Quit Your Jingle-Jangle: The Smiths’ Strangeways Here We Come Revisited

The Smiths’ last studio album was their most ambitious, adventurous and experimental, too. Thirty years on, Ben Hewitt looks back on the forward-thinking record that could have been the start of a new chapter, rather than a full-stop

The first night that The Smiths descended upon The Wool Hall, the quiet recording studio near Bath where they’d record Strangeways, Here We Come, Johnny Marr got drunk. Sitting down at the keyboard, he turned to producer Stephen Street and, as recounted by Simon Goddard in his book Mozipedia, felt sufficiently emboldened by booze to unload some frustration. “You don’t like it when we do this,” he said as he played the eerie riff of ‘A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours’. “You like us to be all jingly-jangly, don’t you?”

‘Jingly-jangly’ had become something of an albatross around The Smiths’ necks by 1987, and one that’s still prone to squawking loudly over them today. When a recent Guardian piece questioned the wisdom behind the new Morrissey biopic England Is Mine, it argued the film was ill-judged not only because of the singer’s risible, ever-shriller dog whistles, but because his old group were a sort of Band Zero when it came to the virus of pale, stale males with guitars. “In the early 80s,” it claimed, “The Smiths kickstarted a genre that would help ensure the white male would be lording it over the industry for decades to come.”

It’s easy to see why the perception lingers because, as David Stubbs has previously pointed out for tQ, there is an undeniable whiff of Keep Calm And Carry On about The Smiths. The old-fashioned name, the bygone stars on their record sleeves and the wistful references to Keats, Yeats and Wilde all played to the idea that they were a band uncomfortable not just in their own skins but in their own timeline, too, preferring a romanticised past to the present. It’s compounded further by the way that Morrissey, despite his love for classic pop, early 60s girl groups and the rest, has often treated new, alien sounds with deep suspicion; it’s certainly not too difficult to imagine the more blinkered believers in Real Music and the divine right of guitars guffawing at his dismissal of reggae as “vile”, or dance music as a “refuge for the mentally deficient”.

But on Strangeways, The Smiths looked forwards, not back, determined to prove their sound was far more nuanced and varied than just Stratocasters and Rickenbackers. That’s why I’ve come to cherish it most of all: it’s my favourite Smiths studio album because it’s the least traditionally Smiths-like, and if the appeal of this band has always partly lain in their obstinacy, then it’s the sound of them blowing a big fat raspberry at their former selves. Whenever history tries to recast them as a bunch of tutting Miss Havishams, it’s the more experimental and ambitious Strangeways that shows their refusal to stay in the past. As Marr later told Goddard: “I wanted us to shed that [old] skin and find a different direction.”

Given that they split before it was even released, it’d be easy to assume the making of Strangeways was plagued by bickering and backstabbing. In truth, their common adversaries at the time were Rough Trade, who they believed had held them back with their lacklustre promotional skills (“Rough Trade cannot quite produce enough testosterone in matters of big business, and they will hold The Smiths back,” was one of Morrissey’s withering assessments of their prowess in his memoir Autobiography). They’d tried, and failed, to finagle themselves out of their deal while working on The Queen Is Dead, leaving them locked in a standoff that delayed its release; by 1986, they’d agreed to jump to EMI, on the proviso they delivered one last album for their old label.

It would be reasonable, too, to think their split was the result of dwindling creativity, but they were making some of their most inventive music yet. Their willingness to try new things on Strangeways, consequences be damned, can even be tracked back to the non-album single ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’. Released nine months earlier, it took a typical Smiths motif – an anthem for the downtrodden, a call-to-arms for the oppressed – and gave it an unexpectedly histrionic twist, with Marr’s heavy metal-inspired guitar solo splitting the song in two. By that point, he was unfussed about any potential backlash. “I just went ‘fuck it’, to be honest,” he told tQ ed John Doran in an interview for Noisey in 2013.

