Emerging during the 1980s, the Manchester-born band The Smiths grabbed the attention of the indie label Rough Trade within six months of their formation. But it took their second single ‘This Charming Man’ to establish their foothold over all the major UK charts. It’s a track that will live in the band’s iconography forever and is rightly seen as the moment the band truly hit the mainstream.
Written by Morrissey and composed by Johnny Marr the song is in protest of the mainstream gay culture of the 1980s. With the AIDS epidemic bringing a new focus on gay culture, Morrissey and Marr made sure that they tried to tap into a new paradigm rather than be trapped by the usual tropes. The track would become a part of the gay lexicon of Britain in the eighties as well as being a thumping indie dancefloor filler. While, of course, Marr and Morrissey took charge of the track, much of what made it sonically brilliant hung on Andy Rourke’s bassline.
Instead of running full steam ahead into gay culture, ‘This Charming Man’ evoked an older, more coded and self-aware underground scene. The singer said of the song’s lyrics: “I really like the idea of the male voice being quite vulnerable, of it being taken and slightly manipulated, rather than there being always this heavy machismo thing that just bores everybody” wrote Morrissey explaining his stance.
The song written in the first-person narrative tells the story through a male protagonist. Having punctured his bicycle wheel in a remote hillside, the protagonist comes across a “charming man” who offers him a lift in his luxury car. While driving in the car the cyclist’s reluctant “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear” is met with a flirtatious reply “it’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care.”
Opening with Marr’s characteristic jangle pop guitar riff along with rhythms. Marr’s approached the bass guitar part a bit differently. He plays single notes instead of chords and that too within a small range. The result is a simple yet funky riff that serves as a counter-melody throughout the song. “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’, buried beneath about 15 tracks of guitar … it was the first record where I used those highlife-sounding runs in 3rds. I’m tuned up to F# and I finger it in G, so it comes out in A. 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” told Marr to the Guitar Player magazine.
Although Marr happily takes creative control on this piece, it’s hard to imagine the song truly triumphing without Andy Rourke’s performance of the bassline. It thumps and pumps like no bass had really done before and it was his sound that underpinned much of The Smiths’ success.
Of course, Marr and Morrissey were the chiefs in this tribe but Rourke’s performance across the band’s entire catalogue deserves some extra attention.