With Jackie South’s posting of the truly epic How Soon Is Now? as part of our current 10 greatest songs not to have yet appeared in Songs To Learn and Sing, The Smiths became the third artist to gain entry to our exalted Hall of Fame, after The Beatles and The Clash. And who could argue with that?
What The Smiths have in common with both of their fellow Hall of Famers is that they had the good grace to split up at the very top of the game. There was no continuing into their dotage gradually getting more embarrassing and tarnishing the memory of their glory years. The Smiths burnt very brightly but for an extraordinarily brief time. From formation to split was only 5 years: 1982-1987. Their recording lifespan lasted from the release of their debut single Hand In Glove in May 1983 to May 1987 when they recorded the final tracks for their final album Strangeways Here We Come – the band were over by the time of the album’s release in that September.
The Smiths were my band. By that I don’t mean that somehow I was an additional member of the band – the Pete Best (or Vini Reilly for the completists out there) but rather they were the band that I lived and breathed. I developed and grew up with them. I was just getting into music in a big way when their initial singles came out (I bought What Difference Does It Make?, their third single in my local Woolworths the week it was released, and every single and album thereafter as it came out), and was in the sixth form when John Peel announced they had split. I shed several tears that night.
They were the complete package as a band. In Johnny Marr possibly the greatest guitarist to have ever graced rock n roll and in Stephen Patrick Morrissey an auto-didact intellectual lyricist who somehow had the ability to describe exactly how rejection or teen awkwardness felt, only in a poetic and darkly comic way that even when you were feeling exactly what he was, you could have never articulated. Except of course they never seemed to be able to recreate the power of what they did after the split up – their individual genius was really a mutual genius. They required each other to reach the heights of greatness that they did.
Each and every song they recorded was worth listening to, intently. The Smiths were the kind of band who had so much great material, that a song as world beatingly brilliant like How Soon Is Now? started out as the extra track on the 12” of William It Was Really Nothing?
They didn’t release a bad album. The four studio albums (The Smiths, Meat Is Murder, The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways Here We Come) all have their fierce advocates. All are wonderful. If you add to that possibly the greatest compilation album of all time – the album that probably I played more in my teen years than any other, Hatful of Hollow, which compiled Peel sessions and b sides, and the later The World Won’t Listen (a kind of Hatful of Hollow for the last couple of years) you have a collection of records that most bands could not even dream of.
Yet, in truth The Smiths were not even primarily an albums band. They were the last great singles band – seeped in Morrissey’s love of classic 1960s pop and rock n roll, they recorded a series of peerless 3 minutes pieces of angst ridden pop perfection. The release of a new Smiths’ single was an event in itself.
With their distinctive cover art of 1950s and 1960s pop and high cultural figures and literary references, The Smiths were also an education, introducing my generation to Shelagh Delaney, Jean Marais and others.
There has not been a band remotely as good since.
The first ten Smiths’ songs to have featured in Songs To Learn and Sing in order of appearance are:
1. #18: 1986, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out;
2. #144: 1987, Death of A Disco Dancer;
3. #228: 1987, London;
4. #257: 1986, The Queen Is Dead;
5. #575: 1986, I Know It’s Over;
6. #649: 1984, Suffer Little Children;
7. #697: 1983, Handsome Devil;
8. #780: 1986, Cemetery Gates;
9. #993: 1984, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now;
10. #1001: 1985, How Soon Is Now?
We have also featured Sandie Shaw’s cover of Hand In Glove, which included all The Smiths bar Morrissey.
That’s 4 songs from The Queen Is Dead, 1 each from The Smiths, Meat Is Murder and Strangeways Here We Come and 3 that did not appear on any of the studio albums.
As is traditional, my top 5 Smiths songs (as of this moment – save for the first two again this fluctuates by mood):
- There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
- How Soon Is Now?
- This Charming Man
- The Headmaster Ritual
- William It Was Really Nothing.
And my top 3 albums (ignoring Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen).
- The Queen Is Dead
- The Smiths
- Meat Is Murder.