There are similar ‘fuck it’ surprises lurking everywhere on Strangeways, just waiting to confuse anyone blithely expecting business as usual. Just listen to the opening songs from their previous albums: the gentle swoon of ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, the familiar jangle of ‘The Headmaster Ritual’, the giddy rush of ‘The Queen Is Dead’. And then listen to the mystical, otherworldly ‘A Rush And A Push’, a track that doesn’t ease you in gently but rattles your defences instead: Marr’s piano is eerie and unsettling, and Morrissey’s voice a faint, ghostly wail that echoes like he’s singing through a seance. “Oh hello, I am the ghost of Troubled Joe/ Hung by his pretty white neck some 18 months ago,” he moans. A couple of lines later, he undercuts the spell by jumping from the unnerving to the humdrum: “There’s too much caffeine in your bloodstream/ And a lack of real spice in your life.” There are Smiths-like tells to be found within its odd, chamber music-like notes: its title, for one, pays homage to Morrissey’s hero Oscar Wilde by lifting a phrase from a pro-Irish editorial published by his mother Lady Jane under her pen name Speranza. And for all its spookiness, it’s the familiar dread of unrequited desire that’s plaguing Morrissey – “Oh don’t mention love/ I’d hate the strain of the pain again,” he sings, only to accept it’s too late by the outro, when he glumly repeats “Oh, I think I’m in love.” But its outright strangeness – the obscure references, the allusions to time travel, the jarring clash between the uncanny and the banal – make it feel like nothing else in their canon. It comes on like a hazy dream or an out-of-body experience; a weird vision that’s already blurry around the edges before it starts slipping out of reach.

Its more experimental tendencies are outdone, though, by the stealthy, slithering electronics of ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’, a song more magnificently creepy and menacing than anything they’d done before. So many of The Smiths’ most beloved tracks, the ones people typically first fall for, have blistering starts: one of the common threads linking ‘What Difference Does It Make?’, ‘Still Ill’, ‘Never Had No One Ever’, ‘Panic’, ‘This Charming Man’ and ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ is how quickly they grab you by the gilded beams. But ‘Death’ takes its sinister time, with a slow, dangerous build that imbues Morrissey’s cynicism (“Love, peace and harmony?/ Very nice… but maybe in the next world”) with foreboding. “I don’t talk to my neighbour, I’d rather not get involved,” he sings, and the threat of violence and fear hangs so heavy he doesn’t even need to finish his warning: and if you’ve got any sense, neither will you. Eventually, all its terrible elements – the menacing guitar, the whirring, haunted house-like synth, the crashing drums and Morrissey’s rudimentary, rinky-dink piano (his only instrumental contribution to a Smiths album) – come together in one giant churn of droning, overwhelming noise.

Even some of the album’s more traditional-sounding singles have strange kinks to them: familiar ideas and noises presented in new ways, as if The Smiths have been replaced by doppelgangers who know the old notes but don’t play them in quite the same manner. Marr produced the big “doings” that start ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’, for example, by dropping a metal-handled knife on his Telecaster, getting a strange new sound from a trusty old instrument. Its frantic rhythm and Andy Rourke’s rubbery bass barrel along at the same breathless pace as Morrissey’s gabbered tales, with the singer only occasionally stopping to suck wind before resuming his messy anecdote of sunken pints, broken spleens and shattered promises. By design, its narrator is so slippery it’s hard to pin down exactly why he’s in hospital, but there’s still a perverse thrill in hearing Morrissey, who’d sworn to NME a year previously he’d never do anything as vulgar as have fun, make his voice wobble and waver like he’s half-cut as he unsteadily recalls: “And so I drank one/ It became four/ And when I fell on the floor, I drank more.”

‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’, meanwhile, makes its case not only with Marr’s serrated guitar, but with glammy handclaps and the blaring of a synthesised saxophone. It’s a peculiar stomping beast, full of tight coils of tension and sudden blasts of noise, and made even odder by Morrissey’s performance. In so many Smiths songs, he’s unloved and uncertain, too tongue-tied and limb-locked to take a chance. Here, he’s the clumsy, sweaty pursuer, growling his way into the chorus and forced into repentant retreat when he senses he’s made a mistake. “And now 18 months’ hard labour/ Seems… fair enough,” he shrugs, as if he should have known better, that of course this was bound to happen once he dared to be bold (his punishment is also another nod to Wilde, who received a similar two-year sentence for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895).

It’s the unexpected flourishes that make Strangeways so strong, elevating those songs which might not otherwise have stood out – the bitter barbs and understated semi-acoustic strum of ‘Unhappy Birthday’, for example, are given poignancy by the deep, gorgeous swoon of Marr’s harmonium. There is, in fact, only one track truly beyond redemption, and that’s ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’: the whimsical, unfunny elephant in the room, the one you heartily wish would stop trumpeting its inane jokes. One of the reasons it’s so disappointing is that such a one-note gag feels beneath a band so cunning; the played-for-laughs contrast between the jaunty melody, froggy bass and Morrissey’s wink-wink melodrama as he whispers his last goodbyes is so obvious, it’s like being tricked into sitting on a whoopee cushion by Noel Coward. But it also rankles because whenever people are desperate to prove The Smiths weren’t depressing, it’s songs like these they cling to; the ones so frivolous and farcical you can practically picture Morrissey mugging at you after each line, like he’s in an episode of Miranda. As Simon Reynolds wrote in Melody Maker after their split, The Smiths’ humour worked best when it was “black, scornful, scathing”. Without the piss and vinegar, the biting misery and sourness, it falls flat.

