It’s time the tale were told: 30 years ago this week, the Smiths broke up, and the world has never stopped mourning their demise. There’s no other rock & roll story like theirs — going back to the day in 1982 when Johnny knocked on the door of the local literary recluse and announced, “I’ve come to form the world’s greatest band.”
So let’s break it down: all 73 Smiths songs, ranked from bottom to top. The hits. The flops. The glorious highs. The gruesome lows. The B-sides, the deep cuts, the covers, the songs that made you cry, the songs that saved your life. The good, the bad and the “Vicar in a Tutu.” All of it. An insanely ambitious, brutally definitive, scholarly, subjective, opinionated, passionate and complete guide to a songbook like no other. The ultimate argument starter. Every Smiths fan would compile a different list — that’s the whole point — so if your feelings get hurt easily, be forewarned: Honey pie, you’re not safe here. But it’s a celebration of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce — the Manchester foursome who made the dream real and changed the world. Here’s to the mind-blowing, back-scrubbing, Walkman-melting genius of the Smiths.
73. “Accept Yourself” (1983)
In their all-too-brief existence, the Smiths blazed through dozens upon dozens of brilliant tunes. “Accept Yourself” is not one of them. From the cheesoid guitar riff (basically the Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”) to Morrissey musing “How do I feel about my shoes?”, it’s the ghastliest gaffe they ever recorded, the most inept they ever stepped. The Mozzer commanding you to “accept yourself” is like Ozzy giving ballet lessons — he’s spent his noble career ignoring this advice, and the world of music is better off for that (even if Morrissey isn’t).
Best line: “I am sick and I am dull and I am plain.”
72. “Barbarism Begins at Home” (1985)
The longest Smiths song at seven minutes, which is either a sign of how deeply they cared about child abuse or a sign of how desperate they were to fill out Side Two of Meat Is Murder. Unlikely slap-bass enthusiast Andy Rourke plays the funk, never exactly this band’s specialty.
Best line: “A crack on the head is what you get for asking.”
71. “Paint a Vulgar Picture” (1987)
A tacky badge of celebrity complaints, taking up too much space on their farewell album, Strangeways, Here We Come. Morrissey gripes about record companies, media whores, MTV and the BBC – but George Michael did it better a few years later with “Freedom! ’90.”
Best line: “The sycophantic slags all say / I knew him first and I knew him well.”
70. “Meat Is Murder” (1985)
Moooooo! Morrissey milks the audience’s pity for cows, for turkeys, but most of all for English rock stars facing the Difficult Second Album syndrome. Normally the most prolific of bands, the Smiths got caught short of tunes in the studio, so they whipped up this anthem on the spot. Despite the noble pro-heifer sentiments, “Meat Is Murder” remains a feast of unintentional comedy – as Oscar Wilde famously said of a Dickens novel, one must have a heart of stone to hear it without laughing. Morrissey still makes his back-up band play this every night while he leaves for his bathroom break, just in case anyone has failed to notice he’s having a bad time.
Best line: “Heifer whines could be human cries.”
69. “Work Is a Four-Letter Word” (1987)
When they showed up for their final studio session in May 1987, they were falling apart. Hence this version of a Cilla Black trifle from the 1960s, aimed at a loafing oaf of a husband – Morrissey’s idea, of course. “That was the last straw, really,” Marr fumed. “I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.” As Morrissey observed, “Cilla Black, unbeknownst to herself, actually broke the Smiths up, which is pretty much to her credit.”
Best line: “Loving you is driving me crazy / People say that you were
68. “I Keep Mine Hidden” (1987)
From the same band-killing session as “Work Is a Four-Letter Word,” the duo dashed off this quickie collaboration – the last song they wrote together. But it just wasn’t like the old days anymore; even the whistling solo sucked. It might be the sourest final recording of any great band – at least twice as bad as the Beatles’ “I Me Mine.” The next time Johnny Marr and Morrissey laid eyes on each other, it was years later – in a courtroom.
Best line: “I’m a twenty-digit combination to unlock.”
67. “Golden Lights” (1986)
The Smiths revive a twee little 1965 hit by Britpop beehive starlet Twinkle, with their friend Kirsty MacColl singing along. For reasons nobody has ever explained, “Golden Lights” got enshrined on the Louder Than Bombs compilation, so it’s earned its legend as a song fans love to hate, although you have to give it bonus points for turning into such a hilarious disaster. Morrissey called it “an act of playful perversity.” Andy Rourke was more blunt: “It ended up like ‘Octopus’ Garden’ gone wrong.”
Best line: “You made a record and they liked your singing / All of a sudden my phone stops ringing.”
66. “Back to the Old House” (1984)
An acoustic lament for childhood innocence, wearing out its welcome within 30 seconds.
Best line: “When you cycled by / Here began all my dreams.”
65. “Death at One’s Elbow” (1987)
Not bad for a faux-zydeco shuffle about a love interest with the very un-Smiths-esque name “Glenn.” (Danzig? Campbell? Branca?) But people see no worth in this song and they’re mostly right.
Best line: “You’ll slip on the trail of my besplattered remains.”
