“Panic on the streets of London. Panic on the streets of Birmingham.” Thus begins The Smiths’ 1986 single, ‘Panic’, the band’s raucous lament of the state of the nation’s radio. It is a hugely powerful song, now recognised as a seminal anti-establishment anthem, but ‘twas not always so.
Allegedly, Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr were inspired to write the song when they heard Radio 1 DJ Steve Wright cheerily follow a news bulletin about Chernobyl with ‘I’m Your Man’ by Wham!. “I remember actually saying, ‘What the fuck does this got to do with people’s lives?’,” Marr later commented.
The story of ‘Panic’’s inception is almost certainly inaccurate. As Smiths biographer Tony Fletcher points out, given that ‘I’m Your Man’ had been off the top 40 for a good few months at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, it seems more likely that the episode was invented to fuel the feud between Morrissey and Wright, which was apparently fierce.
The song was the subject of widespread criticism on its initial release. His lyric “Burn down the disco” was taken by some, not as the attack on pop music that it was intended to be, but as an obliquely racist and homophobic comment.
Disco owed a lot to traditionally Black movements like funk, soul, and R&B, and it was a genre of music which was largely embraced by ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community. The tension between disco-lovers and the typically white, male rock-enthusiasts that was engendered by disco’s success had erupted in America in the late 70s, when Detroit DJ Steve Dahl’s ‘Disco sucks!’ campaign had sparked rioting.
Although not openly bigoted, there were observable racist and homophobic undercurrents to Dahl’s movement, and it is perhaps understandable then, that when Morrissey urges his listeners to “hang the blessed DJ”, not everyone sat entirely comfortably. In truth, Morrissey and Marr were instead expressing a thought that has plagued individuals since time immemorial, “The music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.”
It is the nature of popular music that those who are left unaffected by its charms feel betrayed by their own era. Music is simultaneously ‘the shorthand of emotion’, ‘the food of love’, and ‘the strongest form of magic’, and to feel disenchanted with it is to feel bereft of something special. So, in advocating ‘Panic on the streets of London’, The Smiths were championing the cause of the lonely individual against the tide of mainstream culture. The delicious irony is that panic has eventually found a home amongst the very music it sought to disparage. What Morrissey saw as his ‘tiny revolution’ is instead a sickening paradigm of society’s ability to absorb any genuinely engaging anti-establishment sentiment. In January, David Cameron sighed that his love for The Smiths would “never go out”. Burn down the disco indeed, then.