One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sons and heirs of nothing in particular...

On the way to work today, I played The Smiths in the car (and I really shouldn’t try and select iPod tracks while I’m joining a motorway). I keep forgetting just how damned ace they were. Like (the ubiquitous) Russell Brand, my adoration of Morrissey has crossed the dangerous line towards hero worship. Allow me to satisfy a compulsion to gush…

First off…some of you* may be labouring under the delusion that The Smiths were a miserable bunch of fuckers. They weren’t. Certainly some halfwits took them way too seriously and contemplated their morbid lyrics in darkened bedsits while considering a Haliborange overdose (“Only Morrissey feels my pain!”). Their modern counterparts these days listen to the dreadfully insipid My Chemical Romance. But such people they entirely missed the point. The Smiths were funny! Seriously funny. Second only, perhaps to Half Man Half Biscuit, Eminem or Leonard Cohen.** *** Anyone who doesn’t get that misses the whole point. Funny – but that doesn’t rule out sad at the same time.

I first heard The Smiths while I was in Canada. I was working there for a year as a student – and a very immature student at that. I was lonely and depressed. I’d noticed from the NME – a lifeline to home – that music seemed to be changing, and there was mention of these Smiths people (and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Billy Bragg). But all I heard on the radio was Culture Club, The Thompson Twins, Michael Jackson. So I wrote to a friend**** and asked for some music. (Sad to say, my favourite bands were Genesis and Roy Harper). His girlfriend (this is her these days, incidentally, fellow web stalkers) sent me a tape***** of… Culture Club, The Thompson Twins, Michael Jackson. Oh…and The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’ (Barf!). So I wrote to another friend. This time I got a much better tape. Billy Bragg. Frankie. Orange Juice. Elvis Costello. Eyeless in Gaza. And…The Smiths. I put on ‘This Charming Man’ late one night and it immediately had hurling myself around the room in my version of dancing. What was this peculiar shit?

"Punctured bicycle, on a hillside, desolate,
Will nature make a man of me yet?"

I’ll avoid the temptation to quote the entire lyric, which you can find here. "When the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat"…"I haven’t got a stitch to wear"…"A jumped up pantry boy"…"Return the ring"…and all sung in that peculiar yodel. And who’d ever heard the word ‘gruesome’ used in a song?

In short, I was hooked – even if I had to wait until I got back to England some months later to see him on Top of the Pops, gladioli in his back pocket. The Smiths were My Band. They defined my youth. Talkin’ about my generation. I’ll skip over embarrassments like an ill-advised Morrissey quiff****** Every new Smiths record was hotly anticipated and bought immediately. Best gig I ever went to - The Queen Is Dead Tour, Brixton Academy. And I still have that iconic NME cover – no text, just a B&W portrait of Morrissey , his eyes coloured blue.

So – what’s the appeal? I’m tempted to say “Isn’t it obvious’ – but maybe not everyone idolises Morrissey the way I do. Plus, it’s a worthwhile intellectual exercise to try and analyse these things. Sooo…
  • The Northern iconography is important. These were the darkest days of Thatcherism, before places like Manchester were officially Cool. Coupled with that there was something of an outsider appeal for we dispossessed.

  • The campness. I suppose the (then) celibate Morrissey was the heterosexual male’s safe homoerotic squeeze - I'm afraid I'm disappointingly heterosexual. And, again, the fact that it was a Northern, outsider’s campness, part of the great tradition that includes Coronation Street*******.
  • The unexpected conjunctions of lyrics:

    “I broke into the palace/ With a sponge and a rusty spanner/ She said ‘I
    know you, you cannot sing’/ I said "That’s nothing, you should here me play
“Now I know how Joan of Arc felt/ When the flames rose to her Roman nose/ And her walkman started to melt”
“Spending warm summer days indoors/ Writing frightening verse/ To a buck-toothed girl from Luxemburg”********
  • The waspish phrases that sound like overheard snatches conversations from your
    mother’s slightly disreputable cousin talking about a divorce or a hysterectomy:
“Ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye.”

“The sun shine out of our behinds”

“Sweetness, I was only joking when I said ‘d like to smash every tooth in your head.”

“I didn't realise that you wrote such bloody awful

  • And we mustn’t leave out Johnny Marr’s stunning, unique guitar. At the time I fancied that it was somewhat similar to that of the Bhundu Boys’ Rise Kigone.*********

  • And who could resist a song about someone being wanked off in the bushes by a teacher?

I could go on, but I’ll stop gushing now. I won’t even attempt to justify any of this!

