13 Songs for Halloween: "Suffer Little Children" by The Smiths

Features
10/15/2019
Janice Headley

🚨WARNING: For Halloween, KEXP is exploring the horrifying true stories behind some of the creepiest songs we play. Please note, this post contains highly disturbing and graphic content. Please continue at your own risk. 🚨


Oh Manchester, so much to answer for...

At first listen, you might be lulled by Johnny Marr's gorgeously subdued guitar playing and not notice the horrors that Morrissey quietly sings of in The Smiths' song "Suffer Little Children." Pay closer attention and you'll be drawn into the darkness of the Moors Murders.

From 1963 to 1965, Ian Brady and his girlfriend Myra Hindley lured five children — Pauline Reade, 16, John Kilbride, 12, Keith Bennett, 12, Lesley Ann Downey, 10, and Edward Evans, 17 — who were then tortured, raped, murdered, and later buried in Saddleworth Moor in Greater Manchester. At the time, a young Steven Patrick Morrissey was growing up nearby. As he told Face Magazine in 1985:

“I happened to live on the streets where, close by, some of the victims had been picked up. Within that community, news of the crimes totally dominated all attempts at conversation for quite a few years. It was like the worst thing that had ever happened, and I was very, very aware of everything that occurred. Aware as a child who could have been a victim. All the details... You see it was all so evil; it was, if you can understand this, ungraspably evil.”

The murders haunted Morrissey, inspiring the lyrics he wrote for "Suffer Little Children," the closing track off the band's 1984 self-titled debut album. The song is said to be one of the first Morrissey and Marr ever composed together. 

Lesley Ann, with your pretty white beads
Oh John, you'll never be a man
And you'll never see your home again

At the time of the song's release, the murders of Bennett and Reade had not yet been attributed to Brady and Hindley, but Morrissey mentions Downey, Kilbride, and Evans by name, an act that drew lots of criticism at the time. Local newspapers reported the families of the victims were upset by the song, and UK chain stores Boots and Woolworths pulled the album and the single from their shelves. Ann West, mother of victim Lesley Ann Downey, sent a letter to The Smiths' label Rough Trade Records and Morrissey replied, leading to an eventual in-person meeting and resulting friendship. Morrissey and Mrs. West remained in touch throughout her life until she died in 1999. "I think Ann West lived her entire life in the midst of all this media rubbish and injustice. The murderer becomes the star and the victims aren’t even named,” he said to Hot Press magazine in 2007. In a 1986 interview with Spin Magazine, Morrissey added, "Veiling the Moors Murders is wrong. We must bring it to the fore. If we don't overstate things, they'll continue to happen."

Edward, see those alluring lights?
Tonight will be your very last night

It was the murder of Edward Evans that ended the killings. Hindley's younger sister Maureen had married a man named David Smith who "admired" Brady, and Brady, in his arrogant pride, sent Hindley to fetch him to witness the killing under the guise of an evening drinking wine. (An account of the evening can be heard in the nightmarish Throbbing Gristle song "Very Friendly", but if you find "Suffer Little Children" too unsettling, you will definitely not want to listen to this.) Instead of being "impressed," Smith was horrified, but managed to hide it from Brady at the time. When he returned home, he told Maureen what had happened and they agreed to go straight to the police at sunrise. So, ultimately, it was The Smiths — David and Maureen, not Morrissey and Marr — who set the investigation into motion.  (Morrissey says the band was named The Smiths because "it was the most ordinary name", but it's an interesting theory that he was inspired by the couple who brought the Moors Murders to an end.) The twosome also appear on some iconic album artwork.

 

The album cover artwork to Sonic Youth's 1990 album Goo by Raymond Pettibon was inspired by a paparazzi photo of Maureen (Hindley) and David Smith on their way to the trial. 

For a child cries,
Oh, find me...find me, nothing more
We are on a sullen misty moor

Both Brady and Hindley lived out their final days in prison: Brady died from lung disease in 2017 and Hindley died in 2002 from bronchial pneumonia. In a final act of cruelty, they each left this world before admitting where the body of young Keith Bennett had been buried, adding another horrific layer to Morrissey's lyrics: "Find me, nothing more." To this day, Bennett has not been found and his remains are suspected to still be somewhere on the moors.

We may be dead and we may be gone
But we will be, we will be, we will be, right by your side
Until the day you die
This is no easy ride
We will haunt you when you laugh.

The song ends with Morrissey assuming the voices of the victims, threatening to haunt their murderers, but unintentionally haunting anyone who's heard the song and the story behind it. (A sinister laugh can also be heard as the song fades out; it's not a sample of Hindley, but instead a recording of Morrissey's then-girlfriend Annalisa Jablonska. An early demo version of the song even features the sound of children playing and an acoustic piano bit that Johnny Marr played on his landlady's piano that sounds very reminiscent of the later Smiths song "Asleep.")

It's been over fifty years since the murders took place, but the horror is as strong as ever.

You might sleep,
but you will never dream

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