The Smiths, together for a mere five years (1982 to 1987), changed the face of rock music and inspired a cult of fandom nearly unmatched since Beatlemania. Formed in Manchester, England, vocalist Steven Patrick Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr wrote most of the group’s material, joined by bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. They debuted with their eponymous first record in 1984, an album that introduced Morrissey’s distinctive croon and confessional lyrics to the world, as well as his brilliant partnership with Marr’s ear for melody.
Meat Is Murder (1985) marked the Smiths’ greatest commercial success, and its follow-up, The Queen Is Dead (1986), is generally regarded as their masterpiece. The following year saw the release of the group’s final proper LP, Strangeways, Here We Come, a more experimental and muscular album. Several compilation albums – Hatful of Hollow (1984), The World Won’t Listen (1987), and Louder Than Bombs (1987) – collect the Smiths’ stellar non-album tracks, many of which are among their most famous and beloved material.
What to make of the Smiths today? You likely know more than a few Morrissey and Marr devotees, and whether you count yourself among their ranks or not, you know this band is a Big Deal — capital B, capital D — to a lot of folks. Here you have it, the Top 13 Songs by the Smiths.
13. “William, It Was Really Nothing” – single (1984)
Talk about efficiency. In just over two minutes, the Smiths manage to bang out one of their finest pop songs. Johnny Marr strums the hell out of his acoustic guitar, setting the frantic pace for the track’s backdrop, and picks out an equally peppy melody on his ever-reverbed electric. Meanwhile, Morrissey unintentionally croons to his fans a rhetorical question: “Would you like to marry me?” What do you think they’ll say?
12. “The Headmaster Ritual” – Meat Is Murder (1985)
Most everyone knows Morrissey the Confessional Poet, but Smiths fans love his other prominent role, Morrissey the Politician, just as much. “The Headmaster Ritual” lets him fill both shoes — an adolescent boy’s torture in school would be material enough for a typical Moz investigation, but here the singer also uses the opportunity to write a screed against corporal punishment, as well. The emotional bruises get matched up side-by-side with the physical, but Marr and bassist Andy Rourke’s swinging rhythms make the hurt go down easy.
11. “Hand in Glove” – single (1983), The Smiths (1984)
The Smiths’ debut single serves as a blueprint for all of their best material to come. Morrissey proudly proclaims himself an outsider as he and his love — impoverished and iconoclastic — take on the world: “Hand in glove / The good people laugh / Yes, we may be hidden by rags / But we have something they’ll never have.” Marr’s guitar chimes and the rhythm section gives much-needed muscle to Morrissey’s sentimentalism. Moz went on record years later as loving this song the most in his band’s discography, and that’s a fair choice.
10. “Reel Around the Fountain” – The Smiths (1984)
Sadism, masochism, possible pedophilia — try those on for size in your debut record’s opening track. Even better, try making the whole thing sound discomfortingly romantic. Morrissey sings of an older lover taking a child “and making him old” in the course of an evening. His sexuality here is blunt but lyrical, with lines like, “Fifteen minutes with you / I wouldn’t say no…” and “You can pin and mount me / Like a butterfly”, expressing his desire in vivid language. Musically, the song’s gentle sway laid the foundation for a legion of Britpoppers to come marching down the road.
9. “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” – Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
The Smiths sound actually menacing on “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours”, the opening track to their vastly underrated final album. Strangeways, Here We Come points toward the heavier, more rock-oriented sounds that the Smiths may have continued to explore had they not called it quits, and “A Rush” is the finest example of that evolution. Just check Moz’s growl at the start of the chorus — there’s real anger here. Of course, Morrissey undercuts the hate with his sharp sense of humor; once he and his lover recapture their territory, “The people who are uglier than you and I / Take what they need and leave.” A dream, perhaps, but for once, the Smiths sound beefed up enough to take charge.
