Johnny Marr usually gets the bulk of the musical praise for The Smiths‘ output, and it’s not hard to see why. Marr got the music songwriting credits for almost all of the band’s compositions, and his playing style was so unique to him that it largely overshadowed most of the other melodic elements that were peppered throughout The Smiths’ catalogue.
But under the surface, a secret weapon lies just under the listener’s nose: a series of distinctive bass lines from Andy Rourke. Taking the lead from melodic players like Joy Division’s Peter Hook and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Rourke combated his bandmate’s arpeggios with distinctive runs of his own, creating a sonic that fleshes out numerous classic Smith songs.
Just below the heavily oscillated guitar chords of ‘How Soon is Now’ lies a jumpy bassline inspired by R&B and Motown. ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ lets its playful and elastic play into the ironic tone of the song, while ‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’ finds Rourke walking all over the bass as brass and drum crashes threaten to drown him out. But Rourke was just as distinctive as Marr’s singular picking style and Morrissey’s unmistakable voice.
The best part is that Rourke is a distinctive presence right from the very beginning of the band’s career. Just listen to ‘Hand in Glove’ or ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ to hear how fully formed Rourke was right out of the gate. But if you want the perfect example of Rourke’s genius standing right in front of you without ever giving it a second listen, then go back and listen to ‘This Charming Man’.
Better yet, listen to the track twice: once isolated and then again with all the other song’s elements. Like Hook, Rourke favours hitting octaves and creating his own melodic lines while occasionally throwing in hammer-ons and complex runs just to keep the proceedings interesting. But his outlining of the song’s basic chords and implementation of noticeable effects makes him a kindred spirit to The Cure’s Simon Gallup.
It takes a brave soul to add such a mind-bending bass line to an already note-heavy guitar song, but Rourke never overwhelms the song’s composition or catchy elements. He’s happy to stay in the background, even though his bass line is begging to be paid proper attention.