64. “Money Changes Everything” (1986)
And then there were the instrumentals. This guitar trudge was on the flip side of “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Tragically, it was not a cover of the Cyndi Lauper classic (which Cyndi got from Atlanta punks The Brains) – oh, to hear Morrissey croon that one. Speaking of money, Johnny Marr gave this track to Bryan Ferry, who added words and turned it into the hit “The Right Stuff.”
63. “Well I Wonder” (1985)
Morrissey was still learning to sing in tune in the early days, and hearing him strain at it could get painful. Of all the songs on the first three Smiths albums, “Well I Wonder” is the only one they never attempted live.
Best line: “Please keep me in mind.”
62. “The Draize Train” (1986)
Another instrumental. Many fans spent warm summer days indoors in 1986 trying to appreciate “The Draize Train,” just because it was the B-side to one of the century’s greatest singles, “Panic.” Franz Ferdinand hijacked the groove for one of the next century’s greatest singles, “Take Me Out.”
61. “What’s the World” (1985)
The Smiths cover a song by their opening act – their mates in the Manchester band James, who went on to score the 1994 Britpop smash “Laid.” Recorded live in Glasgow, “What’s the World” got released as collector bait on the cassingle of “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish.” After the Smiths split up, James hit the pop jackpot, inspiring Morrissey to write a different kind of tribute: “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.”
Best line: “I’m looking for some words to call my own.”
60. “Oscillate Wildly” (1985)
We’re already leaping up in terms of quality – the truly dire songs are behind us. (We can smile about them now, but at the time they were terrible.) “Oscillate Wildly” was the first and best of their instrumentals, stretching out with pianos and cello. Morrissey shares the writing credit, though his only contribution was the clever title.
59. “Girl Afraid” (1984)
Maybe this one should have stayed an instrumental. The Smiths’ audience sometimes split into rival factions of Johnny Marr disciples vs. Morrissey fans. “Girl Afraid” is the kind of song Marr devotees felt deserved better: great guitar, shame about the singer. Moz is admittedly off his gloom game – for such a wordsmith, confusing “lay” and “lie” seems like a rookie mistake. The title comes from the classic 1945 bitchfest Old Aquaintance, starring one of his favorite Hollywood divas, Bette Davis. As he said, “I’m generally attracted to people who are mildly despised and Bette Davis was.”
Best line: “Boy afraid / Prudence never pays.”
58. “Jeane” (1983)
An early B-side hardly anyone appreciated – not even the band, who dropped it from their set and left it off their compilations. They played “Jeane” with Sandie Shaw in their wonderfully bizarre appearance on the kiddie TV show Splat, the last time anyone tried to turn these sulky bastards into family entertainment. When a child on a double-decker bus asks where they’re going, Morrissey tells her, “We’re all going mad.” She replies, “I thought we were going to Kew Gardens?”
Best line: “There’s ice in the sink where we bathe.”
57. “Asleep” (1985)
Johnny’s piano is understated and elegant. The same can’t be said for the vocal, which curdles into cynically dumbed-down death schtick. Nice wind-blowing sound effects, though.
Best line: “Sing to me, sing to me.”
56. “Wonderful Woman” (1983)
Another early B-side they discarded, a deliciously nasty tribute to Morrissey’s best friend and muse Linder Sterling. “In a monotonous way, it’s quite tongue in cheek,” he explains in Simon Goddard’s definitive Mozipedia. “The ‘Wonderful Woman’ was actually an incredibly vicious person, but still at the end of the day she had a magnetic ray to me.”
Best line: “Just to pass time / Let us go and rob the blind.”
55. “Suffer Little Children” (1984)
The powerful finale to the debut LP is an elegy for the victims of a horrific local murder case, but the guitar drone really brings the song home.
Best line: “Oh, Manchester – so much to answer for.”
54. “I Won’t Share You” (1987)
A beautifully stark autoharp ballad to cap off their final album – inevitably heard as the group’s break-up song. Good question: “Has the Perrier gone straight to my head? / Or is life sick and cruel instead?”
Best line: “I want the freedom and I want the guile.”
53. “Miserable Lie” (1984)
In the Eighties, “Miserable Lie” was the song you put on when the party was over and your drunk guests wouldn’t leave – the sound of Falsetto Morrissey shrieking “I need advice! I need advice!” can clear any room in seconds. Yet that’s exactly why some of us cherish it – especially the sublimely Mozzian come-on, “I know that wind-swept mystical air / It means I’d like to see your underwear.”
Best line: “What do we get for our trouble and pain? Just a rented room in Whalley Range.”
52. “Rusholme Ruffians” (1985)
Moz’s night at the fair doesn’t go so well – he gets beaten up by thugs while the local lasses lift their skirts. Yet he vows, “I might walk home alone / But my faith in love is still devout.” The excellent live version on Rank turns it into a rockabilly medley with Elvis Presley’s “Marie’s the Name (Of His Latest Flame).”
Best line: “Her skirt ascends for a watching eye / It’s a hideous trait on her mother’s side.”
