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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Darkness in the music of The Smiths: Dr Benjamin McNeillis

No-one would argue that the lyrics of Morrissey and the music of The Smiths is a fertile ground for exploration of forms of mental distress and disarray. Dr Ben McNeillis is a core trainee in psychiatry at the South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust. His love of The Smiths combined with his day-job led him to the idea of a talk at the Institute of Psychiatry Summer School this summer. His stimulating presentation was very well received by attendees and I took the opportunity to develop it into a piece for Minds in Music.


JT: You mentioned in your talk that you feel a lot of pop music is quite narcissistic in nature. What in particular made you choose the music of The Smiths to explore the concept of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder?

BMcN: I didn’t come at this very scientifically, for instance as a neutral observer saying, “right, here we have narcissistic personality disorder, let’s take a sample of 100 bands and find the lyrics which most closely matches the criteria”. I think that it was a lot more personal. I first heard The Smiths when I was 19, thought they were brilliant and listened to them (and recreated them) a lot throughout University – my yearbook entry (written by friends) suggested that in Morrissey, I found the strength required to get through medical school, which I suppose was at best a tongue-in-cheek comment. I suppose we all encounter narcissistic conflicts to varying extents and deal with them in different ways. So I suppose I was very familiar with the sort of character represented by The Smiths, maybe I even identified to an extent.  I was always aware, though, that they were a sort of “musical Marmite”, and many people took a strong dislike to their music.

Then I started my Core Training in psychiatry, and on a number of occasions I would find myself thinking “this reminds me of The Smiths”. In my psychotherapy job, when we looked at papers on narcissistic personality disorder, I felt really familiar with what was being described, through my familiarity/identification with The Smiths’ lyrics. Interestingly, I found that these papers gave a helpful framework with which to approach the music, and began to go beyond the idealisation/denigration split (“They’re geniuses”/”what miserable crap”) and became more aware of the conflicts going on, the real suffering – and began to acknowledge the more obnoxious side of the lyrics which I had previously minimised.

'... I think relating to music and lyrics can keep things at a safe distance for adolescents – well, actually that’s probably true for everyone...'

What are your favourite songs by The Smiths? What are the other themes in The Smiths’ work that you think are relevant to those with mental health problems and those working in mental health?

These are very difficult questions! I would say that possibly my favourite song is “Rubber Ring”, on “Louder Than Bombs” – I love the theme. Morrissey seems to address the listener directly for what they are – a listener – and asks what role does the music play in the listener’s journey through life, imploring them not to forget “the songs that saved your life”. In answer to the question “Do you love me like you used to?” – no, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still love the music – it’s a different appreciation now.

My other favourite song is “What She Said”, from my favourite album “Meat is Murder”. The whole band is just amazing on this song – the drums in particular are really driving and frantic, the guitars screeching manically whilst the bass runs around underneath – and then Morrissey delivers one of my favourite couplets:

“What she said, on heavy books she’d sit and prophesise,

It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead, to really really open her eyes.”

But maybe I love this song so much because it comes immediately after the final couplet of:

I want the one I can’t have”:

 “And if you ever need self-validation,

Just meet me in the alley by the railway station...”

In response to the second question, I would say that the prominent themes in the music which are relevant to mental health are suicidality, abuse, sexuality, violence, and politics. Some would argue that all of these could be in some way approached with a framework of narcissism, but there are different approaches as well. For instance, I had thought that “The Headmaster Ritual” gives a clear suggestion that the character portrayed by the lyrics has been abused:


“He grabs and devours,

He takes you in the showers...” 

But actually the students in the workshop felt that “Reel around the fountain”, the first song on the debut album, is about an abusive encounter, which I felt was quite perceptive. I suppose that therefore we could approach the music and try to understand the potential effects of sexual abuse during someone’s development, but it is worth noting that people can react in many different ways to such an experience.

Sexuality is always going to be a big talking point. My own take on it is that the lyrics clearly talk about homosexual encounters and uneasy interactions of a sexual nature with females, but I really admire the way Morrissey avoided being pigeonholed, and I think this is very important – we all have our own individual sexuality. I think that being “gay” is different to having some homosexual urges/aspects/thoughts/actions, and many psychoanalysts would say that we all have some unconscious homosexual drives. The Smiths give us the opportunity to look at the sexuality of the individual.


You mentioned that you are not as interested in Morrissey’s solo work – is this mainly due to the musical differences (eg no Johnny Marr), or did you perceive a shift in song writing style not to your taste?  Fans would argue that the subject matter and lyrics have continued to be every bit as intriguing!

I think I have always been very strongly affected by the sound of the music – my mother used to play piano a lot when she was pregnant – and I was a musician (guitar mainly) long before I started to sing. So you’ve absolutely struck on the reason – I heard some of it and it didn’t grip me, before I really processed the lyrics. I love Johnny Marr’s guitar work in The Smiths and that is probably a large part of it, but I think the rhythm section of The Smiths was also outstanding, and it is always possible that the sound of Morrissey’s singing was more engaging in his 20s! However I haven’t really given Morrissey’s solo music much of a listen so I can’t really give a good comparison. I gave a similar talk in 2013 entitled “Psychotic Phenomena in the Music of David Bowie” and it emerged that I only really listened to the music from his 20s (and early 30s) so it could be to do with my age.


Do you feel your interest in the music of The Smiths was intensified by your work in psychiatry? Has music in general helped you in your work in any way, for example in terms of a shared interest with a patient?

I wouldn’t say that it intensified it – it was in my early University years that I really listened to them a lot and learned the songs and lyrics. I would say however that my work in psychiatry has really helped me to relate to the lyrics in a different way. As I say above, I have moved past the idealisation phase to an appreciation of the narcissistic conflicts portrayed therein – maybe a move from “sympathy” to a more accurate empathy.

The examples that came to mind of music being a shared interest with a patient come from my time working in an Adolescent Unit.  During a long inpatient admission, this person learned guitar as he began to come out of his shell, and I remember playing Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” together with him. There was a Smiths fan on the ward too. I think relating to music and lyrics can keep things at a safe distance for adolescents – well, actually that’s probably true for everyone, maybe it was just that Adolescents are spending more time listening to music!

I would also say that my interest in rap and reggae music helped when moving from Oxford to South East London, in particular my CT1 year in Lambeth Hospital. It gave me a small but helpful degree of familiarity with cultures very different to my own.


Please give us a recommendation of a lesser known song by The Smiths which tackles a difficult or challenging subject.

Handsome Devil” on the album “Hatful of Hollow”. It’s quite disturbing. I used to find the shocking chorus couplet quite amusing:

“Let me get my hands,

On your mammary glands...”


But then actually you listen more closely to the verse and it seems that in this song he is identified with a rapist – and gives a very clear example of “lack of victim empathy” in the first verse:

“All the streets are crammed with things 
Eager to be held 
I know what hands are for 
And I'd like to help myself 
You ask me the time 
But I sense something more 
And I would like to give you
What I think you're asking for 
You handsome devil“

I suppose that coming across this song, in the context of other songs in which the singer is identified with a victim, makes it difficult to know how to react – is this song just the victim trying to portray or make sense of the abuser’s point of view – or could the singer have the potential or desire to carry out such a crime?  This makes for uncomfortable listening, especially given Morrissey's use of humour in the chorus.



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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.