The Right Stuff

Insert ‘mind blown’ reaction gif here. This here, this song right here, is the straw that broke up The Smiths. Apparently – and somehow I did not know it until just now – this is a rewrite of song by The Smiths. Not a proper Morrissey/Marr Smiths song that you would have heard of, but an instrumental B-side that Bryan Ferry handpicked as a potential hit, wrote some lyrics for, and then hired Johnny Marr to play session on. (Marr also played on the tour, and is prominently seen in the video.) Marr’s original composition, Money Changes Everything, does in fact sound exactly like a mid-eighties Bryan Ferry song without the vocal. Ferry has a bit of genius touch with picking unexpected things that suit his style, and Johnny Marr’s playing is perfectly suited for a Bryan Ferry album. Now that I think about it, having Marr on board might be part of why Bete Noire was so damn good. Ferry was right about the hit potential too; this was Bete Noire’s biggest single. Not-in-any-way-coincidentally, this was also right about the time that Marr left his day job for a less-illustrious but also probably way less stressful career as a journeyman session player. Obviously, Morrissey was in paroxysms of jealousy that Bryan Ferry would requisition one of the few Smiths songs that he’d had nothing to do with. He doesn’t directly say as much in his autobiography, but it’s heavily implied; he broke up the band because he felt ‘cheated-on’ by his songwriting partner for appearing in a Bryan Ferry video.

Handsome Devil

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.


Hands down best video ever! Totally hilarious, partly because it has nothing to do with the song it’s supposed to be representing. Of course, neither is the song itself meant to be especially deep and meaningful. Isaac Brock ad-libbed all the words to fit the tune anyway. “To see someone produce those lyrics just off the top of his head is amazing: I’ve never seen it done in such a way” marvels Johnny Marr. Quite. It worked and turned into one of their best songs, and became a big hit by their own modest standards, and earned high honors in the admittedly narrow category of Best Guitar Solos Played By Johnny Marr. And they got to make such a great video. I particularly like the bit where his hands turn into tentacles.


Modest Mouse, circa 2007. The upsidedown gentleman on the right is Johnny Marr. Yes, that Johnny Marr. After two decades as a hired gun for anybody and everybody he finally found another really good band to join fulltime. So if you noticed that in 2006 Modest Mouse jumped from being merely great to downright amazing, well, now you know why. Here’s hoping for a really long future of fruitful collaboration. Pretty sure Isaac Brock won’t be having any uppity thoughts of going solo.

Broke account so I broke a sweat
I’ve bought some things that I sort of regret about now

Broke my pace and ran out of time
Sometimes I’m so full of shit that it should be a crime

Broke a promise cause my car broke down
Such a classic excuse it should be bronze by now

Broke your glasses, but it broke the ice
You said that I was an asshole and I paid the price

Broken hearts want broken necks
I’ve done some things that I want to forget but I can’t

Broke up, and I’m relieved somehow
It’s the end of the discussions that just go round and round
And round, and round, and round, and round,
And round, and round it shouldn’t have been anyway
No way, no way, that’s right, that’s right
Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, uh no
Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, uh no

It was like everything was evidence of broken (time?)
You’re living on fancy wine
You’ll drink that turpentine
You’re starting conversations
You don’t even know the topic