The Smiths. The Wire. A band, a TV show, united only by the immense affection felt for them by Guardian readers. Or so one might think. As a whole the canon of both can be considered artistic responses to the decline of formerly proud industrial cities and that’s before you even begin to consider the eerie similarities between each Smiths album and the corresponding season of The Wire.
Season One / The Smiths (self titled)
Whilst The Smiths were, on the face of it, a traditional guitar band in the post-Beatles / Crickets tradition and The Wire certainly had all the hallmarks of a normal police procedural, from the start both managed to feel somehow different; using time-honoured tools to do something fresh and new. Some of these first steps are faltering, tentative; compare the similarly gauche “Hand That Rocks the Cradle” with D’Angelo’s chess scene, both strive for the subtlety and wit which was to come. An obsession with infant mortality and loss of innocence pervades both: the first season of The Wire ends with the climatic killing of teenage drug-dealer Wallace, the final track of “The Smiths” – “Suffer Little Children”. Both locate the evil in their environments, with a switch of cities; “Manchester, so much to answer for” could easily be a Wire opening quote.
Season Two / Hatful of Hollow
The anomaly, the fan favourite: both the runt of the litter that punches above its weight. “Hatful” is a hastily assembled collection of radio sessions and b-sides whilst the setting and characters of season 2 of The Wire – the Port of Baltimore and its unions – was never revisited by the show; the dock scenes were even edited out when it aired on BET. The Smiths would never again essay the raw, tension that defines much of HoH, The Wire would never again attempt the claustrophobic quasi-Shakespearean family tragedy of the Sobotka dynasty.
Season Three / Meat is Murder
The personal becomes political. The Wire’s third season brings in city hall and the political machinations which inform everything that happens in the city, whilst on “Meat is Murder” Morrissey’s lyrics turn polemical. A nascent class consciousness pervades both, the realisation that; “the poor and needy are greedy on her (The Queen’s, the ruling classes) terms” is reflected in Stringer Bell’s thwarted desire to transcend the geographical accident of his birth. As, Morrissey Bunny Colvin and Avon Barksdale all come to find out: “Barbarism Begins at Home”.
Season Four / The Queen is Dead
The undisputed masterpiece; wit, anger, despair – everything comes together in an elegant howl from a nation in seemingly terminal decline. Morrissey sings of “some nine-year old tough who peddles drugs” whilst the Wire’s fourth season introduces us to those very adolescents at the cusp of a turn towards brutality and criminality. This is the season and the album where dark light are most closely entwined, a world of boys with thorns in their sides and big mouths (the whole season hinges on Herc’s loose lips) striking again, a world where some people never have no ever but there is a light that never goes out. I’m sure the “Vicar in a Tutu” will turn up in a deleted scene sometime…
Season Five / Strangeways Here We Come
The thwarted finale. External pressures – impending cancellation, irrevocable inter-band conflicts, cast / band drug problems – saw both go out on a slightly disappointing note. The likes of “Unhappy Birthday” and “Death at Ones Elbow” are the equivalent of the ludicrous fake serial killer plot: at once overwrought and lazy, warning signs that the whole enterprise in winding down. The newsroom plotline like SHWC’s music biz parable “Paint a Vulgar Picture” shows a once unparalleled creative force starting to gaze a little too intently at its own navel. Like Moz and co McNutly and Omar find they’ve started something they couldn’t finish but there’s enough greatness in both to seal a place in history.
And there you have it, a well reasoned and in no way tenuous comparison that at no point clutches at straws to stretch what should have been a couple of whimsical tweets into a 700 word essay. I phoned Wire creators Ed Burns and David Simon for a response, their representative told me that my ideas were interesting but they were expecting a very important call and so could I get of the line. Johnny Marr told me: “Who the fuck are you? Get the fuck out of my garden!”