Friday, December 18, 2009

Marky's song #20: The Smiths – “Handsome Devil”

If you rounded up all the fans of the Smiths together, you’d have a lot of pretentious people all in the same spot chances are “Handsome Devil” would not be listed often as a favorite song of many. I’m not one for making lists like that (he says as he numbers each song he writes about), but if I were to sit down and ponder it, it probably wouldn’t be mine, either. It was never released as a single, and the only studio version of it that exists is a 1983 Peel Session that has appeared on various compilations.

The Smiths, as you probably know, were Morrissey on vocals, Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums (oh, excuse me, on the bass and the drums). They were also dynamite writers of guitar-centric pop. Sadly, they were also highly skilled at relegating their best songs to the b-sides of low run singles. According to various sources, it took an earnest plea from a Rough Trade executive to get “This Charming Man” released as a single (over “Reel Around The Fountain”). And of course, “How Soon Is Now?” was initially the b-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing” and wasn’t released as a single of its own until over half a year later, where previous band saturation caused the single to fall short of expectations.

All of the above has nothing to do with the song in question, but it does give you an immediate rejoinder when someone opines how the Smiths should have been bigger than they were and how unfair it was that such strong songwriting could have charted so poorly. They truly were their own worst enemies at some of the most inopportune times.

Anyway, cry me a river while wearing a hearing aid. The Smiths still wrote kick-ass songs even if they did go underappreciated. Me personally, I tend to like their faster songs (this post was almost about “Nowhere Fast”) better than their maudlin crawlers, and this one bristles with spiky punk energy.

Most people know this track through the compilation Hatful of Hollow. It’s not the best recording in the world – careful listeners will notice a pair of slight drop-offs in the source tape – but the rawness of the sound helps give it the snarl it needs and is a nice alternate to the slick production values that mark most Smiths songs. When Morrissey is at his lyrical best, it’s not because he’s providing great narrative or inventive wordplay, it’s because he drops wonderful and memorable sloganeering couplets. “Handsome Devil” is chock-a-block with them:

“I crack the whip and you skip / but you deserve it” – for those of you who are into that sort of thing, a little bit of sadomasochism. (There’s certainly more thrilling eroticism there than in a bitter middle-aged Canadian woman asking if your new girlfriend would go down on you in a theater.)

"A boy in the bush / is worth two in the hand / I think I can help you / get through your exams" – the crassness disqualifies it as being a come on, but it is the most sexually aggressive lyrics Morrissey has ever given us.

“Let me get my hands / on your mammary glands” – a unexpected gender flip that flummoxes the implicit homosexuality in... well, in pretty much everything Morrissey does.

And the final line, “there’s more to life than books, you know / but not much more” is pure platinum. There’s no way to tell whether it’s the tutor talking to the pupil, the pupil taking to the tutor, or just a throwaway line from the Moz as he steps out of the storyline. I guess ambiguity has always been a calling card for the Smiths.

Here's a live version (in a lower key) that accentuates the vocal and guitar lines better.


I believe this concludes my posting for the year 2009. I don't expect to have another one of these ready until after the new year. Have a safe Whatever You're Celebrating and see you all in Twenty-Ten.


  1. Luciano has spoken well.

    This is a much punkier side of the Smiths than I was familiar with. Thanks for sharing! Quite a catchy tune. And now you have given me a new line to try on my wife. (I'll let you guess which one.)

  2. Earlier Smiths was definitely punkier and more aggressive. Still love Morrissey and Marr after all these years. :)