In which Hippy Hollow extols the virtues of: The Smiths

Partly inspired by J. Z. Knuckles’ thread, I have decided to embark upon an occasional series of threads in which I will go fanboy on a favorite musical group, replete with my early impressions, pivotal moments in my fandom of said group, and invite Dopers to share their opinions.

First up - The Smiths.

I first encountered Morrissey/Marr/Joyce/Rourke on Top of the Pops, must have been 1984. I was in middle school and fairly obsessed with all things Michael Jackson. When I saw the performance of “What Difference Does It Make?” I absolutely detested it. The drummer looked like Frankenstein. The bassist was barely visible. The guitarist looked like he was from two decades back. Worst of all, this fey, gangly singer had FLOWERS in his pocket and a HEARING AID on. Plus really corny NHS-style glasses. Repulsed, I couldn’t look away but instead decided that I had a new favorite band… to hate on. Kooky dancing and preening, plus this voice that sounded like someone on Coronation Street singing in the kitchen. Not for me, no thanks.

I was also an avid reader of Smash Hits and I saw these guys getting lots of ink. Morrissey always came off as completely contrarian, and I remember being pissed when he slagged off Band Aid. Definitely hated the lead singer of the group, though I didn’t mind the music that I’d heard on Radio One. “Panic” was the first Smiths song that I said, “oh, that’s alright” because the hook - “hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ” was so damn catchy. Probably later that year, The Smiths were on The Tube, with the little kid and Craig Gannon, and they were sonically awesome. I then decided there was a little grudging respect for this lot, but I kept it very personal - I’d lose all street - no, make that cul-de-sac cred with my Lionel Richie/Michael Jackson buddies.

Fast forward to America in 1986 or 1987, watching endless hours of MTV, and then I saw the video for “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.” Self-referential and with plenty of visual images that reminded me of the streets of Banbury - wet, old, and full of discarded crisp packets - plus incredible instrumental accompaniment by Marr and his mates, it stuck in my head and I immediately (well, probably at the end of the summer) picked up “Strangeways, Here We Come” at the Sound Warehouse on Ben White Boulevard in Austin (requiring me to ride a crap bike about four miles on a major road - bold stuff).

Senior year in high school, there was this girl in a lot of my classes - the advanced gut senior classes like debate (get an A if you participate) and psychology (get an A if you show up). She was smart and outspoken, which meant we took great delight in needling her and generally being obnoxious senior boys. She was a Smiths obsessive. One day I started talking shit about how miserable and tuneless Morrissey was, not realizing that by knowing the name “Morrissey” I had outed myself as someone who knew an awful lot about an English band that never got airplay on the music stations in town… and so she lent me the canon, from The Smiths to Louder Than Bombs to The Queen Is Dead. We formed an alliance of sorts, maintaining adversarial relations in classes but slipping tapes into lockers after class. By this time the word was out that The Smiths were no more. So of course I transitioned to Morrissey, picking up the post-Smiths singles recorded with Gannon, Joyce, and Rourke - essentially The Smiths sans Johnny - and read excitedly about his appearance in Wolverhampton with the band. The buzz was Johnny was taking a break, he’d be back, there was another Smiths album in the works, etc.

“Viva Hate” was the soundtrack to my first year in college, and Morrissey undertook a tour that would bring him to Austin a year or so later. Even though it was crap, I picked up “Kill Uncle” and hung out with fellow Smiths dorks in front of the Coliseum to see 'um. Rumors of Johnny Marr showing up on tour were bouncing around. Some grizzled stage guy got up in front and announced that Moz was cancelling the show, refunds available, etc. Being a audience of Moz/Smiths fans, there was no rioting - just a bunch of crying and wailing. So I shifted allegiances and decided to pick up on what Johnny was doing. Electronic had just come out a while back, and the New Order/PSB/Depeche Mode kids were really into it, so at least there was a community of like-minded fans about. Then The The came out with “Dusk,” which was an amazing album and highlighted Johnny’s playing. Good stuff.

The Electronic years produced good albums, and finally Morrissey resurrected himself with Vauxhall and I, getting airplay on the radio and MTV. Fast forward a few years, and I’m married, living in California, and in the front rows at the Arlington in Santa Barbara as Moz does the Vauxhall tracks, throws in “There Is A Light,” and gets mobbed by overzealous fanboys to end the show.

More stories to follow, especially dealing with Johnny Marr side-projects. What are your memories of The Smiths and the affiliated musical offspring?

Well, I don’t have quite the history with them you do, but I really liked them as well. I started on The Queen Is Dead, and worked backwards from there, and then forwards when Strangeways and * Louder than Bombs* came out. I had a girlfriend who used to sing “Ask Me” to me in a really suggestive way. I also spent a lot of time defending them with my True Punk buddies, who despised them. There’s a writer, author of Rip It Up and Start Again, who refers to their music (and others’) as “Sissycore.”

Apparently it is an enthusiasm not widely shared

I never had the opportunity to see The Smiths in concert, something I’ve always regretted. My first exposure to them came in my senior year of high school, when they released their last album, Strangeways, Here We Come. I’d started hanging around with a mixed crowd of Goth, Punk, and Alternative (before that term became associated with grunge music, which hadn’t hit the national scene yet–the labels were constantly shifting and changing meanings) music fans. I had a huge crush on this particular girl, an art student who was really into the Smiths. Since to my 17-year old mind, she was the most wonderful thing in the world, then anything she liked had to be wondrous as well–ergo, The Smiths had to be the best band in the world.

