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21st May 2023

Remembering Andy Rourke: The Smiths bassist has passed away aged 59

Remembering the brilliant Andy Rourke, bassist of Manchester legends The Smiths after his passing on 19th May 2023
Remembering Andy Rourke: The Smiths bassist has passed away aged 59
Photo: Andy Rourke of The Smiths – Johnny Marr’s Official Instagram account

Andy Rourke, bassist and founding member of The Smiths, has passed away aged 59.

Andy Rourke’s official Instagram account published a statement on 19 May: “It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Andy Rourke today in the early hours at Memorial Sloan Kettering after a lengthy illness with pancreatic cancer. Andy will be remembered as a kind and beautiful soul by those who knew him and as a supremely gifted musician by music fans.

Within just five years and across four studio LPs, The Smiths cemented themselves in the canon of British music as one of the most enduring, unique and important acts of all time. A huge part of their appeal was down to Andy Rourke’s melodic, intricate bass playing – a style which continues to set indie-disco dance floors alight.

Andy Rourke was born in Manchester on 17 January 1964. Originally picking up the guitar aged 11, he moved onto the bass guitar when schoolmate Johnny Marr (then Johnny Maher) suggested he audition as a bassist for their school-formed band. Rourke fell in love with the instrument, playing it for the rest of his life. Rourke and Marr’s friendship – many years spent jamming together during lunch breaks at school – culminated in the formation of The Smiths in 1982. The group saw huge critical success across their five years together before splitting up in 1987. Rourke then worked as a session bass player, playing for Smiths-frontman Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor and The Pretenders to name a few.

(from left to right) Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce – Hatful of Hollow inside sleeve by Paul Slattery

Inspired by the plucky finesse of Bernard Edwards of Chic fame, the soulfulness of Motown legend James Jamerson and the wistful melodies of Paul McCartney, Rourke’s mastery of the bass guitar was perhaps The Smiths’ ‘secret weapon’. From the groovy shuffle of ‘This Charming Man’ to the aggressive angst of ‘The Headmaster Ritual’, Rourke’s bass lines maintained their stylish charm throughout the band’s seminal career, locking in seamlessly with the metronomic drumming of Mike Joyce whilst harmoniously complimenting the melodies of the Lennon/McCartney of indie rock music, Morrissey and Johnny Marr. Rourke’s passing may be tragic news for any fan of indie music, but it seems fitting to celebrate and champion his memory: a legacy defined by a versatile, inspiring love of music. Read on for a handful of our favourite Andy Rourke bass lines, a small celebration of the career of a true Manchester music giant…

(from left to right) Andy Rourke and Johnny Marr by Paul Slattery

This Charming Man 7” single (1983)

From the early days of The Smiths’ career, not only had the group established themselves as indie darlings, an emerging voice of disenfranchised youth and a visceral live force to be reckoned with, but they had also proven that they had mastered the art of the B-side. ‘Jeane’ ushers its listeners into its rain-sodden, kitchen-sink drama with an elastic, momentous bass sound – a sound that Rourke would continue to develop in later tracks such as ‘Rubber Ring’ or  ‘Death at One’s Elbow’. Rourke’s playing grants Morrissey’s dreary, yearning social-realism (‘there’s ice on the sink where we bathe, so how can you call this a home when you know it’s a grave?’) with an infectious buoyancy. As early as ‘Jeane’, Rourke’s fret-board scalings had already become essential to the happy-sad sound that the band has since become so famous for.

‘Rusholme Ruffians’
Meat is Murder (1985)

‘Rusholme Ruffians’ is a wonderful example of Rourke’s versatile influence. Part rockabilly, part funk, part Beach Boys surf-rock, Rourke’s bass playing provides a weaving, coiling marvel at the heart of a song detailing suburban stabbings, suicidal thoughts and unrequited love. The juxtaposition goes without saying. Morrissey’s misery is never overbearing – his bass player is always there to liven things up with an irresistible, soulful bass part. The slinky dexterity of the part captures the chaos of Morrissey’s literary, lovelorn world – fountain pens, carousels and knife crime have never been brought alive with such vigour. As someone’s who lived in Rusholme, and will be living there again next year, humming the bass line on a regular basis certainly takes the edge off affairs.

