It seems that the at turns beleaguered and beloved quartet from Manchester, England, The Smiths are a popular media subject as of late. From Internet lists ranking the worst things that Morrissey has said to how to deal with Morrissey’s questionable comments, or even more pejorative, how to break up with a band like The Smiths, one that a person might have loved for a long time. In addition, guitarist Johnny Marr’s new album seems to be earning positive critical reception.
At any rate, the iconic Manchester quartet is back in the news after details revealing a canceled concert series have been released. “Classically Smiths” according to reports by Rolling Stone and others was canceled six months ago. Seemingly the event once had the support of at least half of the original Smiths, but once they backed out, there appeared to be no reason to carry on.
The concerts would have involved coupling the music of The Smiths with the sound of an orchestra, Morrissey-solo reports. The Manchester Camerata Orchestra was scheduled to play alongside bassist Andy Rourke, drummer Mike Joyce, and so-called “fifth Smith” guitarist Craig Gannon. Neither Marr nor Morrissey appear to have been involved with the project. Marr, however, has been vocal in criticizing the very idea of the concert series.
Speaking with Mojo magazine, Marr is reported to have said, “What a farce[.] That was obviously about money. The legacy was being plundered. I wasn’t consulted and that tells you all you need to know, I think – -It felt like being burgled by someone you used to know.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it is a bit difficult to see exactly what the issue is. The potential issues could be myriad. But, from a fan’s perspective, the way the music might sound shouldn’t have been the issue. The reasons for organizing the concerts, and the means of culling support for it, might be suspect to those closer to the project.
After Rourke and Joyce backed out, Classically Smiths was canceled. However, in its stead, it is fitting to remember that time that Smiths’ music was recorded by a string ensemble.
Classical music and The Smiths
“A String Quartet Salute to The Smiths” was recorded by The Section Quartet, a premier American string quartet. On the 2003 release, The Section revisited some of The Smiths’ best songs and rendered them in tones and moods that ranged from tender to angst-filled and in some cases, raised the emotional quotient of the songs.
The pairing of the moody alternative rock and classical music is aurally more pleasing than perhaps some people imagine. In the string quartet treatment of The Smiths, violins take the lyrical line, and so the number of beats ends up being the number of syllables, and that creates a kind of continuity with the original songs. Some of the best examples of Smiths’ songs that became string quartet pieces are “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?”
“There is a Light That Never Goes Out”: The Section Quartet plays The Smiths
Having string instruments replicate the line “Take me out tonight/take me anywhere/ I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care” plays up the desperate, impassioned tone of the song. In the original, audiences are treated to the specific sound qualities of guitars, drums and vocals, but chances are, only die-hard fans will be listening to string versions of songs by The Smiths.
There is a delicate melancholy that wraps itself around the string version of this song. To have very high-pitched string instruments take up the first part of the chorus, and that section is joined by lower-pitched strings to complete the chorus, creating a satisfying dynamic. The song ends on a duet of notes that makes the song feel complete.
“How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths as done by The Section Quartet
Every non-fans’ favorite song by The Smiths gets a feverish revision when The Section gets done with it. The strings slice the air in an attempt to replicate the searing, intricate guitar work of the original. In the process, the mix of string pitches create a whole new song. This version has a feel that is different from the original. As the instrumentation shifts, with only part of the violins playing what would be the chorus, audiences are struck by the singularity that marks the song.
While it remains unclear if a live string quartet will ever get to present a Smiths’ tribute concert in the near future, “The String Quartet Tribute to The Smiths” is a satisfying listen in the interim.