The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #368: Panic by The Smiths (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #368: Panic by The Smiths.

“Panic” by Manchester’s, “The Smiths” was released in 1986. The song was written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr as a commentary on their view that there was a disconnect between what was going on in the world (politically and economically) and what was being played by DJs on the radio. All throughout the 1980s, “The Smiths” had built their careers by appealing to those who felt ignored or neglected by the greater of society. In “Panic”, they spoke directly to this by including lines such as,

“Burn down the disco,

Hang the blessed DJ,

Because the music that they constantly play

It says nothing to me about my life.”

“Panic” was, not surprisingly, met with mixed reviews. Fans of the band tended to support the notion that much of what passed for popular music of the day was nothing more than sugary confection and lacked meaning and substance. However, the music industry, in particular, took great exception to the song and, specifically, viewed it as a thinly-veiled attack on music made by black musicians. The reasoning behind these accusations was that “DJs and Discos” were often home to musical movements such as Reggae and Ska which were, primarily, Jamaican, in origin. Morrissey and Marr denied that there were any racial overtones to this song but, by now, Morrissey had begun to gain a reputation for pomposity and boorish utterances and, “Panic” did nothing to dissuade the critics of the band. While this song did not lead directly to “The Smiths” breaking up in 1987, it does highlight the growing emboldenment of Morrissey when it came to his politics and the growing sense of frustration within the rest of the band, who saw this as a distraction from their goal of making good music.

In the History of Modern Music, one of the more notable trends is for the lead singer of a band to “outgrow” the band. This can be the case when the record label believes there is more money to be made because of the talent/charisma of the lead singer (think, Diana Ross and the Supremes or George Michael of Wham) or else, ego becomes involved (think David Lee Roth and Van Halen or, in the case of this post, think Morrissey and The Smiths). When “The Smiths” disbanded, Morrissey continued on his own but never achieved the same level of success as a solo artist that he did as a member of “The Smiths”. In fact, as time has gone on, Morrissey’s politics have aligned themselves more with the right-wing views of people like Van Morrison and Eric Clapton, who view White Nationalism as the foundation of, what they claim as, a civilized society.

Morrissey’s story is a case in point where you don’t have to take my word for how things have turned out. When you end up in the bombsights of a satirical show like, “The Simpsons” then, you know your carcass has begun to bloat. Recently, “The Simpsons” devoted an entire episode to sending up Morrissey. The episode was called, “Panic in the Streets of Springfield” (which plays on the opening line of the original song which starts off, “Panic in the streets of London”.) In the episode, the Morrissey character is voiced by actor Benedict Cumberbatch. The character appears as Lisa’s “invisible friend” as she tries to sort out the confused feelings she is experiencing as she becomes a teenager. His views on life….that everyone else is inferior and that all other music is terrible…..wears thin for Lisa in the end, as she begins to make her own judgments and refutes his gaslighting opinions. As the episode concludes, the Morrissey character is seen clearly for the raving irrelevancies that characterize his worldview. Lisa Simpson, who has always been the conscience of the show, grows as a result of her dismissal of Morrissey’s beliefs.

When making good music was at the core of their motivation, “The Smiths” were one of the most important bands in the world. Consequently, we will see them again before this list concludes. However, when derision and condescension begin colouring one’s creative expression, the results are less impressive. “Panic” was meant to be an airing of a critical opinion of the state of music in the UK at the time and, that is fine. We are all entitled to airing an evidenced-based opinion. But, by invoking race into the mix, Morrissey tipped his hand and revealed that there were ulterior motives involved. Whenever folks catch wind that a public figure is being less that forthright then, their opinion should be held up to closer scrutiny and revealed for what it is (which is what happened to Morrissey). Thus, “Panic” became famous as a cautionary tale, rather than the scathing rebuke of modern music that it was intended to be. Not all songs, as it turns out, are meant for pleasure and enjoyment. Some serve as turning points in important careers and reminders to those in the spotlight that an attitude of dismissiveness wears thin after awhile. On stage, as in life, positivity trumps negativity and populism does, indeed, appear to have a shelf life. Here is “Panic” by “The Smiths”. Listen carefully and see what all the fuss was about.

The link to the video for “Panic!” by The Smiths, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Smiths, can be found here.

The link to the video for the Morrissey/Simpsons episode can be found here.

The link to KEXP can be found here. Thanks, as always, for supporting good music.