The Smiths

Suffer Little Children

Composed by Johnny Marr / Morrissey

Song Review by

One of the finest and most notorious songs on the Smiths' self-titled debut, "Suffer Little Children" brazenly courted controversy due to its "shocking" lyrical content, but it's also one of the most personal songs Morrissey has ever written. Between 1963 and 1965, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady committed five sexual assaults and murders of schoolchildren ranging in age between 10 and 17, burying their bodies in Saddleworth Moor just outside of Manchester. "The Moors Murders," as they came to be known, cast a pall over the entire city of Manchester, one that even young Steven Patrick Morrissey -- who was only seven when the pair were caught and tried -- felt. "Suffer Little Children" is Morrissey's response to the Moors Murders, but contrary to the punk-era use of Myra Hindley's name and image as a quick and dirty way to epater le bourgeois, these lyrics are sensitive and deeply felt. Written from the point of view of the victims' ghosts, and using their real first names, "Suffer Little Children" is pained and accusatory, with the haunting refrain "Manchester, so much to answer for" remaining one of Morrissey's most famous lyrics. Set to the most atmospheric and gloomy arrangement on the album, "Suffer Little Children" is the closest the Smiths ever got to the epic gloom of their fellow Mancunians Joy Division. Nevertheless, following close on the heels of the silly "pedophilia scandal" that some of the sleazier UK tabloids tried to pin on songs like "Reel Around the Fountain" and "Handsome Devil," a brief controversy erupted over this song's "exploitation" of the decades-old tragedy. Largely as a result of this epically bad journalism, a pervasive urban legend has sprung up around one part of this song: one of the most disturbing elements of the Moors Murders is that Hindley photographed and tape-recorded the murder of 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, and the photos and tapes were later used as evidence in her trial. At the climax of "Suffer Little Children," at around the four-minute point of the song, a tape of a young woman crying is subtly faded in and out behind Morrissey's lead vocal. Despite what you may have heard, no, this is not the infamous Lesley Ann Downey tape. Don't be daft.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Smiths 1984 Rhino / Warner Bros. 5:30
No Image 1984 Rhino 5:27
How Soon Is Now? 1985 WEA 5:29
Singles Box 2009 Rhino 5:27
Complete 2011 Rhino / Warner Bros. / Warner Music 5:30
blue highlight denotes editor's pick