When reminiscing about the timeless sound of The Smiths, the limelight invariably hones in on the lyrical virtuosity of Morrissey and the elegant guitar work of Johnny Marr.
Yet, it is essential to recognize the immense talent of Andy Rourke, their bass guitarist, whose contribution to the band's success is often overshadowed, but is equally significant.
With his recent passing, here are some thoughts about his contribution to The Smiths.
Andrew Michael Rourke, more popularly known as Andy Rourke, was born on January 17, 1964, in Manchester, England.
Rourke’s journey with The Smiths began when he and childhood friend Johnny Marr decided to form a band, which eventually culminated in the birth of The Smiths.
From the outset, Rourke’s role was far more than just a conventional bassist. His musical genius and knack for rhythm had a transformative effect on the band's style and composition.
His unique basslines established a crucial element of their music, providing not just rhythm, but also acting as a counterpoint to Marr’s jangly, arpeggiated guitar work.
Andy Rourke, bassist for The Smiths, died yesterday at the age of 59. In 2004 he returned to Salford Lads Club, scene of an iconic image of the band, and spoke to one of the club's stalwarts - Archie Swift. pic.twitter.com/7xYi5w9t75— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) May 19, 2023
The Rourke Factor
Rourke's skill lay in his ability to fuse traditionally low-end bass lines with a melodic style, adding depth and richness to The Smiths' songs. His adept bass playing was like an added layer of harmony, criss-crossing with Marr's jangling guitar riffs, creating an indelibly unique, memorable soundscape.
Take the hit single "This Charming Man" as an example. While Marr's guitar takes a dominant role, Rourke's rhythmic bass provides a melodically solid foundation, allowing the song to flow seamlessly. His exceptional performance on tracks like "Barbarism Begins at Home," "The Headmaster Ritual," and "Still Ill" provides further evidence of his musicianship and his ability to weave intricate melodies on the bass.
The Harmonic Innovator
Andy Rourke's unique approach to playing the bass guitar was an innovation in itself. His technique was not only an instrumental force in shaping the sound of The Smiths, but also an influential factor in transforming the way musicians perceived and utilized the bass guitar in a band setup.
Rourke moved away from the traditional concept of the bass as a rhythmic instrument confined to the lower register, blending rhythm with melody. This approach allowed him to play high up on the fretboard, leading to a melodic bass sound that was distinctive and recognizable.
This technique came to the fore in many of The Smiths' most celebrated songs. In "How Soon Is Now?", for instance, Rourke's bass is almost an additional rhythm guitar. Playing in a higher register and producing melodic lines that interweave with Marr's guitar, he created a unique musical structure that gave the song its haunting, resonant sound.
In "The Queen Is Dead," another iconic Smiths song, Rourke utilized an intricate sequence of notes that held the melody together while also providing a rhythmic foundation. This dual role of bass guitar as both a rhythm and melody instrument was groundbreaking for the time, demonstrating Rourke's innovative approach to his instrument.
His bass playing style also involved a lot of sliding notes and intricate finger work, often mistaken for an additional guitar due to its high register and melodious quality. This style of playing gave The Smiths’ music a layer of complexity, resulting in a rich and nuanced sound that has stood the test of time.
Furthermore, Rourke had an uncanny ability to understand and complement Marr's intricate guitar work, often responding to Marr's melodies with countermelodies of his own. The result was a fascinating conversation between the guitar and bass, creating an intricate web of sounds that gave The Smiths their distinctive musical texture.
Rourke's pioneering work pushed the boundaries of what was expected from a bass player, positioning him as a harmonic innovator. His approach, which revolutionized the role of bass within the band’s sound, continues to inspire musicians around the world. His legacy in music is not just confined to being a member of The Smiths, but also as an innovator who redefined the role of the bass guitar in popular music.
The Unsung Hero
It would be a disservice to Rourke's talent to merely label him as a backing musician. He was, in truth, a consummate artist with a musical intuition that was paramount to the identity of The Smiths. His knack for transforming the bass from a supporting role to a full partner in the band's sound added an integral element to their music.
Rourke's basslines, whether subtly hidden in the background or playfully darting around Marr's nimble guitar work, have a knack for catching your ear and elevating the emotional depth of Morrissey's poetic lyrics.
Beyond the Limelight
Despite the inevitable focus on the more prominent members of The Smiths, the discerning listener will always find that the band's unique charm and longevity owe a substantial debt to Andy Rourke. His contributions, though often understated, were fundamental in shaping their distinctive sound.
While Morrissey and Marr may be the names forever synonymous with The Smiths, it would be remiss not to recognize the extraordinary talents of Rourke. His innovative bass playing expanded the band's musical language, providing a pivotal layer to their complex and enduring sound.
As we reflect on The Smiths' enduring legacy, let's take a moment to celebrate Andy Rourke - the unsung hero, the quiet genius, whose basslines continued to charm and captivate listeners around the world. In recognizing his indispensable contributions, we truly appreciate the full depth of The Smiths' rich tapestry of sound.
Note:After The Smiths split in 1987, Andy Rourke continued to showcase his musical talents by collaborating with various artists and bands throughout his career. Here are some notable ones:
- Sinéad O'Connor: Rourke played bass on several tracks of her 1988 album, "The Lion and the Cobra".
- The Pretenders: In 1987, Rourke briefly played bass for The Pretenders.
- Badly Drawn Boy: Rourke played bass on the 2000 album "The Hour of Bewilderbeast".
- D.A.R.K.: This was a project featuring Rourke, Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries, and DJ Ole Koretsky. They released an album, "Science Agrees," in 2016.
- Freebass: Rourke was part of this supergroup with fellow bassists Mani (The Stone Roses) and Peter Hook (New Order). They released one album, "It's a Beautiful Life," in 2010.
- Blitz Vega: Rourke formed this band with KAV, a solo artist and former Happy Mondays guitarist. They've released several singles and have performed live.