“The Smiths were part of the culture of opposition. Thatcherism generated an opposition that existed at the level of culture and style well beyond – and richer than – the limits of the Labour leadership in Parliament.”
By Simon Fletcher, Modern Left
Andy Rourke died.
Johnny Marr has posted that: “It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Andy Rourke after a lengthy illness with pancreatic cancer. Andy will be remembered as a kind and beautiful soul by those who knew him and as a supremely gifted musician by music fans. We request privacy at this sad time.”
With The Smiths our attention is inevitably drawn to Morrissey and Johnny Marr. In trashing his own standing Morrissey has become an obstacle to listening to The Smiths. But for a while The Smiths were part of the culture of opposition. Thatcherism generated an opposition that existed at the level of culture and style well beyond – and richer – than the limits of the Labour leadership in Parliament. That diverse opposition constituted an alternative Britain in the eighties, a culture that was a pole of attraction against all that was dreary and repellant about Tory Britain. The Smiths were undeniably part of that.
Poking a stick at the monarchy, or insisting that meat is murder, the Smiths were against the orthodoxy. Anti-Thatcher and anti-Steve Wright.
The Smiths sound itself was an alternative. The mainstream hated it because it involved talking about things they weren’t interested in, or despised – but also because it sounded so completely unlike what they told you to listen to.
Andy Rourke is at the heart of the sound of the Smiths. The Smiths would not sound like the Smiths without Rourke’s bass.
Right from the start with their first single, Hand In Glove, the bass can found weaving in and out, part rhythm, part melody. In the last third of the song, the bass is really the lead instrument. Barbarism Begins At Home is dominated by Rourke’s funk bass lines throughout. On live TV, on The Tube, Morrissey and Marr – no longer singing or playing – could be seen dancing with each other as the bass and drums take the song to its completion, Rourke’s bass line now fully revealed as the song’s foundation.
Andy Rourke’s lovely warm playing on Cemetery Gates comes in early, moving around with Johnny Marr’s guitar, building the song’s melody. Often Rourke’s bass was in the middle of a squall, such as on Sweet And Tender Hooligan, or London, or where The Queen Is Dead finally gets underway – although here, if you listen past Morrissey’s vocals, you can hear the bass deliver sequences that are as much the tune as either the guitar or the singing. On This Charming Man, Rourke’s bass helps give the whole thing its pop bounce but is hummable in its own right. The pre-eminent Smiths song, How Soon Is Now, is mostly considered for Marr’s guitar sound – and Morrissey’s lyrics, so quintessential they are almost a self-caricature. But even here, the bass emerges, an engine’s growl.
Andy Rourke was not yet sixty when he died.
Andy Rourke did some amazing things with his bass guitar. He helped make a sound that was part of an alternative for people who wanted one.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on May 19th, 2023.
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