Interview: Thomas Lennon spontaneously pares down his list of quintessential Smiths songs
By Will Harris
If Nick Hornbyâs High Fidelity taught us anything, itâs that no self-respected pop culture aficionado can ever refuse a request to provide a top-five list. Or a top-ten list. Or any list at all, really. As such, when we ran into Thomas Lennon at this summerâs Television Critics Association press tour, we knew without question that if he had the time to do it, weâd be able to tempt him into providing us with a list of his top five Smiths songs.
Indeed, even though we caught him on the fly, Lennon was happy to oblige. In turn, we are happy to mention that his CBS series The Odd Couple returns for its third season on Monday, October 17, at 9:30 p.m. Having done so, weâd like to add that Mr. Lennon would probably appreciate it if you went ahead and filed that information away right now, because if you donât, then youâre going to lose it in a few minutes when itâs washed away by the arrival of a flurry of Smiths lyrics.
RHINO: If youâve got a few minutes, Iâd love to ask you about your top five Smiths songs.
THOMAS LENNON: Of course! Please. [Horrified look.] Oh, my goodness: youâre going to make me narrow it down to five?!
We can do ten. Youâll get no complaining from me.
Okay, well, Iâm going to have to work backwards.
So this is complicated, because I canât start narrowing it down. But I can begin with what I think is the quintessential Smiths song. And by the way, interestingly enough, I think either the New Musical Express or someone just put out a list of their top 50 Smiths songsâ¦and I disagree with a bunch of them! And Iâll go on record as disagreeing with a bunch of them. For instance, many people think that âHow Soon Is Now?â is the quintessential Smiths song. I think thatâs absolutely out of sorts. Thatâs bullshit.
The most recognizable, maybe.
Yes. By amateurs. And rookies. The quintessential Smiths songâ¦is âI Know Itâs Over.â
I would like to hear your expert explanation as to why you feel this to be so.
What else is there to say? [Quoting.] âI know itâs over / But it never really began / But in my heart it was so real / And you even spoke to me / And saidâ¦â [Singing.] âIf youâre so funny / Then why are you on your own tonight? / If youâre so very good-looking / Then why do you sleep alone tonight? If youâre so very entertaining / Then why are you on your own tonight? / Because tonight is just like any other night.â
So the quintessential Smiths song, in the number-one spot, is âI Know Itâs Over.â Period. And anyone who wants to meet me to fight about it, Iâm much stronger than I look.
So âI Know Itâs Overâ is number one. Number twoâ¦ [Takes a breath.] The number two quintessential Smiths song of all time, which sums up the entire raison d'Ãªtre of The Smiths, isâ¦ âI Want the One I Canât Have.â And I would actually argue that in between âI Know Itâs Overâ and âI Want the One I Canât Have,â you have covered every major emotion that human beings feel. Thatâs about it. Somewhere in between those two songs, itâs all in there. Everything after this is bonus round. Because if you were a band that wrote those two songs, you wouldâve coveredâ¦85-95% of what people are feeling. But âI Want the One I Canât Haveâ is... Well, what else is there? Life is mostly that. Life is mostly you want the one you canât have, and then at some point you realize that it was over and it never began.
This is a much heavier interview than I was expecting.
[Laughs.] Oh, my God, I will literally talk about The Smiths as long as you ever want to.
Okay, so now weâre going to go in reverse order. Weâve definitely pegged âI Know Itâs Overâ as #1. And Iâm not saying for fun. Iâm saying quintessential. Like, if you were to distill The Smiths into their essence, the first two songs you would get would be âI Know Itâs Overâ and âI Want the One I Canât Have.â The next one would beâ¦ [Long pause.] Hereâs where it starts to get really complicated. Iâve got so many runners-up for number three.
Feel free to go as deep as you feel necessary. Iâm well-versed in the catalog.
Okay, so I did two really heavy ones first, and âI Want the One I Canât Haveâ is a pop song also, even though itâs about the darkest stuff in the world, so for number three, Iâm going to go straight-up pop and â fuck it â a straight-up hit: âPanic.â
The song that taught many a pale American about a number of English and Scottish towns theyâd otherwise never know: Carlisle, Dundee, Humbersideâ¦
âThe Leeds side streets that you slip downâ¦â What the fuckâ¦? [Laughs.]
Okay. Number four. Iâll go fun again. Iâm gonna go fun again, since I went dark, dark, and then âPanic,â which has dark lyrics but is a ton of fun. And then Iâllâ¦ [Hesitates.] I should actuallyâ¦ You know what? Letâs flip-flop. Sorry.
Thatâs quite all right.
#3 is actually the most quintessential upbeat Smiths song, and this one actually I think tells you the spirit of most Smiths fansâ¦and itâs not âI Know Itâs Overâ and itâs not âI Want the One I Canât Have.â Itâs âAsk.â So âAskâ is actually #3, and âPanicâ is #4. Weâll flip-flop those. Because âAskâ is the one that, you know, when youâre in your room, youâre just, like, âWell, ask me!â
I think it also deserves bonus points for Kirsty MacCollâs harmony vocal.
[Somberly.] Kirsty MacColl. Yes.
Okay, so now we come to number five. Thereâs a lot of pressure now, I realize.
Oh, myâ¦ This is my last song? Iâve only got one more?!
Iâm telling you, you can do ten.
No, no, letâs still go with five. Iâm going to throw one grenade in, and itâs going to be the other greatest Smiths song youâve ever heard. And itâs easy. Easy. I donât know why it took me so long to sort it out. âThe Headmaster Ritual.â
Look, if it didnât cover part of your childhood, then I donât know who you are. But bear in mind that my childhood was, like, âWhat the fuck? I want to go home! I donât want to stay!â [Laughs.]
So those are my five quintessential Smiths songs:
1. âI Know Itâs Overâ (THE QUEEN IS DEAD)
2. âI Want the One I Canât Haveâ (MEAT IS MURDER)
3. âAskâ (LOUDER THAN BOMBS)
4. âPanicâ (LOUDER THAN BOMBS)
5. âThe Headmaster Ritualâ (MEAT IS MURDER)
And you could describe any part of my life in those five songs. You could just figure it out. Itâs always one of those. But no part of my life was ever âGirlfriend in a Coma,â really. I mean, itâs a fun song, but it never reallyâ¦ I mean, it was just fun, you know?
Not that thereâs anything wrong with fun. For instance, I never actually said to anyone, âLet me get my hands on your mammary glands / And let me get your head in a conjugal bed,â but âHandsome Devilâ is still a heck of a lot of fun to sing in the car.
[Chuckles.] I spent several years learning the guitar part of âHandsome Devil.â
Yeah. I bought a Johnny Marr edition Jaguar, andâ¦well, the short version is that just to learn the part he plays so effortlessly, give it â minimum â a year. A year, for sure. Itâs a double black diamond. I donât know if you saw, but last year I did Smiths Hanukkah every night on Instagram, so every night of Hanukkah I would do a different Smiths-themed Hanukkah song. It started with âThere Is a Menorah That Never Goes Out,â and it went from there. [Laughs.]
[Check out all of Tomâs #SmithsHanukkah posts by clicking right here.]
Thanks for doing this for us, Tom. Itâs much appreciated.
Well, thanks for bringing up the only thing I ever think about: The Smiths. To be fair, though, what else is there?