The Smiths – 10 of the Best


The Smiths – 10 of the Best

Here is an interesting article on the Smiths if you are aware of them, but not really familiar with their stuff.  I am a super fan and I even found it an interesting read.  I by no means agree with everything the author says (I think the author’s constant use of the word teenager around Morrissey’s lyrics, however complimentary at times, is ill-informed), but he at least seem as if he has decent knowledge of the material and an idea of what made them so special.  The writer is also able to grab the musical side of the Smith’s better than most music journalists do.

We Tried, and We Failed – Jeane Lyrics

The low-life has lost its appeal
And I’m tired of walking these streets
To a room with a cupboard bare

I’m not sure what happiness means
But I look in your eyes
And I know that it isn’t there

We tried, we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried

There’s ice on the sink where we bathe
So how can you call this a home
When you know it’s a grave?

But you still hold a greedy grace
As you tidy the place
But it’ll never be clean

We tried, we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried

Oh, cash on the nail
It’s just a fairytale
Oh, and I don’t believe in magic anymore

But I think you know
I really think you know
Oh, I think you know the truth
Jeane, oh

No heavenly choir
Not for me and not for you
Because I think that you know
I really think you know
I think you know the truth
Oh, Jeane

That we tried, and we failed
That we tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
Oh, oh, Jeane

These are the lyrics to the song Jeane, an early Smiths composition.  Even though I’m a huge Smiths fan, I actually discovered this song through Billy Bragg.  I also really love the version by Sandie Shaw, which the Smiths played on.  (Featured above)

Morrissey, the lyricist of the song, was a fan of British kitchen-sink dramas and the work of writer Shelagh Delaney.  (Especially the must read play A Taste of Honey.)  These works were some of the first time that realistic 50’s and 60’s British working class life were displayed in drama.

These lyrics have never been far from my mind since the first time I heard this song.  I’ve never been great at writing the story song.  However, this song shows how lyrics, at least in my mind, can be so much more effective politically through the empathy that a story conveys.  The idea that life should be better for the working poor does not need to be conveyed in any obvious way.  In painting the picture that the lyrics do, one where you can’t help but notice the sad and demoralized state of its protagonists.  One can therefor empathize with the characters and be able to draw the political conclusion for themselves, which is always the more powerful way to come to an idea.

I also like how the small details of this life are interspersed with lines that could work as quotes unto themselves.  “I’m tired of walking these streets to a room with a cupboard bare”, does so much to paint a mental picture of the life the song is describing.    Yet the chorus line is so simple and Zen like that it almost seems carved from granite:  “We tried, and we failed.”  That is a line that if heard a few times, will pop up in your head again and again as life presents itself with an excuse to utter it.  It always brings one back to that song, whether consciously or subconsciously, and those characters.

Another thing to notice is that the lyrics are genderless.  Jeane could be both a boy or a girl and therefor anyone can relate to it.    This song is able to be sung by both male and female with equal conviction, without changing a line of it.

I picked the Sandie Shaw version above, as I could only find the Billy Bragg version with the faster tempo.  I’m used to the Billy Bragg version on the Reaching to the Converted album.  This song is one of the few times that I actually prefer the cover version  of a song rather than the original.  I also should note that the Sandie Shaw lyrics differentiate very very slightly from the printed lyrics above.  Again, there are at least four versions of this song recorded that I know of and I’m not sure which one the printed lyrics come from.  

I also found this version of Sandie Shaw and Johnny Marr performing the song for children on TV.  It is not the full version, so I didn’t want to put it at the top.  I like the idea of this song being sung for kids.  Teach ‘em real young what’s going on out there!

Morrissey as Existential Hero


Morrissey as Existential Hero

Anyone that has read this blog over any amount of time will know that Morrissey is one of my musical heroes.  Here is a really interesting article by Kevin Michael Klipfel about Morrissey and existentialism.  Although anyone that is a fan of Morrissey will like this article, I think music fans in general and those that are also interested in existentialism will find something to take away here.

