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Girlfriend In A Coma: How The Smiths Pulled Through With A Classic Single
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Girlfriend In A Coma: How The Smiths Pulled Through With A Classic Single

Girlfriend In A Coma was inspired by a visionary reggae song, but The Smiths recast this enduring track in their own image.

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The Smiths’ biographer Tony Fletcher described Girlfriend In A Coma as one of “their shortest, their softest, and certainly among their most sublime” singles, and the song still ticks all of those boxes. However, while it bears all the classic indie-pop hallmarks of the best Smiths songs, Girlfriend In A Coma initially came from frontman Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr’s collective love of a visionary song deriving from a genre rarely associated with their group.

Listen to the best of The Smiths here.

The backstory: “We both loved that song in the same way at the same time”

“We liked so many of the Trojan [Records, reggae label] singles, and a whole list of other things in the glam-rock period – Sparks, Roxy Music, some David Bowie. And [60s girl group] The Crystals we really loved, too,” Marr told The Guardian of the influences that bled into The Smiths’ music. But he highlighted one particular reggae song, Bob And Marcia’s 1970 single Young, Gifted And Black, as a track that he and Morrissey bonded over, and whose DNA can be traced in Girlfriend In A Coma. “We both loved that song in the same way at the same time,” the guitarist said. “And that’s very likely to be the thing that inspired the music for Girlfriend From A Coma.”

Originally co-written by Weldon Irvine and the seminal, genre-blurring singer-songwriter Nina Simone, Young, Gifted And Black (also covered by Aretha Franklin, on her 1972 album of the same name, after Bob And Marcia took the song into the UK Top 5) even inspired The Smiths to try an early, reggae-inspired arrangement of Girlfriend In A Coma.

The recording: A “lightness… at deliberate odds with the cruelly hilarious lyrics”

The band attempted this at the session which produced their 1987 single Sheila Take A Bow, at London’s Good Earth Studio, but they were unhappy with the results. However, after working up a different arrangement, The Smiths made finishing the song an immediate priority when they decamped, along with their producer, Stephen Street, to Bath’s Wool Hall Studios to record their final album, Strangeways, Here We Come.

Effectively the backbone of the song we now all know and love, the new arrangement of Girlfriend In A Coma was quintessential Smiths: Johnny Marr added subtle electric flourishes to his folk-flecked acoustic rhythm guitar and a reliably supple rhythm track from Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, while Emulator-derived strings added a decisive pinch of drama.

The lyrics: “They’re very depressing and not supposed to be played on radio”

Morrissey, meanwhile, worked up especially dark lyrics for the song, with lines such as “There were times when I could have strangled her” harking back to the violence implied in The Queen Is Dead’s Bigmouth Strikes Again. With typical dexterity, though, Morrissey followed this line with the concern inherent in “But I would hate anything to happen to her”.

The juxtapositions made for a startling end result, with Tony Fletcher later noting that the music proffered a “lightness” that was “at deliberate odds with the cruelly hilarious lyrics, which offered an extreme take on the ancient pop culture of songs such as [Ricky Valance’s] Tell Laura I Love Her and [The Shangri-Las’] The Leader Of The Pack”. Indeed, just to ram the point home, Morrissey even quoted the title of another mid-60s classic, The Four Seasons’ Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye), at the end of Girlfriend In A Coma’s second chorus.

The release: “You’re not really supposed to like those songs”

Collectively, the band members’ efforts ensured that Girlfriend In A Coma became one of The Smiths’ most satisfying singles – and also one of their most succinct, as the song barely broke the two-minute mark. It was, however, long enough for the BBC to take umbrage over Morrissey’s lyrics. Having deemed a song about a (possibly terminal) hospital-bound lover unsuitable for widespread airplay, the broadcasting corporation duly slapped a ban on it – though that came as no surprise to the group.

“You’re not really supposed to like those songs,” Morrissey reflected, during an interview with The Independent in 2006. “They’re very depressing and not supposed to be played on radio.”

However, The Smiths were big news in 1987, so Girlfriend In A Coma’s success was scarcely reliant upon airplay. Indeed, even without the BBC’s support, the song – which was released on 10 August 1987, as the first of three singles lifted from Strangeways, Here We Come – charted effortlessly, peaking at No.13 in the UK.

The legacy: “I’m always surprised by how good it sounds”

For a song that places the emphasis on brevity, Girlfriend In A Coma has lasted well, too, with the likes of Consequence (“there’s something so appealing about how Marr’s upbeat composition clashes with the blacker-than-black comedy of Morrissey’s lyrics”) and Guitar magazine (a “hooky little acoustic earworm that sticks in our grey matter the longest”) being just two of the numerous publications that have cited the song’s enduring quality in recent years. But then, The Smiths themselves always knew they were into something good with this particular song.

“Accepted opinion says [The Queen Is Dead] is our masterpiece… but Strangeways has its moments,” Johnny Marr told Select in 1993. “Over the last few years I’ve heard Girlfriend In A Coma in shops and people’s cars, and I’m always surprised by how good it sounds.”

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