Please please please – don’t ig­nore Ir­ish roots of The Smiths

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

THE JOHN Lewis chain of depart­ment stores is about as English as you can get, but it is us­ing one of the most Ir­ish songs ever to flog its goods. The re­tailer sought and got per­mis­sion from Mor­ris­sey and Marr to use their clas­sic Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want to front the Christ­mas mar­ket­ing drive.

All the at­ten­tion the ad is get­ting (and John Lewis is pay­ing a small for­tune to screen it dur­ing X Fac­tor ad­ver­tis­ing breaks) means that the song is pick­ing up a lot of steam. The com­pany is spend­ing £6 mil­lion on the cam­paign, and the way things are shap­ing up, the song could well be a sur­prise Christ­mas No 1 (it’s cur­rently at 14/1 with the book­mak­ers).

Here’s some­thing you don’t know about the song: it was orig­i­nally called The Ir­ish Waltz. It’s mainly a Johnny Marr song and was writ­ten to re­flect the Ir­ish trad mu­sic he was brought up on. In Seán Camp­bell’s mas­ter­ful book Ir­ish Blood, English Heart, Marr talks about the first mu­sic he re­mem­bers hear­ing (by Big Tom and the Main­lin­ers) and how he taught him­self to play the har­mon­ica when he was just five so he could stay up be­yond his bed­time and par­tic­i­pate in fam­ily mu­sic ses­sions.

What­ever sense of melan­choly/ mo­rose­ness there is in The Smiths’ mu­sic has in fact noth­ing to do with Mor­ris­sey (who was al­ways an archly hu­mor­ous lyri­cist) and every­thing to do with how Marr pro­cessed Ir­ish trad mu­sic.

“As the night wore on,” he says of the mu­sic ses­sions at home, “in­vari­ably the mu­sic got sad and that time was a re­ally mag­i­cal time for me be­cause the mu­sic got re­ally in­ter­est­ing.” And it was those “melodies from those sad Ir­ish tunes” that found their way into The Smiths’s great­est hits.

“As I started to write more and more, I was like, hang on a minute, there’s a thing that I do here, an as­pect that is com­ing from that place that I had as a kid that is pretty fuck­ing pow­er­ful and that is part of what I’m about so I drew from it and I wanted to ac­knowl­edge it,” he tells Camp­bell in the book.

Marr feels he cap­tures this Ir­ish im­mi­grant sad­ness, or “nails it” as he has it him­self, on Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want. He had orig­i­nally called the song The Ir­ish Waltz as the sense of long­ing it in­vokes was the same as how his par­ents felt when singing Ir­ish bal­lads.

The song ap­pears on Hat­ful of Hol­low – the al­bum on which Marr scratched the word “Eire” in the run-out groove of the vinyl. The lyrics that Mor­ris­sey later put on the song speak of a dif­fer­ent type of long­ing – ex­pressed in the singer’s ha­bit­ual melo­dra­matic way – but if you strip Mor­ris­sey off the song, you’re ba­si­cally lis­ten­ing to some­thing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bothy Band record.

Thank­fully, a band did just this and re­leased an in­stru­men­tal ver­sion of the song. For some rea­son, the ver­sion by English band The Dream Academy (best­known for their mini-clas­sic Life in a North­ern Town) end­ing up fea­tur­ing promi­nently in Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off (per­haps the most un-smiths film of all time). But their ver­sion is too windswept and syn­thy – the song needs a Planxty or a Chief­tains to do it jus­tice.

To fur­ther ham­mer home what the song is re­ally about, Marr in­sisted that Please, Please, Please be used as the open­ing song when­ever The Smiths played in Ire­land – and the song is the very last one in The Smiths’ oeu­vre that you would ever chose as an opener.

And who is that singing the song on the John Lewis ad? None other than Amelia Warner – Colin Far­rell’s ex-wife.

In other Hell Has Frozen Over news, Mor­ris­sey and Marr have given the nod for a Smiths song to be used in John Lewis Christ­mas ad­verts (left)

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