March 07, 2018

Minor Secrets of "What Difference Does It Make?" Revealed!

I did a brief informal poll about which song to "minor secrets of" today, and it was close but this beat "Surfin' Cows" by two votes. "Surfin' Cows" will have to wait for another Wodensdaeg.

So now it's back to Southampton, UK, in the Summer of '92.

I don't think we played this Smiths cover live too often, but it was no surprise to find it on this particular set. I remember it very well, in fact. Our off-kilter, borderline-insane version of this well-known song had preceded us across the Atlantic on the Milk Milk Lemonade album that had come out earlier that year and almost as soon as we arrived at the White Cliffs of Dover, people started shouting its title at us, which I first took as a sincere question (the answer to which, I agree, is none.) Eventually I realized it was a request. This shouting continued throughout the Southampton set till we finally played it at the end.

Well, people love covers, of course. They especially love ironic, or sarcastic, covers, which this wasn't quite, but I can certainly understand why it would be taken that way. There's a further element here, though, in re the reception of this song in Southampton because, as it turns out, Smiths' singer Morrissey was most known to this crowd as (a) a guy who carried daffodils around with him wherever he went; and (b) a guy who always took his shirt off. Well, then that explained the daffodils everybody was waving at us and why people kept asking when I was going to take my shirt off, both of which had been dead baffling till it had been explained after the fact.

It also explains the behavior of the crowd when this song did get played. (Well, it explains it as well as anything could.) When the song began, the guys in the room engaged in the following ritual: they lifted up their shirts and massaged each other’s nipple area while dancing around maniaclly (and their girlfriends looked on with rueful, jaded resignation.) You can see a bit of it at the beginning of the clip, where one of them climbed on the stage and another one just… you know, got to second base with him. Just imagine looking out and seeing a bouncing crowd of a couple of dozen people doing this.

I love it when people get into the spirit of things.

Now as to the song itself, recording it for the album was a pretty weird thing to do. I mentioned that it wasn't "quite" ironic or sarcastic as such a cover might have been, and that's perfectly true. It's a great song that I loved at the time as I do now. As an appropriated anthem of crippling social and emotional reserve with an explosive, unarticulated subtext I can relate to it very strongly and it was deliberately selected to fit the pointedly unarticulated theme of that weird album. However, there's something inherently ironic and off-kilter about a band like us even attempting to do such a thing so that element is there, desired or not. And there are supremely screwy things about that recording, beyond the overall sonic weirdness that makes that album so peculiar, such as the "Crazy Train" riff somehow sneaking into the final chorus. Why on earth? And what difference does it make? Less than zero, I'm sure. We were all but insane in those days, especially me.

One final note: the credits to the MML album, done by Jon von, credit the song to "Frank's brother, Morrissey Smif" and maybe that had something to do with the OTT Morrissey-ish welcome we got in the UK on that tour. I no longer remember the basis for this joke (maybe it was my general air of morose narcissism; or maybe it was just the hair.) But like so many such things, it took on a life of its own to a degree and I still get asked occasionally if there's any truth to it. And: there is none.

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 7, 2018 11:42 PM