The United Smithdom
by Jonathan Schofield.
Michael was a young lad of eighteen from a distant city in Western Australia. He explained that a month or so ago the local
radio station had started playing songs from a different classic band for a couple of hours on a Saturday night. By chance
Michael had stayed at home the evening The Smiths had been featured. Over the next week he bought every record he
could lay his hands on. Then he begged, borrowed and saved and travelled half way around the globe to Manchester,
England, to see what traces he could find.
This was where I came in. As a tour guide in the city I knew of the landmarks associated with The Smiths. On Kings Road I
pointed out the house where the writer of the music, Johnny Marr, had come to visit the writer of the words, Stephen
Morrissey. I had to stop short at one point and offer my handkerchief. Michael from Western Australia, who had been
seven when The Smiths had split, was quietly weeping his heart out over the uneven pavements of Stretford.
Tears are rare but a deeply reverential mood is common. The Smiths are special. There is no band of the last two decades
in the United Kingdom quite like them for devoted following. The combination of the soaring, yearning guitar of Marr and the
intense, grimly humourous lyrics of Morrissey seem to appeal to people of a certain disposition in all continents.
That first meeting at which Michael from Australia had wept took place in May 1982 at 384 Kings Road. The two songwriters
gelled immediately, Marr, later recalling how he had had in mind the similar encounter of the classic pop composers, Lieber
and Stoller in the 1950's. The following day Marr came back with his guitar and began to develop tunes and rhythms to suit
the lyrics Morrissey had already written. The pair were delighted and amazed to find how it all fitted together so smoothly.
In the general mood of excitement they chose a name even before the line up of the future band was settled. The Smiths
won the verdict over Smithdom and Smiths Family. Morrissey wanted a name that was simple, homely even, and English; a
name to show that he would be writing lyrics about the lives he saw about him and the grand themes of love, death and
childhood through which ordinary people‚ lived. Marr agreed and also saw the name as an antidote to the stylised,
pretentious names of the synthesizer driven bands of the early eighties such as Spandau Ballet and Orchestral Manoeuvres
in the Dark.
Mike Joyce was selected as drummer after being introduced to Marr through a mutual friend. Previously an amiable studio
engineer called Dale had been drafted in as a temporary bass guitarist. The Smiths first concert took place on the 4th
October 1982 at the Ritz in the city centre supporting Blue Rondo A La Turk.
This was an appropriate live baptism given the venue's odd history. The Ritz was, and still is, the longest continuously used
popular music venue in Manchester. Jimmy Saville, ex-miner, Radio One DJ., charity worker and general good egg has
claimed from time to time that this was one of the places where he invented disco. This is a grand but typical expression
from a man who has never been one to hide his light under a bushel. The Ritz also provided a backdrop for scenes in the
classic fifties movie A Taste of Honey, one of those true to life, kitchen-sink dramas beloved of Morrissey. Indeed on the
superb, Reel around the Fountain from the bands first LP, Morrissey stole the words I dreamt about you last night and I fell
out of bed twice from local girl Shelagh Delaneys script. It wasn't the only influence he would show from an almost obsessive
interest in the recent past of British movies and music. The superb song Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now is just another
reading of a song from one of the singers favourite performers, Sandie Shaw. Her song , in the late sixties, had been called
Heaven Knows I'm Missing Him Now (She would later front the group on a release of the single Hand in Glove). The
favourite reference of this writer appears in the glorious song Some Girls are Bigger than Others, where Morrissey sings,
As Anthony said to Cleopatra, as he opened a crate of ale, some girls etc.... This is a simple musical rendition of a scene in
the cheesy English comedy film Carry on Cleo from 1964, when Sid James as Anthony romantically knocks back a bottle of
Three songs were played at the Ritz, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Suffer Little Children, and Handsome Devil. Despite
Rourke having to turn his snare drum upside down, following a tear, the set was well received. However, most people didn't
know what to make of dancer James Maker, a friend of Morrissey, who jigged about in a suit and high heels. The
appearance of Maker had been part of a Morrissey plan to help project an image of the band as different. This failed and he
was soon dropped from live performances. The group were also unhappy with the bass playing of Dale, so shortly after,
Andy Rourke, a friend from Marr's earlier band, Freaky Party, was enlisted. The band was now complete with Rourke the
final piece in the puzzle.