‘The Draize Train’
“Rank” (1986)

After an ongoing struggle with heroin addiction, Rourke took leave from The Smiths for a short period in 1986. However, live album “Rank” is a joyous documentation of the recovered Rourke’s reinstatement into the band, now a five-piece with the addition of Craig Gannon on rhythm guitar. “Rank” as a whole is a testament to a bass player at the top of his game (somehow even after debilitating personal issues), but it is ‘The Draize Train’ in particular that deserves praise. An instrumental deep-cut that even Morrissey haters can enjoy, ‘The Draize Train’ is an often-overlooked example of Rourke’s impressive eclecticism and live ferocity. Punchy, aggressive and syncopated, the track is carried by a manic, erratic slap-bass-line, sounding as if an isolated bass track off a Parliament Funkadelic record has been ridiculously sped up. Perhaps The Smiths’ nod to the driving bass tour de force of Pylon’s A-Train, Rourke crafts an unmissable career highlight. And, even more dazzlingly, it’s all live!

The Smiths live on Channel 4’s The Tube, 1984 by Pete Cronin/Redferns

‘Interesting Drug’
Bona Drag (1990)

Rourke’s thrilling bass playing is by no stretch of the imagination only limited to just The Smiths’ discography. Playing for The Pretenders, the short-lived Manchester super-group Freebass and alternative outfit D.A.R.K, Rourke has had his fair share of career highlights outside of Manchester’s favourite flower-flailing band. Morrissey’s early solo career, whilst lacking the intricate guitar tapestries of Johnny Marr, boasted a plethora of classic singles, exemplified by ‘Interesting Drug’. Rourke’s presence on this early solo single is unmistakable – the intro, paired with Mike Joyce behind the kit, is marked with melodic somersaulting, reassuring Smiths fanatics sceptical of Morrissey’s solo ventures that they can still happily dance along to the rhythm section they know and love so well.

‘Barbarism Begins At Home’
Meat is Murder (1985)

A predictable choice, yes, but a predictable choice for a reason: it is safe to say that a song about abuse has never been so dance-floor-proof. Undoubtedly a fan-favourite, ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ is perhaps the stylistic pinnacle of Rourke’s funk-inspired four-string figures. The song is best enjoyed in its full-length album version, in which Rourke plays an effortlessly cool, crisp bookending solo (a solo Morrissey and Marr couldn’t help but skiffle across the stage to in the band’s live heyday). Played every month at Heart of Glass in the sweaty basement of The Peer Hat, ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ continues to hypnotise, tantalise and mesmerise listeners. Recycled in The Killers’ career-kickstarting classic ‘Jenny Was a Friend of Mine’, as well as a clear influence on the bass-led bedroom pop of Men I Trust, Rourke’s unforgettable bass line shows no sign of slowing in its continuous influence on contemporary music. I can also confirm that it continues to give budding bass players blisters. Watch The Smiths playing ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ live here.

The Smiths – GettyImages

On a more personal note, Andy Rourke has been a huge influence on my bass playing and songwriting ever since I was 14. I obsessively listened to The Smiths throughout secondary school, only becoming more and more beguiled with the overarching bass finesse at the heart of their discography. Whilst I was similarly smitten with Morrissey’s literary ramblings and Marr’s jangly soundscapes, I always felt that the low-end presence was sorely overlooked. I bought a Fender Squire Precision Bass (the cheap, accessible model of the classic Fender Precision Bass) because it looked like Rourke’s famous Fender Precision Bass model, and I spent countless rainy evenings playing along to Hatful of Hollow, or The Queen is Dead, or Meat is Murder, content in my own little world of bass guitar fumbling. I formed bands with my friends, playing in annexes, garages, front rooms, pubs and local Labour Party clubs, all kindred spirits in our Smiths mania. A particularly close friend of mine idolised Johnny Marr and we spent many afternoons of our teenage years jamming Smiths songs – he on guitar, myself on bass – until it got too late and we ran the risk of upsetting pensioner neighbours. We would ramshackle our way through ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’, ‘Still Ill’, ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’ – the list is endless.

Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke (left to right) – Johnny Marr’s official Instagram account

We like to think that it was a somewhat similar musical upbringing that Johnny and Andy shared in their pre-Smiths teenage years: a blossoming friendship perpetuated by love of music. Those were wonderful days, all soundtracked by The Smiths. Rest in peace, Andy. Thank you for the grooves. 

Jacob Ainsworth

Jacob Ainsworth

20, he/him, UoM, Film Studies & English Literature Amateur songwriter/illustrator/screenwriter/journalist

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