I was nine years old, foolish and feeble, when I first heard “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” by The Smiths. Even to my impossibly young and tiny mind I could sense it was something special – the greatest piece of music I’d ever heard. Not that I was any kind of taste-maker savant: I was listening to Starship, The Bangles, and Mel & Kim at this time – life was so much simpler then! But something happened during those three and a half minutes – a firing of synapses, an explosion of neurochemicals, a cloudburst of endorphins – that started a love affair (one-sided, as far as I know) that would stay with me for life.
“Best of Lists” – gospel to some, anathema to others – will tell you that The Queen Is Dead is the quintessential Smiths album. But for me Strangeways, Here We Come has always been the definitive Morrissey & Marr record. From the prolonged wraith-like yowl that opens “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” to the dying jangle of “I Won’t Share You”, it has it all: hooks that could disembowel a Targaryen dragon, unforgettable chord progressions, melodies that would make Orpheus weep – and it’s not blighted by the production issues that blemished their debut. Subconsciously, I suspect it’s also because it was their final LP – there’s something profoundly romantic about that, as if it serves as an aural portal to connect me to The Smiths as they were in their most fractured end of days. Morrissey & Marr were two divergent halves of the perfect rock star, cruelly – or perhaps wisely – segregated into separate shells.
There’s no doubt Morrissey is a polarising figure – but people do themselves a disservice if they steer clear of his music because of his self-indulgent aggrandising. He only channeled the best of his highly literate self into The Smiths’ canon: bleakly beautiful imagery (“This Charming Man”), wry humour (‘”The Queen Is Dead”), and a profound understanding of the insatiable longing and angst at the heart of the human condition (“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”). People who tell me that The Smiths were wholly miserable haven’t really listened to their work – I often find myself laughing out loud at Morrissey’s lyrics – one of his greatest strengths is in how he balances humour and pathos in his songs.
I listen to The Smiths a lot, more than any other band – there’s something wildly hypnotic at the core of their music that inspires fervent devotion in many of their fans. A friend recently told me that for him The Smiths transcended religion, that they were the single most important factor in his world – of more consequence than life and death. I told him to stop being ridiculous, of course. The Smiths are so much more than that.