During the next year or so the band gained momentum and following through excellent live performances and stunning
sessions on the influential John Peel Show on Radio One. Fans and critics alike quickly realised that something rare had
arrived: a combination of freshness, style and charisma so different from anything else around. Not only was there a
musical genius in Marr, who could play a guitar like an angel, but with Morrissey the band had a genuine awkward celebrity,
constantly courting controversy but also attracting deep adoration. Underneath the whole sound was the very solid rhythm
section supplied by Rourke and Joyce. It was clear that The Smiths were destined for greatness.
One of the singer's earliest stage affectations was to wave gladioli at an audience whilst sporting a hearing aid. The gladioli
pointed to the influence of the epigrammic Oscar Wilde and the hearing aid to the early 50's singer Johnny Ray who had
also worn, through necessity, a hearing aid. These were two of Morrissey's heroes. Another hero was Billy Fury who died
aged 43 in 1983. Morrissey's hairstyle (much mimicked by fans) was based upon that of Billy Furys in his heyday. It was
typical of the singer's maudlin humour and outlook that his biggest influences so often seemed tragic figures. It may be
recalled at this point that before joining The Smiths, Morrissey had written a book which was published under the title
James Dean Isn't Dead.
The bands first minor hit was This Charming Man which reached 25 in the UK charts. This was the follow up single to Hand
in Glove which had topped the Indie charts. But it was in 1984 that the band passed a landmark with their first appearance
on Top of the Pops, the flagship of British TV's pop music coverage. The group were promoting the rip-roaring single What
Difference Does It Make which peaked at 12. Later that evening they played to a packed house at The Hacienda club in
Manchester. More than 2000 had to be turned away from the 1000 capacity venue. These were exciting times. In Britain
Top of the Pops is big and despite a variable reputation it is the single vehicle upon which every global great ( along with
every one hit wonder) must appear. The band, Morrissey in particular, was overjoyed to have joined these celebrated ranks.
The covers of the singles and the albums also revealed another distinctive quirk. Morrissey and Marr wanted the whole
offer of the band to exude taste and originality. Thus the design of the records became part of the bigger picture, depicting
again the obsessions of Morrisseys mind in their finely photographed portrayal of stars, albeit often mediocre stars, such as
Alain Delon, Jean Marais, Shelagh Delaney, Yootha Joyce, Elvis Presley and many more. A Smiths record is as instantly
recognisable a British brand as a Jaguar, or ,more fittingly, a Mini car.
The band achieved its greatest success through its albums. There were four main LP's, The Smiths, Meat is Murder, The
Queen is Dead and Strangeways Here we Come. There were also several collections of B-sides and radio sessions - Hatful
of Hollow, Louder than Bombs - which were far above the average of most such collections and indeed contained some of
the bands best music. As a body of work which was supremely disciplined yet utterly original the recorded output of The
Smiths lies very near the pinnacle of British pop. The albums show a remarkable progression in all departments from an
increasing depth to Morrissey's voice, a greater versatility from Marr's guitar and other instrument playing, and an ever
more solid rhythm section from Rourke and Joyce. This was a band starting high and getting better. Possibly Strangeways
Here We Come could have been tighter but this slight failing is due in part to its experimental nature and in part to the band
beginning to fall apart.
If you had to choose one LP as an introduction to a person who has never heard of The Smiths then you might start with
The Queen is Dead which is a paradigm of all the qualities of the band. The album roller coaster rides through the raucously
anthemic title song and Bigmouth Strikes Again, the humourous Frankly Mr Shankly, Some Girls are Bigger than Others and
Vicar in a Tutu: there is bathos with Never Had No-one Ever and Cemetry Gates and there is also some sublime moments of
that unique brand of yearning, irreverent, gripping Smiths tragedy with I Know Its Over, The Boy With The Thorn In His
Side and There is a Light that Never Goes Out.
