Excerpted from Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87 Published by Titan Books. Posted with permission of the publisher. All Rights Reserved. Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87 is on sale now wherever books are sold.
‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ (Morrissey/Marr) Recorded September-November 1985, RAK Studios, London/Jacobs Studios, Farnham Produced by Morrissey and Marr Single A-side (Highest UK Chart Placing #26) Released May 1986, Rough Trade (RT192/RTT192) Album track from The Queen Is Dead Released June 1986, Rough Trade (ROUGH96) Following ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ and ‘Rubber Ring’, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ would be the third and final instalment in Morrissey’s highly personal triptych, written consecutively in the summer of 1985, which scrutinised his art and the industry that sustains it. The first (‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’) admitted a hopeless vulnerability to the slings and arrows of music biz and media cynicism being hurled in his direction. The second (‘Rubber Ring’) addressed his audience, questioning their loyalty and the validity of his work. The third – ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ – was the cycle’s vaudevillian conclusion: addressing the same issues of ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ but inverting the accusations of his detractors to set himself up as a pop martyr. All three songs originated from riffs Marr formulated at soundchecks during the March Meat Is Murder tour. He would famously confess that with ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ he set out to write his equivalent of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’: ‘I wanted something that was a rush all the way through, without a distinct middle eight as such. I thought the guitar breaks should be percussive, not too pretty or chordal.’ Recorded at the preliminary Queen Is Dead session at RAK, originally it had been their intention to feature Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals. ‘That’s the first time we met her,’ explains Marr. ‘She came down to the studio and put on these really weird harmonies.’ Though impressed enough with MacColl’s performance to invite her back to sing on the following year’s ‘Ask’, Morrissey and Marr chose to erase her from the finished mix. As a quick-fix replacement, Morrissey substituted a comic ‘chipmunk’ vocal achieved by filtering his singing through a harmoniser. Upon Marr’s suggestion, the result would be credited on the finished record as ‘Ann Coates’ (a pun on the Ancoats district of Manchester). In the shortlist for pseudonyms, Joyce had suggested the equally corny ‘Sally Ford’ (‘as in Salford’). Press officer Pat Bellis would also draw inspiration from its lyrics for her own photographic alter-ego ‘Jo Novark’ (‘Joan of Arc’). The eponymous Bigmouth is very obviously Morrissey himself. When
questioned by the NME in June that year if there was anything he’d regretted saying, he retorted ‘I can’t think of one sentence!’, later admitting that ‘we’re still at the stage where if I rescued a kitten from drowning they’d say, “Morrissey Mauls Kitten’s Body.” So what can you do?’ Thus ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ is an ingenious double-edged sword of simultaneous self-mockery and sarcastic critical deflection. Its first, and only, verse presaged the domestic violence of ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ with its juxtaposition of ‘Sweetness’ beside retracted threats of teeth smashing and bludgeoning. For his troublesome tongue, Morrissey prepares to be burned alive like Joan of Arc; another throwback to Patti Smith’s ‘Kimberly’ (‘the sea rushes up my knees like flame, and I feel just like some misplaced Joan of Arc’). Urban myth has it that the melting Walkman scenario was inspired by a sketch on The Kenny Everett Television Show where the comedian was seen listening to a personal stereo while burned at the stake. By the end of the second chorus, though, the song’s autobiographical undercurrent surfaces beyond all reasonable doubt, when it becomes a hearing aid now being engulfed by the flames. Questioning his right to ‘take my place with the human race’, it soon transpires that all his self-deprecation is merely an elaborate joke to infuriate his tormentors. Laughing maniacally into the fade out, it’s clear that Bigmouth has no intention of disappearing without a struggle. He will – and he did – strike again. Less amusing were the behind-the-scenes struggles in seeing the record released. The interminable delays imposed by Rough Trade shortly after the completion of The Queen Is Dead resulted in a gap of almost nine months (the longest of their career) between ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and its predecessor, ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’. Once the dispute between artist and label was settled, Geoff Travis was adamant that ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ should be their ‘comeback’ record. Luckily, Marr stubbornly insisted that his original choice, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, be selected instead, though Travis’s regret was sustained by its failure to return The Smiths to the top 20. This commercial shortfall aside, the record more than reassured fans who’d feared for the band in their prolonged absence, while whetting the appetite for the imminent third album. If not necessarily their best single overall, the song’s violent comedy and rhythmic ferocity (‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ meets Saint Joan) ranks ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ among their most intrepid pop creations.
‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ (Morrissey/Marr) Recorded March 1984, ‘Fallout Shelter’ (Island Studios), London Produced by John Porter Single A-side, (Highest UK Chart Placing #10) Released May 1984, Rough Trade RT156/RTT156 While the genesis of many Smiths songs defy accurate carbon dating, the origins of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ can be reliably traced to a bedroom of the Iroquois Hotel, West 44th Street, New York City on 1st January, 1984 or thereabouts. Following the previous evening’s calamitous show at the Danceteria and the onset of Joyce’s chickenpox, Morrissey and Marr tempered their homesick despair by writing a cathartic ballad in the singer’s room, alone save some cockroaches and the lingering ghost of the hotel’s previous lodger, James Dean. The imminent Sandie Shaw collaboration very much on his mind, Morrissey’s weakness for puns resulted in his twist of Shaw’s 1969 chart miss ‘Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now’ into ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. As Morrissey would explain, the lyrics of the song harked back to his own ‘very brief spasms of employment’ in the past and the agony of feeling one’s soul shoehorned into the living hell of nine to five mediocrity. ‘It always seemed to me that there were moments of the day when I’d realise I was working with these people that I despised. I had to talk to these horrible people about what they did yesterday and I would have to report to a boss that I couldn’t stand. When you’re in that position, which was the absolute basis of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, you realise that you’re actually spending your entire life living with people you do not like and doing something you do not like, which is incredibly distressing. So that was the basis of the song.’ The magic of ‘Heaven Knows’ lies in its juxtaposition of Marr’s heelclicking melody – punctured by those recurring first four chords, the only shudder of sorrow within a tune otherwise delirious with optimism – with Morrissey’s tragicomic litany of woes. By virtue of its commercial success, the song would famously carve their detractors yawn-inducing ‘miserablist’ cliché in stone, regardless of its manifest hilarity. Here was a single (a top ten hit at that) overflowing with humour, rife with vaudeville wit (the music hall ribaldry of ‘Caligula would have blushed’) and openly rebellious in its Tory-baiting anti-work ethic. As Morrissey reflected the following year: ‘When I wrote an ineffectual line such as “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now”, that outraged people.’ Recorded at the ‘Fallout Shelter’ – the basement studio at Island
Records on St Peter’s Square in Chiswick – along with its B-side, ‘Girl Afraid’, and Sandie Shaw’s ‘Jeane’, the session proved a fortuitous twist of fate for Island’s in-house engineer, Stephen Street. Already a fan of the group, his obvious enthusiasm endeared him to both Marr and Morrissey, much to producer John Porter’s justifiable concerns that his own future with The Smiths may now be in jeopardy. Yet after the unspoken shortcomings of The Smiths, Morrissey would speak glowingly of Porter’s ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and the song’s chart success as the band’s halcyon days. The biggest hit of their career (and their only top ten entry until ‘Sheila Take A Bow’ three years later), he was nevertheless adamant that it still should have climbed higher, protesting somewhat theatrically that the week it charted at number ten it had no airplay on national radio. More regrettable was the unwelcome controversy over its B-side, a second outing for The Smiths’ ‘Suffer Little Children’, long after the single had fallen out of the top 40. A celebratory step forward after the debut album, brilliantly performed and skilfully produced to extract its utmost pop potential, in the summer of 1984 when UK unemployment reached record figures creeping towards 3 and a half million people out of work, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ – The Smiths’ anthemic echo of a tangible national gloom – was simply ingenious.
