What Is The Meaning Of Panic By The Smiths?

13 October 2018, 18:11 | Updated: 13 October 2018, 18:16

“It says nothing to me about my life” said Morrissey of the music on the radio… But did he have a point? And why did he write that song at that particular time?

The Smiths, Dunham Massey, Greater Manchester, 1983. Photo © Kevin Cummins
The Smiths, Dunham Massey, Greater Manchester, 1983. Photo © Kevin Cummins. Picture: Kevin Cummins/Octopus Books

“Burn down the disco / Hang the blessed DJ

Because the music that they constantly play

It says nothing to me about my life.”

One of the most rabble-rousing of The Smiths' songs, Panic was one of the Manchester band’s biggest hits, making Number 11 in the UK charts in the summer of 1986. But with a chorus that chanted “Hang the DJ, Hang The DJ”, there was obviously something on Morrissey’s mind… but what, exactly?

The song - a stomping, guitar led tune that owes a lot to Metal Guru by Marc Bolan - talks of civil unrest around the country and bemoans the fact that “the disco” and “the DJ” play music that “says nothing to me about my life”.

Morrissey at his first solo gig at Wolverhampton, 1988. Photo © Kevin Cummins
Morrissey at his first solo gig at Wolverhampton, 1988. Photo © Kevin Cummins. Picture: Kevin Cummins/Octopus Books

The music press at the time took this to mean that The Smiths - and Morrissey in particular - were attacking hip hop culture and black music in general.

Paolo Hewitt in the NME wrote: “When he starts using words like disco and DJ, with all the attendant imagery that brings up for what is a predominantly white audience, he is being imprecise and offensive." Even as recently as 2012, Buzzfeed called the song a “condemnation of dance music”.

Morrissey may have courted controversy before and after this furore, but the genesis of Panic was down to an exasperation at 1980s pop culture in general.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 1986
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 1986. Picture: Valentin Obodzinsky/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

An angry Johnny Marr put the record straight in the NME in February. He explained that the song was inspired by the news reports about Chernobyl, a terrible accident at a nuclear power plant in the then-Soviet Union.

In the early hours of 26 April 1986, a safety test at the nuclear facility went catastrophically wrong, causing the core to explode and radioactive material was released into the air. Hundreds of people were affected by the accident, including deaths from acute radiation sickness and the effects were felt as far away as the UK, where radioactive traces were found in parts of Northern Ireland, Wales, Northern England and Scotland. It remains, with the Fukushima accident in 2011, the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Marr recalled that he and Morrissey were listening to Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme giving the latest updates on the disaster - and at the time, people in the UK were worried about clouds of radioactive material heading their way.

He remembered: “The story about this shocking disaster comes to an end and then, immediately, we're off into Wham!'s I'm Your Man. I remember actually saying 'what the fuck has this got to do with peoples' lives?'

“We hear about Chernobyl, then, seconds later, we're expected to be jumping around to 'I'm Your Man'... And so -- 'hang the blessed DJ'."

Marr went on: “I think it was a great lyric, important and applicable to anyone who lives in England. I mean, even the most ardent disco fan wouldn't want to be subjected to that stuff, would they?"

Smiths biographer Tony Fletcher has pointed out that the Wham hit was released in September of 1985 and therefore wouldn’t have appeared on Radio 1 in April 1996, but even if the Nation’s Favourite was still playing six month old hits, Newsbeat was usually aired before “Woo” Gary Davies went on air and again right after Steve Wright In The Afternoon.

Radio 1 DJ Steve Wright In The Afternoon (Possibly), 1987
Radio 1 DJ Steve Wright In The Afternoon (Possibly), 1987. Picture: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Whatever song Morrissey and Marr heard that day, they were sufficiently outraged to put pen to paper and call out the inanity of daytime radio and pop music in general in the UK.

Morrissey was always misty-eyed about the Golden Age of pop music in the 1960s and even collaborated with one of his heroes from that era Sandie Shaw. The glossy synth-pop of the 80s was at odds with The Smiths’ honest guitar music.

Morrissey of The Smiths. Photo © Kevin Cummins
Morrissey of The Smiths. Photo © Kevin Cummins. Picture: Kevin Cummins/Octopus Books

It must have been odd to hear Panic on the radio then - among the songs that Morrissey and Marr were criticised. Thankfully, despite hitting the Top 20, The Smiths didn’t perform Panic on Top Of The Pops, sparing them no end of embarrassment.

Panic went on to become a live favourite, thanks to the addition of second Smiths guitarist Craig Gannon, and Morrissey rammed the point home by cavorting around the stage with a noose.

Smiths and Morrissey photos are by Kevin Cummins and are taken from his excellent new book Morrissey: Alone and Palely Loitering

The book is published by Cassell Illustrated, £30 and is available from www.octopusbooks.co.uk