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The Smiths’ Debut Album: A Track-By-Track Guide To Every Song
Warner Music
List & Guides

The Smiths’ Debut Album: A Track-By-Track Guide To Every Song

The Smiths’ debut album marked a huge leap for indie music in the 80s, as revealed by this track-by-track guide through each of its songs.

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It’s fair to say expectations were exceptionally high for The Smiths’ self-titled debut album. Prior to the album’s release, the Mancunian quartet’s dashing second single, This Charming Man, had broached the UK Top 30, and – with help from an adoring media – The Smiths had already built the kind of devoted following only previously associated with iconic British rock acts such as The Who and The Jam.

With mass acceptance theirs for the taking, The Smiths were fastidious when it came to creating their debut album. After initial attempts to record it with ex-Teardrop Explodes guitarist Troy Tate in the producer’s chair, the group re-recorded most of its songs with producer (and former Roxy Music bassist) John Porter at the helm. The resulting album was released on 20 February 1984, and it duly delivered, shooting to No.2 in the UK and taking the band into the mainstream.

Having already set the bar high, Morrissey and company would make good on their promise with their subsequent studio albums, Meat Is Murder, the masterly The Queen Is Dead and their final bow, Strangeways, Here We Come, yet The Smiths remains an extremely worthy debut and one of the cornerstones of the group’s legacy, as revealed by this track-by-track guide to every song on the album.

Listen to The Smiths’ debut album here.

The Smiths’ Debut Album: A Track-By-Track Guide To Every Song

Reel Around The Fountain

It’s a measure of The Smiths’ inherent confidence that they chose to open their debut album not with a high-energy rocker but with this yearning widescreen ballad featuring a controversially risqué lyric (“Two lumps, please/You’re the bee’s knees, but so am I”) inspired by one of Morrissey’s biggest influences, the Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney.

Reel Around The Fountain was already an established favourite among The Smiths’ fanbase. The band recorded it for their first BBC Radio 1 John Peel session, in May 1983, but the studio version of the song arguably bettered the Peel recording (which later appeared on the Hatful Of Hollow compilation album), with Johnny Marr’s beguiling guitar framework accentuated by elegant piano and organ filigree from ex-Ace/Squeeze session man Paul Carrack.

Recalling the song’s genesis, Marr later told Guitar Player magazine, “Reel Around The Fountain was my interpretation of James Taylor’s version of Handy Man. I was trying to do a classic melodic pop tune… But at the same time, Joy Division was influencing everyone in England.

“That dark element – it wasn’t that I wanted to be like them, but they brought out something in the darkness of the overall track.”

You’ve Got Everything Now

Morrissey’s intense dislike of his Mancunian alma mater, St Mary’s Roman Catholic Secondary Modern, has been well documented, but his experiences nonetheless inspired several of the best Smiths songs. Indeed, their debut album’s most strident rocker, You’ve Got Everything Now, features regret-strewn lyrics (“You’ve got everything now/And what a terrible mess I’ve made of my life”) that related directly to what Morrissey perceived to be his contrasting fortunes with many of his former classmates. “I was quite advanced when I was at school,” he told BBC Two’s Oxford Road Show, “and when I left school it seemed that all these really oafish clods from school were making tremendous progress and had wonderfully large cars and lots of money, and I seemed to be constantly waiting for a bus that never came.”

Miserable Lie

One of the earliest songs Morrissey and Johnny Marr wrote in tandem, Miserable Lie was also among the most quixotic. A sprawling, seven-minute version of the track was first recorded for The Smiths’ second demo, during sessions held at Manchester’s Drone Studios, in December 1982, but the band had realised a more concise and confident take of the song at their first John Peel session.

By this stage, the group had mastered the song’s passive-aggressive mood shifts (with the slow, resigned feel of its opening section giving way to the second movement’s hectoring, neo-rockabilly style), and the version included on The Smiths’ debut album maintains this same arrangement. Beneath some of the best Morrissey lyrics of the period (“I know the windswept, mystical air/It means I’d like to see your underwear”), the band perform their parts with gusto.

Pretty Girls Make Graves

Underscoring Morrissey’s oft-expressed feminist leanings, some of his earlier lyrics present women as the more domineering of the sexes – perhaps nowhere more so than on Pretty Girls Make Graves, on which he seemingly alludes to a young man’s struggle to satisfy his girlfriend (“She wants it now and she will not wait/But she’s too rough and I’m too delicate”). As is often the case with Morrissey, the story may or may not be autobiographical, but the song riddled with memorable one-liners (“I lost my faith in womanhood” is especially striking), and the band provide him with admirable support throughout.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle holds the distinction of being the first complete song Morrissey and Johnny Marr wrote together, and the pair recorded it for the first time at an embryonic first demo session in August 1982, with Dale Hibbert on bass and future The Fall/Ian Brown bandmate Simon Wolstencroft on drums.

