When looking back at the vast impact The Smiths had as a band on the rock and roll world it’s hard to focus on anything but their 1983 launchpad to stardom, ‘This Charming Man’. We’re using our Story Behind The Song feature to look behind the facade and revel in the guts of one of the greatest indie songs ever written.
Written of course by the all-powerful songwriting partnership of Marr and Morrissey, the track relies heavily on the two members of the partnership delivering what they delivered best – lyrics and a guitar.
The story goes that The Smiths were enjoying a two-week break from the road which led to Morrissey sitting down in front of his television ready to take in some of Britain’s finest programming. He happened to land upon the late night showing on BBC1 of the 1972 film Sleuth. The film starred the acclaimed pairing of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine and it was an exchange between the two which would spark the wheels of the song in motion.
As noted in Simon Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life Morrissey was drawn to Anthony Shaffer’s witty script and one particular piece of dialogue between Olivier and Caine in which the former holds the latter up at gunpoint accusing him of being “a jumped up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place.” It’s a line which is then repeated by Caine as he exacts his revenge upon Olivier’s character. While Morrissey would spend much of his time explaining the sentiment of the phrase to foreign journalists he explained that largely he enjoyed the rhythm of the line more so than anything else.
Morrissey is a lyrical writer steeped in the literary world around him. That brewing isn’t reserved for films either as the song also pays homage to one of Morrissey’s idols Shelagh Delaney. In the film adaptation of her A Taste of Honey protagonist Rita Tushingham is asked whether she will be going dancing tonight to which she replies “I haven’t got any clothes to wear for one thing.”
In an interview with NME in 1984 Morrissey would broaden this spectrum a little though as he also suggested the line was born from his past, “I found that on those very rare occasions where I did get invited anywhere, I would constantly sit down and say, ‘Good heavens, I couldn’t possibly go to this place tonight because I don’t have any clothes… I don’t have any shoes.'” As with all Moz lyrics, it’s more than likely a composite of both his literary and literal life.
Despite the many deep-dives into the clarity of the lyrics and their narrative, it has never been truly discovered as to what the song is about. Though it’s clear the story has both an innocent character in need of direction, approval and confirmation, as well as an experienced character who offers that in spades, the final intentions of each character are hard to discern.
While many have mused on the sordid insinuations of sex and salacious behaviour, the truth is likely somewhere a little more confusing. In fact, a little more Morrissey. He said that lyrics were a collection of lines that “seemed to stitch themselves together under the umbrella of ‘This Charming Man'”, which seems about right to us. With the lyrics underway the song was farmed out to the Godlike guitar-smarts of Johnny Marr.
Although “flummoxed” by the lyrics, allegedly Marr wrote the guitar parts to the track “in 20 minutes” while the group prepared for their second John Peel session. The melody was instantly picked up on by Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis who recognised its potential and easily convinced the band to pursue it as the next single rather than the controversial ‘Reel Around the Fountain’. Though simple in its inception, the guitar sound for the track would become synonymous with the band, though its final flourishes were not easily achieved.
Marr told Guitar Player in 1993, “I’ll try any trick. With the Smiths, I’d take this really loud Telecaster of mine, lay it on top of a Fender Twin Reverb with the vibrato on, and tune it to an open chord. Then I’d drop a knife with a metal handle on it, hitting random strings. I used it on ‘This Charming Man’.” It’s a technique confirmed in Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life by producer John Porter who said that the band were very strict on the instruments used in any recording process.
“They wouldn’t allow backing vocals or whatever. Mozzer was clear about that so it was a case of “Okay, any sound we need we’ll do it with guitars” So Johnny and me would be dropping spanners on them, taping bits up, just having fun smoking a lot of dope while staying up all night making silly noises.” It led to ‘This Charming Man’ being one of the most densely recorded guitar songs in the band’s repertoire.
Marr continues in his Guitar Player interview: “There are about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it’s really a ’54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar – that comes in at the end of the chorus.” It makes for a more fulfilling guitar sound and couple with Morrissey’s lyrics would set ‘This Charming Man’ on course for being one of The Smiths’ most notable tracks.
Though the track has two new incarnations, one recorded at Matrix Studios in London (above) and the final version which was recorded in the North, it was released as a single to critical acclaim.
The song would act as a launchpad for The Smiths moving them out of the pigeonhole of “John Peel Approved” and into the public consciousness. It would see them take to the stage at Top of The Pops studio and find their way into the homes of millions across the nation. ‘This Charming Man’ was truly the start of it all and it all came to be built on the solid foundations of Johnny Marr’s guitar and Morrissey’s lyrics.