Released today in 1985: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Rough Trade RT186

Rough Trade RT186

From its introduction in 1949 right up until the 1990s, the 7” record dominated the singles market. It was only in 1990 that sales of 7”s accounted for less than 50% of all singles sold in the UK, and it took a further two years before sales of cassingles and CD-singles between them sold more than vinyl singles overall. Thereafter, while 12” singles remained in reasonably good health, the 7” went into serious decline. Meanwhile, LP vinyl sales – around three-quarters of the British albums market in 1980 – had shrunk by the middle of the decade to less than half the market, severely dented by the cassette format, and by 1992 to just 5%, as the compact disc had by then asserted itself. This century, vinyl LPs have only ever accounted for less than 1% of album sales every year and vinyl singles have been a novelty – until recently. There has been talk for years about a resurgence of interest in vinyl, but earlier this year there was an indication that the ‘vinyl revival’ really was here at last, when The Official Charts Company launched the weekly vinyl sales charts in April in response to 2014’s twenty-year high in sales on the format.

What’s the appeal of vinyl, and why has it survived when all other physical formats sent to challenge it (8-track cartridges – a dead format in the UK by the middle of 1979; cassettes – obscure by 2002, obsolete in 2010; compact disc – fast losing ground to digital downloads) haven’t? “Flicking through someone’s vinyl collection is so much more meaningful and sensual than scrolling through the menus on an iPod,” one article1 suggested on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the pressing of the first commercial 7” single. “It’s up to the seven-inch single to save pop from falling into an abyss, where individualism and identity are stripped away by the tyranny of digital uniformity. It’s time to get real again with 45 revolutions per minute, for pop’s sake.” The experience of acquiring a vinyl record just is more pleasurable than downloading music: the latter may provide some instant gratification, but a 7” single is so much more than the music it contains. Digitally stored artwork isn’t as enjoyable as the physical alternative: the feel and smell of the paper, the size of the illustration… such details as label design have been threatened by extinction. Even generic die-cut company sleeves and standard company label layouts are works of art; when bespoke designs and specially-commissioned art are involved, so much the better.

The finest – and subsequently most collectable – releases come from artists with a keen interest in every aspect of their careers. This is an extract from a memo Morrissey sent to Rough Trade with his requirements for The Smiths’ debut 7” single: “Record middle. We would dearly like a middle shaped like this, with four vents. Since you tell us that you have never done this type before, we wonder, is it possible? We must have a paper label. We have an artistic aversion to these modern ‘spit on and wipe off’ affairs*. Sleeve entrance. We would like the sleeve to have a side entrance† (i.e. the bit where the record goes in).” From the outset, Morrissey’s attention to detail was extraordinary, to the point where he even had requirements regarding so-called matrix messages. The matrix number – an alphanumeric code used to identify which record stamper was used to cut the disc from, the factory that pressed the record, the year of manufacture, etc – is etched into the dead wax between the playable grooves on a record and the centre label. Often the catalogue number of the record will be included, and sometimes engineers might add their name or initials. From time to time, some engineers also added an extra word or comment relevant to that release, usually as a joke. It was unusual for the artists themselves to provide the text for them, but Morrissey did for nearly every The Smiths single; often the A- and B-sides had etchings. (The only British single not to have a message in the run-out groove on either side of the disc was RT146, What Difference Does It Make?.) When asked by Smash Hits what these remarks meant, he replied, “They are secret messages for the highly initiated.” For the most part, they were quotations, in-jokes and puns. Here’s the complete list of matrix messages for the original British singles by The Smiths, with suggestions‡ on what they might refer to:

Rough Trade cat. no. A-side message/B-side message

RT131 KISS MY SHADES/KISS MY SHADES TOO
“Kiss my shades” is backing vocal from the song Hand In Glove, the A-side of this single. When Sandie Shaw covered the song, the same etching appeared in the run-out groove of her single.

