The Over/Under: The Smiths

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MAGNET senior editor Matthew Fritch once camped out for 13 hours to have Morrissey sign his copy of the “Interesting Drug” single; this was topped only by a more dignified encounter with Johnny Marr. He is closing in on Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce even as he types out the five most overrated and five most underrated Smiths songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Smiths Songs
1. “How Soon Is Now?” (1984)
An innovative, mold-breaking sonic experiment for the stodgily jangly Smiths? Nah. Sounds like Johnny Marr stepped on a few effects pedals, leaned his Rickenbacker against the amp and left the studio to get a pint. Not a bad song by any means, but “How Soon Is Now?” has long outlived the initial impact of its tremolo-encrusted riff. Stop sampling it. Stop covering it (badly). If this guitar line sounds fresh to you in 2009, the Kinks’ discovery of electric-guitar distortion on “You Really Got Me” 20 years prior is going to blow your fucking mind and it will take the combined efforts of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Dick Dale, Dinosaur Jr, Jimi Hendrix, Smashing Pumpkins and Chet Atkins to reassemble your rock ‘n’ roll paradigm.

2. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (1984)
Over the course of this song, Morrissey is miserable because: a) he is no longer drunk; b) he found a job; and c) the sight of two lovers makes him feel lonely. This is a reasonable scenario until we realize that, at that time, Morrissey: a) doesn’t drink alcohol; b) has never been employed; and c) is celibate by choice. Aside from this logical disconnect, the song represents Morrissey’s worst, self-parodic self-pity and is further handicapped by one of Marr’s most wilted-sounding compositions. Mentally delusional and emotionally defeated, it’s like the sad feeling you got when you were six and your Sea Monkeys died.

3. “Shakespeare’s Sister” (1985) and “Pretty Girls Make Graves” (1984)
Each of these Smiths songs got a (pretty terrible) band named after them, so somebody must have rated them pretty highly. “Shakespeare’s Sister” is a trainwreck; it literally sounds like a locomotive derailed after striking a herd of water buffalo crossing the tracks. One listen to the Troy Tate demo of “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” and you’ll realize it’s an unsalvageably uncool oompah song at its core. Both these tracks feature unhinged Morrissey moaning, a topic I will address in detail next week during a discussion of “November Spawned A Monster.” Wait for it!

“Shakespeare’s Sister”:

“Pretty Girls Make Graves (Troy Tate Demo)”:

4. “Girlfriend In A Coma” (1987)
I once thought this song was funnily macabre, a musical counterpoint to Harold & Maude or Weekend At Bernie’s II. Today, I suspect that not only is Morrissey responsible for his girlfriend being in a coma, he also wouldn’t mind pulling the plug. It only takes him two minutes and two seconds to go from “I know, I know, it’s serious” to “Let me whisper my last goodbyes.” Needless to say, had Morrissey directed Million Dollar Baby, the film would’ve ended much sooner.

5. “Panic” (1986)
Because 23 years later, the war is over and the DJs have won.

:: The Five Most Underrated Smiths Songs
1. “Back To The Old House” (1984)
This is an excellent example of Marr’s ability to write complex fingerpicked melodies that would sound just as lovely and ornate if played on piano. (Back off, Christopher O’Riley.) I like to think that Marr handed Morrissey the tape of his instrumental guitar demo for this song with a note attached to it: “Don’t fuck it up.” Morrissey didn’t. He recognized the vocals needed to take a relative backseat, and he turned in an appropriately subdued melody. If the lyrics were more typically hyperpersonal, “Back To The Old House” would be as iconic as “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” It’s perfect the way it is.

2. “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” (1987)
I suppose the lyrics convey a positive message to all you hard workers out there, but the real genius of this song is that it hardly breaks a sweat. By conservative estimate, it’s 70 percent chorus. The verse is a crudely made wooden footstool for the bejeweled chorus, which appears three times; then there’s a five- or 10-second gap (really, there’s nothing there) before the chorus appears for a fourth time! What can I say? It’s a really good chorus.

3. “Vicar In A Tutu” (1986)
Not exactly overlooked, but considering there could’ve easily been seven singles off The Queen Is Dead, “Vicar In A Tutu” is a relatively dark horse from those sessions. Given the album’s blunt-object approach to protesting royalty (the title track), it’s a bit of a shock that Morrissey chose to attack the hypocrisy of the church with such deft humor. In particular, the imagery of the cross-dressing clergyman sliding down the church banister elicits a perfectly exasperated-sounding “My God, the vicar in a tutu.” This light touch is extended to the lilting melody and efficiently Byrdsy guitars.

4. “Still Ill” (1984)
If a song appears on two separate Smiths best-ofs, can it really be underrated? I offer “Still Ill” as a counterpoint to the above condemnation of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” the better-known of Morrissey’s flat-out admissions of serious depression. “Still Ill” is indignant, charged and funny to a degree. (At least I think “England is mine, it owes me a living” is meant as a nonserious demand.) Marr forces Morrissey to keep up with a guitar riff that spans four bars and an unrelenting flurry of notes. Marr’s busy songwriting pushed Morrissey where he needed to go, providing a foil that’s been noticeably absent from his subsequent solo career.

5. “Paint A Vulgar Picture” (1987)
By this point, I’ve been exposed as a Marr loyalist in the ongoing saga of the Morrissey/Marr so-called “severed alliance.” (I’m referring to the hated Johnny Rogan book of that title, which Morrissey once referred to, brilliantly, as The Sausage Appliance. However, please note I’m not so overzealous as to include Marr instrumentals such as “The Draize Train” on the underrated list.) Marr had to wait five years to get a guitar solo in a Smiths song, and it appears on “Paint A Vulgar Picture.” It’s glorious. It tells another story within the song. Small woodland creatures live and play in the space occupied by its purposeful notes. But Morrissey shines here, too, with the tale of a fading pop star and battles with record companies in which the fans are the ultimate casualties of continuously repackaged greatest-hits and compilation albums. I wish it weren’t so prophetic. I wish it weren’t so prophetic. I wish it weren’t so prophetic. I wish it weren’t so prophetic. I wish it weren’t so prophetic.

Coming next Tuesday: Fritch picks the five most overrated and five most underrated Morrissey songs.

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