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Songs That Saved Your Life - The Art of The Smiths

Published on 26 February, 2013

Authored by Titan Books

A new revised edition of Simon Goddard's essential Songs That Saved Your Life - The Art of The Smiths 1982-87  is out this week. Check out our excerpt below, which explores the story behind the band's iconic song This Charming Man.


This Charming Man(Morrissey/Marr)
Recorded September-October 1983, Matrix Studios, London/Strawberry Studios, Stockport

Produced by John Porter
Single A-side (Highest UK chart placing #25)
Released October 1983, Rough Trade (RT136/RTT136)

Remixed by Francois Kervorkian
Released December 1983, Rough Trade (RTT136NY)

The record that was finally to shove The Smiths above the parapet of  Peel-championed, music press cult into the mainstream pop arena remains not only one of their greatest achievements but a fair contender for the most life-enhancing piece of seven-inch vinyl ever pressed. The NME’s Danny Kelly would accurately describe the impact of first hearing ‘This Charming Man’ as ‘one of those moments when a vivid, electric awareness of the power of music is born or renewed’. Reviewing the single in the same paper, Paul Morley praised its ‘accessible bliss’ nominating it as one of the greatest singles of that year at the very least. More so than the emotionally fraught gravitas of its predecessor, ‘Hand In Glove’, ‘This Charming Man’ was a knowingly exuberant ‘pop’ construction. By eventually bringing them into living rooms nationwide via Top of the Pops, for legions of future fans (this author included) it imparted the first glimpse into the unknown dominion of Smithdom. The prelude now over, ‘This Charming Man’ felt like The Smiths’ concrete beginning.

   Marr has since claimed, somewhat incredibly though there is no reason to doubt him, that he wrote the melody ‘in 20 minutes’ one September evening in preparation for their second Peel session, inspired, as he’d also confess, as a self-imposed challenge to rival the sparkle of ‘Walk Out To Winter’, a recent Rough Trade single by Aztec Camera. The result was a supersonic jangling jamboree by way of The Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ nailed to the tempo of the latter’s ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’.

   Morrissey would describe the lyrics as ‘just a collection of lines that were very important. They seemed to stitch themselves perfectly under the umbrella of “This Charming Man”.’ Asked for his interpretation, Marr admitted he found the words ‘flummoxing’. From the implicit eroticism of the opening hillside rendezvous between cyclist and motorist, the song is evidently one of sexual initiation, sizzling with flirtatious dialogue and setting a precedent a driver/passenger tryst scenario which Morrissey would return to in ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ and, most famously, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. Furthermore, it’s testament enough to Morrissey’s genius that he could dare open a pop song, one of the greatest pop songs of all time for that matter, with the words ‘Punctured bicycle’. 

   The chorus features one of the more pronounced and unique instances of appropriation in Morrissey’s lyrics taken from the 1972 film of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine; it’s tempting to speculate whether the singer had viewed the film as recently as 8th July that year when screened late on BBC1. In a pivotal heated exchange, Olivier accuses Caine at gunpoint of being ‘a jumped-up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place’. When exacting his revenge towards the film’s finale, Caine himself repeats the phrase. As the crux of ‘This Charming Man’, Morrissey would later have to account for the expression to overseas journalists. ‘It [refers to] a low-life street character. I’m sure there are worse things that you could be rather than a jumped-up pantry boy, but it just seemed very rhythmical at the time.’

   The ubiquitous Shelagh Delaney would also make her mark during the second verse, quoted from the script of the 1961 film version of A Taste Of Honey. During its prologue, after the school netball game one of Rita Tushingham’s classmates asks ‘Are you going dancing tonight?’. ‘I can’t,’ she sulkily replies, ‘I haven’t got any clothes to wear for one thing’. When quizzed by the NME in 1984, Morrissey still insisted this scenario was based on his own experiences: ‘I found that on those very rare occasions when I did get invited anywhere, I would constantly sit down and say, “Good heavens, I couldn’t possibly go to this place tonight because I don’t have any clothes... I don’t have any shoes.” So I’d miss out on all those foul parties. It was really quite a blessing in disguise.’

    Geoff Travis attended the Peel recording at BBC’s Maida Vale studios, immediately recognising the song’s potential as a substitute for their proposed second single, ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, now in doubt after its association with The Sun’s ‘child-sex song’ claptrap in the wake of ‘Handsome Devil’. It was, according to Travis, ‘a happy, casual but serious decision. I remember saying, “That’s a fantastic track, it’d make a great single,” and the band said, “That sounds OK by us”.’