The song was also performed at The Smiths’ first ever gig, at The Ritz in Manchester, but it disappeared from their live set after a few more airings. Despite this demotion, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle deserves its inclusion on The Smiths, as it’s one of the album’s most underrated tracks. Debate still rages as to whether Morrissey’s ominous lyrics (“Wavering shadows loom/A piano plays in an empty room/There’ll be blood on the cleaver tonight”) relate to domestic abuse, but, wherever the truth lies, his words are vividly compelling. Meanwhile, his bandmates’ understated performance and John Porter’s crisp production merely add to the allure.

Still Ill

The Independent suggested that Still Ill was “infused with a bitterness at the country’s political failings”, and there’s certainly some truth in that. Yet while Morrissey was clearly irked by Thatcherism and its diktats (“I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/England is mine, it owes me a living”), he was equally bound up in personal issues here, as his angry yet nostalgic lyrics also addressed more spiritual matters (“Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?/I dunno”).

Whether dealing with the personal or the political, the sharpness of Morrissey’s wit (“For there are brighter sides to life/And I should know because I’ve seen them/But not very often”) shines through regardless. No doubt inspired by their leader’s Wildean invective, The Smiths’ instrumentalists also contribute spirited performances, with the clarity of John Porter’s production ensuring that Still Ill fizzes with a zest and energy which arguably outshines the equally popular John Peel session take of this much-loved album track.

Hand In Glove

The Smiths attempted to re-record their widely acclaimed debut single, Hand In Glove, during sessions for their debut album, but after Morrissey rejected the results, John Porter simply remixed the master from the original 1983 Strawberry Studios recording.

To the untrained ear, the results didn’t sound radically different. Porter did significantly edit the intro to give the song extra dynamism, but aside from accentuating Mike Joyce’s drums and pushing Andy Rourke’s bass a little further back in the mix, it was difficult for the layman to spot the difference. The remixed Hand In Glove thus made the cut for The Smiths, but the song wasn’t issued as a single in this guise. It did, however, enjoy some belated Top 40 success in the spring of 1984, after Marr, Rourke and Joyce backed one of the group’s idols, 60s British pop icon Sandie Shaw, on a brand-new recording.

What Difference Does It Make?

John Porter’s Hand In Glove remix may only have involved a few nips and tucks, but he gave What Difference Does It Make? a more radical overhaul. The Smiths had already recorded a lean and hard-edged version of this anthemic song, later included on Hatful Of Hollow, which was wholly faithful to the way they performed it live. However, believing that What Difference Does It Make? had potential to become a hit, Porter significantly altered the song’s arrangement – streamlining the intro, changing Mike Joyce’s drum pattern and layering Johnny Marr’s guitars.

Porter’s new arrangement polarised opinion within the band, but after the song rose to No.12 and gave The Smiths their first major Top 20 hit, all involved were glad the producer had stuck to his guns. “We tried it John’s way and he was bouncing around the room, like, ‘Cool, sounds more like a single!’” Mike Joyce told Mojo in March 2000. “And of course he was right – it turned out to be one of our biggest hits!”

I Don’t Owe You Anything

Morrissey and Marr originally wrote I Don’t Owe You Anything with Sandie Shaw in mind – and she did cut it as a B-side – but The Smiths’ own recording of this sparse, sensual and soulful pop song was a triumph in its own right. Led by Marr’s precise, Steve Cropper-esque guitar licks, the band’s performance was beautifully restrained; Morrissey was on glorious form in the vocal booth, too, and the decision to add further colouring from guest musician Paul Carrack’s warm Hammond organ was simply a masterstroke. “John Porter suggested getting that bloke Paul Carrack in on keyboards to see what would happen,” Andy Rourke later told Select magazine. “And I thought that really brought it alive.”

Suffer Little Children

Rock’n’roll has often tackled taboo subjects, but The Smiths were pilloried by the tabloids for daring to write Suffer Little Children, a song tackling the crimes of The Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who abducted and killed at least five children and buried their bodies on the desolate Saddleworth Moor, outside of Manchester, during the 60s.

Despite the red tops’ misplaced fury, it’s essential to point out that there was never anything even remotely sensationalist about Suffer Little Children. As Morrissey later said in a 1985 interview with The Face, “I happened to live on the streets where, close by, some of the victims had been picked up… It was like the worst thing that had ever happened, and I was very, very aware of everything that occurred. Aware as a child who could have been a victim.” So even with this much distance, it needs to be underlined that The Smiths’ song entirely empathises with the victims’ families, whose own lives were also ruined through the premature loss of their loved ones.

Supported by one of Johnny Marr’s most haunting melodies, the music to Suffer Little Children is imbued with an acute Mancunian melancholy, while Morrissey and the band treat the subject matter with an admirable dignity and restraint throughout. Famous for spawning the refrain “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for”, Suffer Little Children provides The Smiths’ debut album with the ultimate full stop – and even after 40 years, it remains a heartfelt and deeply affecting tribute.

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