While The Smiths’ sound was dominated in the press by Morrissey’s lyrical choices and Johnny Marr’s inimitable guitar work, the fact remains that they would not have been the tight unit that we know them as without the excellent rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. Rourke’s playing is considered by most as some of the finest Britain has ever known and loved.
As for Rourke in particular, he is noted for his melodic approach to playing the bass guitar, arguably providing the British counterpoint to R.E.M.’s Mike Mills over the Atlantic Ocean. Rourke met Marr at 11, and the pair enjoyed jam sessions while still at school; the duo formed one of the most important indie bands of all time.
From there, Rourke played in the short-lived funk band Freak Party with Marr before completing The Smiths lineup with Morrisey and Joyce in 1982. Rourke had been known to suffer from an addiction to heroin and was briefly kicked out of the band in 1986 before re-joining just two weeks before the release of their second studio album,The Queen Is Dead.
Here, we’re going to take a closer look at ten of the best basslines the bass icon has ever written and recorded for The Smiths. Without further ado, let’s get melodic.
‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’
One of The Smiths’ best songs for sure is ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’, which Morrisey had written in light of reading Shelagh Delaney’s playA Taste of Honey. “At least 50 per cent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney, who wroteA Taste Of Honey,” he said in 1986. “And ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ is aTaste Of Honeysong – putting the entire play to words.”
Rourke provides a beautifully walking bassline on the track, which never lets up from giving the typically-Smith dour outlooking song a basis to form itself. The chorus sees a delightful riff on the higher register that shows that the song features one of Rourke’s best moments.
‘You’ve Got Everything Now’
‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ is one of the best songs on The Smiths’ debut album, released in 1984. The track sees Morrissey call out a fictional figure who appears to be faking being happy as he feels that merely living an indolent life is not enough to make one satisfied with their existence.
The track indeed features the most hammering of all the basslines on this list. Rourke’s part sits comfortably between Mike Joyce’s trebly drumkit and Johnny Marr’s ever-glittering guitarwork. The finest bass lick of the song comes when Morrissey laments that he made “a mess of [his] life”. Glorious.
‘Barbarism Begins At Home’
‘Barbarism Begins at Home’ features on The Smiths’ second album,Meat IsMurder, released in 1985. Discussing the overall mood of the track, Johnny Marr once said: “That track harks back to what I was doing with Andy before The Smiths. I guess it came out of this love of retro kind of James Brown records and things like Rip Rig & Panic and The Pop Group. That period of anaemic, underfed white funk.”
As for his own influences, Rourke toldBass Guitarmagazine: “‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ is slap bass with a pick. I don’t think Morrissey thought it was cool to do slap bass, but I bought Level 42’s records and went to see them. I thought they were great. I was really into that style of playing.”
‘Cemetery Gates’ was nearly not used by The Smiths as Marr had not initially been keen on his own creation. However, Morrisey loved the track and was adamant about recording it forThe Queen Is Dead. Thankfully, it was recorded, and Rourke gave us one of his best-ever basslines.
The Smiths’ biographer Tony Fletcher argued that Rourke “delivered some of his best performances” when the band recorded theThe Queen Is Deadsessions. He said that “neither the title track nor ‘Cemetery Gates’ would have sounded anything so effective without his contribution,” and it would be hard to argue otherwise.
‘The Queen Is Dead’
Rourke noted that ‘The Queen is Dead’ set the tone for the rest of the titular album. “Sometimes you can go into the studio, and you can play for a whole day, and nothing will happen,” he said. “That day, magic happened, and we came up with this amazing song that became the theme of the whole album.”
As for the excellent bassline, Rourke said in 2016: “Johnny made me feel good about it. He said it was one of the best basslines he’d ever heard, so my head was kind of swelling through the roof.” There are licks and pull-offs aplenty, making the bassline one of Rourke’s best-ever efforts.
‘The Headmaster Ritual’
Another track where both Marr and Rourke are at their very best. In fact, it may well be a moment in which Rourke just about overshines the guitarist because he seems to match every single note of the rather complex piece. Rourke easily shifts up and down the fretboard, complimenting Morrissey’s vocals along the way.
Rourke refuses to simply play the root notes to the chords, which may have been the coward’s way out. Instead, he’s confident enough to find the melodies between, all the more impressive, seeing as Marr is playing in an Open E guitar tuning. The man’s talents are simply endless.
‘This Charming Man’
Rourke first offered his services to the very first Smiths single ‘Hand in Glove’, but the first time he really blew us away was on the band’s sophomore release, the ever-famous ‘This Charming Man’. Of course, Marr’s guitar playing dominates the track, but Rourke’s bass is equally as impressive.
Once again, we have his unique melodic pattern, always shifting, always bouncing between the bass notes, their fifths, their octaves and everything in between. Marr and Morrissey’s parts are the most memorable, but it’s all held up by Mike Joyce’s drums and glued together by Rourke.
‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’
As soon as those first high notes come in at the beginning of ‘Heaven Knows’, you know something is up. Once proceedings are properly underway, then Rourke plays a lovely walk-up in the verse before a three-note rundown at the end of each bar. Towards the end of the verse, Rourke slows things down a bit, showing that he knows the serve the song rather than his own playing.
Such attention to the requirements of a given track proved that Rourke is clearly one of the greatest bass players to ever pick up the instrument. He never overshadows Marr on ‘Heaven Knows’ and only comes out his corner at the perfect moments, lending the track genuine weight.
The second track on Meat Is Murder admittedly feels a little out of place, especially in between the excellent ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ and ‘I Want the One I Can’t Have’. There’s a definite rockabilly feel to the tune, and it highlights Rourke’s versatility in his playing that many might not have even realised.
It’s a gloriously uplifting bassline that really comes to the fore with Marr on an acoustic as opposed to playing his loud, jangly electric rhythms and melodies. Rourke bounces his part up and down, mirroring perhaps the joys and thrills of the rides of the “last night of the fair” of which Morrissey croons. Not the best Smiths song for sure, but perhaps Rourke’s most varied performance on the bass.
Johnny Marr wrote ‘Girl Afraid’ on the same night that he wrote ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, and he was fortunate with the former because it features some glorious bass work from Rourke. Okay, Marr himself is on absolute fire on this song, but Rourke is equally impressive, even if only for the speed of the damn thing.
Interestingly, though, perhaps the best thing about Rourke on ‘Girl Afraid’ is that he is able to play at great speed and then almost shift down to his own pace halfway through a bar, ring out a few fifths and then hop back on the pace of the rest of the band with effortless ease.