Top 5 Greatest Smiths Covers of All Time

It makes me so sad that I won’t be able to see Morrissey in concert on Sunday that I now want to listen to a lot of Morrissey. But while I’m aware that I’m missing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch the King of Mope live, I’ve chosen to shift my focus on two things instead: (1) a half-assed, acerbic, and diva performance by Morrissey (which is not beyond the realm of possibility) would only break my heart; it would be akin to a 6-year-old seeing Santa Claus take money out of his dad’s wallet, and (2) that at least I wouldn’t be in the same closed space as thousands of people who pretend to “get” Morrissey.

I’ve written about this before in this blog, that my dormant music snobbism is awakened every time I hear someone who has a pretty standard and normal life gush about how he/she “loves” Morrissey or The Smiths. Only this has absolutely nothing to do with music snobbism; it’s more to do with emotional snobbism: there is no way that many people understand what Morrissey is singing about. It’s impossible. Seriously, go read the lyrics of the most depressing Smiths songs then look at your friend who claims to “love” the band. Think about the entire history of his/her life. Okay, now find any part of the song that’s applicable to this bozo’s life. Keep looking. Seriously, keep looking.

Anyway, instead of bitterly bitching about not being able to see the concert and the people who will be able to see it, I’d rather write about the people who I feel really “get” The Smiths. There are a lot of them out there, I have to admit. There have been so many of them over the years, in fact, that there seems to be more Smiths tribute albums now than there are Smiths albums. The genres covered in this ever growing discography of cover albums run the full gamut – from twee pop to hardcore punk (which I’m sure disappoints Henry Rollins who absolutely hates Morrissey). Below are the five best Smiths covers of all time, in ascending order:

5.) “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”, covered by J Mascis (from “Martin + Me”)

I know what you’re thinking; “really?!?” was also my reaction when I first saw this on the track listing of J Mascis’ solo acoustic live album “Martin + Me”. Dinosaur Jr. doing The Smiths? Yes. Yes, indeed.

It’s delightfully surprising how well J Mascis’ beastly drawl supplants Morrissey’s melodramatic tremolo in this song. The original wallows in self-pity; J Mascis’ cover is bursting at the seams with desperation. He changes the lyrics just enough that it becomes about a specific girl. When he sings: “how can she look into my eyes and still she don’t believe me?”, it’s the unmistakable cry of the wounded.

The true mark of a great cover is how much you own somebody else’s words as you sing them. I am reminded of that moment in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid in the Whale” when Walt had just been exposed as presenting Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own song at a school talent show. “I didn’t write it,” he admits. “But it felt like I could’ve written it, so the fact that I didn’t was a technicality.”

4.) “Well I Wonder”, covered by Sara Lov (from “Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to the Smiths”)

There are very few things in pop music more magical than when a deft female singer sings a Morrissey song. It is in these moments when it becomes perfectly clear that Morrissey’s entire Smiths and solo catalogue was a collection of songs for brooding girls after all. But that wouldn’t be accurate. Much has been said about Morrissey’s not-so-ambiguous sexuality but what it really does is make the sexuality in his songs universal. The realm of heartbreak and insecurity knows no gender. Sara Lov shows us why.

3.) “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, covered by Placebo (from “The Smiths is Dead”)

Speaking of not-so-ambiguous sexuality, Brian Molko had to be destined to cover “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, right? The Smiths must’ve recorded this in 1986 thinking, “10 years from now, a bunch of bands will be making a “The Queen is Dead” 10th anniversary tribute album, and one of these bands will have a creepy androgynous lead singer, and so we have to make a song specifically for this band.”

2.) “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, covered by The Lucksmiths (from “Romantic and Square is Hip and Aware: A Matinee Tribute to the Smiths”)

The greatest song The Lucksmiths ever recorded is not even theirs. But they deserve props here for somehow making a great cover of one of The Smiths’ greatest songs. The real genius move here was to turn it into a duet (with the help of their favorite female guest vocalist, Alicia) to ratchet up the us-against-the-world vibe while dialling down on the musical melodrama. This is like the emotional equivalent of lowering the bass and turning up the treble. I swear that makes sense.

1.) “Asleep”, covered by Stars (from “Sing Me To Sleep: Indie Lullabies”)

This is the first track off of a benefit album for terminally-ill children. I guess they thought the perfect opening track to a lullaby compilation would be a song entitled “Asleep”, a song that opens with the phrase “sing me to sleep”. Which is cute and all except that this also happens to be one of the most beautiful suicide songs in pop music history.

But anyway…

This is – both musically and lyrically – arguably the most depressing Smiths song of all time. There is an airy end-of-the-world disconcertedness with the original that makes it hair-raisingly frightening and sad at the same time. But while the original was a bitter dirge, Stars’ rendition is a calm lullaby. And here’s why their cover of “Asleep” is the greatest Smiths cover of all time – it’s actually a much more interesting take on the original’s theme.

It’s still a suicide song, but it is sung from the perspective of someone who is truly at peace with her decision. Where Morissey’s line “deep in the cell of my heart, I will feel so glad to go” had a hint of irony and self-pity, Amy Millan’s rendition is pure earnest acceptance. The Stars version depicted a death that isn’t sad or bitter – it’s beautiful and redemptive. So I guess, in a weird and super-advanced way, this would be a good song to dedicate to terminally-ill kids? (I don’t know. Don’t ask me that question again.)

-- Postscript (May 13, 11:50 PM): So, yeah, I did get to watch Morrissey after all. I wish everyday is like this Sunday.


Kristine said...

this is about a year late, but I just wanted to say that this is probably one of the best Smiths covers lists I've seen.

and the Stars cover is brutally beautiful, glad I found it

Indie Wiretap said...

Found your post after also landing on this topic. Wasn't aware of the J. Mascis cover. Amazing. Thank you.

Indie Wiretap said...

Found this post after also landing on this topic. Hadn't heard of the J. Mascis cover. Amazing. Thank you.



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