   Intent on maintaining the label’s release programme, barely a week later The Smiths cancelled a handful of concerts up north to remain in London with John Porter at London’s Matrix, a subterranean studio located near the British Museum. It was Porter who would supply the song with its dramatic tension, recommending they adopt its signature start-stop pauses similar to the glam punctuations employed in Roxy Music’s ‘Virginia Plain’. Yet, as with the Troy Tate album, their initial efforts fell below par. The Matrix master which as ‘This Charming Man (London)’ would finally feature on the single’s 12 inch as an alternate bonus lacked the vital emphasis the track deserved, its rhythm too soft, its introduction not nearly robust enough.

   ‘We worked like maniacs recording those tracks for the single over one weekend,’ Porter recalls. ‘I think when we played it to Geoff he dug it but he didn’t think it was clean enough. He suggested we go and do it again in Manchester. I think Geoff wanted us to re-do it up there because he wanted it to be more raw and more “Smiths-like” I suppose.’

   The following week, a second attempt was recorded back in Strawberry Studios in Stockport. As would become customary during all sessions with Porter, Marr’s guitar parts took priority over everything else. ‘This Charming Man’ allegedly contains in excess of a dozen guitar tracks including three acoustic, a backwards melody with added reverb and Marr’s lead played on a Telecaster. The echoing treble clangs heard at the end of each chorus (and in glorious isolation at the start of the ‘New York (Instrumental)’ 12 inch mix) were achieved by dropping a standard metal-handled household knife onto the strings. ‘Early on they made it clear they didn’t want any other instruments on their records,’ says Porter. ‘They wouldn’t allow backing vocals or whatever. Mozzer was clear about that so it was a case of “OK, any sound we need we’ll do it with guitars”. So me and Johnny would be dropping spanners on them, taping bits up, just having fun smoking a lot of dope while staying up all night and making silly noises.’ Unusually, the track was recorded using a synthetic LinnDrum to keep time, only adding Joyce’s ‘live’ drums at the very end.

   The necessary re-recording was a triumph; to become the main single version, distinguished on the 12 inch as ‘This Charming Man (Manchester)’. Beginning with Marr’s godlike preface, the song erupts in unrelenting Motown ricochets, sustained by Rourke’s complementary bass tremors. Equally enchanting was its revitalised chorus; a revolving chord run of near jazz-like complexity secured by Rourke’s yo-yoing blues scales. Twenty years on, ‘This Charming Man’ still sounds an immaculate pop single, two minutes and 53 seconds of artery-swelling pop euphoria and in Marr’s own words, ‘the start of Morrissey being a true, wonderful vocalist.’

   Their first single to warrant both seven and 12 inch formats (shrewdly pressed with separate B-sides ensuring completists would buy both), Rough Trade made their first major breech of The Smiths’ trust when, in December 1983, they released a second 12 inch single containing two dancefloor orientated remixes by New York DJ Francois Kervorkian. Simple by today’s sophisticated sampling standards, the ‘New York Vocal’ and ‘New York Instrumental’ cuts were too benign to be considered sacrilegious, swamping vocals and drums with reverb and accentuating Rourke’s bouncing bass pattern. Yet its release supposedly against the group’s consent, an accusation Travis strongly refuted prompted Morrissey to scold Rough Trade in ensuing interviews. ‘I’m still very upset about that,’ he brooded to Record Mirror the following February, ‘it was entirely against our principles, the whole thing, it didn’t seem to belong with us. There was even a question of a fourth version, which would have bordered on pantomime. It was called the Acton version, which isn’t even funny.’

   Marr, though critical, was slightly more forgiving when speaking to Sounds the same month, admitting they ‘didn’t like the dance mix of “This Charming Man” which they put out as a 12-inch and we told them so, but we’re certainly not going around saying Rough Trade have screwed us up.’ The New York remix debacle was one of the prime catalysts for Morrissey, and soon the rest of the group, to relocate to London by the beginning of 1984 in order to, as he saw it, ‘keep an eye on the record company’. Though relations between the two parties would worsen considerably during the years ahead, for the time being the thrill of their first UK top 30 hit single was an achievement both were justly proud of. Nine years later, ‘This Charming Man’ would go on to reward The Smiths with their highest ever singles chart placing, albeit posthumous, after WEA’s reissue to promote the Best compilation reached number 8 in August 1992.