On the 30th anniversary of The Smiths‘ swan-song has Strangeways Here We Come, Del Pike delves into the album and the day the music died.
As the final Smiths album, Strangeways Here We Come enters its 30th year, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on why no matter how much praise the album receives, it is a constant reminder of the darkest of days – for the more mature Smiths fans at least.
Any Smiths retrospective will try and convince that despite The Queen is Dead being The Smiths’ Sgt Pepper, Strangeways Here We Come, their fourth and final studio album, released in September 1987, really is the better album. Do they really mean this or are they avoiding the truth just to be provocative? If you were like myself, a diehard fan at the time the album was launched, then the album may not seem such a cause for celebration.
Rewind if you will to the summer of 1986. The thought of The Smiths ever retiring seemed like an impossibility to a 19 year old be-quiffed soul like myself. The Queen is Dead was the album of the year, no argument. The road to this perfect release had been sublime. The unfairly maligned, self-titled debut album released in 1983 saw Morrissey laying his soul bare and expressing thoughts on celibacy, violence, academia, awkwardness and the Moors Murderers. Anyone in doubt of their genius could do worse than to listen to the 1984 compilation of singles, B sides and radio sessions, Hatful of Hollow (1984) as further proof. 1985’s Meat is Murder, originally a nine track aural documentary of Britain, calling in on brutal schools and households, travelling fairs, Royal palaces, slaughterhouses and Birkenhead, and leaving room for a little romance, put The Smiths on the world stage. The treasury of accompanying singles during this period made life as a Smiths fan a glorious place to be.
By 1986, the band were filling concert halls in America and looking every part the 80’s rock star, swapping charity shop chic (before it even existed) for mirror shades and designer blazers, they even had their own drugs casualty in the temporarily dismissed bassist, Andy Rourke. Despite this hiccup, it felt like the band would last forever, how wrong we were.
I remember watching The Smiths miming along to “Sheila Take a Bow” on Top of the Pops in April ‘87 and thinking, what if this were all to end, right now? It seemed too jubilant, the glam stomping and posturing had reached new heights and it really did feel too good to be true. And it was. On August the 1st, the NME broke the news that The Smiths were splitting up. The world momentarily stood still.
It might seem hard to believe now that this was such a big deal, but this was a time when the printed word was a much more valuable medium. Interviews with Morrissey and Marr in the weekly music press became our beloved possessions. And their obsessions, particularly Morrissey’s became the very fabric of our own lives. Smiths fans not only listened to the music but on the recommendation of Morrissey also listened to The New York Dolls and Sandie Shaw, read Oscar Wilde and devoured the kitchen sink movies of the 50s and 60s. Many became vegetarian and found ease in admitting to being fey and bookish. The thought of Morrissey and his band not being around anymore was too much to bear. The title of “Sheila Take a Bow” was perhaps more prophetic than we realised and the stabilisers had been taken off our bikes.
“Girlfriend in a Coma“, the lead single from Strangeways was released in August following the news of the split and everything about it seemed like a portent that the end was truly nigh. The Black 12” sleeve featuring a grave-gravel green image of Taste of Honey playwright Shelagh Delaney, looking over her shoulder, was poignant in that we all new she was one of Morrissey’s true heroes.
Smiths fans were obsessed with such details as the varying colours of the record labels as Rough Trade bowed down to the whims of Morrissey and design collaborator Jo Slee. That this label was black when the previous three had been bright pink, felt like a message too. The scored in memo on the run out groove of the 7” simply read, “AND NEVER MORE SHALL BE SO”.
The grave humour and the theme of illness wasn’t new in any way, but now it felt real. Here was a band on their last legs. even the video saw Morrissey alone, apart from the band, superimposed over images of Rita Tushingham in the 1964 movie, The Leather Boys. The video for I started something I couldn’t finish released later that year also featured a Smith-less Moz, surrounded by clones on bikes cycling around the Salford Lads Club in Smiths T-shirts and NHS specs. Former glories for all to see. The painful images of iconic Smiths posters, wet and torn, flapping against a wire fence or lying in a puddle spoke volumes.
