You Should Hear Me Play Piano

So today I finally cracked. Three days of this Jubilee malarkey is all well and good, but the whole thing started to get on my nerves after a while. By this afternoon I was starting to wonder if the French had had the right idea. Still, if the alternative was President Thatcher then I suppose I can take a Queen for a bit longer, especially with one who has spent much of the weekend looking like she’d rather be sat in front of a roaring fire with a nice cup of tea. And the extra day off has been nice too.

Not that our old chum Morrissey would see things the same way. I’ve been reminded this weekend of the old Smiths classic “The Queen Is Dead”, which inadvertantly ended up being played in the kitchen the other day. The kids seemed to like it. If you don’t know it, listen below:

If you do know it, then, well, it’s nice to be reminded of such a cracking song, eh? All the usual Smiths tropes are there, the maundlin mention of rain, the shared intimacy of talking of precious things, the sly humour (“I’m the eighteenth pale descendant\Of some old queen or other”), the left-wing politics, all finished with the none-more-Smiths “Life is very long when you’re lonely”. And by jove, did I wonder that today when I saw Prince Charles gazing from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Tied to his mother’s apron, indeed.

MP3: The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths

Buy “The Queen Is Dead” Here

The Pitchfork 500 Indie Explosion Part 1 – Mekons to The Smiths

The mid-’80’s saw the UK Independent music scene reach another of its many high points. For a couple of years, the scene had been characterised by ramshackle amateurism, post-punk dourness and not a small amount of glumness (following on from the late ’70’s glories). But as always in the ever-changing UK scene, like mushrooms growing from manure, some of the finest pop music known to man sprung from all over the UK. Others, like The Jesus And Mary Chain, found new ways to be angry and noisy and blew apart the hitherto moribund scene.

The Mekons – Last Dance
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just Like Honey
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?

The Mekons were a punk collective, formed in Leeds in the furnace of the punk years. Then they did the usual thing, and broke up. Then, being a forward-looking bunch, decided to not bother reforming in the mid Naughties like compatriots Gang Of Four and got back together in 1984 to do some gigs supporting the Miner’s Strike. Taking the opportunity to experiment, they added a violinist, an accordionist, and sundry other members and set about making a kind of ramshackle folk sound, using their curiosity and a certain amount of musical talent to make charmingly tuneful, if somewhat disorganised music.

Charmingly Ramshackle

“Last Dance” tells the tale of being drunk in a nightclub, watching some lovely lady dancing away on her own. Sure, there’s quite a few examples of this genre in everything from Country to Hip-Hop, but few have put it quite as charmingly as this:

“So beautiful, you were waltzing\Little frozen rivers all covered with snow”

You don’t get that from 50 Cent. There’s more to the song than just drunken letching though; the line “as if seeing you for the first time” points out that he’s not just randomly ogling, there’s a depth to this apparently one-sided relationship, adding a certain poignancy. The Mekons never really got any kind of mainstream success or recognition, but have continued releasing records to a small, loyal and fervent fanbase. And who can blame them? This is exactly the kind of largely unknown gem that the Pitchfork 500 does such a good job in digging up, and one of those songs that makes you glad to trawl through the whole load. Lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The Jesus and Mary Chain were anything but lovely. Loveliness was not their thing. Their thing was noise, great big globbets of it. Noisy guitars, noisy drums belted out by a lank-haired goon standing up1, cooler-than-thou vocals from a man who looked like he hadn’t eaten in about 12 years. I cannot understate the shock value of this band in 1985. Hailing from Glum City Central, Glasgow, they exploded onto the scene, did 20 minute gigs which usually ended up in a fight, and wrote one of the best2 debut albums around (that’ll be Psychocandy). I actually got this as a Xmas present that year, which still fills me with pride.

