Friday, February 25, 2011

The Best Single Ever

The best single ever released in the history of popular music? Easy: 'William, It Was Really Nothing' by the Smiths.

Wait, what? Surely I can't mean that, can I? That such a non-classic could possibly be considered for that title?

The answer is yes, absolutely. But I suppose it needs a bit of an explanation: you see, I said the best single of all time, which for obvious reasons ought to be seen as different from the best song of all time. I'm speaking about a specific slab of vinyl - in this case RTT166, the 12" single released by Rough Trade in August of 1984. 'William, It Was Really Nothing' was merely one of three songs on that single, and while it's flat-out fabulous, it's the least noteworthy of the three. It's the only one of the three songs on this single that falls short of mythic.

Slightly short of mythic. Johnny Marr jangles probably as well as he ever did on the amazingly kinetic a-side. A mere 2:10, it's a purpose-built single, full of energy and joy in the music and full of, well, full of Morrissey in the vocals. Morrissey speaks about the distastefulness of marriage, addressing the unknown William. It says a lot about Morrissey's own particular public image, really: uninterested in traditional human relationships, of uncertain sexuality, more than a little misanthropic. But then he breaks into a falsetto that manages to be ridiculous and life-affirming at the same time; really an impressive trick. And he does it all on that floral cushion Marr et al as prepared for him. It's a brilliant song. And it's the worst one on the single.

If you bought the 7", the only other song you got was 'Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want'. At 1:50,it's even shorter than the a-side, but it's not concentrated: it's still slow, leisurely and dreamy across those 110 seconds. It's merely designed for haiku-like brevity. The guitars jangle again. In fact the instrumentation is really sparse here, little more than a bed of guitars - and of course that fabulously unexpected mandolin that adds a note of grace to this song. It could never have been an a-side, but it's much better remembered than its a-side, largely in fact due to Hollywood, or rather due to John Hughes and his era-defining 1980s movies. This song appears in two of them, perfectly painting a picture of the graceful teenage ennui of those characters. We remember the 1980s chiefly these days as a bold, narcissistic era of shiny metals and glow-in-the-dark primary colours, but those of us who lived through it can also remember moments of quiet dignity, of graceful hopelessness. This song brings it back vividly.

But if you bought the 7", you missed out on the single's most famous and best track. It seems inconceivable, really, that it should have happened, that a song as great as 'How Soon is Now?', a song that would earn a slot on almost anyone's 'best songs of the 1980s' list, would not be reased as the a-side of a single, not even as a b-side, but thrown away as the 'special bonus track' on the 12" version. I don't know if there could be, in the annals of music, a less intelligent single-release decision than this one. Apparently the logic is that Rough Trade felt the song was too atypical of the band's style to work as a single and that at seven minutes it would receive no airplay. This is one of those cases where you can follow each step logically and yet still wind up in an incredibly wrong place: neither of those arguments you can really disagree with, but the result deprived the Smiths of what should probably have been their breakthrough hit.

But wait, wasn't it a single? Didn't it have a video? Well, yes - eventually. It was an a-side, after it had appeared on this single and on the Hatful of Hollow budget compilation. So obviously it failed to burn up the singles charts. I don't argue that ultimately that matters much: chart hits are rarely an indication of quality. The month of 'How Soon is Now's a-side release, a song called 'I Know Him So Well' by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson was at number one. Which song is better remembered today?

Anyway, that's the whole point of this: how a single becomes a great single by having songs unjustly relegated to its b-sides. What exactly makes 'How Soon is Now?' so fabulous? That's tough to pin down; the lyrics seem knocked-together (they are; the whole thing was a happy accident, really) and artless, but that artlessness is the point to a certain degree; the desperation is this song is real, it's visceral. And to that end, the muscularity of the backing music fits the lonely lyrics well - there's no artifice or distance here: the song works because it very directly and very baldly displays an emotion familiar to us all - or, at least, familiar to anyone likely to be a fan of the Smiths. The seven-minute length allows us to immerse ourselves fully in the feeling, and - this is the condradiction at the heart of everything that made the Smiths great - gain some comfort and solace in the sense of a shared, collective loneliness. The knowledge that millions of people just like you were out there somewhere, reacting to this symphony the same way you did. That you weren't alone in feeling alone. I'm not sure anyone who wasn't a child of the 1980s can truly 'get' that. The idea of experiencing a sense of community while sitting alone listening to a record player in your bedroom seems all but preposterous now. And while in the post-music-industry world, the idea that a song this brilliant could be buried where only diehards could find it seems perhaps even more plausible than it did back then, but that collectible physical entity of the single is all but dead. I love the post-physical musical world, but it means creations like this, this little under-the-radar missive of three life-changing songs, can no longer be. Or, I'd argue, can no longer have the meaning that this single did all the way back in George Orwell's 1984.

Which is too bad, but it means that the position of 'greatest single ever', currently held by the Smiths' 'William, It Was Really Nothing' / 'Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want' / 'How Soon is Now?', will never seriously be challenged.

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