51. “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” (1985)
A grim tale of unplanned motherhood, adapted from the 1958 play A Taste of Honey, by one of his favorite writers, Shelagh Delaney. He kept stealing lines from this play in countless songs; as he admits in Mark Simpson’s essential Saint Morrissey, “Even I – even I – went a bit too far with A Taste of Honey.” That’s Shelagh taking a bow on the cover of Louder Than Bombs.
Best line: “The dream has gone but the baby is real.”
50. “I Don’t Owe You Anything” (1984)
Here’s where we start dipping into the truly great songs – though like so many tracks on the debut LP, “I Don’t Owe You Anything” suffers from drab production, running a minute or two long. They turned this ballad into a comeback single for Sandie Shaw, a 1960s pop star they idolized – as Morrissey said, she captured “the cheap and loud sound of east London skirty jailbait.” Please shed a tear for the generations of Morrissey fans who actually followed his advice on social success: “You should never go to them / Let them come to you / Just like I do.” Yeah, that worked out great.
Best line: “Bought on stolen wine / A nod was the first step.”
49. “Vicar in a Tutu” (1986)
Has any album ever been more expertly paced than The Queen Is Dead? “Vicar in a Tutu” is a delightful interlude of comic relief halfway through Side Two, a chance to catch your breath before the blockbuster climax. (Another serious song in that slot would have sandbagged the album.) Yet for all its skiffle slapstick—that “oh yeah yeah yeah yeah” in the middle – it’s also a compassionate ode to a cross-dressing cleric who yearns to parade through Holy Name Church in drag.
Best line: “As Rose collects the money in the canister / Who comes sliding down the bannister?”
48. “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” (1987)
A running theme through Morrissey’s work: Nothing gets his musical juices flowing like a smooth criminal.
Best line: “In the midst of life we are in debt / Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
47. “These Things Take Time” (1984)
Another theme in Morrissey’s work: There’s something erotic about trains. “You took me behind a dis-used railway line” – oh, that works.
Best line: “The alcoholic afternoons we spent in your room / They meant more to me than any living thing on earth / They had more worth.”
46. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (1984)
The first song Morrissey and Marr ever wrote together, from the day in 1982 when Morrissey brought a few of his typed poems over to Marr’s attic. The riff was inspired by Patti Smith’s “Kimberly,” her celebration of a baby sister’s birth, except this is the tale of a bereft single dad watching his child sleep and vowing never to leave.
Best line: “I’m here and here I’ll stay / Together we lie, together we pray.”
45. “Unhappy Birthday” (1987)
A hate song full of Neil Young-style acoustic guitar, raising a poison toast to all the Smiths’ sworn enemies: “Drink, drink, drink and be ill tonight.” Marr was such a Neil Young fan as a kid, he defied his school’s dress code by wearing a Tonight’s the Night badge. One of his classmates noticed it and introduced himself – he was a fan, too. His name: Andy Rourke.
Best line: “If you should die / I may feel slightly sad but I won’t cry.”
44. “Nowhere Fast” (1985)
“I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen,” Morrissey announces. Right on. How strange is it that Her Very Lowness is still clinging to her throne over three decades later? It’s as though the Queen keeps hanging on just to spite Morrissey – and when you think about it, that’s pettiness on a scale even a Smiths fan has to admire. Respect!
Best line: “If the day came when I felt a natural emotion / I’d get such a shock I’d probably jump in the ocean.”
43. “Pretty Girls Make Graves” (1984)
Having sex with Morrissey is like selling real estate: it’s all about location, location, location. Choosing the right trysting spot matters, whether that’s the iron bridge or the back of a car, the darkened underpass or the scholarly room. But “Pretty Girls Make Graves” might be the only song where someone tries to seduce him on a beach. No, it doesn’t work. Morrissey’s mysterious friend Anna Jablonska (a Polish girl he said wore “only authentically Victorian clothes”) is the female voice who interrupts with the sarcastic “Oh, really?”
Best line: “She wants it now and she will not wait / But she’s too rough and I’m too delicate.”
42. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” (1987)
One of their Bowie-est moments, going for the guitar flash of Aladdin Sane. Morrissey suffers another awkward flirtation – “typical me, typical me, typical me” – and sums up the experience as “absolutely viiiile.” In his Autobiography, he describes meeting Bowie for breakfast in 1992. “David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had so LITTLE sex and drugs I can’t believe I’m still alive.'”
Best line: “And now 18 months’ hard labour seems…fair enough.”
41. “Never Had No One Ever” (1986)
Raise your hand if you played this song the day you turned 20 years, seven months and 27 days old. The spacey groove shows off the band’s stoner side – as Johnny once said: “Cocaine has always been a disaster for people’s music, and alcohol ain’t too clever, either. But smoking pot till it came out me ears I never had a problem with. Pot, hash, was really good for the sounds, and I think you can hear that.” The singer, obviously, didn’t indulge.
Best line: “I’m outside your house / I’d hate to intrude.”
40. “Rubber Ring” (1985)
A lilting moment of unity between the band and the audience: “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry / And the songs that saved your life.” It’s something all four Smiths had in common – they were fans at heart. As the man said in 1999: “I remember buying David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ when it was Number 42 in the charts, and that was a truly extraordinary time for me. I was falling in love with the potency of the pop moment. That’s why I’m here.”
