The Top Ten Smiths Songs: The Pleasure, The Privilege Was Ours

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The Smiths are one of the most important bands of the 80s.  I feel lucky I saw them in 1986 on The Queen Is Dead Tour. Well, I sort of saw them.  It was in Pittsburgh. The show ended about an hour into their set when a mob of fans rushed the stage and swarmed Morrissey.  You couldn’t see anything of him except his arm sticking straight up in the air. He must have still had the mic in the other hand because you could hear him saying “help, help” in an overwhelmed whelp voice.

Well, now some years later I have a chance to see him again, and so do you, as the former Smiths frontman is preparing for his 32-city tour of the U.S. this fall. It might also be his last. According to reports Moz has said he plans to retire when he turns 55. He’s currently 53.

All this anticipation for what could be his last tour got me thinking about the top songs in the Smiths catalog. And so, I present for your review my selections for their ten best songs:

10. “The Queen is Dead”– The drums really make this song.  It’s not often you hear that in a Smiths track. Mike Joyce is brilliant with his purposeful, tribal tom-tom pounding, powering Johnny Marr’s sustained feedback and bursts of wah wah pedal. What makes it definitive to the Smiths is this instrumentation that just grabs you by the throat is offset by lyrics that border on wacky. “Charles don’t you ever crave to appear on the cover of The Daily Mail, dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?’

9. “William it Was Really Nothing”– Layers of shimmering guitar, forlorn lyrics, all wrapped up in a breezy, 2:09 ride. Too short, necessitating instant repeat listening.

8  “The Headmaster Ritual”– And you thought your high school experience was bad? The tight interplay of Andy Rourke’s bass playing and Johnny Marr’s wiry arpeggio along with its soaring chorus make this one of their best “moan-a-longs.”

7. “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”– No shortage of drama here with its opening descending piano line bursting into a full band crescendo, and waves of heartbreaking lyrics. Perhaps one of their most highly developed arrangements, if not one of their most cathartic.

6. “This Charming Man”– A deceptively upbeat introduction to what would become known as Johnny Marr’s brand of jangle. Is there anyone who doesn’t like this song?

5. “Big Mouth Strikes Again”– Everyone is firing on all cylinders here: fierce acoustic guitar line, punctuated bass, frenetic drumming mixed with darkly comedic lyrics, all interacting at just the right points to label this one of their most archetypical tracks. Bonus points for the line: ” I know how Joan of Arc felt as the flames rose to her Roman nose and her Walkman started to melt.”

4. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”– Unlike some Smiths songs, which can often leave you chuckling, there really isn’t much that’s funny about this track.  Its sobering lyrical offerings — bordering on haunting —  are equaled by its elegantly melancholy instrumentation. “It was dark as I drove the point home, and on cold leather seats, well it suddenly struck me, I just might die with a smile on my face after all. I’ve seen this happen in other people’s live, now it’s happening in mine.” Yep, not funny.

3. “How Soon Is Now”– The guitar riff that defined an era. Is there anything else that really needs to be said about this song?

2. “You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby”– It’s hard for Morrissey to top himself in terms lyrical self-loathing, but he easily manages that with this  strident embodiment of unworthiness. “If you’re wondering why all the love that you long for eludes you, I’ll tell you why — you just haven’t earned it yet, baby.” Best enjoyed while alone, for maximum belting out.

1. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”– Smart orchestration, sophisticated song arrangement, lush melodies and macabrely romantic lyrics make this, without a doubt,  the shining encapsulation of The Smiths.  “To die by your side, the pleasure the privilege is mine.”  Oh no sir, it was indeed ours.


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Pat Ferrise grew up loving ”the punk rock” and “new wave.” His years at one of the nation’s top college radio stations ultimately led him to a 15-year run as music director of alternative music icon WHFS Washington/Baltimore. Rolling Stone magazine named him of the most influential programmers of the 90s. He’s recorded two albums under the moniker Trampoline for the now defunct SpinArt label. He lives in Baltimore and takes no credit for writing this bio.