Underrated Albums: The Smiths' 1984 debut
23 March 2020, 21:01 | Updated: 27 March 2020, 14:32
Morrissey, Marr and co's first LP lives in the shadow of The Queen Is Dead, but it's a strong statement of intent.
Think of The Smiths and which is their releases comes to mind? The classic Queen Is Dead album? The perfect compilation Hatful Of Hollow? A singles back catalogue that shames other songwriters?
For a lot of bands, their debut album is usually their best. All those years spent playing, practising and songwriting gives them the pick of their strongest compositions, meaning the trouble starts when they have to follow it up.
Not every group comes straight out of the blocks with a classic - and, for a lot of people, The Smiths are one of them.
Their debut album - titled simply The Smiths and dressed in tasteful cover featuring Andy Warhol star Joe Dallesandro - was released on 20 February 1984 and made it to Numbers 2 on the UK albums chart - not bad for an independent debut.
But the record had a troubled birth. Original sessions with producer Troy Tate were deemed unsatisfactory, with the band returning to Manchester's Pluto studios to work with John Porter. Marr wrote in his autobiography of the first attempt: "I could hear myself that the mixes sounded underproduced and were not the finished article that we needed as our introduction to the world."
Even after two weeks, the songs were still not sounding right - with four tunes knocked off at the very end of the session, almost overnight.
The Smiths was given a lot of hype at the time by Morrissey and Marr. "For a lot of people, we're the event of the decade," Johnny told The Face, while the singer bragged to Melody Maker: "I'm really ready to be burned at the stake in total defence of that record. It just seems absolutely perfect to me."
Only after the album was released did Marr start to doubt what the band had created. "It wasn't until people started mentioning the production that I noticed," he told Smiths biographer Johnny Rogan. "We weren't as good as we could have been."
Does the Smiths debut album sound that bad? Is it lacking sparkle, as some reviewers have commented, and is it unrepresentative of the group as they were at the time.
Well... possibly. But with over 30 years of perspective, maybe people were expecting a little too much. The collection of ten songs summarises Morrissey's obsessions and particular world view. The album opens with Reel Around The Fountain - a song widely thought at the time to be about child abuse, but is a typical example of the singer's penchant for ambiguous lyrics.
Elsewhere, Morrissey plays up the social awkward, sexually naive character: "I'm not the man you think I am," he sings on the jaunty Pretty Girls Make Graves. Does he mean his character or sexuality? Part of the appeal of the early Smiths songs are this vagueness. In Still Ill, Morrissey gives his worldview - so weary for someone in his early 20s. ""I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving / England is mine and it owes me a living/"
In what seems like a baffling omission, the hit single This Charming Man was left off the record - although if you had cassette or CD copies, it nestled between sides one and two. The Smiths did include the singles Hand In Glove and What Difference Does It Make, which showcase Marr's distinctive guitar skills.
The album ends with one of the most harrowing songs ever recorded: Suffer Little Children is written from the point of view of a victim of the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. "We will haunt you when you laugh," says one of the dead children.
Morrissey's words are heartbreaking, but were seen in Manchester in 1984 as being in hugely poor taste - but Morrissey spoke with Ann West, the mother of Moors victim Lesley Ann Downey, to assure her that the song was heartfelt. The singer was a child himself in the 1960s when the murders shocked the city and, with some of the victims' bodies still missing, he wanted to express his rage and sadness at the situation. He'd use a similar songwriting method on the infamous title track of The Smiths' second album, Meat Is Murder.
Morrissey told Q magazine in 1994 what he thought of the finished record. "I thought it was so badly produced. And that matters if you're stood behind a mike singing your heart out."
"I didn't think it was the best debut of all time, I just thought it was the best record out at the time," Johnny Marr later told Select magazine in 1994. "I know it's a great collection of songs. It became the norm to criticise it. People echo what they've heard in the press."
And that's what we have today in the Smiths' debut album - an impressive selection of songs that sum up the character of one of the best bands Britain has produced.