Number 4 in our series of blogs on the best ideas The Smiths had, the ones that changed pop and people’s lives forever. In the first blog, we argued that the band’s best idea of all was breaking up and staying that way, forever protecting their legacy. Blog 2 celebrated the band’s extraordinary b-sides while blog 3 took on sex in The Smiths, arguing that innuendo often provided a life and humour that was a key element of the band’s appeal.
This brings us – inevitably – to The Smiths’ lyrics as one of their great, defining ideas. And they were an idea: when he sat in his room and drew up his plan, Morrissey accomplished something which not even many novelists manage, let alone pop lyricists – he deliberately and meticulously designed his own lexicon, a way with words that became for thousands a way of seeing the world.
In fact, it was only during the long, tricky process of writing this blog that we realised the full scale of Morrissey’s achievement. We knew that he was a great lyricist, of course: that’s an accepted fact even amongst those who otherwise loathe him. But it was only when we went through the songs line by line that we realised how much work had gone into them and yet how effortless they seemed.
Let’s start with an obvious but crucial fact: when you hear a great Smiths lyric you know it can only be The Smiths. Others have tried to ape Morrissey’s style – Gene being the most glaring example – but always end up looking like clumsy shoplifters. Only Morrissey can write something as ornate and eloquent as “what she read: all heady books, she’d sit and prophesise” and follow it immediately with the lascivious earthiness of “it took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead, to really really open her eyes.”
Note too the loving reference to Birkenhead, surely its only appearance in song. As with many novelists but few pop singers, location was always a crucial element of The Smiths’ early lyrical universe. The ruffians had to be from Rusholme, failure must mean Whalley Range and if Manchester has much to answer for, that’s because Morrissey is always asking it questions. It was Northern England, particularly the North West, that provided the grit and wit that grounded Morrissey’s more exalted language. The idioms were there from the start of their career (“stay on my arm you little charmer”) to the bitter end (“who said I lied because I never – I never”). Indeed, it can be argued that the further Morrissey removed himself geographically from his loved/hated Manchester, the less distinctive his lyrics became – as later lacklustre solo lyrics suggest.
Another key ingredient in Morrissey’s lyrical cocktail was his long love affair with cinema, specifically his fascination with the sixties kitchen sink genre and its strange blend of the theatrical and the everyday. Much has been written about Morrissey’s Shelagh Delaney fixation, but its hard to overlook her importance in the band’s early career. The mordant, beautiful “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” – one of the most underappreciated songs in The Smiths’ canon – is practically a pop song translation of Delaney’s “A Taste Of Honey”, while playful phrases like “you’re the bees knees, but so am I” were lifted gleefully from her plays.
Hollywood was a more subtle influence, but Morrissey’s skilled ear could recognise resonance anywhere. In his hands a line of dialogue like “I’ve watched this happen in other people’s lives and now it’s happened in ours” (from the Katherine Hepburn movie “Alice Adams” ) could be transformed into soaring poetry – as it is during the desperate finale of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More”.
If cinema was important, books were even more so (“there’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.”) Pop Lifer reader Dan Jenkins describes Morrissey as “the last pop star that came with a reading list”, and it is indeed hard to think of any other singer who was so conspicuously literate. Who else could namecheck Wilde and Keats in the same song and not just avoid looking pretentious but make it riotous good fun? Who else could observe the delicate phrasing of “the inevitable heir of nothing in particular” in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and think “well, that’s obviously just waiting to be used in a huge shuddering rock song?”
But – fun though it is to play “spot the reference” – the greatness of The Smiths’ lyrics was that Morrissey didn’t just borrow from prose and poetry, but crafted his own words with the same care and grace that a novelist or poet would. He didn’t just lift Wilde’s florid phrasing and deadpan absurdity, he created his own. More importantly – inspired by idols like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith – he recognised that though the vitality of a pop melody can certainly breathe life into words that might otherwise be banal (“she loves you, yeah yeah, yeah”), they can also be used at their best to make a beautiful phrase or thought fly even higher.
It was in combining these ambitions that The Smiths’ lyrics became something special and unique. Who else but Morrissey would begin a song with the mixture of high phrasing and wry mundanity that is “punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate”, let alone follow that with the delicious epigram “why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?” Who for that matter would have the word “pamper” so readily to hand and fit it to song so perfectly?
This shameless love of words is practically unparalleled in pop. In the achingly sad “Well, I Wonder” the unexpected use of the word “hoarsely” is – as Dan Jenkins points out – “majestic”. Or there’s the “scholarly” room where Morrissey wonders who will swallow whom, or the “humdrum” town where the rain falls down. Words that have never appeared in pop before, but which instantly enriched it.
Not that Smiths lyrics were obscure. Morrissey has always been capable of breathtaking directness: “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” is about as naked a description of depression as you can imagine. Or there’s the slamming rebuke “you shut your mouth” or the sweet simplicity of “when will you accept yourself?” Morrissey always wanted to connect, and it was phrases like these that made Smiths fans feel Morrissey was living inside their own heads, that their words were coming out of his mouth.
Humour was also crucial. That “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is so often cited as proof of what a miserable shower The Smiths were is a brilliant irony: it is of course one of the funniest songs in all pop, swarming with self-mockery like “what she asked of me at the end of the day/ Well, Caligula would have blushed/ ‘You’ve been in the house too long’, she said/ So I, naturally, fled.” There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in The Smiths – from “On the day that your mentality decides to try to catch up with your biology” to the sheer virtuosity of “The pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder” – that barely anyone has even tried to compete with Morrissey for the title of wittiest lyricist in pop, though Neil Tennant has come closest.
And then there’s what can only be described as the masterpieces, the songs where Morrissey channelled all of his lyrical ambitions and talents into tour de forces. There’s “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, with its melodrama of the mundane (“a ten ton truck kills the both of us”), yearning romanticism (“and in the darkened underpass I thought “Oh God, my chance has come at last”/ But then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask”) and final haunting mystery (“There is a light and it never goes out”.)
Or there’s “The Headmaster Ritual” with its mixture of cool, clever phrasing and righteous fury, its “cemented minds” and “belligerent bastards, all”. Or there’s “The Queen Is Dead” with its breakneck race through state of the nation angst (“some nine year old tough who peddles drugs”), slapstick comedy (“she said “I know you and you cannot sing”/ I said “that’s nothing, you should hear me play piano””) and resigned personal sadness (“Life is very long when you’re lonely.”)
We could go on… and on and on. But the final evidence of just how powerful The Smiths’ lyrics were, the proof that Morrissey’s herculean efforts to turn them into true art succeeded, is that so many Smiths fans can recite almost any lyric without having to think twice. Can Clash fans do the same? Blur fans? Even Radiohead fans? That one of us once had an entire ten minute conversation using only Smiths lyrics – and that it was a good conversation – shows the versatility of their language, the extraordinary interweaving of the everyday and the everlasting.
It possibly also shows that we’re a bit geeky when it comes to The Smiths. Talking of which, over to you. Which are your favourite Smiths lyrics? Which are the words that made you cry? Which are the words that saved your life? Let us know in the comments, you clever swine, we know we only scratched the surface.