RT136 – /SLAP ME ON THE PATIO
There was no message on the A-side of this single (This Charming Man), only the B-side, which was Reel Around The Fountain. “Slap me on the patio” is a lyric from that song, which was originally to have been the A-side of RT136.

RT156 SMITHS INDEED/ILL FOREVER
On the 12” version of this single, the legends are SMITHS PRESUMABLY/FOREVER ILL

RT166 THE IMPOTENCE OF ERNEST/ROMANTIC AND SQUARE IS HIP AND AWARE
The A-side message refers to Oscar Wilde’s play, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. The B-side is a quote from John Lennon.

RT176 THE TATTY TRUTH/
Significance unknown.

RT181 HOME IS WHERE THE ART IS/
A pun on the popular proverb, “home is where the heart is”.

RT186 OUR SOULS OUR SOULS OUR SOULS/
Presumably, a phonetic pun.

RT191 ARTY BLOODY FARTY/IS THAT CLEVER – JM
“Is that clever?” is a line taken from a recording of a conversation sampled on Rubber Ring, one of the B-side songs on the 12” version of this single. The response the questioner gets is, “Everybody’s clever nowadays”. (“JM” is Johnny Marr, indicating that this message was inserted at his request, not Morrissey’s.) See also RT198, below.

RT192 BEWARE THE WRATH TO COME/TALENT BORROWS, GENIUS STEALS
The A-side message is a slogan seen in a favourite film of Morrissey’s, ‘Hobson’s Choice’. The B-side phrase is a quote from Oscar Wilde.

RT193 I DREAMT ABOUT STEW LAST NIGHT/
A pun on a lyric from Reel Around The Fountain: “I dreamt about you last night”.

RT194 ARE YOU LOATHSOME TONIGHT? /TOMB IT MAY CONCERN
Two more puns, the first on Elvis Presley’s song Are You Lonesome Tonight?, the second on the phrase “to whom it may concern”, altered to suit the theme of the song on the B-side of the single. (Cemetery Gates.)

RT195 ALF RAMSEY’S REVENGE/
Alf Ramsey was the manager of England football team from 1963 to 1974 and therefore in charge when they won the World Cup in ’66. Why he should be taking revenge is unknown.

RT196 COOK BERNARD MATTHEWS/
Morrissey is a committed vegetarian and his dislike of the minor celebrity poultry farmer was well-known.

RT197 AND NEVER MORE SHALL BE SO/SO FAR, SO BAD
The A-side message is taken from Alan Bennett’s play ‘Forty Years On’.

RT198 MURDER AT THE WOOL HALL STARRING SHERIDAN WHITESIDE/YOU ARE BELIEVING, YOU DO NOT WANT TO SLEEP
The Wool Hall was the studio where The Smiths’ final album was recorded, and the sessions may well have been murder. The B-side message is a deliberate misquote from the same sample from Rubber Ring referred to on RT191 above, which on the recording is “You are sleeping, you do not want to believe”.

RT200 THE RETURN OF THE SUBMISSIVE SOCIETY STARRING SHERIDAN WHITESIDE/THE BIZARRE ORIENTAL VIBRATING PALM DEATH STARRING SHERIDAN WHITESIDE
The name Sheridan Whiteside (a pseudonym Morrissey used in correspondence prior to joining The Smiths) was probably derived from the title character in the movie ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner’, and the surname of one of actresses appearing in it.

* He means injection-moulded labels, and he’s quite right.
† Personally, I think only albums should have sleeves with a side entrance; sleeves for singles should open at the top. Similarly singles should have A- and B-sides, and albums Side 1 and Side 2 – the nomenclature should not be mixed between formats. But we all have our foibles I suppose.
‡ Much of this is mere speculation. Refer to Morrissey for the definitive answers.

1 Adams, Owen. “The seven-inch turns 60”, The Guardian, Guardian Media Group, 17 March 2009.

NEW SINGLES on sale from Jul. 5
1982
YAZOO Don’t Go (Mute YAZ001)
1985
The SMITHS (Morrissey) That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore (Rough Trade RT186)

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