As of Feb. 20, 2014, 54-year old Steven Patrick Morrissey is about to embark on a tour in support of an upcoming solo album, and remains one of the most iconic figures in modern rock music. Thrity years ago today, the idiosyncratic Mancunian took a major first step into the public eye when the Smiths, the post-punk band he so famously fronted, released their first full-length album. Released via pioneering British indie Rough Trade (and Sire in America), “The Smiths” introduced the quartet as one ready to turn rock music on its head. Morrissey’s lyrics defied the traditional machismo roles of rock vocalists and probed into scandalous territory that often offended the more conservative media in Margaret Thatcher-era England.
And of course there’s Johnny Marr, Morrissey’s legendary songwriting partner, who introduced the world to the blissful jangle of his guitar work on this first album. These days, Morrissey would probably prefer the Smiths’ other two members get nary a mention, though bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce undoubtedly do a dashing job of leading the Smiths’ rhythm section, both into danceable and dark, cavernous territory.
College rock and indie rock already existed (albeit in their early stages) when the Smiths hit in 1984. But after their John Porter-produced debut made its mark, those entire scenes would never be the same. Thirty years after the day of its release, Billboard takes a track-by-track look back at its influence.
1. Reel Around the Fountain
The Smiths make the bold choice to lead off their first album with its longest song, a sprawling, six-minute episode where Morrissey reflects on an early sexual experience with someone presumably much older. Singing from the lower registers of his vocal range, Morrissey gives the song a mostly melancholy feel, though the higher piano flourishes in the refrains give the song flickers of hope. On this album, though, these flickers will be few and far between.
2. You’ve Got Everything Now
The pace picks up here, with this jaunty send off written towards a rival whom Morrissey compares himself to. Moz laments the “terrible mess he’s made of (his) life,” though suggests he’s still of purer spirit than his counterpart. It ends on another upsetting note, with Morrissey shifting into dramatic falsetto and repeating, “I just want to be tied to the back of your car.”
3. Miserable Lie
“Miserable Lie” starts off as a tepid post-punk song before Joyce and Rourke double the tempo about a minute in, leading an unhinged Morrissey down a dizzying path of maniacal falsetto. The last two minutes of this breakup song are among the most unexpected on this album — or in any Smiths song, for that matter.
4. Pretty Girls Make Graves
Musically, this is a fairly standard Smiths song, with Andy Rourke’s strutting bass line high in the mix, leading the jangle melody. Morrissey tells the story of being intimidated by an attractive, sexually promiscuous girl whom he loses to another man. The song title (originally taken from Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums”) also inspired the name of a memorable early 2000s indie rock band.
5. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
“The Smiths” isn’t too big on choruses, and this song — essentially a winding, four-plus minute Morrissey narrative over a gleaming guitar line from Marr — is evidence of that. But listen closely, and you’ll hear Morrissey juxtaposing the soothing arrangement with chilling first person lyrics that involve perhaps murdering a child.
6. This Charming Man
The Smiths’ effortlessly catchy second single finds Morrissey getting a tempting proposition from an older, suaver “charming man” with a fancy car and smooth leather seats. Moreso than any other riff on the album, Marr’s glistening guitarwork encourages the listener to get up and dance, with Rourke’s walking bass line injecting an even deeper groove.
On a side note, “This Charming Man” was (unfortunately) not included on Rough Trade’s original UK issue vinyl issue of the album, though it was featured on Sire’s U.S. counterpart, and in most subsequent releases.
7. Still Ill
In this poignant midtempo cut, Morrissey addresses new laws that decriminalized gay sex in the United Kingdom. He takes jabs at the old guard’s vision of homosexuality as some kind of illness (“Oh am I still ill?”) and ponders the root of his desires (“Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know.”) “Still Ill” still resonates today quite similarly to the way Morrissey intended in 1984.
8. Hand In Glove
The band’s first single is still a truly beautiful song. Marr and Rourke weave their instruments in and out to create and ominous new wave soundscape, while Morrissey gives a dire vocal performance that’s classic Smiths. He sings words of devotion, almost sure he’s found love, but has a nagging feeling he’ll soon lose it. The piercing wail of harmonica adds the perfect amount of torture to the mix.
9. What Difference Does It Make?
As the album’s most direct “rock song” kicks into gear, it’s clear that side B has outdone “The Smiths'” side A. With its prominent new wave guitars and strong hooks, this single is less challenging than much of the album’s other cuts (perhaps that’s why both Morrissey and Marr have since criticized it), though it’s still one of the Smiths’ most enduring songs. Morrissey’s wailing falsetto in the outro remains deeply glamorous.
10. I Don’t Owe You Anything
After an onslaught of several essential Smiths songs, the album slips to one of its less memorable tracks, which meanders around the territory of “Reel Around the Fountain” without sounding as poignant or desperate. Morrissey is turned down by a potential lover, and he spends the song moping about how he or she will soon move onto someone else.
11. Suffer Little Children
Of all the tortured lyrics Morrissey wrote for the Smiths’ first album, those of its final track may be the most harrowing. “Suffer Little Children” is written from the perspective of five children who were sexually assaulted and murdered near Morrissey’s home in Manchester in 1965, when he was just years old. In this dirge of a closer, Morrissey laments this tragedy that shook him as a youth, giving a most gripping ending to an album full of gut-wrenching vignettes.