In 2018 I’m not sure there has been a single great song written. Perhaps there was and I missed it. In 1984 there were at least three that have echoed down the decades. All came from England, and all from very different bands.
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?
By 1984 The Smiths has been together for two years, and in short time had established themselves as the darlings of the indie scene, or bedsit rock if you prefer such a strange-sounding title. Does anyone even live in a bedsit anymore? Then again, is there an indie scene now? Still, The Smiths had thumped out a few singles and made enough of a hash of recording their eponymous debut album that they’d had to have another go. They still didn’t get it right. The Smiths remains one of the great almost-was albums.
Hatful of Hollow, on the other hand, is a compilation of radio sessions full of the bite and edge that (I understand) characterised the bands’ live performances. And here’s How Soon Is Now? in all its non-rhetorical glory, an awkward and strongly-worded exchange in the first person, brooding over an unending dirty chord, with siren sounds and thumped drums. Or rather that was where I first found it, a teenager getting hung up on The Smiths and paying £5.50 at Camden’s Record & Tape Exchange for a copy of this life-changing record. It was second hand. Someone had sold it! Anyway, How Soon is Now? This song debuted as a b-side to William, It Was Really Nothing. On the cover is a man who could indeed be in a bedsit. A b-side, but one that must have astonished anyone who flipped over the jangly a-side to come face to face with some of Morrissey’s greatest lines. The opening line repeats and drifts through the song: ‘I am the son and the heir…’
Not only does the chorus rage of ‘You shut your mouth, how can you say, I go about things the wrong way/I am human and I need to be loved – just like everybody else does’ rightly stand in the ranks of Smiths lyrics as possibly their defining words, they are run close in the same song by the angst of the drizzling night that seethes and rages: ‘there’s a club if you’d like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die.’ Oh and it’s seven minutes long. It provoked such a reaction that it was re-released as an a-side and also grafted on, barbarically, to the end of the first side of The Smiths. Perhaps we should close the book on the greatest song of the 80s right there. Or perhaps not.
Felt – Primitive Painters
While The Smiths were still four solutions in search of problem rattling round Manchester, Lawrence (just Lawrence) had with Maurice Deebank (not just Maurice) long ago formed Felt in the West Midlands village of Water Orton. Mining a love for Television’s Marquee Moon and Deebank’s classical guitar flourishes they’d already knocked out three albums by the time Robin Guthrie agreed to produce Ignite the Seven Cannons, Felt’s 1984 long-player. Guthrie proceeded to do what he did with the Cocteau Twins and cover everything in a haw frost glinting in the sunshine of an early morning. And for that he got labelled a goth!
This ‘ethereal swirl’ made this record sound very different to other Felt albums, and the keyboard work by Martin Duffy hinted at the band’s future direction once Deebank had left. But while this album was viewed as both a missed opportunity (1984: a year of swings and misses?) and ‘unbalanced’ by Lawrence to such an extent that he remastered and reordered it comprehensively for the 2018 reissue, it contained some of Felt’s best songs and the one for which they are best remembered. This is the mighty Primitive Painters. Like How Soon is Now?, its opening line sets the tone, and leads the song through an labyrinth of twists and turns, clouds of noise, Liz Fraser’s vocals duelling with Lawrence’s and the bands’ dismantling of the song, yet it remains to my ears coherent and singular throughout. And those words? ‘I just wish my life could be strange as a conspiracy.’ Later on, as Fraser’s wounded Calypso melodies waft over the noise Lawrence plays with words ‘This is a new trance – and an entrance too.’ Perhaps it makes sense after one listen, perhaps after dozens. 20 years after first hearing it – as the opening track on Absolute Classic Masterpieces Vol. 1, which otherwise runs backwards in time through Felt’s early years – I still listen to it most days and marvel at it. It is also better than most Cocteau Twins songs. I can only think of Lorelei, Fotzepolitic and Carolyn’s Fingers that even come close.
Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon
There’s still more melodrama to be found on Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon, the third of 1984’s triumvirate of the titanic. The Bunnymen’s commercial success may put this for some in a slightly different bracket. It shouldn’t. It’s utterly fabulous. In 1984 it seemed touch and go whether E&TB or U2 would become the biggest band in the world, until Ian McCulloch and co decided they’d rather not. Sadly U2 managed it. Or perhaps it’s not a shame. The Killing Moon sits though in a curious bracket. As part of Ocean Rain, it carries the same sense of windswept grandeur as the rest of that album, but stands out like Primitive Painters does on Ignite the Seven Cannons and How Soon is Now? as a b-side. Instantly striking, demanding attention, hanging off one line, one which came to Ian McCulloch, incredibly, in a dream one night. Again, The Odyssey made new, gods and goddesses offering visions and guidance.
‘Fate, up against your will, through the thick and thin’
Here’s a sense of inevitability, of foreboding, of something made and recorded and handed down to new ears that is very much of the time it’s from, but a record that would be a hit in the decade before it and this one, even if it feels like it could only be written when it was. McCulloch repeats, then exclaims these lines at the end of the song, with Will Sergeant’s guitar dancing round it, the song tailing off like it’s still playing on a boat that’s leaving the harbour. I was seven in 1984, but I got there in the end.