Updated: Jul 9
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 2 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 jigsaw is simply missing for many people from their lives.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place on 26 April 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, which at that time was still part of the Soviet Union.
That Soviet link is important here.
The world, the limits on what we could think and history itself were effectively frozen in 1986. Without the current Ryanairs and Easyjets to drop stag parties all over East Europe (Covid-19 permitting, of course), the continent was then a demarcated, reassuringly fixed place where they didn’t really understand us and we romanticized them.
Happy days, of a sort.
So when Chernobyl barged onto the airwaves it came with a shroud of mysticism and intrigue. It remains to this day the worst accident in the history of nuclear power, however, and threw a plume of radioactive fallout over the western Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles and eastern North America. Large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were also contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of more than 336,000 people from the immediate area.
The accident also raised concerns about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry (as well as the nuclear industry more generally) slowing its expansion and burdening the (former) Soviet Union with continuing decontamination and escalating health care costs.
It is difficult to tally accurately the number of deaths caused by the accident at Chernobyl. However, what we do know is that most of the expected long-term fatalities (especially those from cancer) have not, so far, occurred, and will be difficult to attribute specifically to the accident if they do emerge in the future. The 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, as led by the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organisation, attributed 56 direct deaths to the accident (47 accident workers and 9 children with thyroid cancer) and estimated that as many as 9,000 people among the 6.6 million that were most highly exposed, may die from some form of cancer as a direct result of the accident.
All these years later, according to the Chernobyl Forum, none of the expected increases in leukaemia has been found in the population or in solid cancers. Chernobyl was frightening, but perhaps, in hindsight, it was not as destructive on the scale that some argued it would be.
For many, however, it was the ultimate demonstration of the dangers of nuclear power and in reality a coup for the anti-nuclear movement. Frightening at the time, it caught the attention of the public, Morrissey and record buyers, who responded to The Smiths urgent call to musical arms. The perception and the moment were strong, the reality slightly less dramatic.
Panic eventually reached number 11 in the charts. No DJs were, as far as we know, hanged as a consequence of the song. Some discos have burnt down, but the causes of these fires have usually been traced to faulty electrics or unrelated arson.
I’m Your Man reached Number 1 in the British Singles Chart and allowed George Michael to wear tight leather gloves and bang a tambourine in public before he came out as a homosexual. Steve Wright went on to Radio 2, where his afternoon show proved to be as successful as when he was at Radio 1.
Morrissey continues to release albums and singles (when he is allowed to), though he still does not smile a great deal whilst in public.
Panic remains a great song.