Johnny Marr Playland Review


Johnny Marr is one of my favorite guitar players.  With The Smiths and later with such acts as The The, Electronic, and The Cribs, he has played an endless supply of catchy intricate riffs and melodic hooks.  But there is no doubt in my mind that at this point, as a songwriter during his time in The Smiths, that Morrissey was the true genius.  Johnny Marr is simply at his best when he has another strong presence to inspire him. His three albums as a solo artist prove this.  (I know the first album was technically credited to Johnny Marr and the Healers, but really that band was under his control.)

The Johnny Marr and the Healers album Boomslang is pretty much unlistenable as it features songs that sound like subpar Oasis.  His first true solo album The Messenger is the best of the lot.  It features the best riffs and at certain times almost, from a musical standpoint only, reminds me of the final Smiths album Strangeways, Here We Come, mixed with some of his work in Electronic and other bands.

His new album Playland is nowhere near as bad as Boomslang, but is not as good as The Messenger.  Johnny Marr acquits himself lyrically.  There is nothing embarrassing.  It is simply that his lyrics don’t really add anything to the songs.  They simply become part of the music.  He can write catchy melodies, but nothing earth shattering.

When you buy a Johnny Marr solo record what you are really coming to it for his guitar playing.  He has time and time again throughout his career provided riveting moments on the instrument.  Somehow his guitar playing on his solo work, especially on his first album, and somewhat on this new album, seems the most pedestrian.  The riff to Easy Money is quite catchy and reminds me of his work with Modest Mouse.  There are a couple other moments on the record that are interesting from a guitar standpoint, but nothing that really wows me, and Johnny Marr has the capacity to do things through his playing alone that are really exciting.  On his record with The Cribs, his playing front to back on that album is excellent, and he sounds invigorated and revitalized.

There are two big problems with this new album.  Most people don’t realize how much Andy Rourke’s bass playing added to The Smiths.  He bobbed and weaved with Johnny Marr in much the same way that Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones do, or any excellent two guitar band does.  That’s not a perfect analogy, but I want to get across the idea of two musicians playing off each other and inspiring each to new heights.  The rhythm section on this album is really straightforward and brings nothing to the table.  Almost every song features a straight ahead 4/4 plodding rhythm.  Mike Joyce often played pretty straight in The Smiths, but again Andy Rourke gave Johnny Marr something to work off of. (Every band but maybe The Who need someone to lay it down and block, and that was Mike Joyce’s role in The Smiths) He really needs a better rhythm section if he is going to make a great solo album.

The other problem is the overabundance of synths. I love when artists try new things and stretch themselves.  Johnny Marr has done so with The The and on the best Electronic stuff, both of which had keyboard heavy arrangements at times.  The Smiths A Rush, A Push, and the Land is Ours show that Johnny Marr can also play really interesting stuff on keyboards when he wants to.  But the keyboard playing on this new album is merely functionary and takes up space that could be used for more interesting guitar parts.

If I’m making this album sound horrible it is not.  It is just that it is just above average when Johnny Marr is really capable of so much more.  I try to review things in and of themselves and not compare things to the past too much.  This is one time though when an artists many past triumphs get you excited and you feel slightly letdown.  I can only say that this album is decent, when really greatness could have been achieved.  I am a huge fan of his and I want to love this record, but every time I put it on I feel no strong emotions while listening.

If you haven’t bought anything by Johnny Marr in awhile and you are looking for something that he has done recently that is interesting, I would recommend The Cribs Ignore the Ignorant.  His guitar is featured in the left hand speaker and a lot of it sounds live in the studio.  It sounds like something was really on the line during the making of that record, and unfortunately here it does not.

Many records don’t fully reveal themselves till many listens down the road.  I hope I am wrong here, but I get the feeling that I’m not.

