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?"
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.