hard to remember what a seismic shock it was when the Smiths exploded on to indie-pop
consciousness with their first single 'Hand in Glove'. Sounds' Bill Black got in on the ground floor of their '80s ascent--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's
Befitting a band verging on greatness, the Smiths have a keen sense of
their own history.
In its annals are recorded such celebrated moments as the fated (and
feted) meeting of TuneSmith Johnny Marr and WordSmith Morrissey, the release of
their daunting debut 'Hand In Glove' and "the Smiths as child
molesters" scandal that would have destroyed lesser groups - and rocked
this one not a little.
A messy affair that has still to be completely cleaned up, the sordid
details do not bear repeating here (see other music papers for a full, fatuous
account glorying in deed and misdeed).
After all, this piece isn't designed to cross-examine anyone about the
harmful outcome of wilful ambiguity and reckless interpretation, simply to
investigate further the hysterical rumblings that threaten to crease the very
carpets of the Sounds office in their
clamor to be heard. The message? That the Smiths are just the most important
band around at the moment.
But there's no forgetting the gravity of the accusations levelled
against the Smiths - or its source. With Sounds
in the red corner and the band's label Rough Trade in the blue corner, where
does that leave Bill Black - in the doghouse?
"It's all past history as far as the group is concerned,"
comforts their instantly likeable manager Joe Moss as we wait in a West London
recording studio for the Smiths' imminent return from a Thameside photo session.
But when the four of them return from the muddy location chosen for the
shoot there is, for the first few minutes at least, a certain hugging of our
respective ropes. Drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke busy themselves by
making cups of reviving tea before slipping quietly away to challenge each
other on the obligatory PacMan while the interview takes place.
Morrissey, guarded at first, soon warms to the challenge of self-analysis
and with the mop-topped, slightly elfin Marr, exudes a confidence in the
strength and resilience of the Smiths that is unquestionably honest.
These charming men? Morrissey and Marr share a polite yet earnest
nature. They are unflinching in their views; often uncomfortably so. One can
only seek solace in the knowledge that they are invariably right.
We agree to skirt around the legal minefield that has now taken the
place of the battleground of charge and counter charge over the nature and
intent of Morrissey's contentious lyrics, but not before the wordSmith has
taken the opportunity to unleash an eloquent and elegant tongue-lashing on the
hypocrisy of contemporary morals. 'Nuff said. The Smiths have a keen sense of
their own history and that's just what the whole matter is now - history.
"We want to make friends, we want to have people around us. Isn't
that what everybody wants deep down? I'm sure when you were at school all you
really cared about was being popular. All we really care about is being popular
and that's why we try hard to please."
Morrissey responds succinctly, unnervingly - only someone with the skill
and temperament of McEnroe truly enjoys having the ball hurled back into his
own court - to an observation that the Smiths, above all else, seem keen to
It's telling that he should bring it all back to childhood and the
constant if often fruitless pursuit of happiness. His own memories of
teenagerdom are of "Morrissey: The Wilderness Years". Like some
nightmarish Lost Weekend, his teens were a period of isolation and self-hatred.
Until that day towards the end of last year when a youthful Johnny Marr
came knocking on his door to see if he would be interested in collaborating on
some songs. Marr had discovered from the wise Joe Moss that Morrissey's needs
had for some time been "exclusively literary". Just what Marr needed,
he thought, to complement his own approach to strumming his Rickenbacker (once
owned by Roger McGuinn) - an escape into sanity.
For Morrissey life began again - at 23.
"I had quite a happy childhood until I was six or seven, after that
it was horrendous. At the age of eight I became very isolated - we had a lot of
family problems at that time - and that tends to orchestrate your life. I had a
foul adolescence and a foul teenage existence. Except you couldn't really call
it an existence. I just sort of scraped through, escaping into films and books
until the Smiths happened and allowed me to live again!
"I think if I'd led an acceptably frivolous teenage life I wouldn't
be singing in this group. I'm sure if you have a great time and get everything
you want, all the friends you want, then you tend not to be so ambitious. If
you're deprived of certain things it makes you very resilient and you kick very
hard for what you want. And I wanted something very special because I'd led such
an unspecial life previous to the Smiths."
The Smiths are special. They combine rock's primary colors of guitar,
bass and drums in a fascinating way: you get the feeling of pleasant
familiarity as if you've heard it all before, but you can take immense and
almost criminally intense pleasure from the knowledge that there are boundaries
as well as hearts being broken.
Morrissey has only been partially successful in making use of his own
teenage traumas. He has come to terms with his own celibacy ("An involuntary
decision!" he assures me) but little else. The Smiths, he knows, will
"I remember for a long time feeling totally charmless and
unhandsome and I know there are so many others who still feel the same way.
It's time that all those people moved in on this whole shebang and if necessary
pretend to have charm. For too long this sphere of entertainment has been
dominated by the big mouths and the small minds."
If there is a central issue that lies at the heart of the Smiths'
motivation, this must be it.
Johnny: "The reason why Morrissey and I got together in the first
place to write songs - and the reason why it was so successful - was because we
both felt the need to react against what we'd been hearing over the past X
years. Basically, we had a lot of gripes. I don't think groups can succeed
unless they've got something they feel uncomfortable about. If you're happy
with the music you're making and the music around you then you're going to be
complacent, boring and safe."
Morrissey: "Nothing spurs you on like anger and we were angry about
all the ugly people who control this business and all the ugly faces on Top Of The Pops. Why all the ugliness? It's very strange - this complete lack of
intellect and complete lack of sensitivity. And of course there was nothing
more repellent than the synthesizer, so it was really time to sweep all that
down the drain.