I spent more time with the record today, after writing the review.  One of the things that is challenging about a piece of music, and I am not under any of the restraints that someone that writes professionally for a magazine is, is that in criticizing it, you without a doubt make it sound worse than it is.  I actually like this record, but feel that it is lacking in the above categories.  If I didn’t point them out I’d be lying.  The rhythm section is functionary, but they do get the job done and can sound quite propulsive at times.  They are just not adding anything to the proceedings other than performing the basic functions of a decent rhythm section.  Is the record better than a great deal of the shit on the radio?  Yes.  Is it a decent record?  Yes.  Knowing what Johnny Marr is truly capable of, from a guitar standpoint, does it live up to his legacy?  No.  Would I recommend it over a great deal of things people are listening to?  Yes.  If you could only spend money on one or two records would I recommend it over some other great records that have come out recently?  No.  All these different thoughts come into play when you are trying to recommend a piece of music:  Where does it fits in quality wise in the current state of music?  Does it break any new ground or at least do something original given the limitations of an established genre?  When people have a limited amount of music that they can acquire how do you try to direct them to the art that you feel is the most worthy of attention?  

Also, your perception of a record can change with added listens, in fact good art should be able to evolve with you.  Are you potentially stopping people from listening to something that may grow more valid over time?  Many of the great records were critically derided upon release.  Most of them find their way, but would the culture be better off if critics weren’t so narrow minded sometimes?  In mainstream culture we are often swimming in a sea of bullshit.  

I can’t read a lot of modern criticism, well I shouldn’t read it anyway, because so much of it seems as if it is not asking itself these questions.   So much of it seems to either champion the wrong values or to be in some kind of competition with itself to be as trendy as possible. (Pitchfork I’m looking at you.)  

When I criticize an artist that I know has brought so much to the conversation, I feel conflicted.  Johnny Marr has earned his right to make whatever music he wishes.  Meanwhile, someone like Beyonce, who is constantly at the top of the charts, is so fucking vapid.  I don’t write reviews on people like her, because it’s not worth my time or money.  If I’m taking the time to write a review of something, it’s usually because I have liked them enough to buy their record.  I’m not getting any free albums in the mail.  

Anyway, there is so much more I could say, but I must disconnect…

The Destroyer of Dreams

The arctic

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives
Where are they now?
With loves and hates and passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
I want to cry

Cemetry Gates – The Smiths

I was reading the Hampton Sides book In the Kingdom of Ice this morning.  I came upon the following paragraph (They are talking about exploring the Arctic at a time when it had not been fully explored yet):

In 1869, in fact, a French expedition, to be commanded by a scientist named Gustave Lambert, had planned to try for the pole via the Bering Strait, but that expedition had been called off because of the Franco-Prussian War.  Two years later, during the siege of Paris, Lambert was killed in battle, and the expedition was never undertaken.  

At this time preparing for an expedition like that was an absolutely tremendous undertaking.  Lambert must have been dreaming of this expedition for some time.  

We must stand up for peace and against war whenever possible.  It is not only the destroyer of men and nature, but the destroyer of dreams.  

World Peace is None of Your Business Single Review

I have been a lifelong Morrissey fan.  I’ve listened and read enough about him to notice when things were missing in Mozipedia, the encyclopedia based around his life.  I should confirm my bias that he is probably my favorite musical artist of all time and that only very few of his songs have failed to connect with me. (Noise is the Best Revenge being an example.)  Although I haven’t collected every version of every single and b-side, I don’t have money like that, but I do have all of his studio albums, most of his singles, and most of the b-sides and unreleased tracks that are easily acquired.  So keep that in mind when I write a review of his new single.  I have a history with the man.

I don’t know if I would write the same exact review of his new single had I not just read two very powerful books.  These books are Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers and Matt Taibbi’s The Divide.  Kinzer’s book about the Dulles brothers and Taibbi’s book about the injustice of our justice system both include horrible examples of state sanctioned violence both at home and abroad, and by state I mean America.  One only needs to read the news to see state sanctioned violence happening in places across the globe.

