Marr, they created the tone and sound that made up the band’s music.
Marr, especially, was intrinsic in designing the layers upon layers of loops, effects, and guitars, essentially co-producing much of their music across four studio records. (On top of that, if you listen to him, he did much more than that. But I’ll delve into Set The Boy Free, Johnny Marr’s extraordinary autobiography, in a later column.)
Enough preamble. Let’s hear some music!
Song #5: “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”
My peers in this generation likely don’t know this song, and it’s a shame. If they do know it at all, it’s because it’s a part of the seminal Pretty In Pink soundtrack. But it should be known and understood that it came from the band’s “Louder Than Bombs” (’87), a cherished double LP of collected singles that was my first Smiths record.
— Lovelife😙 (@mylovelife0617) August 8, 2021
Song #4: There’s not really much to say about “This Charming Man.” A perfect pop single.
Song #3: “Rushholme Ruffians” was released on “Meat Is Murder” in 1985, and the Genius.com shares some of the background on the song’s meaning. For me, it captures so many of the emotions you deal with as a teenager, in Morrissey’s slightly skewed way, of course.
(The version here is from the band’s Peel Sessions on August 9, 1984).
Song #2, “Ask,” happens to be my favorite Smiths song. It was the first one I remember wanting to hear over and over, like the Top 40 music I’d previously loved. And on the strength of this one song, I bought an LP — something I’d never done before. It was absolutely life-changing and the right decision, over the long term.
Now, I decided to take throw someone else’s favorite in here. But it’s someone whom I feel has some insight into the topic — not only is he a deejay, but he lives in Manchester. One of my friends, David, loves “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” from what’s probably my favorite studio LP from the Smiths, the third one called “The Queen Is Dead” (1986).
As it happens, I agree with him it’s one of their best. “There Is A Light” contains an almost perfect mix of hopeful and morose lyrics with the usual, spritely jangly guitars buoying your spirits in between it all.
Wow, this is really tough to do — it’s like pulling teeth to narrow it down to five, when the band got you through one of the most harrowing parts of life in one piece. But, I’ll take a stab at it.
On this day in 1988, #TheSmiths released the single “Ask”
As with most of the Smiths' singles, it was not included on an original album. It can be found on the compilations “The World Won't Listen” and “Louder Than Bombs” (both 1987) pic.twitter.com/LhICiioam3
— Jake (The '80s Never Ended in my World) Rudh (@JakeRudh) October 20, 2019
Fifth pick is “Panic” from “Louder Than Bombs” (which, I should mention, was the second compilation Sire, the band’s record label, put out after the first three LPs (the first is known as “The World Won’t Listen,” and was released in the U.K.).
Or this entry could just as easily be “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” off “Meat Is Murder” (the second album; don’t ask). See? I really can’t decide.
But I can’t share a best-of for this iconic Manchester band without a nod to “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before,” from the final studio album, “Strangeways, Here We Come” (’87). I had no idea that the band had already split before it was released. Once that news broke, it took a while to digest the immense loss. But songs like this shone with such brilliance that the album had a sustained beauty; it holds a special place in my heart even today. Enjoy!
There you have it. Now, you have a certain level of knowledge about the Smiths. What you do with it is up to you from here! Let me know if any of the songs inspired you to dig deeper into them in the comments.