On First Listen
The Smiths

on First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.

For one reason or another, it just never happened between me and the Smiths. I've since realized, even before I sat down and attempted to really listen to the Smiths, that it was always going to be about Morrissey's voice. Not that I immediately took a dislike to what he was saying (though that would come in time), but just the sound of his schoolboy wail, his Tuesday-morning high colonic of a voice drove me to the brink. It's akin to my experience with U2. Growing up, I tried to like U2. I tried to listen to The Joshua Tree. I never made it past side one. I thought I was crazy, but then, years later, I spoke to my father about it. He had felt the same way—there's was just an indefinable something about Bono's voice that irritated us both like a corncob up the ass. It's also, and this is entirely a function of time and you can blame my not-getting-into-these-artists-then for it, but both Bono and Morrissey have a public persona that strikes me as everything despicable about rock stars with none of what's cool.

Right then, the music. Admittedly, guitar bands are hardly my forte, but the Smiths are fairly inoffensive—and it must be said, they write some catchy tunes, or at least a catchy tune. Repeat tune with minor chord changes. Repeat. Listening to the Smiths as a singles band must have been fun—microvariations on the classic formula of plaintive warble over pretty guitar, each new song a fresh peek into the social mores of doe-eyed Brit youths. Listening to 160 minutes of their music, however, is like being pounded to death by a bag full of rose petals and peacock feathers, like being buried alive to the tune of ten thousand tinny bedroom epiphanies with the treble turned up to 11. The Smiths' gestation period was admirably brief—their transition from tangled jumble to jangled tumble surfaces fully-formed in 1983's "This Charming Man." B-sides and album tracks like "Jeane" and "Still Ill" reveal their dusky secret—they're clearly indebted to fellow Mancunians Joy Division and New Order. Fortunately, they quickly outgrew the structured gloom of the former and indie-dance clamor of the latter for their own unique blend of miserablist poetry and sinuous guitar, draped in two decades of British R&B; and US power-pop. Oh, they had their "dissonant" moments, too—the horrid "Meat Is Murder" reminds one of those "look, we're edgy and experimental" noise tracks that Pearl Jam and Tool routinely ended their 90's-era albums with.

On the whole, however, the music of the early Smiths must have been a rather delightful tonic for those in the early 80's unwilling to barter with po-faced gloom, silly New Romanticism, or, you know, music made by black people. Unfortunately, you can't hear a fucking note of it. I know I'll be taken to task for focusing so heavily on Steven Patrick Morrissey at the expense of the rest of the band, but for the first half of their career you're given little other choice. The Man Who Would Be Moz moans, groans, draws out vowels until the end of time, yelps tunelessly and in general completely gives in to his proclivity to fill every available bar of each song with yet more of his insufferable vocalese. Which would be one thing if you had a natural four-octave range or incredible facility with note-bending, but Morrissey sounds more like Nicky Siano than Nina Simone. Heaven knows if you can't hit that note, you probably shouldn't try.

It's in their later recordings that the sound of the Smiths as an "actual band" emerges—drifting away from stringy, jingly feyness and towards a crisper, meatier sex-type thing. "I Started Something..." depicts it well—Marr indulges his desire for big rockin', struggling to overthrow his silent partnership, but Moz forces out a "manly" growl that ensures the results are hamfisted rather than handclappin'. Still, there's a reason why The Queen is Dead is accounted their one true masterpiece of an album—it's the point at which Morrissey learns his place within the band, at least to a degree, generally eschewing his tendency to overwhelm the music with his persona. Of course, when he does let restraint slip during this era, he goes all out—subjugating the band's most danceable single ("Panic") with self-indulgences like "the music they play, it says nothing to me about my life." Well, Steve, that's because you're a miserable, repressed, solitary wanker—nobody else's music will say anything to you because you've already said it all—about your life and no one else's, encoded eternally for every tea-sipping faux-celibate acolyte to follow, experiencing a vicarious existence through your own experience of a vicarious existence through the tedious music of your band.

Still, there is a legacy here that makes the group valid to more than just the cult of Moz: there's the undeniable influence on legions of sweater-clad bands from Weezer to Death Cab. The creation of this swarm is hardly something I'm thankful for, but it is an achievement worth noting—the Smiths are the architects of feeling bad not because feeling bad is so cathartic a thing, but because feeling good is so very common. It's exactly what makes them so ultimately dispensable, so much a product of Thatcher-dominated Britain, so easily placed in a box, labeled, and left on a shelf to gather (no doubt very poetic) dust, while Morrissey continues on a solo career rivaling Hank Williams, Jr.'s in terms of sheer bloat and redundancy. When all is said and done, the Smiths did nothing more than establish the playlist for the last third of Morrissey's solo concerts and provide a crack guitarist for the eminently more enjoyable Electronic.

Disc One
01. Hand in Glove
02. This Charming Man
03. Jeane
04. What Difference Does It Make?
05. Still Ill
06. Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
07. William, It Was Really Nothing
08. Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
09. How Soon Is Now?
10. The Headmaster Ritual
11. Rusholme Ruffians
12. What She Said
13. That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore
14. Nowhere Fast
15. Meat Is Murder
16. Shakespeare's Sister
17. The Boy With the Thorn in His Side
18. Rubber Ring

Disc Two
01. Bigmouth Strikes Again
02. The Queen Is Dead
03. Frankly Mr. Shankly
04. Cemetry Gates
05. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
06. Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
07. Panic
08. Ask
09. Shoplifters of the World Unite
10. You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby
11. Sheila Take a Bow
12. Girlfriend in a Coma
13. I Started Something I Couldn't Finish
14. Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before
15. Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
16. Paint a Vulgar Picture
17. I Won't Share You

By: Mallory O’Donnell
Published on: 2006-07-26
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