The Smiths' 12 Best Bass-Driven Bangers

Remembering Andy Rourke with songs that highlight his fluid, melodic playing

Photo: Paul Cox / Sire Records

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished May 23, 2023

Without Andy Rourke, the Smiths would have simply been a mopey goth act.

Although there's no questioning the songwriting genius of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, the clean-cut kid from Manchester was responsible for giving the band its amorphous mold. Playing as foil to Morrissey's sardonic lyrics and taking the edge off Marr's angular guitar playing, Rourke helped the Smiths usher in a dance-focused indie sound that later defined the Madchester scene.

Although Rourke would move on to help create some amazingly rhythmic anthems (Morrissey's "November Spawned a Monster," Sinéad O'Connor's "The Emperor's New Clothes," The Pretenders' "Night in My Veins"), his most influential moments came with The Smiths.

In light of his May 18 passing due to pancreatic cancer, here are 12 times Rourke's basslines helped shape the Smiths' most dance floor-friendly moments.

"Hand in Glove"
Single (1983)

One thing that makes The Smiths so remarkable is how fully formed they were right out of the box. Maybe it's the muddy production of the original mix, but their debut single from 1983 stands as one of Marr's most restrained guitar efforts. However, drummer Mike Joyce plays off Rourke's wandering bassline to propel the song forward — something they'd expand upon backing up Sandie Shaw's cover version, a charting UK hit.

"This Charming Man"
Single (1983)

This fan favourite was undoubtedly created with the dance floor in mind. Bringing in short-lived Roxy Music bassist John Porter to produce, Rourke's thumping rhythms were originally written to a Linn LM-1 drum machine. This song would introduce the Smiths to the UK, giving a throbbing soundtrack to Morrissey's bizarre, gladioli-clutching dance moves on Top of the Pops

"Pretty Girls Make Graves"
The Smiths (1984)

The Smiths' self-titled debut is a classic, despite being a mostly moody affair. But this mid-tempo track is given buoyancy by Rourke's bouncy cadences, touching on the Black radio he grew up listening to. Though Morrissey has voiced his distaste for disco and reggae, Rourke's inspired patterns worked as a Trojan horse, keeping the Smiths from sounding too uptight.

"What Difference Does It Make?"
The Smiths (1984)

What do you do with something as brilliant as Johnny Marr's riff that defined the sound of the Smiths' first Top 20 UK hit? If you're Andy Rourke, you weave in and out of Joyce's marching beat, Marr's chiming jangle and Morrissey's Jekyll and Hyde vocal performance. This four-minute masterpiece never falters, thanks to Rourke's ability to approach his bass like a second guitar.

"William, It Was Really Nothing"
Single (1984)

The Smiths' mid-'80s 7-inches, from "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" to "Shakespeare's Sister," may be the strongest non-LP run of singles since the Beatles. In the middle of that foursome lay the Smiths' most robust and peculiar songs. The first of the two is a whirlwind of sound propelled by Rourke's most dense playing. At just two minutes, it never desires to abandon its jackhammer tempo.

"How Soon Is Now?"
B-side (1984)

There's no arguing the loveliness of "How Soon Is Now?" wholly belongs to Marr's phenomenally inventive guitar. But while Rourke brings it from headphones to dance floor, he never gets his spotlight moment throughout these seven minutes. Nonetheless, his buried hammer-ons are essential to the song's feel, either adding to or cutting the song's tension. It all depends on how you're consuming it.
"The Headmaster Ritual"
Meat Is Murder (1985)

Nearly the entirety of The Smiths' sophomore LP can be included on this list. Tracks like "Rusholme Ruffians," "What She Said," and "Nowhere Fast" all showcase Rourke's ability to push Marr and Joyce into unique territories. That's why it's no surprise that the album's highlight is driven by Rourke, who defines the song with an absurdly melodic flow.

"Barbarism Begins at Home"
Meat Is Murder (1985)

Although Morrissey's worldview began to show troublesome cracks by this time, it's hard to dismiss the vocalist's righteous criticism of corporate brutality — from factory farms to institutionalized corporal punishment. This truly virtuosic, funk-driven track — inspired by both Chic and Rourke's pre-Smiths band, Freak Party — is arguably the bassist's finest moment.

"The Queen Is Dead"
The Queen Is Dead (1986)

The Smiths' best album is also their most musically astute. Conceived while on tour, these tracks took shape during a handful of marathon studio jams between Marr, Rourke and Joyce. The album's opener shows just how tight and tuned-in the trio were by this time. Rourke's rubbery bassline strays from Marr's marching guitar and Joyce's sampled drums while locking back in brilliantly and fluently.  

"Cemetery Gates"
The Queen Is Dead (1986)

This ode to literary greats like John Keats, Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats is as passionate as its inspirations. Rourke follows this vibe perfectly, showing that his contributions to the band are more than just technical. His basslines here are incredibly warm, fluid and melodic, crafting a sound that new-new romantics like the Sundays and Stars would later adopt.

"Girlfriend in a Coma"
Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

Released months after their breakup, the quartet's final LP shows all four musicians moving away from their tried-and-true methods. Marr and Rourke began to focus on keyboards and strings as their rockist stance took a backseat. This leaves LP number four as Rourke's least adventurous — but his bubbly, synthesized playing here is so irresistible that it may have just invented the entire Britpop sound.

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"
Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

Before moving on to work with Morrissey on his early singles, Rourke left Smiths fans with one last masterstroke. On their final single release as a band, Rourke lays down a jazz-inspired bass performance that is more Mingus than Mott. As he moved on to musical high points (filling clubs as a DJ) and low (suing the band over royalties), Rourke closed his chapter with the Smiths on a note of brilliance.

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