Morrissey’s World Peace is None of Your Business is a song that’s lyrics are blunt about state violence and the kind of especially middle class existence that allows you turn a blind eye to this violence.  This song is left wing, but it is also anti-government.

Morrissey has always sung songs championing the outsider’s in society.  This is why this most British of pop stars has fans in every corner of the globe.  Many people wonder why, for instance, he has a large Latino fan base in the U.S., but it is because despite any specific details of his songs, he sings of those that are not accepted by the mainstream.

There are basically two types of Morrissey songs that have been his mainstay since his comeback album You Are the Quarry was released in 2004.  There are his blunter political songs which feature simple language, exemplified by American is Not the World from You Are the Quarry, and his more poetic character studies and personal reflections in songs such as The Father that Must Be Killed from You Are the Quarry’s follow up album Ringleader of the Tormentors.  I believe Morrissey is smart enough to know what he is doing.  I’ve read some fans online criticizing his more blunt political approach, saying they don’t live up to his rich poetic heritage, but I believe when he wants to make a specific point he simply gets rid of any language that could get in the way of making that point.  He is being blunt and to the point on purpose.

World Peace is None of Your Business is this kind of political song.  However, even in language that is relatively simply and which will never leave you confused which side he is on; there are shadows and different ways of interpreting lines.  A pop song is like a good piece of propaganda.  It will get you to turn your head and look a certain way, but there isn’t the time and space for a well reasoned argument covering all of the ground of an essay or book.  Morrissey is a master of this form.

Morrissey is also an excellent provocateur, he throws out lines and statements like bombs and the intent is to start a conversation as much as it is to finish one.  He is savvy enough to still cut through to the headlines in this age of constant information.  When he called the Chinese “sub-human” over their treatment of animals, many blasted his choice of words, but many like me also saw for the first time the cruel treatment of dogs and other animals in China.

In this single Morrissey is making cause with the oppressed masses of the world.  He specifically mentions Egypt, Bahrain, Brazil and the Ukraine.  The rich who run our governments and corporations are his antagonists.  He also is belittling the safe middle class life that allows those oppressors to keep their power.

In the middle of the song he sings the provocative line, “Each time you vote you support the process.”  Now I am someone that believes one should always vote.  However, like Chuck D has said, voting should be like taking a bath in that you should always do it, but it’s the least you can do and you shouldn’t feel too proud of yourself for doing so.  I am still someone that believes strongly in voting as it is one of the many tools we have for influencing a democracy.

However, this is where the books that I mentioned earlier and Morrissey’s nationality come into play.  Morrissey was a vehement critic of Thatcher in the 80’s, especially for how she destroyed the working class.  However, it was Tony Blair’s Britain that aided the U.S. in its criminal invasion of Iraq.  Both Labor and Tories, the two major parties in Britain, are tainted.  He is also an anti-royalist and someone that has noted the police abuse in Britain on many occasions.

As for myself, especially after reading Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, I have realized that both American political parties allow a great deal of state sponsored violence to take place.  Bill Clinton’s presidency ushered in many of the problems that we face today.  I still believe the Democrats are better, especially when held up to the insane right wing Republicans of today, but no one is completely innocent.  We need to do more than pay our taxes and vote to be good citizens.  We need to bare witness to the injustice that is being done in our name with our money.

All of this works for the reason that so many of Morrissey’s songs work.  He is simply one of the best and most original melody writers of our time.  Listen to this song several times and it will get stuck into your head.  He excels at all aspects of the pop song, although I will note that this song’s arrangement is more complex than some of his other singles.  One of his best tricks has always been his scathing words married to his beguiling melodies.  I believe Tony Visconti, one of Morrissey’s producers, said that Morrissey’s main aim was to get people to feel something when listening to his songs, even if that feeling was being uncomfortable.  This song is full of emotion and a large part of that comes from his absolutely stellar melody.

