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Morrissey is a divisive figure but, love him or loathe him, there’s no denying the creative blast of work he and Johnny Marr were responsible for with The Smiths.
The importance of the group’s workhorse effort can be outlined simply. Between May 1983 and September 1987, The Smiths recorded and released four albums of original material, three compilation albums and nineteen singles. In a little over four years, the band created a broad landscape of work. When you consider that this is the same length of time Hozier has left between his debut and follow-up, it really brings the timescale into perspective.
One of their finest, and perhaps most controversial, moments was the single ‘Panic’. This two minutes and twenty seconds perfectly captures not only the sound of The Smiths, but the very essence of Morrissey’s imaginative, socially conscious lyrics. Though many have listed a single theme to ‘Panic’, the words evoke a lot more of mid-eighties culture.
“Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again?”
As ‘Panic’ plays out, the first few lines pinpoint the worst nuclear disaster of modern times, Chernobyl. Here Morrissey perfectly and subtly conveys the feeling of fear in its aftermath.
Supposedly, lyrical inspiration struck following the bizarre handling of a news report about Chernobyl on BBC Radio One. Following the report, with the world still reeling in shock, disc jockey Steve Wright played the song ‘I’m Your Man’ by Wham!
Both Marr and Morrissey viewed this as insensitive. How could a straightforward pop song calm the nation, or express tension and fear? In other words it was a disrespectful act. This is partially the cause of the repeated lyric, “Hang the DJ”, but there is also a deeper meaning at the core of ‘Panic’.
“Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life”
That moment also portrayed how shallow music had become by the mid-eighties. Songs had become vehicles, perhaps, for the money machine. There was nothing that reflected actual life in music. The MTV generation wanted escapism, even if it taught them nothing of society and refused to speak to them.
This act of defiance against the music industry becomes even more reinforced by the lines:
“Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ”
A musical terrorism of sorts, burning down the root and cause for this shallow music being made. Though this attack on disco raised racial concerns, as the scene was dominated by black musicians in the late seventies and early eighties, New Order responded with disco hit ‘Blue Monday’, ending these accusations.
As for Marr, his brilliant guitar orchestra, standing behind Morrissey, was staggering. Marr also paid a nostalgic homage of sorts, as the song shows a similarity to T. Rex classic, ‘Metal Guru’. The song shifts and grooves perfectly, Marr’s joyful music with Morrissey’s bleak lyrics. The foundations laid out through the music gave rise to the nineties Britpop era – thought-provoking lyrics over an assault of guitar and drums.
The outro kicks in with a choir singing “Hang The DJ” along with Morrissey. The last act is revealed, one of solidarity with youth culture, pointing to the only way in which their voices will be heard. This almost ‘Hey Jude’-esque finale is a triumphant ending.
‘Panic’ is a political and social statement soaked with the magic of The Smiths, and the band explored these themes further with follow up single ‘Ask’:
“Because if it’s not love
Then it’s the bomb…
That will bring us together”
A perfect statement held together by a very real, inescapable fear.