Best line: “When you’re drinking and laughing and finally living / Hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.”
39. “The Headmaster Ritual” (1985)
Their most quintessentially Eighties-sounding track – Johnny’s guitar grabs and devours Echo and the Bunnymen, while Morrissey’s wordless half-yodel hook is the only time in his life he’s ever sounded a thing like Bono. (No doubt just because both these unruly Irish boys yearned to sing like Siouxsie.) For the first and last time ever, Marr offered his mate some lyrical advice, suggesting the line “bruises bigger than dinner plates” should be “bruises big as dinner plates.” It didn’t go over so well. “An eyebrow was very definitely raised at this point, and he went away to mull it over,” Marr told Mojo in 2004. “When we reconvened 24 hours later, he said he’d given it a lot of thought and was impressed by my observation. Then, of course, he went on to do sod all about it!” Johnny never tried that again.
Best line: “Sir leads the troops, jealous of youth / Same old suit since 1962.”
38. “London” (1986)
Craig Gannon joined as second guitarist for a mere six months in 1986, but with Gannon on board, the Smiths hit a historic hot streak that would have been impossible without him – like this blast of twin-guitar feedback. “London” tells the tale of a Northern boy who hops the train to escape his humdrum town. It’s part of their 1986 London trilogy, along with “Half a Person” and “Is It Really So Strange?”: three B-sides about scared Manchester kids moving south. As for Gannon, he fell from grace on their American tour – they left him behind at the New Orleans airport because nobody noticed he was missing. Such a Smithsian fate.
Best line: “You left your girlfriend on the platform / With this really ragged notion that you’ll return / But she knows that when he goes, he really goooooes.”
37. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” (1985)
Yet another night of empty sex in yet another parked car with yet another heartless stranger – until our hero suddenly begins to suspect there’s a cosmic joke in the whole situation, and he’s the punch line. The song switches gears halfway through – after two minutes of gentle acoustic guitar, he sinks his teeth into that fantastic (and endlessly repeated) coda: “I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, and now it’s happening in mine.”
Best line: “I just might die with a smile on my face after all.”
36. “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” (1987)
An eerie piano ramble to kick off their final album. Moz meets some wise ghosts who advise him, “There’s too much caffeine in your bloodstream / And a lack of real spice in your life.” Then he makes the mistake of falling in love with a human who’s as messed-up as he is. The title is an oblique tip of the cap to Oscar Wilde’s mother, an Irish revolutionary.
Best line: “Phone me, phone me, phone me.”
35. “I Want the One I Can’t Have” (1985)
The gloriously off-key vocal kept this from being a single, yet it’s an underrated punk romp where he lusts for a nail-swallowing ruffian, with his typical subtlety: “If you ever need self-validation / Just meet me in the alley by the railway station.”
Best line: “He killed a policeman when he was thirteen and somehow that really impressed me.”
34. “Girlfriend in a Coma” (1987)
Barely two minutes long, “Girlfriend in a Coma” became a surprise MTV hit – except the video featured Morrissey singing alone, for the understandable reason that his band had just broken up. It’s a song about how grief drops on your head when you’re not ready, as he murmurs, “Bye bye bye bye baby, goodbye.”
Best line: “Let me whisper my last goodbyes / I know it’s seeeriooouuus.”
33. “Sheila Take a Bow” (1987)
Another Seventies glam homage, nicking the T. Rex-style beat of “Panic” and quoting Bowie at the end: “Throw your homework onto the fire.” Some fans were horrified at the totally unironic warmth of this single, but Moz sincerely roots for Sheilas everywhere to rise up and boot the world in the crotch.
Best line: “Take my hand and off we stride / La la la la la la la la / I’m a girl and you’re a boy.”
32. “Frankly Mr. Shankly” (1986)
An anthem for every pretentious famewhore poseur who ever decided it was time to quit the day job and become a legend. Like Prince in “Raspberry Beret,” Morrissey flounces through the workplace with the insouciance of a star who clearly wasn’t cut out for real life. Not a favorite of the other Smiths – too much music-hall burlesque – yet a catwalk for the singer, who declares he’d rather be famous than righteous or holy. Some people heard “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” as a dig at Rough Trade label boss Geoff Travis; Morrissey complains in Autobiography that “Geoff had zero appreciation for the songs that had saved him from life’s lavatory.”
Best line: “Fame fame fatal fame / It can play hideous tricks on the brain.”
31. “What She Said” (1985)
Now here’s a heroine who really deserves her own Smiths song. “What She Said” proves the lads noticed all those black-clad girls dancing in the front row – it’s a boy band’s tribute to their ride-or-die female fans, a la the Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” the Beatles’ “Thank You Girl” or One Direction’s “Girl Almighty.” This muse inspires the whole band to rock out, with one of the most non-tragic sexual encounters in any Smiths song: “It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead to really, really open her eyes.”
Best line: “How come someone hasn’t noticed that I’m dead and decided to bury me? / God knows I’m ready.”
30. “Is It Really So Strange?” (1986)
One of those classic Morrissey did-he-really-say-that? moments: “I got confused, I killed a horse, I can’t help the way I feel.” Beloved by American fans as the jaunty opening track on Louder Than Bombs, one of the most splendid compilations any band has ever released. (Yes, and then there’s “Golden Lights.”)
Best line: “Why is the last mile the hardest mile?”
29. “Unloveable” (1986)
Marc Spitz’s 2003 novel How Soon Is Never? has a beautiful description of hearing the Smiths for the first time: “Everything I hated about myself became everything I loved inside of one hour.” “Unloveable” is exactly the kind of song he was talking about. You can hear a smile in the slinky guitar, as well as the way the singer purrs, “If I seem a little straaaange, well, that’s because I aaaam.” Johnny wrote this on guitar the same night he wrote “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” and then – as usual – dropped a cassette into Morrissey’s mailbox so the man could write his lyrics over the top.
Best line: “I wear black on the outside / Because black is how I feel on the inside.”
28. “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” (1985)
In the fall of 1985, this single was a turning point, a warning that these handsome devils were about to blow through the roof. “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” broke new ground musically and emotionally, with Marr’s lavish flamenco-style guitars. Morrissey confessed that behind all his hatred, there was a plundering desire for love. (And behind that, more hatred.) His blissed-out moans in the final minute proved he didn’t need words to sing his life. They included it on The Queen Is Dead, even though it was already eight months old – it was just too good to leave out.
Best line: “When you want to live, how do you start? / Where do you go? / Who do you need to know?”
27. “You’ve Got Everything Now” (1984)
“You are your mother’s only son and you’re a desperate one” – a perfect example of how Morrissey can seem to tell six or seven twisted stories in one line. (And what a proto-Taylor-Swiftian hook it is.) A weirdly underrated yet rocking highlight of the debut, where he celebrates the terrible mess he’s made of his life and probably yours. Sing along, everybody: “No, I’ve never had a job, because I’ve [dramatic pause] never wanted one!”
Best line: “I just want to be tied to the back of your car.”
26. “Shakespeare’s Sister” (1985)
A psychedelic rockabilly horror show, with Moz’s wittiest anti-suicide lyrics. (“I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible” is a hell of a punch line.) “Shakespeare’s Sister” was an odd and impulsive choice for a single –it was their first real flop commercially – but a great one. The title came from Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic A Room of One’s Own – not the sort of thing pop stars were supposed to care about in 1985. “A very arch record to release at that time,” Marr said. “Quite audacious, a bit mad. That’s why I loved it.”
Best line: “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar / It meant that you were a protest singer.”
25. “What Difference Does It Make?” (1984)
For some crazy reason, the band disliked this one – Morrissey declared: “I thought it was absolutely awful the day after the record was pressed.” Nobody else has ever agreed. Their third single is a swooning plea of devotion, right from that killer opening line: “All men have secrets and here is mine.” Morrissey gives a falsetto pledge that he’ll leap in front of a flying bullet for you. Especially if you’re already sick of him – that gets him hot.
Best line: “The devil will find work for idle hands to do / I stole and I lied and why? / Because you asked me to.”
24. “Shoplifters of the World Unite” (1987)
More stealing, more lying. In a career where he’s always been fascinated with petty crime, Morrissey takes the money and runs, while Marr makes his guitar-hero power move, complete with a Sunset Strip-worthy hair-metal break. In the classic Top of the Pops performance, wiggling in his Elvis Presley T-shirt, Moz leers right into the camera as he demands, “Hand it over! Hand it over!” Andy Rourke looks slightly pained.
Best line: “I tried living in the real world instead of a shell / But before I began / I was bored before I even began.”
23. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” (1986)
“The Queen Is Dead is not our masterpiece,” Morrissey insisted in 1995. “I should know. I was there. I supplied the sandwiches.” With all due respect, he’s so wrong, and “Some Girls” is the perfect conclusion to this most perfect of albums. The music is almost unbearably haunting, yet the vocal is cryptic in the extreme – a daft Morrissey riddle about carnal disenchantment, from the Ice Age to the Dole Age, letting the music speak for itself. He signs off with a final request: “Send me the pillow, the one that you dream on.” And then the song fades out, leaving only dreams behind. Now that’s how you close a masterpiece.
Best line: “Some girls are bigger than others / Some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.”
22. “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” (1987)
OutKast’s Andre 3000, a huge Smiths fan, told MTV in 2003, “I personally wish I would have written that Smiths song, ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.’ Genius song.” (Though you could argue Andre wrote his own version with his verse in “International Players Anthem.”) It’s the epic show-stopper from Strangeways, with Johnny turning his Emulator synthesizer into a full-blown orchestra. Playing this song together, the Smiths all sound intimately in sync. By the time it was released, they weren’t on speaking terms.
Best line: “The story is old, I know, but it goes on.”
21. “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” (1984)
Good times, for a change. One of their early cult successes in America, reaching a new high-school audience when Duckie moped to it in Pretty in Pink. “Please, Please, Please” is Marr’s acoustic Celtic waltz, complete with mandolins at the end, reflecting the Irish-immigrant heritage of all four band members. As for Morrissey, it’s a classic he’s kept rewriting his whole life, from “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” to “My Love Life” to “Now My Heart Is Full.”
Best line: “See, the luck I’ve had / Can make a good man turn bad.”
20. “Ask” (1986)
“Spending warm summer days indoors / Writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl from Luxembourg” – damn, talk about knowing your audience. That’s exactly how the fandom had just spent our summer. Just a couple of months after the giddy negativity of “Panic,” the October 1986 single “Ask” was a scandalously frisky celebration, complete with hand-claps and Mexican-inspired guitar frills. Morrissey urges the shy and the coy to venture outside their scholarly rooms and go find each other in real life. And while following this man’s advice on anything is a proven recipe for disaster, in this case he’s not wrong.
Best line: “Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you / From doing all the things in life you’d like to.”
19. “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” (1986)
Morrissey’s bitchiest compassion – he dishes in the voice of a jaded but kindly big sister who breaks the bad news about all the suffering and crying you still have ahead. (Kind of like the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” – it’s weird how much Morrissey and Diana Ross have in common.) Yet there’s a hard-ass comfort in the way he insists your time will come—you just have to wait “slightly longer,” i.e. not forever. On Louder Than Bombs, this song forms a thematic triptych with “Ask” and “Please Please Please” – you might get what you want this time, or you might not, but if you don’t ask it’s all over.
Best line: “They pulled me back and held me down and looked me in the eyes and said / You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.”
18. “Death of a Disco Dancer” (1987)
All the ex-Smiths insist Strangeways is their finest hour – it might be the only thing they agree on. In his Autobiography, Morrissey calls it “the most relaxed and joyful studio session, with crates of beer wheeled in at the close of each day and no war in sight.” You can hear that in “Death of a Disco Dancer,” a jam that suggests the new directions they could have (and should have) explored next, instead of breaking up for no reason at all. Even Mozzer joins in, banging on the piano – the only time on a Smiths record he plays an instrument. With all four merrily bashing away, they sound like a band with a bright future. Very nice, very nice – but maybe in the next world.
Best line: “If you think peace is the common goal / It goes to show how little you know.”
17. “Hand in Glove” (1983)
One of the classic debut singles in rock & roll history, up there with the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” – another Fab Four of Northern boys introducing themselves with an out-of-nowhere harmonica solo. In the rigidly closeted rock scene of the Eighties, the gay bravado of “Hand in Glove” was revolutionary, right down to the plea, “Stay on my arm, you little charmer.” It was raw realness – like the blasé way the couple assume they’ll get assaulted by passers-by, a fact of queer life everywhere at the time. Like David Bowie’s “Heroes,” it’s two lovers on the street, who might never see each other again, but their kiss is a valiant stand against a hostile world. And you can hear the whole band’s excitement.
Best line: “If the people stare, then the people stare / I really don’t know and I really don’t care.”
16. “Stretch Out and Wait” (1985)
“I honestly begin every single day only with the intention of avoiding people,” Morrissey said in 2004. But he reaches out in “Stretch Out and Wait,” a quiet yet devastating urban romance that picks up where “Please Please Please” left off. Two people with icy-cold hands put their philosophical dread aside to share a moment of solace. And on acoustic guitar, Marr makes it sound easy – except entire careers have been spent trying and failing to duplicate what he does here with just a few strums.
Best line: “Amid concrete and clay and general decay / Nature must still find a way.”
15. “Still Ill” (1984)
The gang steps forward with death-or-glory urgency, including some fighting words: “England is mine and it owes me a living.” Over the next few minutes, there’s a post-punk vignette about kissing under the iron bridge, with nothing to show for it the next day except sore lips. “Still Ill” is a song they played live from their earliest shows to their very last, second only to “Hand in Glove” as the one they performed most.
Best line: “If you must go to work tomorrow / Well, if I were you I wouldn’t bother.”
14. “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before” (1987)
A whirlwind tour of sex, lies, booze, obsession, mass murder, bicycle-related testicular injury and massive guitar chimes. “Stop Me” strangely became their most high-profile American hit – right after the band broke up – thanks in part to one of the craftiest videos in MTV history: just Morrissey riding his bike in the Manchester rain with a posse of Morrissey clones, visiting old haunts like the Salford Lads Club. Mark Ronson revamped it into a huge U.K. hit in 2007, tweaking it into a medley with the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On.” But there’s no way to top the original.
Best line: “So I drank one, it became four / And when I fell on the floor I drank moooorrrrre.”
13. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (1986)
The huge breakthrough: This May 1986 single, released on the singer’s 27th unhappy birthday, announced that these meek indie jokers had somehow transformed into the world’s greatest rock & roll band. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” kicked off their peak year – the Smiths in 1986 were on a roll like David Bowie in 1977 or Lil Wayne in 2007, cranking out ridiculously brilliant songs faster than fans could keep up. “Bigmouth” was the funniest song they’d ever done – that drum break alone is a comic masterpiece. Morrissey takes his sobs and gasps and moans to operatic heights, mocking his own evil wit – “Sweetness, I was only joking!” – while reveling in it. Ever since “Bigmouth,” he’s never spoken a word in public without offending people, and you can’t say he didn’t warn you.
