When you’re feeling like absolute crap and your body’s gone into full on regression mode, there’s two things you can do. You can pump yourself full of Vitamin C and sleep and wait for everyone to dote on you or you can go back to work like a complete chump, stare aimlessly at a screen while you slowly trip out on codeine and listen to the entire collected discography of The Smiths. In the past week that I’ve been crippled with the most unforgiving flu since the last person who told you they had the flu, I’ve attempted both options, and let me tell you, time spent with Morissey and Marr is far better than idle time spent in bed. You can learn so many great things from listening to The Smiths that you simply can’t learn from coughing, spluttering or even vomiting. The entire recent history of British indie rock music is encapsulated in their brief tenure as the band everyone was talking about in the mid to late eighties. Because I couldn’t concentrate on anything properly yesterday, I synced myself a playlist full of Smiths songs, not realising that I’d actually programmed three hours and fifteen minutes of ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ on repeat instead. Believe me when I say that worse things have happened.
The Smiths were the absolute kings of riffs. Taking some well-worn pages out of the books from the mopey bastards that came before them – like Joy Division – they realised very early on that a guitar or bass figure can be as central to the success of a song as the melody itself. It’s no accident that at the time The Smiths reached the height of their popularity, glam-metal bands like Gun N’ Roses were exploding on the other side of the pond for exactly the same reason. Fans would soon recognise the opening strains to ‘Welcome to The Jungle’ or ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ as viscerally as they eventually would Axl’s melodies. This is not in any way to discredit Morrissey as a vocalist and lyricist, because surely nobody is going to argue that they aren’t fantastic, but the first thing that still hits me about many Smiths songs I hear is the guitar. Whether that’s the waterfall drop of How Soon Is Now? or the chiming lead line of this tune, it’s the thing that sticks in my head the longest. Perhaps what is so frustrating is how short-lived the partnership between Morissey and Marr – who would go on to work with Modest Mouse and The Cribs, among others, was. The band released as many ‘compilations’ as they did studio albums, in which they re-recorded many versions of songs that they didn’t love the first time around. The copy of this track, which has now become standard among fans, is actually one done for a legendary John Peel session in 1984. This fact is important to me primarily because the guitars sound better.
When I was younger, and I’d only heard fragments of The Queen Is Dead, it took me a while to properly understand the allure of The Smiths. Retrospectively I realise that it’s precisely because they were so mismatched and well-paired that they wrote the best music of the ’80s. Morrissey, with his undeniable baritone skills turned every verse into an operatic performance, allowing himself to get carried into head voice and ultimately an insistent falsetto by the last minute where things start to get really spine-tingling. The chorus, which consists of a two-bar call and six bar response in a much lower key, is deceptive in the way it moves away from the original tone before using the cycle of fifths to resolve back into the main ostinato. In a song such as this one, these are the really special moments, the part where the first figure returns after a long absence and actually makes you thrilled to hear it again. There’s a definite delay of gratification that contemporary pop music simply doesn’t bother with because they know they only have 3 minutes to grab your attention. But in the mid-eighties, having just come off the Dole, signed to Rough Trade and finally started getting good reviews from NME for a song that even he later admitted he didn’t like, Morrissey knew he could take as long as he damn well pleased. Very few frontmen could say so much with so little, but Moz’ particularly British brand of scathing always did the trick “It makes none/but now you have gone/And you must be looking, very old tonight.” Perhaps so many of The Smiths song titles seemed to be asking questions because they were trying to goad the listener into conjuring up some answers. I don’t have any, but this song has served me well, even on the 186th spin. That falsetto gets me every time. Make sure you listen to the end.
The Smiths – ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ (John Peel Session, 5/18/83)