Last night I caught a really interesting BBC programme which chronicled how some of the world’s biggest bands broke up.
Of course the Beatles got a mention, as well as the very public multiple romantic entanglements and fallings-out at Fleetwood Mac and the tendency for members of the Police (the band, rather than the officers of the law) to engage in on-stage punch-ups among themselves.
And there was a typically thoughtful piece from Johnny Marr about the break-up of The Smiths. If you remember The Smiths at their peak…or indeed any of the years since…it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Johnny Marr didn’t always find Morrissey the easiest character to get on with…
I was never a huge fan of The Smiths back in the day. Nothing to do with Johnny Marr’s prodigious talents…and everything to do with Morrissey’s famously depressing lyrics…
For most of my life I’ve had more than enough things tipping me in the direction of unhappiness so, as a rule, I don’t go out my way to find more reasons to feel down than I already have, especially not via the medium of popular song lyrics.
Hearing Johnny Marr speak over some snippets of The Smiths’ back catalogue reminded me of a serious academic study reported in a British newspaper a couple of years ago. Researchers had discovered that the lyrics of English popular songs were amongst the world’s most depressing art forms.
Only Chinese novels and Korean films were judged to be even more depressing than English song lyrics, apparently.
The researchers had done a thorough linguistic analysis across a wide range of literature, films, music, poetry and so on from many different cultures and in many different languages to reach their conclusion.
Before I read that newspaper article, I’d always fondly imagined that Russian literature was probably the unhappiest art form…I certainly don’t remember all those Dostoevsky novels and Chekhov plays I read for English Literature at school being laugh-a-minute experiences…
But it seems I was way off-base. Apparently, if you want to make yourself really unhappy, don’t bother reading the famously bleak classics of Russian literature. Listen instead to the words of an English pop song.
And it’s just English song lyrics which plumbed the depths in this analysis.
The research scored English as quite a happy language under normal circumstances. But Russian literature was easily several orders of magnitude more cheerful than English song lyrics.
I remember thinking at the time — if this is true for the average English pop song, we can probably all agree that any lyrics written by Morrissey would far outstrip the running average for song lyric unhappiness.
That newspaper article made me think. Of course I knew plenty of unhappy pop songs, but knew plenty of happy ones too.
I’d always fondly imagined that for every Leonard Cohen or Morrissey, there was a Katrina and the Waves or a Bucks Fizz in the mix as well to restore the musical world’s zen-like balance. It seems I was mistaken…
Goodness knows what songs that brave band of academic researchers spent their time listening to…an afternoon of Morrissey lyrics would probably make me beg for some Russian literature by way of light relief too.
If you’ve not fully bought into this “English song lyrics are depressing” concept yet, consider these Morrissey lyrics…
There’s a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go, and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home, and you cry
And you want to die
Maybe those researchers have a point…those lyrics are enough to make most people long for the light relief of some Dostoevsky or Chekhov…
Of all the songs by The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?”, from which those lyrics are taken, is my favourite.
Although The Smiths recorded other songs with more even depressing titles…”Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, for example…the musical accompaniment is relatively cheerful on those other songs (I’m emphasising the word “relatively” here).
The secret of The Smiths’ success was Johnny Marr writing some fairly jaunty music to go with Morrissey’s considerably less-jaunty lyrics.
What makes “How Soon Is Now?” my favourite Smiths track is not just the starkly depressing lyrics from Morrissey, although they certainly more than play their part…but Johnny Marr’s frighteningly bleak guitar playing.
His guitar creates a perfect sonic picture of the urban wasteland in the de-industrialised Manchester of the early 1980s…you can sense every ounce of the despondency felt by a downtrodden community in the mournful tone Johnny Marr gets out of his guitar.
Johnny Marr’s performance is even more impressive when you consider that studio trickery and modern effects hadn’t yet taken over when “How Soon Is Now?” was recorded. Pretty much everything had to be done manually to create the track’s richly textured, multi-layered effects. Not only is Johnny Marr a fine guitar player, he’s no slouch behind the mixing desk either.
The academic research into depressing lyrics I mentioned earlier didn’t take account of the music that accompanied the lyrics in their assessment of how depressing the lyrics were.
But if they had, I’m prepared to bet there’s no finer pairing of songwriters to make you feel thoroughly down in the dumps than Morrissey’s lyrics recorded over one of Johnny Marr’s bleakest soundscapes.
Please enjoy the collective mastery of Morrissey and Johnny Marr in my favourite Smiths’ tune…especially that fabulous guitar playing…and then try to cheer yourself up by reading some Dostoevsky. According to the finest academic research, that’s at least taking you on a path out of the darkness and towards the light.
Here’s The Smiths with “How Soon Is Now?”…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1YrnDTqvcnUKxAIeXyaEmU
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.