I repeat, the only thing to be in 1983 is handsome! – Morrissey
Outside anything found on a Greatest Hits album, a definitive Smiths song. Musically, lyrically, attitudally. It’s one of the first songs Morrissey and Marr wrote together, one of the first to be performed and recorded, and one of the first to become controversial for absolutely no good reason. Musically it’s a perfect example of The Smiths’ odd and instantly memorable sound, a combination of bouncy melody and distinctly unbouncy front person performance.
The tune is, according to Johnny Marr, “a Mancunian anaemic Patti Smith Group,” an homage to Ask the Angels. Not a connection I would have made, but if Johnny Marr says so. Either way, it’s extremely boppy and can be danced to. At the same time, in typical early Smiths manner, Morrissey is singing from his own corner of the universe, seemingly unaware of what anyone around him is playing, sounding flat and completely off-beat. Morrissey is in fact one of the least musically inclined rock stars, never having mastered any instruments and possibly a bit tone deaf, and in the lifelong habit of composing his songs on the typewriter, as opposed to at the piano or on the guitar like most songwriters do. He’s gotten immeasurably better over the years both at singing with the musical accompaniment instead of on top of it, and writing songs with some built in sense of rhythm, but his early songs were peculiarly unmusical and sung in a deliberately amateurish manner. All of which is precisely the charm that makes The Smiths still relevant and beloved. Because they didn’t sound like anything else before or since.
Handsome Devil contains a fistful of classic and oft-quoted lyrics, including “let me get my hands on your mammary glands,” and “a boy in the bush is worth two in the hand.” Even though the subject is addressed as a ‘handsome devil’ it sounds distinctly like the subject might be a female, not least in the reference to mammary glands. By the references to exams and things bookish and ‘scholarly’ it sounds like this handsome mammary-gland-haver is involved in higher education of some kind. Perfectly rational things to write songs about, all that. Why the English press flew to the conclusion that child molestation was the topic, I can’t imagine. There are other Smiths songs that are definitely about child-related unwholesomeness, like Suffer Little Children, which is about a real-life kidnapping and killing spree. Or Reel Around the Fountain, which is more ambiguous, but decisively sleazy all the same. Handsome Devil seems pretty innocent by comparison – it’s only about chasing after someone who, since she’s old enough to have mammary glands ‘eager to be held’, is presumably not a child. How anyone could come to any other conclusion is beyond me, but it did lead to Morrissey having to take a public stance against child molesting “and anything that vaguely resembles it.” Pretty absurd.