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Sheila Take A Bow: How The Smiths Turned To Face Their Final Curtain
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In Depth

Sheila Take A Bow: How The Smiths Turned To Face Their Final Curtain

They didn’t know it at the time but, following the release of Sheila Take A Bow, The Smiths would make their last public performance.

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Rousing and anthemic, Sheila Take A Bow is one of the most immediate and euphoria-inducing singles in The Smiths’ canon. Yet, while the song’s execution sounds effortless, capturing it proved extremely frustrating. In fact, it took the Manchester quartet three attempts to nail their 16th single across the winter of 1986/87.

Listen to the best of The Smiths here.

“Sandie Shaw likened it to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s Somethin’ Stupid”

An initial recording session for Sheila Take A Bow took place at Paul Weller’s Solid Bond Studio, in London’s Marble Arch area, on 13 December 1986, but this was soon curtailed, primarily because Morrissey failed to show. In mitigation, the session was scheduled for the day after what proved to be The Smiths’ final full-length concert, at Brixton Academy, so maybe the singer was justified in deciding to give his voice a rest.

Morrissey did, however, turn up for the second pass at Sheila Take A Bow. This session took place at London’s Matrix Studio, in January 1987, with producer John Porter at the helm. Morrissey had planned to bring iconic 60s singer and former Smiths collaborator Sandie Shaw back into the fold for the track, but that didn’t work out, either.

“Morrissey and Sandie Shaw both turned up, but only to discover the song was pitched so high that the only harmony she could supply was lower than the lead vocal,” the band’s biographer Tony Fletcher wrote in his book A Light That Never Goes Out. Shaw “didn’t like the song. She likened it to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s Somethin’ Stupid, so the group again scrapped the session.”

The Matrix version of Sheila Take A Bow also featured a prominent sitar-sounding guitar riff, but that was removed by the time The Smiths made a third attempt at recording the song, by which point they got it in the can.

“Sheila Take A Bow revived the glam beat that had been such a success with Panic”

This final Sheila Take A Bow session, at London’s Good Earth Studio, was overseen by The Smiths’ long-time co-producer and engineer, Stephen Street. Sandie Shaw didn’t feature on the recording, and neither did the sitar-like riff. Instead, Street used a brief audio clip of a marching temperance band from David Lean’s 1954 film, Hobson’s Choice, to act as the song’s intro, before the stomping, glam rock-flavoured music kicked in.

“Good Earth was owned by [David] Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti,” Tony Fletcher later wrote. “It was apt inasmuch as Sheila Take A Bow revived the glam beat that had been such a success with [1986’s] Panic and also because Sheila… lifted almost the exact words of a Bowie Song (Hunky Dory’s Kooks) for the song’s key line, ‘Throw your homework onto the fire.’”

With its infectious beat and fist-pumping chorus, Sheila Take A Bow was certainly radio-friendly and possessed an instant appeal, though Morrissey’s gender-fluid lyric (“I’m a girl and you’re a boy”) was coyly provocative. His choice of cover star was also gently subversive, as the Sheila Take A Bow sleeve featured an image of Andy Warhol superstar, Candy Darling – an early transgender icon whose birth name was James Lawrence Slattery.

Neither cover art nor lyric fell foul of the era’s notoriously rigid censors, and Sheila Take A Bow whizzed up the UK charts following its 13 April 1987 release, eventually peaking at No.10. As with all Smiths singles, the package offered great value for fans, with the two flipsides, sprightly John Peel BBC session recordings of Is It Really So Strange? and the urgent Sweet And Tender Hooligan, also proving to be well above par.

“The Smiths had chosen the peak of their career to make their last public performance”

A planned video shoot for Sheila Take A Bow didn’t come to fruition, though The Smiths did celebrate the single’s release with two notable TV slots. The first – a live performance of the song coupled with an equally enthusiastic version of their previous single, Shoplifters Of The World Unite – was screened on The Tube on 10 April, while the band again promoted Sheila Takes A Bow on Top Of The Pops two weeks later.

On both occasions, The Smiths presented a united front, and fans had no idea these would be the last UK TV appearances they’d witness their heroes perform. At the time, the band didn’t realise it, either, but over the next few weeks, a combination of business-related issues and sheer exhaustion forced guitarist and musical director Johnny Marr to quit. It was a blow from which The Smiths couldn’t recover, and the group duly announced their split in the late summer of 1987.

“Sheila Take A Bow rose to No.10 in the charts, a position The Smiths had only achieved previously with Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” Tony Fletcher later observed.

“[US compilation] Louder Than Bombs had just launched itself into the Billboard Top 100; The World Won’t Listen was still riding high in the UK and the prestigious South Bank Show was in the middle of producing a documentary about them. Though they may not have known it for certain, The Smiths had chosen quite possibly the peak of their career to make their last public performance.”

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