8. “Panic” – single (1986)
Written as a reaction to the facile sounds of popular radio in the 1980s, “Panic” simultaneously became one of the Smiths’ most successful and most controversial songs. Some people accused Morrissey and the band of racism, centering on the singer’s invocation to “Burn down the disco / Hang the blessed DJ.” Judge as you see fit — the band claims it wrote the track after hearing news of the Chornobyl disaster, followed immediately by a radio DJ playing Wham!’s “I’m Your Man”. In that context, “Panic” simply asks that rock music have something to say to its audience — and it does so with one of the Smiths’ greatest hooks, to boot.
7. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
Still a staple of Morrissey’s live shows, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” famously has the singer inhabiting the skin of Joan of Arc, claiming — as grandiosely as ever — he knows how she felt “as the flames rose to her Roman nose”. As the band burns away behind him, Moz also drops one of his most infamously melodramatic verses: “Oh Sweetness / Sweetness, I was only joking / When I said I’d like to / Smash every tooth in your head / Oh Sweetness / Sweetness, I was only joking / When I said by rights / You should be bludgeoned in your bed.” Angry? Yes. Insensitive? Definitely. Ringing true to life? That, too.
6. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” – single (1984)
“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” might, for better or worse, sum up the Smiths to fans and detractors alike. Gentle instrumentation, a melody as sticky as rubber cement, and Morrissey’s woe-is-me lyrics — they’re all here. Of course, the song is also laugh-out-loud funny (“In my life / Why do I smile / At people who I’d much rather / Kick in the eye?”) and as effortlessly beautiful as anything pressed onto wax in the 1980s. The song’s strength lies in Morrissey’s singular ability to blend tongue-in-cheek with heart-on-sleeve. We feel his pain, but we can laugh with him, too: “What she asked of me at the end of the day / Caligula would have blushed!” Play this track for anyone who keeps pigeonholing the Smiths as sad-sack solipsists.
5. “This Charming Man” – single (1983), The Smiths (1984)
Johnny Marr is the star of the show here. His guitar lick at the beginning of “This Charming Man” was enough to inspire a million like-minded kids to pick up the instrument themselves. Morrissey’s no slouch, either, giving one of his best vocal performances with one of his finest sing-song melodies, and that yelp is classic. Who said Smiths fans couldn’t have dance parties, too?
4. “How Soon Is Now?” – “William, It Was Really Nothing” single (1984)
Possibly the Smiths’ most famous song among casual listeners, “How Soon Is Now?” got its start as a b-side. That just goes to show you the strength of the band’s material. Morrissey didn’t even need the a-side to make room for his most famous proclamation: “I am human, and I need to be loved / Just like everybody else does.” In writing this song, he and his band guaranteed they’d have the love of generations to come.
3. “Ask” – single (1986)
“Ask” is one of the most uplifting, encouraging songs you’re likely to hear — even more notable, then, that it was written by a band pegged by many as depressive to a pitch. Morrissey momentarily steps out of his shell, knowing that “Shyness is nice”, but “Shyness can stop you / From doing all the things in life you’d like to.” The instrumentation glides effortlessly toward the stratosphere. If you’re in need of a pick-me-up, drop the needle on this one.
2. “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” – single (1985), The Queen Is Dead (1986)
“How can they see the love in our eyes / And still they don’t believe us?” Thus Morrissey put into words the yearnings of every 16-year-old in the human race. That’s not to disparage him — if nothing else, the Smiths’ gift to their listeners lies in their validation of the adolescent experience, of saying, “Hey — you feel this way, other people feel this way, and that’s worth getting excited about.” With that sentiment, “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” has been an anthem for boys and girls alike for a quarter century now.
1. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
The Smiths arguably have more great non-album singles than any other group in the last three decades. Nevertheless, their finest track may be a deep album cut. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, the penultimate song on The Queen Is Dead, shines (sorry) atop their staggering discography. If the Smiths express longing more articulately than any of their peers, “There Is a Light” hits that mark more strikingly than any of the band’s other songs. “And in the darkened underpass,” Morrissey sings, “I thought, ‘Oh God, my chance has come at last / But then a strange fear gripped me, and I just couldn’t ask.” The band’s stately orchestration aches just as powerfully. The combination makes for one of the finest, most affecting songs in rock history.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 1 July 2011.