‘This Charming Man’ (Morrissey/Marr) Recorded September-October 1983, Matrix Studios, London/Strawberry Studios, Stockport Produced by John Porter Single A-side (Highest UK chart placing #25) Released October 1983, Rough Trade (RT136/RTT136) Remixed by Francois Kervorkian Released December 1983, Rough Trade (RTT136NY) The record that was finally to shove The Smiths above the parapet of Peel-championed, music press cult into the mainstream pop arena remains not only one of their greatest achievements but a fair contender for the most life-enhancing piece of seven-inch vinyl ever pressed. The NME’s Danny Kelly would accurately describe the impact of first hearing ‘This Charming Man’ as ‘one of those moments when a vivid, electric awareness of the power of music is born or renewed’. Reviewing the single in the same paper, Paul Morley praised its ‘accessible bliss’ nominating it as one of the greatest singles of that year at the very least. More so than the emotionally fraught gravitas of its predecessor, ‘Hand In Glove’, ‘This Charming Man’ was a knowingly exuberant ‘pop’ construction. By eventually bringing them into living rooms nationwide via Top of the Pops, for legions of future fans (this author included) it imparted the first glimpse into the unknown dominion of Smithdom. The prelude now over, ‘This Charming Man’ felt like The Smiths’ concrete beginning. Marr has since claimed, somewhat incredibly though there is no reason to doubt him, that he wrote the melody ‘in 20 minutes’ one September evening in preparation for their second Peel session, inspired, as he’d also confess, as a self-imposed challenge to rival the sparkle of ‘Walk Out To Winter’, a recent Rough Trade single by Aztec Camera. The result was a supersonic jangling jamboree by way of The Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ nailed to the tempo of the latter’s ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Morrissey would describe the lyrics as ‘just a collection of lines that were very important. They seemed to stitch themselves perfectly under the umbrella of “This Charming Man”.’ Asked for his interpretation, Marr admitted he found the words ‘flummoxing’. From the implicit eroticism of the opening hillside rendezvous between cyclist and motorist, the song is evidently one of sexual initiation, sizzling with flirtatious dialogue and setting a precedent a driver/passenger tryst scenario which Morrissey would return to in ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ and, most famously, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. Furthermore, it’s testament enough to Morrissey’s genius that he could dare open a pop song, one of the greatest pop songs of all time for that
matter, with the words ‘Punctured bicycle’. The chorus features one of the more pronounced and unique instances of appropriation in Morrissey’s lyrics taken from the 1972 film of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine; it’s tempting to speculate whether the singer had viewed the film as recently as 8th July that year when screened late on BBC1. In a pivotal heated exchange, Olivier accuses Caine at gunpoint of being ‘a jumpedup pantry boy who doesn’t know his place’. When exacting his revenge towards the film’s finale, Caine himself repeats the phrase. As the crux of ‘This Charming Man’, Morrissey would later have to account for the expression to overseas journalists. ‘It [refers to] a low-life street character. I’m sure there are worse things that you could be rather than a jumped-up pantry boy, but it just seemed very rhythmical at the time.’ The ubiquitous Shelagh Delaney would also make her mark during the second verse, quoted from the script of the 1961 film version of A Taste Of Honey. During its prologue, after the school netball game one of Rita Tushingham’s classmates asks ‘Are you going dancing tonight?’. ‘I can’t,’ she sulkily replies, ‘I haven’t got any clothes to wear for one thing’. When quizzed by the NME in 1984, Morrissey still insisted this scenario was based on his own experiences: ‘I found that on those very rare occasions when I did get invited anywhere, I would constantly sit down and say, “Good heavens, I couldn’t possibly go to this place tonight because I don’t have any clothes... I don’t have any shoes.” So I’d miss out on all those foul parties. It was really quite a blessing in disguise.’ Geoff Travis attended the Peel recording at BBC’s Maida Vale studios, immediately recognising the song’s potential as a substitute for their proposed second single, ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, now in doubt after its association with The Sun’s ‘child-sex song’ claptrap in the wake of ‘Handsome Devil’. It was, according to Travis, ‘a happy, casual but serious decision. I remember saying, “That’s a fantastic track, it’d make a great single,” and the band said, “That sounds OK by us”.’ Intent on maintaining the label’s release programme, barely a week later The Smiths cancelled a handful of concerts up north to remain in London with John Porter at London’s Matrix, a subterranean studio located near the British Museum. It was Porter who would supply the song with its dramatic tension, recommending they adopt its signature start-stop pauses similar to the glam punctuations employed in Roxy Music’s ‘Virginia Plain’. Yet, as with the Troy Tate album, their initial efforts fell below par. The Matrix master – which as ‘This Charming Man (London)’ would finally feature on the single’s 12 inch as an alternate bonus – lacked the vital emphasis the track deserved, its rhythm too soft, its introduction not nearly robust enough. ‘We worked like maniacs recording those tracks for the single over one
weekend,’ Porter recalls. ‘I think when we played it to Geoff he dug it but he didn’t think it was clean enough. He suggested we go and do it again in Manchester. I think Geoff wanted us to re-do it up there because he wanted it to be more raw and more “Smiths-like” I suppose.’ The following week, a second attempt was recorded back in Strawberry Studios in Stockport. As would become customary during all sessions with Porter, Marr’s guitar parts took priority over everything else. ‘This Charming Man’ allegedly contains in excess of a dozen guitar tracks including three acoustic, a backwards melody with added reverb and Marr’s lead played on a Telecaster. The echoing treble clangs heard at the end of each chorus (and in glorious isolation at the start of the ‘New York (Instrumental)’ 12 inch mix) were achieved by dropping a standard metalhandled household knife onto the strings. ‘Early on they made it clear they didn’t want any other instruments on their records,’ says Porter. ‘They wouldn’t allow backing vocals or whatever. Mozzer was clear about that so it was a case of “OK, any sound we need we’ll do it with guitars”. So me and Johnny would be dropping spanners on them, taping bits up, just having fun smoking a lot of dope while staying up all night and making silly noises.’ Unusually, the track was recorded using a synthetic LinnDrum to keep time, only adding Joyce’s ‘live’ drums at the very end. The necessary re-recording was a triumph; to become the main single version, distinguished on the 12 inch as ‘This Charming Man (Manchester)’. Beginning with Marr’s godlike preface, the song erupts in unrelenting Motown ricochets, sustained by Rourke’s complementary bass tremors. Equally enchanting was its revitalised chorus; a revolving chord run of near jazz-like complexity secured by Rourke’s yo-yoing blues scales. Twenty years on, ‘This Charming Man’ still sounds an immaculate pop single, two minutes and 53 seconds of artery-swelling pop euphoria and in Marr’s own words, ‘the start of Morrissey being a true, wonderful vocalist.’ Their first single to warrant both seven and 12 inch formats (shrewdly pressed with separate B-sides ensuring completists would buy both), Rough Trade made their first major breech of The Smiths’ trust when, in December 1983, they released a second 12 inch single containing two dancefloor orientated remixes by New York DJ Francois Kervorkian. Simple by today’s sophisticated sampling standards, the ‘New York Vocal’ and ‘New York Instrumental’ cuts were too benign to be considered sacrilegious, swamping vocals and drums with reverb and accentuating Rourke’s bouncing bass pattern. Yet its release – supposedly against the group’s consent, an accusation Travis strongly refuted – prompted Morrissey to scold Rough Trade in ensuing interviews. ‘I’m still very upset about that,’ he brooded to Record Mirror the following
February, ‘it was entirely against our principles, the whole thing, it didn’t seem to belong with us. There was even a question of a fourth version, which would have bordered on pantomime. It was called the Acton version, which isn’t even funny.’ Marr, though critical, was slightly more forgiving when speaking to Sounds the same month, admitting they ‘didn’t like the dance mix of “This Charming Man” which they put out as a 12-inch and we told them so, but we’re certainly not going around saying Rough Trade have screwed us up.’ The New York remix debacle was one of the prime catalysts for Morrissey, and soon the rest of the group, to relocate to London by the beginning of 1984 in order to, as he saw it, ‘keep an eye on the record company’. Though relations between the two parties would worsen considerably during the years ahead, for the time being the thrill of their first UK top 30 hit single was an achievement both were justly proud of. Nine years later, ‘This Charming Man’ would go on to reward The Smiths with their highest ever singles chart placing, albeit posthumous, after WEA’s reissue to promote the Best compilation reached number 8 in August 1992.