The Smiths like many an outspoken Manchester band caused ripples outside the introverted world of the music press. From
the first second of public exposure it was, with Morrissey, a case of Bigmouth Strikes Again and again and again, voicing
controversial views on the state of modern Britain, Margaret Thatcher, music, indeed anything which came within his sights.
The fact that some of what he has said is rubbish - but who is perfect in this department? - has only made the press more
anxious to hound the singer's strong and unusual character. Morrissey became, and still is, a classic target. There has
also been a lot of distortion. One of the biggest uproars was caused by the song Suffer the Little Children. This beautiful
song had lyrics looking at the hideous Moors Murders of the mid-sixties which shocked Manchester, where the murders
took place, and the country at large, by their particular brand of cruelty. The song was an honest attempt to capture the loss
of innocence with the deaths of the children. A relative of one of the victims heard the song and soon it was covered in the
press as a gimmicky exploitation of genuine misery. The first paper to cover the scandal was the Manchester Evening
News, an unintelligent local rag, which didn't take the trouble to listen to the song before criticising it.
This writer also witnessed one event where the lies of the press were very evident. In 1986 the band played in Newport,
South Wales. Well into the set Morrissey was pulled off stage and had to go to hospital. The band continued with
instrumentals for a while and then the concert was abandoned. Next day The Sun newspaper claimed that Morrissey had
been injured by a gang of Monarchists protesting about the song The Queen is Dead. This was despite the fact that the latter
song was the first played and that nobody before or since has ever seen a gang of Monarchists wandering the streets of
the UK demanding the return of the Divine Right of Kings to rule. The Sun, of course, had simply lied as part of their
campaign against the LP The Queen is Dead which they saw as unpatriotic.
Of course, the real answer to the criticism of The Smiths, is Morrissey's own, I'd rather be famous then righteous or holy,
any day, from Frankly Mr Shankly.
Despite being the most critically acclaimed band of their time , by 1987 there was crisis. Marr and Morrissey had started
to grow apart. Marr didn't like the direction Morrissey was taking in his lyrics and musical choice, seemingly degenerating
into a parody of the Carry On movies mentioned above, becoming a sort of camp male Cilla Black. In turn Morrissey
didn't appreciate Marr's increasing extra-band activities with people like Billy Bragg and Bryan Ferry. Ironically the group
had just signed a new and improved record deal with EMI, having outgrown the Indie label Rough Trade. With Marr in
America and Morrissey pursuing a lone promotional furrow for Strangeways Here Come the rumour mill was working hard.
There were denials of any breakdown, particularly by Morrissey, but by the end of the year the link between one of pop's
great song writing partnerships was severed.
The legacy of The Smiths is not easy to quantify. They were such an untypical yet important group. At the fan level, as
the anecdote at the beginning of this article shows, they affect the hearts and mind of their audience very deeply and
emotionally. Remember, Michael from Australia, was seven when the band split and even across the divide of those years
he finds something which enthralls him. At the musical level, many bands have taken inspiration from the group including
such musically removed bands as Oasis - Noel Gallagher used to be the first in line for the new releases. The problem for
bands who would copy The Smiths style though, is that they are simply just not good enough and worse, for the would be
imitators, is the fact that qualities which Marr and Morrissey brought to their music are ultimately, inimitable. This is even
the case with the two main protagonists of the group who have hardly scratched the heights of their joint efforts in The
Smiths with their subsequent work.
Finally there was a fifth member of the band which must be mentioned: the city of Manchester itself. The lyrics of Morrissey
are suffused with direct and oblique references to locations and incidents within the city. The guitar of Marr captures its
soul completely. The city is schizophrenic. A mish mash of the incredibly ugly and the stirringly beautiful: of collapsing
industrial supremacy with towering mills and elaborate warehouses, of stark modern architecture and tight streets, together
with one of the most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse populations in the Old World. Underscoring it all is the character of
the people who are frequently insanely proud of their city or ridiculously downbeat. The music of The Smiths is often the
music of the city itself. As an antidote to the glamrock boys and girls and as the embodiment of their name The Smiths were