Catching the moment, The Smiths are dancy, excitable and thrilling.
It catalogues, intentionally and unintentionally, a cultural car crash. It is very short (just over two minutes), steals a little something from one of the great glam wedding songs of the 70s (T-Rex’s Metal Guru) and it is loved by students the world over.
It is also hated, perhaps, by certain DJs.
Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Panic by The Smiths.
Morrissey, as a lyricist, could, by turns, do anger, venomous satire, lyrical pleading and wan homoeroticism with the best of them. Here it’s all anger (blisteringly so) clapped along with a satire on the bloated, eye- off-the-ball pop culture of the 1980s. Panic is the scream of reason at the dying of political currency and impotent rage at a world not so much gone mad, as gone down the pub.
The cultural car crash is all in the words and the actions of Radio 1 (in its Nations Favourite heyday) DJ Steve Wright, who followed a news report on the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident by playing Wham’s I’m You Man. And why not? It was 1986, the steam was running out of Thatcherism, though nobody really knew it at the time (the woman herself cantering to a spectacular election victory within a year) and popular music was getting ready to pull on its baggy T-shirts and a-raving it would go.
The promise of change was in the air, if not the thing itself, and the certainties of a generation were simmering away, ready to come to the boil. But not yet, not quite yet.
The mythology is that Morrissey was so angered by the strange juxtaposition of the disaster, the jingle and the single, that he rushed to pen Panic and get his words out there to the masses. And the song does seem to give evidence to the argument that it is a cunning and appropriately vicious satire on a fickle few minutes of Steve Wright that day on the airwaves. The song begins and winds itself up to plod, loudly and in stately fashion, not deviating, no distracting, before easing Morrissey’s non-call to arms into the, er, groove.
The lyric here, and Morrissey’s delivery of it, is pure nursery rhyme; clapping song words in a list; "Panic on the streets of London/Panic on the streets of Birmingham/I wonder to myself/Could life ever be sane again?/The Leeds side-streets that you slip down/I wonder to myself/Hopes may rise on the Grasmere/But Honey Pie, you're not safe here."
Knit one, purl one.
And there is a familiar comfort in the lyric that all of this listing is designed to "hang". After all, how could Morrissey do anything else in his call to join him at the disco, apart from look to burn the bloody thing down?
"Hang the DJ"?
The anger that drives the song and keeps it chugging along, had less of an effect than perhaps was intended, probably because it came from The Smiths, which at this stage in their career were still labouring under the yoke of misery and student-like angst.
Ah, The Smiths; the alternative (indie? Choose your peg) four-piece which between 1982 and 1987 carved a niche for themselves as the thinking, quoting, strumming leaders of creative popular chart music.
Based on the partnership of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, the group was lauded by critics to be the most important alternative rock band in British popular music in the 1980s. That may or may not have been correct, but at the time the critics were right to pick up on Morrissey’s arch, witty, amusing lyrics and their melding with Marr's music. Morrissey may have been able to show that he had read a bit in his lyrics, but Marr could also pen a decent tune.
The Smiths eventually grew a loyal (at turns fanatical) following, both at home and overseas, and they remain to this day cultish and commercial. For proof, see the fans tugging of Morrissey’s strings whenever his grand miserableness deigns to emerge on stage and sing a couple of songs. His more recent tunes may be successful in their own way, but without the heritage of those dark, tumultuous days in the 1980s they lack gravity for some. It may annoy him, as it so obviously does, to hear the public demands for him to sing Girlfriend in a Coma or Ask but, without those songs, a vital part of the musical