Some bands take a few years to really get their sound right. Listen to early Joy Division or The Pixies and you’ll hear hints of what they’d become, but it’s rare for a truly revolutionary band to appear pretty much fully formed.
But The Smiths weren’t like other bands. In Morrissey, they had a stunning lyricist and a frontman who understood exactly what the point of a frontman was. In Marr, they had the best guitar player of his generation, stunningly accomplished, always willing to experiment, with a fantastic ear for a melody. His playing is still unparalleled today. In Rourke and Joyce, these two mercurial talents were backed up with a bassist and drummer able to take Marr’s ideas and put them in practice, be they jangly indie-rock or funked-up post-punk.
And it’s their second single, “This Charming Man”, where they show all this skill, this knowledge, this vitality, and put it into one three-minute pop wonder. From the first jangle 1, which almost crashes into chaos before righting itself and kicking into the lead line, you know there’s something special happening. There’s the interlocking guitar and basslines, there’s the way the lead guitar line skitters and jumps around; there’s the complex yet understated production – just listen to this from Johnny Marr (from Guitar Player magazine via Wikipedia):
“I’ll try any trick. With the Smiths, I’d take this really loud Telecaster of mine, lay it on top of a Fender Twin Reverb with the vibrato on, and tune it to an open chord. Then I’d drop a knife with a metal handle on it, hitting random strings. I used it on “This Charming Man”, buried beneath about 15 tracks of guitar … [it] was the first record where I used those highlife-sounding runs in 3rds. I’m tuned up to F# and I finger it in G, so it comes out in A. There are about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it’s really a ’54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar – that comes in at the end of the chorus.”
No wonder I can’t bloody play it.
Funny thing is, it’s all done so well that you hardly notice, yet Marr’s guitar playing was absolutely revolutionary. Everyone from Blur to Noel Gallagher, from Jeff Buckley to Radiohead, cite Marr as their greatest influence. Marr himself, in the great “Guitar Man” by Will Hodgkinson, says there isn’t much to his playing other than imagination and a quest to make interesting music. Oh, and lots, and lots, and lots of practice. I think he’s being too modest, to be honest.
The structure of the song is fascinating too. There’s not really a chorus to speak of; instead, the song features three main motifs, which each repeat a couple of times. It’s not the only time they’d do this, but it works beautifully here.
And on top of all this jangling, the astonishing musicality of the band, is Morrissey. People almost always focus on him, rather than the music. An obscenely gifted lyricist, hugely well-read, he understood utterly what a frontman was there to do – be watched, be copied, be loved or hated, but never, ever ignored. Most people first saw him on Top Of The Pops, singing this very song, wearing a scruffy shirt open down to here, Elvis-quiffed and waving around a bunch of gladioli:
That performance just shouted “I am different, and if you are like me, follow me”. And many did, in their droves. Even someone usually considered somewhat thuggish by indie music fans, Noel Gallaher, said of this performance that it spoke to him. Jeff Buckley, at a live show, when heckled by a member of the crowd to play “Freebird”2, he retorted “60’s? Bullshit. 70’s? Bullshit. 80’s? Big, big bullshit. Except for The Smiths”.
The lyrics themselves are amazing. It takes many listens to really get the message of the song (man gets picked up by another man and, well, one thing leads to another), but what’s utterly striking is the deliberately archaic language – “gruesome”, “handsome”, “a stich to wear”, “pantry boy”. And then there’s the fantastic rhyming couplets:
“Why pamper life’s complexity\When the leather runs smooth\On the passenger seat?”
“I would go out tonight\But I haven’t got a stitch to wear\This man said “It’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care””
Heady, clever stuff. There’s even a quote from an obscure early ’70’s homoerotic movie featuring Michael Caine and Sir Lawrence “Larry” Olivier, “”A jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place” (the latter talking about the former).
With this song, The Smiths showed that it was possible to be literate and tuneful, intelligent and poppy, and most of all different in a way that the likes of Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, REM, The Go-Betweens and The Associates (and many more) had tried, but not quite got right. The Smiths got it right on their second single, and here I am, 26 years on, writing about a song that sounds like it was recorded yesterday and I’m hearing it for the first time. I can’t say enough just how much I love this song. I’ve known it since the week it was first released (thanks to my brother and John Peel) and I still haven’t got bored of it.
I’ve already written over 1000 words about this song, so I really should stop now. All I have to say is, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like The Smiths because of Morrissey (and it’s always because of Morrissey), just listen to this one song, with your preconceptions gone and your ears open, and you’ll hear one of the finest records that was ever made.
And what’s more, most of those bands you love know it too.
1 Which I’m still trying to learn to play 26 years after first hearing it. My fingers just won’t do it.
2 Don’t knock it. I once shouted that at a Silver Mt Zion concert to laughs from most of the band. Not sure that Efrim Menuck found it that funny, but you can’t please everyone.
MP3: This Charming Man by The Smiths
Buy “The Smiths”. Buy it, buy it, buy it. (CD)
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