Album: The Smiths
. . .
“Ceiling shadows shimmy by”
In one of the great origin stories of any band, The Smiths formed when Johnny Marr knocked on the door of a guy he didn’t really know, Steven Morrissey, and basically said “here I am, let’s make records!”
That meeting was brokered by a mutual friend, and while Morrissey & Marr had met briefly before — at a Patti Smith concert of all things — they didn’t know how much they had in common until they started playing records for each other. In both of their autobiographies, they each describe the connection as instant and life-changing.
And “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” was the first fruit borne from that connection, written in a few minutes at Johnny Marr’s place, as he looked at the lyrics Morrissey handed him, came up with some chord changes, over which Morrissey sang, and just like that, they were off.
Please don’t cry
For the ghost and the storm outside
Will not invade this sacred shrine
Nor infiltrate your mind
My life down I shall lie
If the bogey-man should try
To play tricks on your sacred mind
To tease, torment, and tantalize
Unlike some of their other songs, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” changed considerably between its original incarnation and its final form. Originally, it was a mid-tempo chug with almost a Velvet Underground style rhythm underneath Morrissey’s unyielding torrent of words.
Wavering shadows loom
A piano plays in an empty room
There’ll be blood on the cleaver tonight
And when darkness lifts and the room is bright
I’ll still be by your side
For you are all that matters
And I’ll love you till the day I die
There never need be longing in your eyes
As long as the hand that rocks the cradle is mine
That lasted well into their initial recording session with Troy Tate, and check out the live at the Hacienda version below to see Johnny Marr actually singing backing vocals.
But when they went to re-record it, John Porter convinced Johnny Marr to break his guitar part into a intertwined weave of arpeggiated notes that I’ve been listening to nearly forty years without ever getting to the bottom of it. The song is still a mid-tempo chug, of course, but with the rhythm guitar being acoustic, it loses the Velvets influence, and instead becomes something totally different: a gloriously hypnotic swirl of guitar that works especially well with Morrissey’s never-stopping torrent of words.
The key, I think is that for the most part, Marr plays the same thing over and over, but every few times around, he changes the final note, and it is everything. What also works well is Morrissey’s vocal, evocative, calm and resigned to protecting the small child at all costs while gliding over phrases like “ceiling shadows shimmy by” and interpolating Al Jolson near the end.
As befits the first song they ever wrote together, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” was the first song played at The Smiths very first gig in October, 1982. At that point, Andy Rourke hadn’t even joined the band and they had a go-go dancer — a guy named James Maker — dance onstage with them. Interestingly enough, they’d stopped playing it live in May, 1983, so there was never a live version with the album arrangement.
“The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”
“The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” Live at the Hacienda, 1983
“The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” Troy Tate Version, 1983
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