Classic Tracks: The Smiths' "What Difference Does It Make?"
Sep 8, 2010 7:37 PM, By Barbara Schultz
Depending on whom you ask, The Smiths were either the most important British indie band of the ’80s—bringing great guitars back to a synth-weary new-wave audience—or they were self-indulgent posers who disdained their own fans. Love them or hate them, The Smiths made quite an impression when their eponymous first album was released in 1984.
The lead singer was Morrissey, ever the enigmatic, ironic poet: “The devil will find work for idol hands to do/I stole and I lied, and why? Because you asked me to/But now you make me feel so ashamed because I’ve only got two hands/But I’m still fond of you hu-ho/So what difference does it make?” Johnny Marr was a modern guitar hero, layering brilliant riffs that served the song rather than celebrating his own virtuosity. And the tight rhythms of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce kept unusual songs like “This Charming Man,” “Hand in Glove” and this month’s “Classic Track,” “What Difference Does It Make?” on firm ground.
The now-familiar versions of these songs that appeared on The Smiths were produced by John Porter, who was also a frequent contract producer for BBC radio at that time. But Porter was actually the second producer to work on this album. The songs had already been captured with producer Troy Tate, but when Rough Trade label head Geoff Travis heard some rough mixes, he had misgivings, and when he asked for Porter’s opinion, Porter didn’t hold back. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a listen, but I’ll need to listen to the master tapes,’” Porter recalls. “So [Travis] booked a studio—I think it was Regent Sound—and they had 14 or 15 songs. I said, ‘There’s a lot to my ear that needs to be redone here.’ To be quite candid, I didn’t think it was very well-recorded. A lot of it was out of tune and out of time, and I said, ‘I don’t know how much money you have left, but I think you’re better off starting again. Everything needs to be fixed.’”
The next thing Porter knew, he was being offered next to nothing to start from scratch and produce The Smiths himself. “I can’t remember what they gave us,” Porter says, “but even by today’s standards, there was hopelessly little money. I think it was probably the equivalent of $3,000 or $4,000 because they’d spent their money already. So we booked a studio in Manchester called Pluto Studios, and we had something like five or six days to cut the record.”
Porter remembers little about Pluto, except that the facility had a helpful staff. However, at the time Pluto was known in some circles as a happening mid-level place off the beaten path; it had hosted sessions with The Clash, Cabaret Voltaire and others. “For the time, it was a very busy studio,” says Phil Bush, then chief engineer at Pluto. “Manchester was a very up-and-coming place, and there was a lot of music about. The proprietor, Keith Hopwood [former rhythm guitarist/backing vocalist for Herman’s Hermits], was writing jingles for TV and radio commercials. The average working week would be jingles three or four days in the week and then you’d get a band in the evening. I was working 18 hours a day sometimes.”
Pluto featured an acoustically dead tracking room and a control room outfitted with a Trident Series 80 console and Studer A800 24-track. Bush engineered The Smiths’ sessions, which comprised basic live band recording to the Studer machine, “more or less with a guide guitar until they had a decent rhythm track,” Bush says. He remembers using a fairly standard mic setup for drums: a pair of Shure SM57s or SM58s on snare, Sennheiser MD441s on toms, a KM84 on hi-hat, and AKG D12 or D24 on kick. What Bush remembers most vividly about hosting Porter and The Smiths is the former’s guitar collection: “It was guitar heaven,” he says. “I’m a guitar player myself, so that’s one thing I do remember is the wealth of wonderful guitars that were there. In particular, a ’54 Telecaster that was absolutely gorgeous!”
After spending a work-week in Manchester, Porter took his guitars and the band down to Eden Studios (London) where staff engineer Neill King manned one of the first SSL 4000 consoles for some extensive overdub and mixing sessions. By the time the band reached London, Rough Trade had cut a distribution deal with Sire Records, and a bigger budget was found to flesh out The Smiths. This was when the songs really took shape, as Porter added guitar parts and effects to construct dynamics within songs. “What Difference Does It Make?” was one of the tracks that most benefited from Porter’s careful arranging and building.
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