"To say everything is hopeless, which is what people have been
saying up till now, is a pointless attitude and that's where our belief in
beauty and charm comes in. It's not to do with having a perfect profile or
Johnny: "It's a very optimistic feel that people get from our
records and our gigs and that is of paramount importance to us. Even our name
ties in with it. We're really sick of all this dressing up in designer clothes
and having your hair done by whatever hairdresser is in vogue.
"All those sort of groups were very remote and that might be one of
the reasons the '60s have become so attractive again. The fact that someone like Sandie
Shaw, who wasn't particularly beautiful or glamorous, could be a massive star
is tremendous. Morrissey's lyrics offer a great deal of hope to people who are normal because they're saying there's
nothing wrong with that. The Smiths are saying it doesn't matter who you are or
what you do, as long as what you're saying is positive."
The Smiths are saying normality is making a comeback and they're saying
it positively, but let's backtrack a minute and pick up Johnny's remark about
the '60s. It was
prompted by the continuous links that are being made between attitudes
prevalent during that debauched and de-bunked era and our own wonderful Smiths.
OK, so Morrissey might wear a forest of beads around his neck and get
through the contents of a small market garden during a live set as he charms
all with his bunches of gladioli, but yet another stab at reviving psychedelia?
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable the Smiths ain't.
But it needs saying more forcefully than that. Despite their
"conventional" instrumentation, the Smiths are rooted (pun not
intended) more firmly in the present than any of the so called "fingers on
the pulse" industrial groups - Test Dept, SPK - can ever be.
Because (and it's been noted before) the sound of contemporary urban
decay is not simply the clanking of steel plates or the chomp of a metal
grinder. It is much more than that, infinitely more human. At the risk of straining the point, the soundtrack of post-industrialism
is the sound of misery. The sound of suffering humanity, the scream of a
million English roses flailed against the landscape of depression - or a few
dozen gladioli thwacked against Morrissey's handsome thigh.
Regard or discard as you like, but the Smiths are NOW. No argument.
Which doesn't stop the '60s tag cropping up in reviews, so how do they feel about
Johnny: "Well, we were very conscious when we started of not being
preconceived. Even that sounds
preconceived! When me and Morrissey got together to write a catalog of songs it
became immediately apparent that the songs we were writing needed bass and
drums to make them work - so the 'conventional' set up was completed.
"We try and be adventurous but not to be overbearing, but then
again we'd hate to be trapped by some revivalist tag, whatever it might be,
because that's not what we're about.
"At the same time I can see some of the similarities and that's
fine - if you dig into either of our collections you will find music of quality
from every era and we're very aware of the fact that there is good to be had
from every period of popular music.
"For instance, in the '60s records were actually worth something.
People went out and bought a seven-inch piece of plastic and they treasured it, which
they don't seem to do any more. We're trying to bring back that precious
element which is, I suppose, reminiscent of an earlier time, but then so what?
It's good to take a part of pop culture and bring it alive again and bring the
human spirit back into it.
"It's exactly the same with the songwriting partnership Morrissey
and I have. The whole idea of two people getting together with lots of common
ground but with separate influences to bring out something we believe to be the
best we've ever heard is something we feel has been missing since the '60s. The '70s was the decade of the solo
artist and the solo writer and that doesn't appeal to me at all. I really get a
buzz from the unpredictability of the way a Smiths song turns out. It's joyous
the way we work together and if that's reminiscent of the '60s that's fine."
It's time to talk around the subject a bit more and make some enquiries
about the band's home town, Manchester. Is it, as [writer Dave] McCullough
would have us believe, deserving of thorough investigation to find the reason
for its consistently crucial musical outpourings? Morrissey is bemused,
preferring to see the Mancunian fetish as a release for the capital-weary breed
of London-based music journalists.
After all, he reminds us, the Smiths can take no credit for the place, having
only been born and brought up there, not responsible for its size and stature.
Morrissey: "I can't pass judgement on James because I haven't heard
any of the records or seen them live, but if what they say is how they feel
then I'm in complete agreement."
Another name synonymous with forward-thinking Manchester is the
Morrissey: "We've had a great deal of personal support from the
people at the Hacienda when they could easily have ignored us for signing with
Rough Trade in London rather than Factory in Manchester and that's good
because, as Johnny says, that means attitudes are at last changing."
Personal support? It suggests a shoulder to lean on when the going got
tough a few months back following the muckraking. It's also time to challenge
Morrissey on the purposefully ambivalent nature of his lyrics. He chooses to
write in a genderless style to remove the greatest block to understanding and
acceptance - sexuality.
This inevitably leads to gender confusion and dangerous interpretations,
so isn't well-intentioned obscurity a commercial as well as artistic liability?
I suggest the Smiths are out to confound people.
Johnny: "You confound people by using gimmicks like having long
unintelligible names and that's exactly what we're reacting against.
"Morrissey's so confident about himself that he doesn't have to
cloud his lyrics in metaphor. A lot of writers verge on saying something
important but because they're afraid of their own stature they use imagery as a
way of saying 'if you can work it out you're in'. That doesn't appeal."
Morrissey: "My lyrics are only obscure to the extent they are not
taken directly from the dictionary of writing songs. They're not slavish to the
lyrics rulebook, so you'll never catch me singing 'Oh baby, baby yeah'. My only priority is to use lines and words in
a way that hasn't been heard before."
Despite the efforts of the "school fool" writers, Morrissey
believes popular music is not a washed-up creative force yet; there's still
plenty of things that need communicating and he's ready and willing to man the
Morse key. And the bass, drums and guitar set up is far from redundant.
Morrissey enthuses about the fluid yet wonderfully fractured playing of
Marr ("Johnny can take the most basic, threadbare tune and you'll just cry
for hours and hours and swim in the tears!") before announcing
triumphantly: "As far as I'm concerned the guitar hasn't even been picked
Never mind the Svensons, you've got to keep up with the Smiths.
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