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Song-o-scope: The Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children”

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Saddleworth MooreReprinted from my Cinema Blend article.

I don’t get goose bumps very often. Occasionally I’ll be sitting alone some cool, quiet night with headphones on, and I will feel a chill, mixed with the tingle of awe that occasionally comes with a really good song. If I had more time to sit still, it might happen more often.

But sometimes it doesn’t have to wait for the right time.

It happened to me the other day, in fact – on a hot day, maneuvering through traffic on the way home from work. And it makes sense, considering the song. It was The Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children,” possibly the creepiest pop song ever written.

This song doesn’t endeavor to be morose like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” or Halloweeny like Type O Negative’s “Black no. 1” (or any other Type O Negative song…). This one is unassuming, quiet, beautiful and innocent – and entirely haunting. Part of the reason has to do with what it is about.

The last track on The Smiths’ first album is about a series of murders. Specifically the Moors Murders, a string of extremely violent child killings that took place around Manchester in the ‘60s.

Between 1963 and 1965, Scottish stock clerk Ian Brady and his girlfriend, Myra Hindley, persuaded five children between the ages of 10 and 17 to follow them to various places, where Brady mercilessly tortured and then killed them. Hindley watched while Brady raped, hacked and strangled his victims with string or cord, nearly decapitating one of them. The couple then buried the corpses on a dreary field north of the A635 road, west of Oldham, called Saddleworth Moor. Four of the bodies were found over the next twenty years, one never was.

The thing that separates this song from other creepy tunes about death is that it isn’t exactly metaphorical. The names of the victims are actually in the lyrics, as is the name of one of the murderers. “John, you’ll never be a man / And you’ll never see your home again” references John Kilbride, who died at age 12. “Edward, see those alluring lights? / Tonight will be your very last night” mentions Edward Evans, the last victim, who died at age 17. And perhaps the creepiest thing about the song is that it isn’t just about the killings themselves — it is actually sung through the voices of the dead children, assuring the killers that they will never rest. You want to write a song with a morbidly menacing chill? Write from the POV of a 20-years-dead child murder victim promising eternal restlessness upon his murderers.

Morrissey’s soft voice whispers, “We may be dead and we may be gone / But we will be right by your side / until the day you die, this is no easy ride.” The cold wind over the dark moor can be plainly felt in the song’s haunting message to the killers: “You might sleep / But you will never dream.”

Another interesting tidbit is the fact that by the time the song was released in 1984, two of the bodies had yet to be found. “Still a child cries, find me / Find me, nothing more.” This gruesome narrative, delivered through Morrissey’s detached, mournful crooning and Marr’s soft, lullaby-like guitar strains, is more than enough to send a chill down even the most hardened spine.

Try it for yourself: Read the horrific account of the murders, see the faces of Brady and Hindley, stare at a photo of cold, dead Saddleworth Moor. Then listen to the song. If your spine doesn’t crawl out of your skin, I suggest you find a career as a mortician or a crime scene investigator, so you can take advantage of those cast-iron nerves.

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Written by Peter Kimmich

April 17th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

2 Responses to 'Song-o-scope: The Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children”'

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  1. Yes. In fact this song is always in the background of my mind whenever I read news stories of abused children.

    This stuff is just creepy. It’s one of the few Smiths songs that I skip, but I’ll never forget the first time I heard it.

    bobhope

    21 Apr 09 at 1:28 pm

  2. Thanks for the analysis. I always thought this song was metaphorical — about the death of the innocence of schoolmates he mentioned (or something). I had assumed the line about Manchester having so much to answer for meant the town killed their spirit.

    That said, I think I didn’t pay closer attention to this song because musically it doesn’t work for me. The introductory guitar line is great, but it goes nowhere melodically after than and the bar structure always seemed uneven. Would have been great all-around had Johnny Marr done a bit more.

    Tony S

    27 Jun 09 at 10:02 am

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