On this day 35 years ago, one-of-a-kind alternative band, The Smiths, played their debut performance at The Ritz in Manchester, England.
On Oct. 4, 1982 The Smiths opened for eclectic British pop group, Blue Rondo a la Turk. The show is relevant because it forced changes to The Smiths that would lead to the band’s success, and it marks the day that such a unique group got its start.
The beginning of The Smiths
At this point, decades after the rise and dissolution of The Smiths, there are numerous texts, websites and fan groups dedicated to either the group as a whole or its lead singer, Morrissey. Thus, the story of The Smiths might be a fairly familiar one among fans.
However, the performance came just a few months after the band’s founders, Johnny Marr and Morrissey met each other. The songs from The Smiths’ catalog that date back to that early performance are few. Among them are “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “Suffer Little Children,” both of which are relatively dark. It would seem that such songs wouldn’t be helpful to launching a career, but that proved untrue.
That night after the show, the band’s original bass player quit, and was replaced with Andy Rourke. The lineup that fans would come to love was in place. This, and other stories relevant to The Smiths are brilliantly detailed in Simon Goddard’s “Songs That Saved Your Life,” which is a biography of the band by song.
“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”
Web-based forums dedicated to song lyrics, offer listeners the opportunity to present their interpretations of this song. Most listeners pick up on the imagery that “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” presents: shimmying shadows, bogeyman, “wardrobe towers like a beast of prey” and an absent father, now returned and full of regret.
The first time I heard the song it conjured up images of a house too big for its occupants, and a protective parent (a father, perhaps) who vows to protect the child against all terrors, real and imagined.
The soundscape is filled by a moody guitar that sounds as though it both jangles and rings. The bass and drum interplay that I would come to associate with The Smiths is present as well. Andy Rourke’s bass playing always seems emotive – – in this song, it is sullen. Mike Joyce’s drumming is metronomic and a bit understated in a good way. The song is not necessarily gentle, but I came to think of the song as a kind of postmodern lullaby.
“Suffer Little Children”
The song is in response to the murders of five children in Morrissey’s hometown of Manchester. The murders took place between 1963 and 1965. While the murderers were caught, the victims and the circumstances of their deaths have not been forgotten.
Morrissey sings in a low, aggrieved tenor. He sings from different perspectives. One is the perspective of a mother, sure that her missing child was deceased, and as a citizen (“Manchester, so much to answer for”), but mostly he sings from the children’s perspectives, as they taunt their killers, especially Myra Hindley.
Children’s laughter haunts the track sporadically. Two of the children are named, and Morrissey takes on the persona of a murdered child: “Dig a shallow grave/And I’ll lay me down.” Later, in this same persona, Morrissey sings, “Find me/oh, find me.”
Marr’s guitar is almost hollow, but it completes the same motif over and over, and it is symbolic of the grief following the events. Rourke’s drumming is bouncy, but not fast-paced. And, the bass provides a perfect undercurrent for the song’s tone.
While The Smiths only lasted until 1987, their body of work was nonetheless original and told stories that few Americans would have access to otherwise. That it all started at a student fashion and music show, makes the story of The Smiths all the more interesting.