It turned out that The Smiths were perfect for my situation. I was the Boy with a Thorn in his Side! “How Soon is Now?” I thought perfectly described my own troubles in life. It seemed like Morrissey was speaking for me, and as self-indulgent and mopey as the songs were, I loved it–since I was particularly self-indulgent and mopey at the time myself.

My first real girlfriend (not the same person as my senior year crush) was also a bit Smiths fan, and provided me with tapes of the stuff I was missing. Around that time, I was starting college, and Morrissey’s solo albums, especially Viva Hate, helped me through those years–even though, without Marr, something was definitely missing from the music.

Despite the fact that I’m in my thirties now, I’ve never completely turned away from The Smiths or Morrissey. I think that’s because, as I listen to the albums again, I notice a lot of things I overlooked when I was a teenager. Nowadays, I don’t identify with the “speaker” in Morrissey’s songs as much as I did when I was younger. I’ve come to realize that Morrissey is often singing from the perspective of a particular character–sometimes partly autobiographical, but not always. I’ll pick up on a lot of references which flew over my 17-year old head, whether they’re literary, movie, or just place-name references. So, in retrospect, The Smiths and Morrissey songs actually strike me as much more complex and richer than I had initially appreciated.

I think Vauxhall and I has been Morrissey’s best solo album by far. The Queen is Dead is probably my favorite Smiths album–especially for “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and “I Know It’s Over.”

All I have to add is that “This Night has Opened my Eyes” is one of the best songs ever made, and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and “Every Day is Like Sunday” are not too far behind.

That’s okay, saoirse, we’ll hold it down, our little exclusive club here.

I recently got two Smiths related programmes off BitTorrent - one is a more or less a BBC version of Behind The Music called Young Guns… Go For It! I saw a Human League one earlier this year, and I saw the Smiths epi a few days ago. Sort of sad, really, because it had all of the Smiths except Moz commenting on the old days, gigging, etc. Morrissey comes off as a complete bastard, unmanageable and unreliable, cancelling tours on a whim, that kind of stuff. Then Joyce talked about how slighted he felt with the legal wranglings - The Smiths were, contractually, just Morrissey and Marr. Joyce and Rourke got 10 percent earnings compared to M&M’s 25 percent each. But they did write all the songs, though…

The other was a South Bank Show that aired right after the band broke up, after the release of Strangeways. (For those interested in the guts of the band, I highly recommend Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance. Marr took off after Strangeways, badly in need of a holiday, and the manager-less Smiths (Morrissey?) announced they were looking for a new guitarist. Marr got shirty and said, “Fuck it,” and that was that.

My understanding is that before the court case, the “lads” - Rourke, Joyce, and Marr - got on rather well. The court case has apparently driven a wedge between Mike Joyce and both Marr and Morrissey. The Morrissey rift doesn’t seem surprising, as he didn’t really appear to open up to his bandmates, but Marr is apparently the kind of bloke who everybody likes. The fact that he’s estranged from Joyce is pretty sad.

Earlier in the year, their was a 50 percent Smiths reunion - Andy Rourke joined Marr onstage at a cancer benefit in Manchester. (Barney Sumner was there, too, so it really was also an Electronic reunion as well, though not billed as such, and I don’t think they played any songs.) I think that’s the best we can hope for at this point.

Has anyone heard the last Smiths tracks recorded? “I Keep Mine Hidden,” which is a particularly cheeky Moz lyric, and “Work Is A Four-Letter Word,” which I believe is a Cilla Black remake… very soft and apparently had Marr heading for the exits. It’s available as a B-side to “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” but I think it was also on one of those 80s Sire samplers “Just Say Yes” or summat like that.

I was watching the DVD of The Smiths promos and was actually quite disappointed with the majority of the clips. They had a relationship with the director Derek Jarman, who liked random film clips at fast speed. Unfortunately I hate all of his videos. I think the songs were squandered on some art school project. Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before and This Charming Man stand out as particularly good promos though - the former with Morrissey leading a gang of Moz clones around Manchester on bikes, and the latter with the whole Smiths package - Johnny with the Rickenbacker, Morrissey with the beads and gladioli, and Joyce and Rourke… well, playing.

I’ve been listening to the Troy Tate version of the first album - they recorded it in its entirety and fired Tate at the last minute and dumped the tapes - but I actually think I prefer some tracks on that version to the John Porter version which was the original Rough Trade release. Pretty Girls Make Graves was never a stand-out for me, but the Tate version is actually quite interesting, especially the Marr coda to fade out. Suffer Little Children is also much better, in my opinion.

I’ve got everything by the Smiths and Morrissey. I’ve never gotten tired of them.

One of those once-in-a-generation bands that got it so right in such a short amount of time. Those records are literally life-changing, and nothing that any of them have done solo - Electronic, Marr’s newer band, Moz’ solo career, etc. - have come remotely close.

My first Smiths Track?
Half a Person, on a compilation tape my brother made, oh, 1986? Couldn’t wait to play it to my group of Depeche Mode and Cure - listening friends.

Oh, yes, we were the ones wearing Daffodills in our pockets on Morrisey’s birthday. I fell in love with a girl because she looked like the girl in the “Every Day Is Like Sunday” vid.

Then Mozzer went all “ducktails and rockabilly, lovey” on me. I’ve never been back. But “Asleep” still makes me cry, and sometimes, at 1am, when everyone’s sleeping, I put “Rusholme Ruffians” or “London” on the headphones and rock out.