Listen to this track by Mancunian jangle-merchants The Smiths. It’s “Bigmouth Strikes Again” a 1986 single that also appears on their next-to-last record, The Queen Is Dead. The song reached #26 on the British pop charts that year. But, it would go on to become one of the band’s most memorable hits, and a staple tune to frontman Morrissey’s solo set after The Smiths came to an end.
Johnny Marr’s guitar work distinguishes the song as well, with Marr proving himself to be among the last of the guitar heroes, a disappearing breed by the mid-to-late ’80s. Marr was able to meld a number of musical strands together into a unique whole, from echoey and serrated post-punk playing, to old-school British Invasion jangle, to strident folk-rock strumming that you’re hearing on this track. As such, he would create a signature sound that was widely influential at the time, and that is still referenced by guitarists to this very day.
I remember reading about Modest Mouse looking for a guitar player who “sounded like Johnny Marr”, and then having Marr himself audition for the job. Oh to be a fly on the wall to see the reactions of other players who also showed up at that audition! Marr of course got that gig, whether that story is mere legend or not.
But, perhaps one of the reasons why “Bigmouth Strikes Again” looms so large in the Smiths sterling catalogue of singles is because it captures Morrissey’s persona as a singer, and as it turns out, as a public figure too.
One of the things that makes Morrissey’s voice so compelling in general is that it is inextricably tied to his writing style, which is a sort of Oscar Wilde meets British kitchen sink drama approach to narrative. It’s a clever cocktail of arrogance and vulnerability that always shines through, with this tune being one of the finest examples. On this song, the narrator’s a jerk. He knows he’s a jerk, even if it’s not always intentional. But he still plays the victim when he’s caught out, playing the martyr complete with a Joan of Arc image seemingly without a moment’s hesitation. Perfect, then.
That’s one of the things that makes Morrissey such a compelling performer. He seems to completely inhabit this space, in his performance but also first in his writing. It’s honest. Of course, it may explain a lot too, firstly why the Smiths’ lifespan was reasonably short. And also because Morrissey really is something of a bigmouth in real life, with opinions on race relations, British cultural identity, and even opinions of his own former band that are divergent (to say the least!) from that of many of his fans.
The Smiths The Queen Is Dead, and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” were quintessential statements from the band, with each member’s strengths right up front, packed with personality. Whether or not one could live with that personality and not be driven crazy is another matter of course. And maybe, once again, this is the reason the Smiths burned very brightly, only to burn out near their height after only five years of life together on record.
And walkmen, discmen, iPods, and iPads have been melting ever since.
For more information, you can investigate Johnny Marr‘s site and review a career of an incredibly well-connected, sought-after, and talented musician with a strong voice as an instrumentalist that is unique, whether it’s his work with the Smiths, Modest Mouse, or the many other songwriters and performers he’s worked with since. His newest record The Messenger is out now.
And let’s not forget! It was Morrisey’s birthday yesterday. He turned 54!
Happy birthday, Bigmouth!