Interview: Thomas Lennon spontaneously pares down his list of quintessential Smiths songs
By Will Harris
If Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity taught us anything, it’s 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 summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, we knew without question that if he had the time to do it, we’d 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, we’d like to add that Mr. Lennon would probably appreciate it if you went ahead and filed that information away right now, because if you don’t, then you’re going to lose it in a few minutes when it’s washed away by the arrival of a flurry of Smiths lyrics.
RHINO: If you’ve got a few minutes, I’d love to ask you about your top five Smiths songs.
THOMAS LENNON: Of course! Please. [Horrified look.] Oh, my goodness: you’re going to make me narrow it down to five?!
We can do ten. You’ll get no complaining from me.
Okay, well, I’m going to have to work backwards.
So this is complicated, because I can’t 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 songs…and I disagree with a bunch of them! And I’ll go on record as disagreeing with a bunch of them. For instance, many people think that “How Soon Is Now?” is the quintessential Smiths song. I think that’s absolutely out of sorts. That’s bullshit.
The most recognizable, maybe.
Yes. By amateurs. And rookies. The quintessential Smiths song…is “I Know It’s Over.”
I would like to hear your expert explanation as to why you feel this to be so.
What else is there to say? [Quoting.] “I know it’s over / But it never really began / But in my heart it was so real / And you even spoke to me / And said…” [Singing.] “If you’re so funny / Then why are you on your own tonight? / If you’re so very good-looking / Then why do you sleep alone tonight? If you’re so very entertaining / Then why are you on your own tonight? / Because tonight is just like any other night.”
So the quintessential Smiths song, in the number-one spot, is “I Know It’s Over.” Period. And anyone who wants to meet me to fight about it, I’m much stronger than I look.
So “I Know It’s Over” is number one. Number two… [Takes a breath.] The number two quintessential Smiths song of all time, which sums up the entire raison d'être of The Smiths, is… “I Want the One I Can’t Have.” And I would actually argue that in between “I Know It’s Over” and “I Want the One I Can’t Have,” you have covered every major emotion that human beings feel. That’s about it. Somewhere in between those two songs, it’s all in there. Everything after this is bonus round. Because if you were a band that wrote those two songs, you would’ve covered…85-95% of what people are feeling. But “I Want the One I Can’t Have” is... Well, what else is there? Life is mostly that. Life is mostly you want the one you can’t 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 we’re going to go in reverse order. We’ve definitely pegged “I Know It’s Over” as #1. And I’m not saying for fun. I’m saying quintessential. Like, if you were to distill The Smiths into their essence, the first two songs you would get would be “I Know It’s Over” and “I Want the One I Can’t Have.” The next one would be… [Long pause.] Here’s where it starts to get really complicated. I’ve got so many runners-up for number three.
Feel free to go as deep as you feel necessary. I’m well-versed in the catalog.
Okay, so I did two really heavy ones first, and “I Want the One I Can’t Have” is a pop song also, even though it’s about the darkest stuff in the world, so for number three, I’m going to go straight-up pop and – fuck it – a straight-up hit: “Panic.”
The song that taught many a pale American about a number of English and Scottish towns they’d otherwise never know: Carlisle, Dundee, Humberside…
“The Leeds side streets that you slip down…” What the fuck…? [Laughs.]
Okay. Number four. I’ll go fun again. I’m gonna go fun again, since I went dark, dark, and then “Panic,” which has dark lyrics but is a ton of fun. And then I’ll… [Hesitates.] I should actually… You know what? Let’s flip-flop. Sorry.
That’s 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 fans…and it’s not “I Know It’s Over” and it’s not “I Want the One I Can’t Have.” It’s “Ask.” So “Ask” is actually #3, and “Panic” is #4. We’ll flip-flop those. Because “Ask” is the one that, you know, when you’re in your room, you’re just, like, “Well, ask me!”
I think it also deserves bonus points for Kirsty MacColl’s harmony vocal.
[Somberly.] Kirsty MacColl. Yes.
Okay, so now we come to number five. There’s a lot of pressure now, I realize.
Oh, my… This is my last song? I’ve only got one more?!
I’m telling you, you can do ten.
No, no, let’s still go with five. I’m going to throw one grenade in, and it’s going to be the other greatest Smiths song you’ve ever heard. And it’s easy. Easy. I don’t know why it took me so long to sort it out. “The Headmaster Ritual.”
Look, if it didn’t cover part of your childhood, then I don’t know who you are. But bear in mind that my childhood was, like, “What the fuck? I want to go home! I don’t want to stay!” [Laughs.]
So those are my five quintessential Smiths songs:
1. “I Know It’s Over” (THE QUEEN IS DEAD)
2. “I Want the One I Can’t Have” (MEAT IS MURDER)
3. “Ask” (LOUDER THAN BOMBS)
4. “Panic” (LOUDER THAN BOMBS)
5. “The Headmaster Ritual” (MEAT IS MURDER)
And you could describe any part of my life in those five songs. You could just figure it out. It’s always one of those. But no part of my life was ever “Girlfriend in a Coma,” really. I mean, it’s a fun song, but it never really… I mean, it was just fun, you know?
Not that there’s anything wrong with fun. For instance, I never actually said to anyone, “Let me get my hands on your mammary glands / And let me get your head in a conjugal bed,” but “Handsome Devil” is still a heck of a lot of fun to sing in the car.
[Chuckles.] I spent several years learning the guitar part of “Handsome Devil.”
Yeah. I bought a Johnny Marr edition Jaguar, and…well, the short version is that just to learn the part he plays so effortlessly, give it – minimum – a year. A year, for sure. It’s a double black diamond. I don’t 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 “There Is a Menorah That Never Goes Out,” and it went from there. [Laughs.]
[Check out all of Tom’s #SmithsHanukkah posts by clicking right here.]
Thanks for doing this for us, Tom. It’s much appreciated.
Well, thanks for bringing up the only thing I ever think about: The Smiths. To be fair, though, what else is there?