Deep Dive: Cilla Black / The Smiths, “Work Is a Four-Letter Word”

Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Cilla Black Completely Cilla

50 years ago today, pop star Cilla Black briefly became a movie star in America, thanks to the US release of her first film as a leading lady. Unfortunately, it was also her last film as a leading lady, but at least it provided us with a pretty great theme song…even if it did kinda sorta end up being one of the reasons that The Smiths broke up.

Work Is a Four-Letter Word starred David Warner as Valentine Brose, a man who gets his kicks from growing psychedelic mushrooms, but his fiancée Betty, played by Black, wants him to settle down and move his mushrooms out of his flat. Valentine’s solution? To get a job at the DICE Corporation in their boiler room, where he can grow mushrooms to his heart’s content. There’s a little more to it than that, but in the end it all comes down to a man who can’t decide which he loves more: his fun girl or his fungi.

Thank you. We’ll be here all week.

As you might’ve implied from the opening paragraph, Work Is a Four-Letter Word was not what you’d call a smash success, or at the very least it wasn’t sufficiently successful for Cilla Black to forge a proper film career. (Interestingly, Black revealed some years later that she was in talks to play Michael Caine’s girlfriend in The Italian Job, but the deal couldn’t be done. A shame, that.) Thankfully, Black still had her pop stardom to fall back on, and the song “Work Is a Four-Letter Word” was a minor hit in the UK, hitting #39 as the B-side of “Where Is Tomorrow?”

But let’s jump back to that opening paragraph again, shall we? After all, we still need to delve into how this song managed to more or less break up The Smiths.

“Work Is a Four-Letter Word” was recorded during what would turn out to be the very last recording session by The Smiths. Produced by Grant Showbiz and mixed by Stephen Street, the cover version was – you will be startled to discover – suggested by Morrissey. “I thought it was an amusing song,” he said in the documentary Brit Girls. “I think I was the only member of The Smiths who actually did. I thought it was quite funny and very throwaway, and a bit of a tease, really. I wasn’t attempting to produce a great piece of gothic art, it was just a taunting little number.”

Johnny Marr, however, wasn’t having any taunting: in a 1992 interview with Record Collector, he acknowledged outright that he “hated” the song. “That was the last straw, really,” he said. “I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.”

Whether Morrissey realized it at the time, he freely acknowledged in the aforementioned documentary that his song selection sealed the fate of the band, not that it bothered him very much.

“It was very instrumental in breaking up The Smiths, but what care I?” he asked. “Cilla Black, unbeknown to herself, actually broke up The Smiths. Which is pretty much to her credit.”

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