*Assuming there’s anyone actually reading this.

** Surely that makes fourth?

*** I’m deadly serious about Leonard Cohen, by the way.

**** This was the days before e-mail, kids!

***** Strange music storage devices we had in the days before God invented the emmpeethree, consisting of a wee plastic box full of brown tickertape.

******* Remember that Coronation Street was created by Tony Warren who had the courage to be Out in early ‘60’s Manchester. It’s always drawn heavily from the tradition of ‘theatricals’ – up to and including the recently departed John Savident ("Ah says, up to and including…" etc. And who can forget Smiths cover star and gay icon Elsie Tanner, girlfriend of Tony Blair’s father-in-law?

******** What a great sense of meter. See also WB Yeats “And I shall have some peace there/ For peace comes dropping slow” (The Lake Isle of Innisfree).

********* Currently residing in Penicuik, of all places. Sometimes gigs with Champion Doug Veitch.


Susanne said...

Hi Ed!

It's me, Susanne *biggrin*

I already told you that I found out about The Smiths by chance. I had a similar experience like you when first listening to them: I got "The Queen is dead", put it in the cd player, pressed play and thought "What *is* this? It's great!" I couldn't get enough of the drum-intro.

I love Morrissey's concentrated misery *laugh*

"There is a light that never goes out" is one of my favourite songs. It really touched me in a strange way.

"Reel around the fountain" gives me a shiver though. I may be getting the song in a wrong way, but it scares me. *erm*

psychocandy said...

I used to like them a lot more than I do now. I appreciate the humor, but the music itself hasn't aged as well with me.

"Girlfriend In A Coma", "Sheila Take a Bow" and "A Rush a Push and The Land is Ours" are my favorites. Apologies in advance if I've again provided more ridicule fodder...

Edward the Bonobo said...

It's the concentrated misery that's funny! And how can you take seriously a line like "And iof a double-decker bus crashes into us..."

Coincidentally, this morning on the radio they had a feature on the rebuilding of Salford and they played the intro to "The Queen Is Dead". When I saw them live, Morrisey had an eye injury (someone had thrown a coin at him) so he came on in dark glasses and spent the first minute or so prancing and waving a "The Queen Is Dead" placard to that drumbeat.

PsychoC - no ridicule. I've just put together a playlist for a friend at work (I realised with a fright that she was born the year they split up),. It has all my favourites on it - but you've reminded me of two more I should have included. In don't know why I didn't include 'Rusholme Ruffians' either.
"She said 'How quickly will I die/ If I jump off the top of the Ferris wheel?' "

puddlejumper said...

I love the smiths for all the reasons you list and more. And definitely well funny.

I now have the joy of my teenage children "stealing" my Smiths cd's and trying to inform me that "do you know mum these guys were like Soooo influential"

And I go..."Duh?....and can I have my CD back please?"

But Half-Man half biscuit? OMG I hadn't even thought about them for years and now that you've mentioned them I'm going to have to go and download their back catalogue. They were incredible and so funny.

The trumpton theme tune? Do you remember that?

Edward the Bonobo said...

You mean their seminal 'Trumpton Riot'? :-)

Read more about them in my article here.

If I can find an address on your blog, I'll ping you a copy just as soon as. Or you can use the usual Limewire route.

susanne said...

I don't take the doubledecker bus seriously *laugh*. But I think the image of "a light that never goes out" for love, that's beautiful. *blush* Well, I like it anyway. And I like the flute playing on the song.

Edward said... an interview with Russell Brand (an omnipresent British TV celeb - see original post) he said that a friend of his had another explanation of the title. The light never goes out because the person in the room never goes anywhere.
Take me out tonight/ Take me anywhere I don't care I don't care I don't care I don't care."

Darren said...

"I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice." has to be the early Morrissey lyric that made me realise that The Smiths weren't the miserabilists that everyone made them out to be.

And you may have read it previously on my blog, but seeing The Smiths playing 'This Charming Man' on Top of the Pops at such an impressionable age was certainly a seminal moment for me.

Edward the Bonobo said...

That line was from 'A Taste of Honey'. I saw a production of it in Harlow, with the actor that used to play Len Fairclough - which was apt.

All the culture in Harlow was organised by the Cooperative Worker's Education League. Dare I admit in front of Darren I was a member of the Labour Party at the time? Or, technically, in some arcana of the rulebook, of The Cooperative Society affiliated to The Labour Party. In fairness, there was the moral imperative of getting Thatcher out. Hah! that worked!