Please please please - don't ignore Irish roots of The Smiths

 

REVOLVER: BRIAN BOYDon music

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 Wantto 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 Factoradvertising 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 Waltzas 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 (best- known 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.

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