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19 May 2023

In praise of Andy Rourke, the Smiths’ hidden wonder

The band is often labelled miserable, but the bassist made music that was suffused with joy.

By Mat Osman

I know exactly where I was on 11 February 1985. Sitting in my room with headphones on, bass plugged in, as I dropped the needle over and over again on track eight of the just-released Smiths album, Meat is Murder. For just a short while the track – a bruising, yelping metallic-funk thing titled “Barbarism Begins at Home” – broke down to just bass and drums and I, like hundreds of other teenage musicians, was trying to work out exactly what the hell Andy Rourke was playing.

I thought of that moment immediately when I heard the news this morning, 19 May, that Andy had died, at just 59, of pancreatic cancer. Johnny Marr was (rightly) regarded as one of the finest musicians of his generation, but to those listening hard enough there was another wonder hiding in the Smiths’ engine room. Bass was often neglected in the indie bands of the time, relegated to a pedestrian stomp, but Andy’s playing was a world apart. He was effortlessly melodic, steely when the track needed it, funky when he could get away with it, and full of glorious flourishes. For young musicians like me, Andy made being a bass player seem something much more than just a supporting role. Every chance I got I went to see him play live, and he was curiously watchable even though he barely moved from his spot. As Morrissey cavorted and Johnny grooved, he stood, as unmoving as a Mount Rushmore head, eyes straight ahead but his fingers dancing.

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

I didn’t know Andy more than to say hello to, but over the years I’ve worked with many people who were close with him, the producer Stephen Street and the Smiths drummer Mike Joyce among them. As soon as Andy’s name was mentioned they’d be smiling. They all had Andy stories, often unrepeatable, but always told with huge affection. And, most tellingly, like everyone Andy worked with, they wanted to work with him again (a rare thing in the music industry, believe me). To have played with a roll-call of musicians that includes Chrissie Hynde, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor and Julian Cope, and to have not fallen out with any of them, is a testament not only to his immense talent but his affability.

I’m sitting here listening to old Smiths tracks as people are waking up to the news of his death. DJs are playing songs on the radio, people are choosing their favourite Andy moments on Twitter and friends are DMing me their choice cuts. And there are so many that are catching on me, songs that I find I have to play just one more time, just like that day in 1985. My headphones are full of the propulsive surge of “William, It Was Really Nothing”, or the liquid reggae of “Rubber Ring”, or that stately procession of “I Know It’s Over”, and each one has me almost laughing at the deep pleasure of the three of them – Mike, Andy and Johnny – and the way they bounce ideas and riffs off each other.

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The Smiths are often characterised as a miserable band but that ignores the fact that the playing on those early records is suffused with joy. The band crackle with ideas, as they plunder everything from funk to rockabilly, from African highlife to 1960s torch songs, and Andy is always right at the heart of it, pushing the music onwards. When I was younger it was Morrissey’s lyrics that I thought of as key to the band, but listening back now, it’s the music that’s so special. There’s an exuberance, an embarrassment of riches, a sheer head-rush, that perhaps can only be made by a young band learning exactly how good they could be. Andy means a great deal to me as a musician but today I’m only listening as a fan, and despite the sad news, he has me smiling all over again. RIP Andy.

(Oh, and if there’s anyone out there thinking of having a go at that “Barbarism” riff in tribute – Andy tuned up a whole step. Try it, you’ll thank me.)

[See also: How Busted defined the moody teen pop of the Noughties]

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