Good day to you all! My name is Lee Bedrouni and I’m the former RPM Director and current DJ for two of KZSC’s radio programs this summer, Wandering Stars and Louder Than Bombs, the Smiths tribute show. I decided recently that it’s about time I contribute to the KZSC.org blog, and what better way to do so than to talk about a record that I feel isn’t given enough credit. The record in question is Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths.
Back in 1986, the wheels were already coming off the rails of the Smiths’ metaphoric “train”. For starters, the move from their original record label, Rough Trade, to major-league EMI had it’s complications, add that to the fact that the band’s lead singer, Morrissey, had systematically chased off every single manager that the band had had and the tumultuous, embittered friction emerging between the once-inseparable writing duo and it’s surprising that we even got a fourth Smiths record. It’s a testament to the group’s tenacity (especially Marr who, on top of all that, got in a minor car accident prior to recording the album) that we got to cherish this record. That being said, Strangeways is, in my experience, looked on as the bastard child of the Smiths’ LP work, despite both Morrissey and Johnny Marr having claimed it as their favorite work. Why is that?
Well, side one of Strangeways starts off with the song titled “A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours” which features some of Morrissey’s most creative songwriting, taking the perspective of the embittered spectral remains of “Troubled Joe”, desperately claiming that he’s alright on his own despite being unable to deal with the idea that “uglier” people can find love where he can’t. The glam tinged “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” benefits greatly from drummer Mike Joyce’s snare, which gives the song a distinct snap as it grooves along Johnny Marr’s snarling, T. Rex-informed guitar, while “Death of a Disco Dancer” plays like a 5 minute descent into madness; initially starting out as slow and mellow (courtesy of bassist Andy Rourke’s stirring bassline) and eventually evolving into a guitar and piano-laden frenzy. Morrissey uses this backdrop to mock those he perceives as naive and pollyanneish in their pursuit of an agenda of “love, peace and harmony”, especially prophetic given the ecstacy-fueled madness of the Madchester scene of the early 1990’s.
Fourth off of Strangeways is the perennial jukebox favorite, “Girlfriend In A Coma”, a fascinating 2-minute long, incredibly bouncy jaunt, followed by probably the most straightforward song on the album, “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before” which showcases the Smiths at their rockin’ best. Marr’s guitar line is deceptively simple, as he is said to have written it as though he were “an amateur punk rock guitarist”. How the hell that explains the bell sounds throughout the song is beyond me. In terms of the lyrics, however, Morrissey just goes to town: the title itself has a double meaning, addressing both the singer’s critics (and there were/have been/always will be many) and the person for whom Morrissey, within the song, is singing to about his alcohol-fueled madness.
Strangeways also features some of the Smiths best samples, best demonstrated by “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me”. It opens with a sound collage of sound effects from the BBC library that give the impression of a mob attacking some building far in the distance, with only the cries of anguish and pain audible from the rest of the chaotic mess, and follows suit with one of Morrissey’s most dramatic vocal turns yet with the Smiths. Mike Joyce’s drum rolls keep with the melodrama of the song, and Marr’s restraint on guitar is enough to keep the song from going overboard. Restraint is hardly on Morrissey’s mind, however, as “Paint A Vulgar Picture” counts among some of Morrissey’s best vocal work, dashing between the dueling perspectives of a gone too-soon dead artist and an adoring obsessive fan (as the former head of the New York Dolls Manchester fanclub, it’s a feeling that Morrissey knows all too well). Also, Marr’s solo during the lyric-less refrain is pretty badass.
Released in 1987, some months after the official disbandment of the Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come may suffer from the obvious strain on Morrissey and Marr’s songwriting partnership, as well as the dubious circumstances on which it was released, but I feel that it’s very much like their 1985 release Meat Is Murder where, rather than cementing the guitar-driven jangle pop the Smiths are known for, the quartet focused on expanding their sound, using piano (“A Rush And A Push”, “Death of a Disco Dancer”), expansive vocal samples (“Last Night I Dreamt”), organ-like flourishes (again, “Death of a Disco Dancer”) and other such ingenuities to push our buttons. And for that, I am grateful.
Final Rating: 8/10
If you’d like to hear songs off of Strangeways, Here We Come and other work by The Smiths, tune in every Wednesday morning at 10:30 for Louder Than Bombs where you get the best and brightest of the Pope of Mope, Morrissey!