The music and production on this song are excellent.  While not as layered as his masterpiece, Vauxhall and I, the production is probably as large of scale as anything he has put out since.  It starts with percussion and what sounds to me like a didgeridoo before a tinkling piano brings us into the true song.  Despite being just over four minutes it is an epic with a frayed guitar solo, remember when pop songs had those, and an outro of jackbooted drums.

One of the most important things is that the words are actually clear in the mix.  This is normal for a Morrissey record, as you buy his records as much to hear the music as to hear what he has to say, but in much of rock and indie rock has become something of an anomaly.  Often vocals are buried in the mix or treated so heavily that they become another part of the music.

Love him or hate him he is one of the only pop stars that consistently not only has something to say, but is willing to say things that will make certain people uncomfortable, and not just by being sensational.  He wants to see a different world than the one that he lives in.  He still views the pop song as a place for ideas and revolution.  Some may laugh at this, but just last year there was a girl photographed bravely in front of riot police at a protest in Britain.  Guess what, she was wearing a Smith’s shirt.

Morrissey and John Lennon

Could this be an arm around my waist?
Well, surely the hand contains a knife?
It’s been so all of my life
Why change now? It hasn’t

Now this might surprise you but
I find I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
Or your morality to save me
No, no, no, no, no

Then came an arm around my shoulder
Well, surely the hand holds a revolver?
It’s been so all of my life
Why change now? It hasn’t

Now this might disturb you but
I find I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
Or your benevolence to make sense
No, no, no, no

After all these years
I find I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
Or your homespun philosophy
No, no, no, no

This might make you throw up in your bed
I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
And I never have, I never have
No, no, no, no

I’m OK By Myself by Morrissey.  This is the last track to his excellent last album, Years of Refusal.  The story goes that John Lennon initially liked Yoko Ono because she had an art exhibit that said, “Yes.”  He says that if it had said “no” it probably would have been a different outcome.  Morrissey ends this album, and you need to listen to the recorded version to get some kind of idea, by singing the word no over and over again like some kind of disembodied spirit.  Morrissey has a very dry sense of humor, but it is there in spades. 

It would do a disservice to the complexity of these two artists to contrast them.  Although John Lennon is perceived often as being a source of light, while Morrissey is often seen as the pope of mope, John Lennon did write Working Class Hero, which is an extremely angry song, and Morrissey did write a song called Do Your Best and Don’t Worry.  Both artists were actually of Irish descent, although Lennon’s grandparents moved to England and Morrissey’s parents were actually immigrants. 

In fact in a strange way Working Class Hero could actually be a Morrissey song.  Many Morrissey songs deal with a sort of pining for a lost English working class.  The early Smiths song Jeane is about a working class couple that can’t keep their heads above water.  “We tried, but we failed.”

Both of them serve the disenfranchised in different ways.  Their writing and their sensibilities are miles apart, but their aims aren’t necessarily much different.  Lennon again wrote the angry political anthem Working Class Hero as mentioned above.  Morrissey, who possesses an extreme hate for Margaret Thatcher, largely because her policies destroyed the British working class, wrote Margaret on the Guillotine

Last year there was a photo of an unarmed English girl standing up to the riot police during a protest wearing a Smiths t-shirt.  His fans get it, even if much of the general public does not.  Morrissey is a source of light for many who have been locked out of the system whether socially or economically.  That is one of the reasons here in the U.S. he has a large Latino fan base.  Much as Lennon is often reduced to a simple cartoon that stood for peace, when in fact he was much more complicated, Morrissey has often been reduced to a sad depressing character in the media when in fact he is much more complex as well. 

The song above would be seen by many as just another anthem from miserable Morrissey, the cartoon character.  But the truth is the song makes me smile.  It has a sort of dramatic humor about it.  And also, what is it if not a song to those that are alone, that they will be OK.  As Morrissey sang in another song, “There are things worse in life than never being someone’s sweetie.”  

I’m OK By Myself link: