The Smiths, Morrissey, Marr: Rob Sheffield Ranks All 73 Songs - Rolling Stone
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The Smiths: All 73 Songs, Ranked

Morrissey and Johnny Marr lasted only five years as a songwriting team, but these Manchester lads left a lifetime’s worth of absurdly great songs behind

the smiths all songs ranked morrissey johnny marr andy rourke mike joyce

The Smiths, circa 1985. The band would break up two years later in August 1987.

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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. 

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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.”

the smiths all songs ranked morrissey johnny marr andy rourke mike joyce

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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.”

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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.” 

the smiths all songs ranked morrissey johnny marr andy rourke mike joyce

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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.”

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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.”

the smiths all songs ranked morrissey johnny marr andy rourke mike joyce

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

the smiths all songs ranked morrissey johnny marr andy rourke mike joyce

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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 childrens’ 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 fantasizes 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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

the smiths all songs ranked morrissey johnny marr andy rourke mike joyce

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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.”

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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 synthesized 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.”

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