Best line: “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt / As the flames rose to her Roman nose / And her Walkman started to melt.”
12. “William, It Was Really Nothing” (1984)
Romance, Smiths-style: A lifetime of passing that boy on the streets of your rainy town, not making eye contact, pretending it never happened, maybe even nodding to his wife, cursing yourself for getting fooled again. Yet there’s a hopeful surge in Johnny’s guitar, and in those last few high notes, Morrissey leaps up to join him there. This all happens in 128 goddamn seconds.
Best line: “I don’t dream about anyone – except myself.”
11. “Cemetry Gates” (1986)
A moment of bonding between two misfit friends who spend a dreaded sunny day sneaking off to the graveyard so they can quote Keats and Yeats and Wilde to each other, just because nobody else can stand them. With the guitar goading him on, Morrissey weeps at the tombstones, makes terrible puns and gives a solemn lecture against plagiarism, while plagiarizing everything from Richard III to The Man Who Came to Dinner. For a few minutes, these two dizzy whores are the happiest, luckiest pair of friends in the world. There’s more to life than books, you know.
Best line: “Keats and Yeats are on your side / But you lose because Wilde is on mine.”
10. “Reel Around the Fountain” (1984)
Imagine you’re a sullen teenage art twit in 1984, slicing open the shrink wrap on your virgin copy of this new English band’s debut record. You’ve read the reviews and you want to know more. Great cover art, clever song titles, but can the music live up to it? So you drop the needle on Side One and hear “Reel Around The Fountain” for the first time. That cracked voice shivers out of the speakers, vowing to tell his tale. The slow-burn guitar builds. That tale gets told. Three minutes in, Morrissey hits the money line: “People see no worth in you – ooooh, but I do.” Dear reader, nothing. Was. Ever. The. Same.
Best line: “You can pin and mount me like a butterfly.”
9. “Handsome Devil” (1983)
“I don’t recognize such terms as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual,” Morrissey told the fan mag Star Hits in 1985 (as quoted in Simpson’s Saint Morrissey). “These words do great damage, they confuse people and they make people feel unhappy so I want to do away with them.” Shocking sentiments in the homophobic Eighties, but none of the Smiths ever backed down from them, which is why they stirred up hysterical amounts of outrage in their time. There’s nothing coy about the punk lust of “Handsome Devil” – not with the rhythm section cracking the whip and Morrissey yelping for his life – whether you hear the devil as male (“A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand”), female (“Let me get my hands on your mammary glands”), both or neither.
Best line: “I think I can help you get through your exams.”
8. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (1984)
“I was looking for a job / And then I found a job / And heaven knows I’m miserable now.” The band’s first U.K. Top 10 hit (and biggest hit during their existence), the perfect mix of Johnny’s languid guitars and Moz’s outlandishly funny mopery. They wrote it in a cockroach-infested New York hotel, while Andy Rourke was bedridden with chicken pox. Johnny nicks the staccato lick from one of his biggest influences, Chic’s Nile Rodgers. The woman who tells Morrissey “you’ve been in the house too long” is probably the most rational character to appear in any Smiths song, which might be why we never hear from her again.
Best line: “What she asked of me at the end of the day / Caligula would have blushed.”
7. “The Queen Is Dead” (1986)
Their most flamboyant rock epic, six minutes of Marr going mad on wah-wah, finally indulging his taste for brazen guitar aggression, while Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce raise an unholy ruckus. “The Queen Is Dead” is lethal before Moz even shows up – but then he sets off on a high-speed tour of England’s cheerless marshes, bashing everything safe and boring about modern life, flaunting his bitchiest wit as he dares the royal family in their castle to come out and fight. (Threatening to string up the Queen is still technically illegal, right?) Onstage, he’d wave a placard declaring THE QUEEN IS DEAD; for their final show, he substituted with a sign that read TWO LIGHT ALES, PLEASE. It kicks off with a snippet of actress Cecily Courtneidge singing the WW1 ditty “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty,” from the 1962 film The L-Shaped Room. (“Take me anywhere! Drop me anywhere! Liverpool, Leeds or Birmingham, but I don’t care!”) By the time the Smiths are finished beating up on “The Queen Is Dead,” England is theirs.
Best line: “So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner / She said, ‘I know you and you cannot sing’ / I said, ‘That’s nothing – you should hear me play pianner.”
6. “Panic” (1986)
“To me, the two-minute 10-second single was power,” Morrissey told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in the summer of 1986, when “Panic” was lighting up the U.K. charts. He claims that power in “Panic,” as he leads a bizarro children’s choir chanting, “Hang the DJ!” It masquerades as an anti-pop rant, but it’s a song that could only have come from lifelong pop obsessives—as in the shameless way Marr shoplifts the riff from T. Rex’s glam classic “Metal Guru.” Morrissey fantasises about taking his revenge against a whole world that has let him down – especially the DJ playing the pop music that filled his head with big dreams that never came true. How would he feel if he were a kid hearing “Panic” on the radio? As he said at the time, “I would burn down a disco, I’d probably assassinate the queen and I would definitely form a group – called the Joneses.”
Best line: “Hang the blessed DJ / Because the music they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life.”
5. “How Soon Is Now?” (1984)
The last thing anybody expected from the Smiths – a heavy rock groove, concocted by Marr in a fit of studio inspiration, under the spell of his newfound love of hip-hop. (And his not-so-newfound love of smoking herb.) He’d gotten into rapper Lovebug Starski, after they shared a New Year’s Eve bill at New York’s Danceteria (where Morrissey got drunk and fell off the stage). Johnny comes on like a monster – that mega-tremolo Bo Diddley riff, that groaning industrial slide, those clanging bells – while Moz testifies that he’s human and needs to be loved. When he sings “How Soon Is Now?” live, he upgrades the lyrics: “You go and you stand on your own / And you leave on your own / What a big surprise!” “How Soon Is Now?” struck a nerve with audiences and has remained a classic ever since – a gigantic song, about a gigantic heartache.
Best line: “I am the son and the heir / Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.”
4. “This Charming Man” (1983)
What made the Smiths’ sexual melodramas so groundbreaking is that they felt so ordinary. Nobody had heard anything like “This Charming Man” before. It’s tough to describe how sexually straitlaced the Eighties were – a decade where Freddie Mercury jumped back in the closet and George Michael was officially dating Brooke Shields. There were a few bold pioneers: Boy George, Bronski Beat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Phranc. But as soon as Morrissey introduced himself to American kids in the pages of Rolling Stone (long before radio or MTV knew he existed), calling himself a “prophet for the fourth gender,” it was love at first sight. “This Charming Man” was their first major U.K. hit, with Johnny’s jumped-up surf guitar and a vocal that can still puncture your heart like a bicycle tire – a melancholic yet fearless sound. And just in case anyone thought he was interested in playing it safe, he pranced on Top of the Pops in love beads while waving a bouquet of gladioli. If “This Charming Man” had been the Smiths’ final single, we’d still light candles in their shrine and treasure their name to this day. But they were just getting started. Could life ever be sane again?
Best line: “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”
3. “I Know It’s Over” (1986)
Their most over-the-top torch ballad, featuring Morrissey’s most spectacular vocal performance. He begins on the dark side – “oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” – and then gets darker, slipping into a late-night soliloquy for six tormented minutes. “Love is natural and real,” he croons to the mirror. “But not for such as you and I, my love.” “I Know It’s Over” stands as a virtuoso showcase for all four Smiths. Next time you listen, try to tune out the singer – right, good luck with that – and focus on how Marr crafts the whole thing in such a fiendishly clever way, making the guitars rise and fall, stretching a tightrope long enough for his partner to step out for the dance of his life. Plus a reminder that “it takes guts to be gentle and kind,” not such a typical Morrissey sentiment.
Best line: “As I climb into an empty bed / Oh well, enough said.”
2. “Half a Person” (1987)
“Call me morbid, call me pale / I’ve spent six years on your trail.” A fragile shiver of a song – their funniest, saddest, most affectionate moment. Morrissey’s the stranger on the bus who tells you his life story – he runs away to London, he discovers all his small-town problems have come with him, he flees to the YWCA and tries to sign on as a back-scrubber. Morrissey and Marr wrote “Half a Person” face-to-face in a few minutes, ducking into the studio stairwell. “The best songwriting moment me and Morrissey ever had,” Marr told Smiths scholar Simon Goddard. “We were so close, practically touching. I could see him kind of willing me on, waiting to see what I was going to play. Then I could see him thinking, ‘That’s exactly where I was hoping you’d go.’ It was a fantastic shared moment.” It’s a moment we all share when we hear “Half a Person.” Any 10-second snippet of this song has more joy and anguish than most bands’ careers; the Smiths tucked it away on a B-side. Keats, Yeats and Wilde would all be proud.
Best line: “Sixteen, clumsy and shy / That’s the story of my life.”
1. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (1986)
Well, of course. This is the Smiths’ triumph, as it would be any band’s triumph. Morrissey sings about not having a home, but generations of fans have found some kind of home in this song. It’s all here – the passion, the pain, the pleasure, the privilege, the double-decker bus, the victory of love over death (even the clumsiest, most painful fumbling-in-the-underpass kind of love). It’s bitterly comic, yet life-affirming and wildly romantic, with Johnny Marr overdubbing himself into a one-man orchestra of guitars and synthesised strings. The whole song is a mix tape of perfect moments, like that softly moaned “ooooh” into the final chorus. It’s their most beloved standard – Andy Rourke once called it “the indie ‘Candle in the Wind.'”
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” remains the ultimate tribute to the friendship behind it. Johnny Marr and Morrissey – two lonely Manchester kids who found each other and hatched a plan to go down in musical history, against all odds. Listening to it now, you’d never guess that the friendship (and the band) had only a year left to run, sadly. But like all the great music the Smiths left behind, this song is a light that never goes out and never will.
Best line: “And if a ten-ton truck / Kills the both of us / To die by your side / Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.”