When Strangeways finally came in September, it was not the same fanfare as that sunny day in June ’86 when The Queen is Dead arrived, but an end of summer offering. Even the sleeve was a shadow of what had gone before. An out of focus shot of Richard Davalos, taken from the 1955 James Dean movie, East of Eden was a far cry from the beautiful sleeves that added to the glory of those former releases. The looming close up of the actor’s face is grim and reveals much about the content of the album. The humour is still there but graver than ever. The label too was black.
No amount of retrospective fawning can take away the feeling of disappointment in buying an album that you knew would be the last. Not exactly purchasing a dead parrot, but you get the idea.
“A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” immediately establishes “The ghost of troubled Joe, hung by his pretty white neck, some 18 months ago”. The track itself it relatively light despite the dead protagonist, and has a bizarre xylophone track suggesting something of a calypso going on in the back room, very uncharacteristic. Unlike the bulk of say Meat is Murder, the track doesn’t really say a lot and is a weak album opener by comparison to “The Headmaster Ritual” or “The Queen is Dead“. Most of the tracks on the album deal in some way with death or loss.
I started something I couldn’t finish, is something of a lumpen track that belies much of the charm of The Smiths usual canon of work. The title like so much of this album can be read as a statement on the state of the band nearing closure during recording, but does include some quality growling from Morrissey. As a choice of single it seemed mis-judged as the least Smiths-like track on the album. “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” seemed a much stronger contender and time has proved this to be so. It was released instead of I started something in various other countries and even used the same music video to much better effect.
“Death of a Disco Dancer” is suitably funereal and featured Morrissey on piano, a career first. At the time the sound of the track was likened to The Beatles, and it was again, very different from previous Smiths work. A little over long, weary and obvious. It was no classic and cracks were visible.
The welcoming and familiar chimes of “Girlfriend in a Coma” bring much needed relief and we remember why we fell in love with the band in the first place. The track sounds better as an album track than a single in some ways, bringing some variety to the tone of the first side.
“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is a standout track, removed from radio airplay because the “Mass Murder” reference was deemed insensitive around the time of the Hungerford massacre. It features some of Johnny Marr’s most impressive guitar work in the band’s career and some of Morrissey’s most humorous lyrics. It feels almost out of place on Strangeways but is a welcome element. Much to the universal horror of Smiths fans, the track became the highest charting Smiths song when covered by Mark Ronson and Daniel Merriweather a decade later, reaching No 1 in the UK download chart and No 2 in the UK singles chart.
Side two opens with the elongated soundscape that introduces “Last Night I Dremt Somebody Loved Me“. This was also their final single proper, again an odd choice as the epic intro was edited from the 7” completely taking away the emotional punch. This is a classic Smiths album track though, full of passion, woe and trademark humour. The title alone is a further comic aside regarding Morrissey’s love life or apparent lack of it.
The remainder of the album is the baffler when it comes to claims that this is their finest work. “Unhappy Birthday” is filler and nothing more. There would be no place for this on The Queen is Dead. It has its charm and no lack of acidic wit, but it is a fleeting barb that serves no real purpose.
“Paint a Vulgar Picture” must have its fans, but this overlong tirade against the music business has become even more intolerable in light of the now regretful “Re-issue Re-package Re-package” line, particularly when considering Morrissey’s pointlessly re-jigged reissues of most of his solo albums. The track outstays its welcome and only leads to “Death At One’s Elbow“, a wittily titled but ultimately filler track that reads like a scene from The Evil Dead.
Comedy violence is fine, but this is the penultimate track of the final album of one of the best bands in the world, surely there was something better. The rockabilly style recalls some of the Meat is Murder tracks and foreshadows Morrissey’s Your Arsenal album, but this really is a throwaway song at best.
The final track, “I Won’t Share You“, is up there with “Please Please Please let me get what I want” in its heart wrenching lyrics and beautiful guitar work and will always beg the unanswered question, “is this Morrissey’s farewell to Johnny Marr?” Nice if it was, but doubtful. If the rest of the album was as strong as this it could easily be their best, but it’s not.
Strangeways is a worthy addition to The Smiths’ canon, and even the weaker songs are better than many by their contemporaries better songs. It is a given amongst Smiths fans that the only true dog they produced was “Golden Lights“, the Twinkle cover on the B side of “Ask“. But held aloft against The Queen is Dead and Meat is Murder, there is little being said, and we clearly hear four individuals looking for the next chapter in their lives. For those of us old enough to remember, the release of the album really was the day the music died.
Words by Del Pike.