I’ll start out by saying that this is a 5* record front-to-back and I know not everyone will agree and that’s okay – but for me, this record was the start of alternative rock and it will always be among my favorite albums of all time. There’s nothing the least bit objective about what follows.
I grew up listening to U.S. Top 40 like it was a religion. I’d tune in every Sunday morning to listen to the High Priest Of Top 40, Casey Kasem, for four full hours, hanging on every song, how it had moved in the charts from the prior week, and by how much. Having a favorite song move up the charts was great – having it hit number one was akin to a personal triumph of some sort, even if I didn’t have anything to do with it. To draw a comparison with my later life, having a favorite artist hit the top spot was like watching my team win the Super Bowl.
So, thirty years ago, when The Smiths released their final album on September 28, 1987, it not only escaped my attention, it didn’t even exist in my world. Within two years, however, my world – at least musically – would get a whole lot bigger.
Strangeways, Here We Come was an attractive title for a kid in his mid-to-late teens who never really fit in. A lot of kids have older brothers who coach their musical tastes. But in my case, it was my younger brother who introduced me to the cassette and it blew my mind. To someone who was by turns depressive, melodramatic, romantic, and absurd, this was the perfect album to listen to late at night by myself, thinking about loves lost, love spurned, parental abandonment issues, general lack of acceptance. In short, it’s a huge fucking bummer but it perfectly fit my general disposition at the time.
Before I go on, I want to make a point about my relationship with The Smiths’ music in general over the years. Morrissey‘s dark, brooding, self-pitying lyrics were there for me when I went through tough times as an adolescent. I took them as seriously as any acolyte ever took the sacred tomes. But as I’ve gotten older, his lyrics just make me laugh, for the most part. “There’s no way in hell,” I say to myself, “that he was ever serious about any of this. All of these hyper-dramatic, over-the-top, ridiculous lyrics have to be tongue-in-cheek. All this time, he just had to be taking the piss, right?” And I’ve had this conversation with friends who are convinced he meant every word he ever sang and I have to admit, this latter argument is somewhat bolstered by the fact that Morrissey is still as whiny as ever, though the more cynical side of me could believe he’s doing what’s expected to keep cashing a paycheck. Anyway, now I just listen to Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce, and Andy Rourke and don’t invest as much into the lyrics. In the words of the bard himself, “Oh, I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.”
By the time I first heard Strangeways… it was ’88 or ’89. As a high school senior, I’d already built up what I thought was a fairly decent collection of cassettes and LPs bought with wages from my after-school job. But this record by the Smiths was completely different. And even though I’d been listening to Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration for a couple of years, Morrissey’s lyrics at the time hit me harder than anything Martin Gore had done to that point.
Specifically, the two-minute piano intro to “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” with sampled whale sounds and a raucous mob shouting in the background caught me completely off guard and I wondered about its inclusion for years afterward. (I never did read any sort of story about that decision, I just decided it probably wasn’t that significant.) And then, of course, the lyrics kick in and they’re just oh-so-poignant and real and true and heartfelt: “Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me / No hope, no harm, just another false alarm…” What lonely teenager couldn’t relate to those lyrics? Like I said, they’re ridiculous now, but damn, at the time… for me, it was a flame in the dark, a reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who’d ever felt the things I was feeling, that there really was somebody out there who just might understand.
The themes and topics of the album seemed unique at the time, as well: Revolution resulting in universal equality in the opener, “A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours;” Murderous obsession in “Death At One’s Elbow;” the travesty of corporation vultures co-opting art in “Paint A Vulgar Picture;” and the blood-chilling fear of worst-possible outcomes in the ludicrously titled, “Girlfriend In A Coma.” These were deep subjects for a seventeen-year-old and a far cry from being hungry like the wolf or having just died in your arms tonight. On first listen, I knew why The Smiths didn’t get played on American Top 40 Radio – while they might not have been anti-American, their ideas were fer-damn-sure unAmerican, at least in a public, polite conversation sort of way.
For all that, as far outside of my normal spectrum of musical influence as they were, they connected immediately. I became mildly obsessed with the band and within a couple weeks of first hearing Strangeways… I’d completed my collection of Smiths albums, at least so far as what was available in the U.S. at the time (so, you know, no Hatful Of Hollow, and no The World Won’t Listen – both of which I eventually bought on CD years later and which, even later, were stolen while I was hosting a party).
Normally, when I’m writing these little articles, I like to include a couple of video links to the album’s hits or some of my favorite songs, but that doesn’t work for this record. For starters, there may have been UK hits and U.S. college radio singles, but I wasn’t aware of any of that at the time. Secondly, I only ever listened to this as a complete album. To this day I can’t really pick and choose favorite songs and one I might favor today might be eclipsed by another tomorrow for no reason at all. In this case, I’ll just include a link to the full album (as great as it is, it’s short – just over half an hour).
It is still a massive album for me and – despite all I said about laughing at the lyrics now – I still love Strangeways, Here We Come as much today as I did when I first heard it, albeit for much different reasons. The music is incredible, Morrissey’s voice is fantastic… but mostly I love it now because it’s a touchstone album. I was a lot younger, and the problems I had then, while seemingly insurmountable at the time, now seem like quaint annoyances compared with some of the things life has thrown at me since. The point, though, is that this album (along with a handful of others) helped me see some of those problems from different angles and to take them on in ways I’d not previously considered. It’s no exaggeration to say that these records changed my life and – quite possibly – saved my life on more than one occasion.
Over thirty years, despite a lack of radio presence, Strangeways… is an album that most people my age know, or have heard, or have at least heard of. Morrissey has become a punchline. Johnny Marr has become an elder-statesman of rock’n’roll. Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke have made successful careers as musicians in various incarnations. And I’ve become a fully functional adult with limited neuroses and no insurmountable problems. Morrissey – via this album – was the first one to let me know that might be a possibility all those years ago.