Monday, January 12, 2009

Music Monday: The Smiths, "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"

I always think of The Smiths as the great rock band that American audiences missed out on, at least in their heyday. The time together of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, and company coincides with my years in high school (1983-1987), but the only mention of them I ever heard back then came from a schoolmate who was into alternative rock and pop more than anyone else I knew. And the only reason he mentioned them to me was because I was getting into movies hot 'n' heavy at the time, and I was talking up Paul Morrissey's Dracula and Frankenstein films for Andy Warhol, which I had seen (in heavily edited) versions on the USA Network's late, great, long-lamented Night Flight program. The commonality of the Morrissey name aside, The Smiths featured an image of Joe Dallesandro, the star of the Warhol Frankenstein and Dracula films, on the cover of their first album. I never heard a song by them until I was in college, a couple of years after they broke up.

I've never come across a decent explanation of why The Smiths were locked out of commercial radio back then. The only thing I can think of is that their guitar-driven pop sound went against the grain in terms of the popular styles. The English pop bands that got airplay at the time were heavily keyboard-centric, and the guitar-based acts were almost exclusively heavy metal. Despite The Smiths' popularity in the UK, if you didn't have access to a college radio station (or listen to a late-night public radio DJ who played alternative rock), you had no idea who they were.

That's certainly changed now. Like me, the people who missed out on them in high school caught up with their albums in college, and The Smiths are now considered one of the key groups of the 1980s. And it's hard for anyone, of any age, to get through a week these days without hearing the hook to their most famous song, "How Soon Is Now?" Listening to them now, I laugh even harder than I did then at the tongue-in-cheek self-pity of the lyrics, and I still marvel at the razor-sharp guitar hooks the songs were built around. My favorite recording by them comes from their final album, "Strangeways, Here We Come. It's called "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish," and it's the focus of today's Music Monday.

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