Cheer Up, Lads, One Of You Will Have It Off With Hope Sandoval

But you know what, this is the wrong song. Frankly, “Just Like Honey” doesn’t have any of the buzzsaw impact of “Never Understand”, their first single. This is just a bit, well, girly. Worse, even at the time, it was shamefully derivative. Trust me, if a spotty-faced oikish 14 year old could spot that this was hardly original, then your number is up. Sure, the song is a good ‘un, but as far as the impact of the JAMC goes, the likes of “In a Hole” and “You Trip Me Up” had far more of an impact, at least in the UK. But as a demonstration of how you can take The Velvet Underground, mix in some Phil Spector drums, and fuzz it all up a bit, I suppose it’s got its merits.

As for The Smiths “How Soon Is Now?”, what can I say? If you’ve been reading this blog at all (and taking any kind of notice), you’ll be thinking “Oh God, not another 1,000 word post on how great The Smiths are and if you don’t like them, you’re wrong, you hate music and you probably eat kittens with dormouse sauce for dinner”.

Well, I don’t really like this song very much. There, I said it. Look, I know it’s sonically adventurous, I know it’s the single that broke them in the US3, I know it’s got some marvellously glum lyrics that encapsulate everything about Morrissey in one, nearly-rhyming couple (“I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”), but, but, but….I just don’t like it. There’s no little glistening glimmer of light in amongst the glumness, unlike in their finest hours. So for that, “How Soon Is Now?”, you’re fired.

Next up is the second part of this series, with the likes of New Order and Cocteau Twins. Sweet. By the way, long-term readers might notice the lack of YouTube videos; this is due to a lack of access to YouTube at the moment. Should be fixed soon, my friends.

1 Who later went onto fame as the lead singer of a twee indie-pop group called Primal Scream, who shamefacedly reinvented themselves as a hard-rocking, hard-drugging band, to much laughter from those in the know and much love from those not. I’m not a fan. Though I do like “Velocity Girl”, but let’s not get into that now.

2 Ok, maybe not “best”, but at least “most recognisable” and “strongly defined” and “better than anything they did in the future”. File under “Definitely Maybe”.

3 Like that counts for anything.

MP3: Last Dance by The Mekons

MP3: Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain

MP3: How Soon Is Now by The Smiths

Buy “Heaven and Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons” (CD)

Buy JAMC’s “Psychocandy: Remastered” (CD)

Buy “Meat Is Murder” by The Smiths (CD) (What, you don’t have this already? Shame on you).

Inappropriate Songs (Part 312 of an ongoing series)

In case you haven’t already heard, Morrissey collapsed onstage during a show in Swindon last night. Here’s been unwell this year – having to cancel shows due to illness – and he’s currently in hospital under observation. Let’s hope that whatever he is suffering from is treated quickly and that he gets better soon. For all his faults, he is an amazing lyricist and one of the most original and influential musicians of the last 30 years. He’s given me countless hours of solace and joy, made me laugh and cry (sometimes at the same time) and generally made this world a much finer place to be in.



So, as a get well soon tribute, I looked in my iTunes to see what I could post. And the first song I thought about posting was “Still Ill”.


Then I thought, right, a much more chirpy number will be better. “Cemetry Gates”?

Oh dear, this really won’t do.


I really need to get a grasp of myself here.

So eventually I’m settling on two of his greatest songs, one from their greatest album which deftly defines my issues this morning, and one “Ask”, probably the last excellent Smiths song, which neatly encompasses everything that is great and wonderful about their music – that line “Spending warm summer days indoors” says pretty much all you need to know about him, and The Smiths. I love spending warm summer days indoors, me, much to the chagrin of Mrs Loftandlost.

I’ve not been so enamoured of his solo work, but occasionally one pops up and smacks me in the gob, so to speak. Unfortunately the last one to do that is called “First Of The Gang To Die”.

Oh, sod it. He’d only laugh.

Get well soon, Moz.

MP3: Bigmouth Strikes Again by The Smiths

MP3: Ask by The Smiths

MP3: First Of The Gang To Die [Live] by Morrissey

Buy “The Queen Is Dead” (CD) (What do you mean, you don’t have this?)

Buy “Louder Than Bombs” (CD) (Just for Ask, really)

Buy “You Are The Quarry” (CD/MP3)

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The Charming Pitchfork 500 – The Smiths

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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