30 Rock Stars Discuss Their Favorite Smiths Songs
By my count, the Smiths only recorded 74 songs during their brief, brilliant career, so the concept of choosing their 30 greatest seems kind of dubious: That’s two-fifths of their catalog! Just the same, a new feature in Uncut promises “The Smiths’ 30 greatest songs — as chosen by the band and their famous fans.” Those famous fans include Ben Gibbard, Brandon Flowers, James Mercer, Ryan Adams, and Noel Gallagher, among many others. The choices range from … well, classic to classic, because it would be hard to find any two-fifths of the Smiths’ catalog that is not loaded with classics. The “famous fans” (technically, 29 rock stars + Russell Brand) wrote short entries about their favorite songs, and here are some examples:
Craig Finn of The Hold Steady on “Half A Person”: It’s about a girl going to London from I guess Manchester, looking for something. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent too long on your trail…” That song and “Lost In The Supermarket” by The Clash, where Mick Jones talks about the fence in the suburbs over which he couldn’t see, remind me of when I was a kid and I knew there was something else out there, but I didn’t know what it was. I grew up in a suburb outside of Minneapolis, and remember visiting an independent record store in the city for the first time. I looked at every record because I knew I couldn’t see those things where I came from. I couldn’t drive yet and I didn’t understand why, if my parents could drive, they didn’t leave the suburbs every day. That’s the feeling this song reminds me of.
Noel Gallagher on “This Charming Man”: I’ll never forget when I first heard this. I was working for a signwriting company in Levenshulme. My job consisted of using this bloody big staple gun to pin these signs together. I was working late one night on my own and it was dark, and “This Charming Man” came on the radio. I’d heard “Hand In Glove” and read an article on them in the Manchester Evening News, but the second I heard “This Charming Man” everything made sense.
I’d been a bit too young for The Jam, and they’d split up the previous Christmas just when I was really getting into them, but this was different. The Smiths were my band. The sound of that guitar intro was incredible. The lyrics are fuckin’ amazing, too. “I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.” Genius. I didn’t know anything about the literary references. I just liked the spirit. People say Morrissey’s a miserable cunt, but I knew straight away what he was on about. I thought everything about him was side-splitting: the hearing aid, the lot. Maybe it’s the fact we’re both Anglo-Irish, that piss-taking thing.
I saw them on Top Of The Pops later when they did “What Difference Does It Make?”. Johnny has this white polo-neck on and the Brian Jones hair and that was it for me. I just said to myself: “I’m going to be like you!” It made me realise what I was going to do with my life.
None of my mates liked them – they were more hooligan types. They’d come into work and say “Fuckin’ hell, did you see that poof on Top Of The Pops with the bush in his back pocket?” But I thought it was life-changing.
I saw Morrissey play in Australia the other year, got all my old Smiths records out and played them all again. Hatful Of Hollow – what an album. Why don’t people make albums like that any more? It’s still one of the greatest records ever made, and it wasn’t even a proper album! How cool is that?
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie on “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”: Lyrically it’s so typically Morrissey: narcissistic and insecure, craving fame and adulation while at the same time questioning if he’s up to the task of being an idol. Musically I like the offbeat upstroke, it’s quite audacious. It’s not everybody’s favourite Smiths song, but I like the way it sits on the album.
It’s amazing that The Smiths made – and continue to make – an impact on US teenagers, given that their music has never been played on the radio, and they’re so English to the point of being unrelatable. Where their lyrical themes touch on what it feels like to grow up awkward and isolated with such poignancy, I suppose that’s universal. They’ve always had a cultural relevancy in America above and beyond any other British band. Any band that gets hyped in Britain will always garner a certain cachet with trendy Anglophiles, but The Smiths transcend that. They mean something to American teenagers on their own terms.
James Mercer of The Shins on “Cemetry Gates”: I love the way Morrissey expresses melancholy. I moved to England in 1985 [aged 13] and left my friends behind and was so shy. I didn’t hang out with anyone outside school or class for the first year and I’d just come home and go to my room. I bought The Queen Is Dead soon after I got to the UK and it was a big deal for me. At that time I was craving something that expressed that sense of melancholy. It was so gentle. I needed somebody to just be accepting of me – you felt that the guy singing this song wouldn’t judge you.
I remember learning to sing properly after listening to Smiths records and they shaped my understanding of music. I was profoundly affected by them, and the way I perceived music was heavily altered. There was just no going back after The Queen Is Dead. You can’t undo that kind of influence.
Brandon Flowers of The Killers on “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”: This LP had the biggest impact on me. I was living in a small town in Utah and kids my age were into Korn and Tool, but I was on the other end of the spectrum. Years later, I went to Salford Lads Club and took pictures. We played a gig at Manchester Academy, and across the street is the same church Morrissey sings about in “Vicar In A Tutu”. Even driving by a cemetery, I was thinking: “Is this the cemetery he was talking about?” You can walk down the streets and you can hear the songs come to life. “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” is the best Smiths song – it lit a fire in me when I heard it. I l loved it immediately.
Ryan Adams on “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”: I first heard The Smiths almost by accident. When I was 13, a buddy of a mine got a crate of his brother’s old records that he was planning to smash, but he let me pick out three to listen to first, one of which was Hatful Of Hollow. I got home, listened to it and just couldn’t believe it. It’s beautiful. The Smiths have these melancholy melodies that just resonate. It sounds pretty and sad at the same time, yet also very urgent. They don’t sound like anything else.
It’s hard to categorise The Smiths as just a regular rock’n’roll band. Obviously, they’re musically superior to most bands while Morrissey is a natural frontman – he’s funny and deadly serious at the same time. There are just so many different things going on.
They worked one song at a time, it seems, rather than thinking about albums, because they cared so much about creating the music. Morrissey would choose a grandiose song title afterwards but they weren’t pretentious about the process, it’s almost as if they wrote songs backwards. Most people start with a lyric, whereas Johnny Marr said he’d start with the guitar outros and then work backwards through the song. That makes a lot of sense to me now. Convention is hard to break, but they did it. In fact, I could listen to their music my whole life and still not really know what it truly is. My folks’ generation had The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but to me The Smiths are my Beatles and my Rolling Stones. That one band covers it all for me.
Alex Kapranos on Franz Ferdinand on “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I want”: It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, probably the best reaction you can get from any piece of music. Although “What Difference Does It Make” is the song that got me into The Smiths. I remember that when I first heard the riff, I loved it — then when Morrissey started singing, I hated it. So it was Johnny Marr’s guitar-playing that got me into that band. All of Franz have been fans of The Smiths since being teenagers. We had heard through a friend of a friend that Morrissey really liked our first album. When we met, we were worried he wouldn’t somehow meet up to the expectations we’d placed upon him — but he was fantastic, just as enigmatic and witty as you’d expect.
It’s no surprise to learn that any of these musicians are huge fans of the Smiths, but it’s still fun to read their thoughts on the band. Check out the whole piece here.