Why I Love The Smiths

Posted on September 19, 2014

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I was a 17 year old kid that may or may not have been into nu-metal. I wore clothes that may or may not have been influenced by nu-metal, attired with a back to front red baseball cap, khakis and baggy t-shirts. It was mostly in defiance of the R’n’B, Kiss 100 crowd that represented the status quo. The shouty, almost whiny swearfest of the Fred Durst’s and Chester Pennington’s epitomized my inner bedroom rebel. But most of all it was because I refused to do my homework or tidy my room and how my life is over because my mum asks me to turn my racket down. In any case, my adolescence was one mostly spent in my territory wondering why the world was against me.

After a lot of arguing and a sore throat shouting along to ‘Break Stuff’, I headed down to my local V Shop (the short-lived spin-off of Virgin Megastore) and rummaged through the CD’s that were on sale. One record that did grab my eye was a monochrome, retro cover photo of Charles Hawtrey of Carry On fame. I later learned that these films would be of particular influence to their lead singer.

Where the Smiths journey began.

I’m not quite sure why it stood out exactly although I wasn’t sure why a band would put a kitschy actor from the 60’s on their best of compilation. My first impression were that they were an indie band of some sort and was a bit concerned that they might be a twee band. And I couldn’t stand twee. Then I turned the CD over and saw the names of those songs: “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”, “William, It Was Really Nothing”, “Girlfriend In a Coma” – a new world was unraveling in front of my eyes and it was all happening so quickly, just from reading song titles.

On my third visit to V Shop (I didn’t want to jump straight in for fear of being sorely let down), I felt it was time to have a listen to it in the listening booth. The opening track ‘Panic’ upon first listen was so-so and I was quite amused with the ‘Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ, because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.’ I then skipped to a random track and landed on ‘Ask’. What was to follow is a feeling that very rarely occurs. It’s bewilderment, shock, almost disbelief. An esoteric jangling of guitars and lyrics I never thought possible were being penetrated into my ears and all I did was freeze still. Time almost stood still as I couldn’t quite believe what was happening as I listened, transfixed to Morrissey’s ‘Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you, from doing all the things in life that you’d like to..’ I asked myself at the end of the song “what the hell was that??” Because it was like nothing I had ever heard.

I couldn’t just leave it there without pursuing this further. Not with my addictive personality. So it began. I was determined to explore The Smiths further and wanted to know every intricate detail, warts an’ all. They made 4 albums. They were from Manchester. They were called Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. They were staunch vegetarians. They had long song titles. They were a band from 1982-1987.

Truly they were like no others also in style – here was Steven Patrick Morrissey: an emaciated, pale and bare-chested chap wearing beads, coifed in an Elvis styled quiff. Johnny Marr also looked the part in his polka dotted shirt and Brian Jones haircut, whilst everyone else was obsessed with being robotic on Top Of The Pops.

Morrissey influenced himself on Oscar Wilde with a little of James Dean to finish with his Wayfarer NHS specs. Finally – here was a guy detached away from the archetypal pop star asking ‘Why pamper life’s complexities, when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?’ The Smiths became my break for freedom from nu-metal and urban music. They were to be my band. A band that well and truly understood what it was like to be a lonely misfit that couldn’t quite find his place in a world so unforgiving and doesn’t owe you anything. I’d waited my whole life for this in a music landfill with copious amounts of idealistic love. An aural McDonalds.

Shortly afterwards came university and by then I pretty much had most of their albums. Whilst ‘finding and creating myself’ I also lucked out and found some friends who were into the Smiths, almost as much as I was. I also started to become very territorial and defensive about any bad word said about them, with remarks such as ‘they’re a bunch of miserable gits’. Although I don’t think I went through with vegetarianism or wearing gladioli in my back pocket seriously.

I found their northern sentiment and social commentary in equal parts bleak as well as hilarious. But not to laugh at mind, Morrissey had that gift of penning a tune laced with agony, spun with ambivalence and dosed heavily with a great splattering of sarcasm. ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ is one such example. I didn’t quite catch on until the ‘there were times where I could have murdered her, but I hate anything to happen to her..’ by which point I was creasing with laughter.

But during the sad times, that’s where they were they really made their presence felt. Their second album ‘Meat Is Murder’ especially so, but not just for ‘How Soon Is Now?’ with ‘There’s a club if you’d like to go/you could meet somebody who really loves you/so you go and you stand on your own/and you leave on your own/and you go home and cry and want to die.” The next track, “Nowhere Fast” is an obscure one even by the band’s standards. It’s taken straight out of the Americana desert with slide guitar throughout. It contains my favourite lyric of all time too: ‘And when I’m lying in my bed/I think about life and I think about death/and neither one particularly appeals to me.” That indifference to my surroundings resonated throughout my depression in the second semester of University as though Morrissey said “I know. I understand.” Unlike Akon’s awful “Lonely” from the noughties. The lesser said of it the better.

Another favourite is the second person dialogue of ‘Girl Afraid’, a he said, she said account of how “Prudence never pays, and everything she wants costs money/I’ll never make that mistake again, no.” There’s not a lot going on in terms of words, but it’s all about the craftsmanship of the music given the shortness of lyrical content. Riffs and scales that were once only imaginable, come to life courtesy of Marr.

What really gets me blubbering though is a live nine-minute version of ‘I Know It’s Over’ from the Rank live album. ‘If you’re so funny/then why are you on your own tonight’ and ‘Loud loutish lover treat her kindly/cos she needs you more than she loves you’ particularly hit the kisser. I always come back to this song when especially unhappy. Never waste good agony.

Lyrically, it was as kitchen sink as it gets. Musically, it could only come from Manchester. Whilst some may be forgiven for thinking they were soft, sensitive indie types, shown by what was to follow in latter years from Belle and Sebastian and Gene for instance, live and on record they were explosive and heralded a new way, a new genre. Morrissey had spent his whole life taking in influences from 60’s girl groups, the New York Dolls, glam rock, Oscar Wilde and vegetarian and the Smiths were what spat out. As for Johnny Marr, he was the musical backbone with his Rickenbacker 330 12-string not so much an attachment, but an appendage. He could do things that would appear almost magical.

Remarkably, whilst being a band for only 5 years, their legacy is unmatched in British music, bar perhaps Lennon and McCartney. The Smiths sounded like nothing before (or since) and no one has matched them for consistency, quality or even as personalities.27 years on after their split, do I want them to reform? No. Why? Because they were of their time and if you love something so much – and I mean truly – then it’s best to leave it. You wouldn’t dig up a loved one’s corpse after the same amount of time and expect to rekindle the old flame. Why should it be any different with the Smiths?

It’s those songs, the detail that went into them and their two-fingered salute to mainstream culture that made me fall in love with them so much. I’ve recently got into Northern Soul music as has been well documented, but even that can’t hold a light to Manchester’s favourite sons. You could get an army of every soul singer to describe a feeling of love and hate towards someone and Morrissey would do it so much better without even knowing what he was doing.

The Smiths formed because they walked home in the rain too much, so it goes. But they were the songs that saved me as told in Rubber Ring: “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry / and the songs that saved your life / yes, you’re older now / and you’re a clever swine / but they were the only ones that ever stood by you.” I know, I know it’s serious.

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Posted in: Music, Social