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That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore: Behind The Smiths’ Great Lost Single
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In Depth

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore: Behind The Smiths’ Great Lost Single

Marrying evocative music with a nuanced lyric, That Isn’t Funny Anymore became one of The Smiths’ most beguiling songs.

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It’s difficult not to think of That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore as the one that got away for The Smiths. Unquestionably one of the group’s most haunting, yet beguiling songs, it’s been referred to as the “centrepiece” of their second album, Meat Is Murder, yet when it was released as a standalone single, it barely scraped the UK Top 50 – a result which didn’t entirely surprise the band.

Listen to the best of The Smiths here.

“Why would they play that continuously on radio?”

“I’d secretly wanted it to do well, because I thought it would be our big torch song, our Dusty [Springfield] single,” guitarist Johnny Marr told Uncut in 2006. “For about two days I got excited thinking we might have a big All I See Is You-type torch song in the charts. Then reality struck. Why would they play that continuously on Radio 1?”

This singular track, which biographer Tony Fletcher later described as “a lengthy, brooding waltz” came together surprisingly easily for The Smiths, as Johnny Marr later revealed: “It just fell through the roof. It was one of those lovely times when the feeling just falls down on you from a ceiling somewhere and it almost plays itself.”

“A monolithic ballad of tender, yet imposing grace”

Quickly sensing the song’s promise, the band immediately pounced on it, honing the arrangement during soundchecks on a mini-tour of the UK in September 1984, before Morrissey then perfected his lyrics during the Meat Is Murder sessions at Liverpool’s Amazon Studios.

In keeping with other key Smiths tracks from the same period, such as Rusholme Ruffians and What She Said, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore touched on mortality (“When you laugh about people who feel so very lonely/Their only desire is to die”), though its repeated kiss-off line, “Kick them when they fall down,” is rumoured to relate to The Smiths’ relationship with the music press and its desire to turn on those it’s previously championed.

However, while Morrissey’s nuanced lyric remained open-ended, his words worked perfectly when pitted against Marr’s waltz-time signature and the band’s restrained performance, allowing the song to exude a dark allure which has drawn in listeners ever since.

“One of the most heart-rending vocal passages Morrissey ever recorded”

In an NME review printed ahead of the single’s 5 July 1985 release, Cath Carroll was struck by how “Morrissey trips out again on mellow folksiness”, and enthused that Marr “plays with a plectrum plucked straight from heaven”. Decades later, writing in The Smiths: The Songs That Saved Your Life, band biographer Simon Goddard described That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore as “a monolithic ballad of tender, yet imposing grace… containing one of the most heart-rending vocal passages Morrissey has ever recorded”.

Yet, while few would quibble over its status as one of the best Smiths songs, whether That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore bore the hallmarks of a hit single was more doubtful – not least for Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis, who admitted he released it primarily due to Morrissey’s insistence.

“I said to him that it wasn’t a good idea,” Travis recalled in Richard King’s How Soon Is Now? “But he wouldn’t have that – and me being me – I said, ‘Fine, if you want it to come out, it’ll come out,’ but then it only got to No.49. That was the first time I remember any friction between us.”

“My favourite song is That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

With hindsight, releasing That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore after two non-album singles – How Soon Is Now? and Shakespeare’s Sister – had already been issued post-Meat Is Murder may have been seen as a step backwards. Yet, in fairness to both band and label, other factors also came into play – not least the fact that the single appeared just a week before Live Aid, getting lost in the noise in the process.

Nevertheless, while it never set the charts alight, The Smiths never lost faith in That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore. They enjoyed performing it in concert from the get-go, airing it every night during the Meat Is Murder tour, and it remained a regular fixture for the lengthy jaunt supporting The Queen Is Dead in 1986. More recently, Morrissey showed he still harbours a fondness for the track by performing it during his 2013 tour, while Johnny Marr has never made any secret of his affection for the song, enthusing about it ever since The Smiths split.

“My favourite song on [Meat Is Murder] now is That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” he told Record Collector magazine in 1992. “I think Morrissey is incredible on that, the end is brilliant.”

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