And yet call me a hypocrite, but I’ll always have time for ‘Paint Me A Vulgar Picture’, the oft-maligned broadside against records industry sharks circling the carcass of a dead star when they smell profit (“Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!”). Songs about the fecklessness of the music industry are undoubtedly tiresome, but there are glimmers of other, deeper ideas hidden behind its snark: Morrissey’s belief in the power of pop, the way fandom allows you to escape the grimness of your existence, how the glitter and glamour of larger-than-life stars can rub off on your own life. Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to make a link between the sublime B-side ‘Rubber Ring’, an ode to those special songs “that made you smile/ And the songs that made you cry”, and the starstruck fan hiding in the bedroom of his “ugly new house” with nothing but his idol’s records for comfort, happily dancing his “legs down to the knees”. And, just maybe, there’s even some meta self-reproach, too, in the way Morrissey – by this point a star himself, rather than the trembling worshipper – cattily deals with the singer exhausted by the spotlight: “You could have said no/ If you’d wanted to.”

But nothing on Strangeways is quite as special as ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’, which takes the essence of everything that made The Smiths so magical and vital, and distills it into just one song. Even its first 115 seconds of slow, stately build, before anything is truly yet to happen, feel electric: those stark piano chords and the distant din of a boisterous crowd are enough to make you feel nervous, a sixth sense that you’re on the precipice of something huge. When it finally explodes into life, it’s a desperate, dramatic swirl of orchestral noise that fills all the air around you, so full of sadness and longing that it’s hard to even breathe. Morrissey’s vocal – recorded in just one take – becomes increasingly despairing as he goes on, too, as if he’s uncorked all his miserable frustrations at once, and can’t stem the tide any longer. When he sings “No hope, no harm/ Just another false alarm,” he’s tired, melancholy, wounded; when he demands “Tell me how long/ Before the last one,” he’s resentful, bitter, angry; and then finally, when he finishes with “This story is old, I know/ But it goes on,” he’s resigned, defeated, hopeless. Lesser songs have tried to describe loneliness, but only ‘Last Night’ actually seems to buckle underneath is weight, and while ‘There Is A Light’ might be regarded as their quintessential torch song, it’s not as crushingly perfect as this.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting end for The Smiths’ last ever album, then, than ‘I Won’t Share You’ – and not only because if Morrissey’s lyrics were inspired in any way by his possessiveness of Marr, he soon wouldn’t be his to share at all. Its tender, sweet, poignant chords were plucked on the centuries-old strings of a lyre; another example of the band looking past their usual tools for inspiration, and the alchemy they still had access to. As Morrissey recalls in Autobiography:

“A window-ledge in a forgotten corner of the Wool Hall studios showcases a peculiar stringed instrument from 1777, which Johnny instantly grabs – ’Oh, let’s see how this sounds’ – and, by second run-through, he can play the oddly stringed lyre that has no sound hole. The strings are possibly horsehair, and there is a barely usable tuning bar, but the sound Johnny finds is mesmerising, and the song ‘I Won’t Share You’ is alive. It is a fascinating moment when Johnny’s inner ear leads the way to somewhere unknown – somewhere mistrusted by all until the final depth of thought strikes.”

Like so much of Strangeways, it’s almost as cruel as it is brilliant: a moment of inspiration sullied only by the fact the exciting future it promised was never explored. Its emphasis on new sounds and new ideas couldn’t stop old arguments resurfacing, with Marr still frazzled by his involved in the management side of the group, and unconvinced they shared a common creative vision (a worry not eased by he and Morrissey butting heads over the latter’s desire to cover Cilla Black’s ‘Work Is A Four-Letter Word’ for a B-side). Morrissey, too, writes in Autobiography how they were both “drained beyond belief”, that taking time off (and time apart) could have saved them. Instead, Marr finally quit after a news story in NME prematurely announced his departure from the group; he initially believed it had been planted by Morrissey, something the singer denied. After a brief dalliance with Easterhouse guitarist Ivor Perry, the Marr-less Smiths decided it was pointless carrying on, confirming their split before Strangeways was released; a year later, Morrissey launched his solo career with the single ‘Suedehead’, a jangly pop song that sounded more recognisably like The Smiths than anything from their final album. It’s difficult to listen to it now without a twinge of regret, a yearning for what might have been and what could have followed. And yet there’s also something typically, maddeningly Smiths-like about the way their most forward-thinking album came to represent not the start of a new chapter, but a final full-stop. However frustrating it might still feel, they stopped, at least, with something we hadn’t heard before.

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