In Defence of The Smiths
There’s ice on the ground outside, and the days have a nip to them that only the night can challenge. As you can probably tell, I’ve been listening to a lot of miserable music. Actually, that’s not strictly the case. To be honest, I’ve been listening to a bit of everything as I edit my novel. I think that’s a standard requirement to editing anything. I’m going to sound like a complete tool, but I always cut to music. Sometimes it works; sometimes it can help you pace a scene which is flabby, or back-loaded with action, or it allows it space to breathe as you take the rhythm into your subconscious.
I used to be a music writer, and this is one of those rare times when I blow my own trumpet. It was only after I listened back to my introductory podcast that I realised I’d forgotten completely to mention that I used to edit a music section in a newspaper, or that I’d been allowed to interview some pretty well known people, and that I’d authored about three hundred record reviews and an impressive number of thinkpieces. I guess it only seemed important at the time.
For a long time now, I’ve shied away from my musical past because it seemed too much like an apprenticeship. Some of my early efforts were dreadful, but there are sparks of the writer I would eventually become. I think I grew out of it, largely because I never got paid for it, and when music became incidental to my life instead of a necessity, music writing got dropped from my oeuvre. It used to be all-consuming, then I became somewhat embarrassed by how seriously I took it.
But I’m going to return to it, briefly, because there’s something which has become obvious to me as I’ve immersed myself back into my record collection. And it is simply this: I need to defend The Smiths.
A few weeks ago, I happened to mention to somebody that I’d been listening to a Smiths album while I worked away. ‘God, that must have been depressing,’ was the general gist of the reply. But then it happened again, with somebody else. I was discussing Morrissey’s crap attempts at writing, and apropos of nothing, I was informed that my co-conversationalist didn’t listen to ‘miserable stuff’.
Well, I’m taking a stand. Not that they need defending thirty years after they split up, but The Smiths are not depressing. And I’m going to give you a few arguments to help change your mind.
I first heard The Smiths as a parody jingle on a Mary Whitehouse Experience sketch. It was a piss-take of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, and that’s all I knew of them until the age of sixteen: a dour and sour joke. Then I asked an ex-boyfriend of my sister’s to tape some Simple Minds songs onto a C45 cassette. He said he’d used the other side to tape The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths. I was pissed off. I wanted six versions of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’.
Then I heard ‘The Queen Is Dead’. I heard Mike Joyce’s drums like ravens leaving the Tower. I heard Johnny Marr’s discordant, bilious guitar. Then my head fell off, and I dropped my trolley full of Walsall Advertisers. Oh, I used to listen to tapes on my newspaper route. Tapes. Ask your parents. Or grandparents.
‘The Queen Is Dead’ wasn’t miserable. It was angry, and funny, and cocksure, and knowing, and referential and all of those things that a teenage me wanted to hear. It was nothing I’d ever heard before, and it was fucking genius. All that stuff about The Smiths being drab simply wasn’t true. They were real people, beautifully frustrated. Steven Patrick Morrissey encapsulated everything it was to find yourself on the outside looking in, all the while knowing that what you’re searching for probably isn’t in there either.
That’s the great impasse between Smiths fans and those that just hear Morrissey ululating while wearing an overcoat – his lyrics are deadly serious while being delivered with a wry grin. Oscar Wilde is a big Smiths touchstone; that feather-light wit which pricks its inherent pomposity. Written down, “if a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side would be a heavenly way to die” looks horribly bleak, but it’s sung with such deep longing that it’s one of the most romantic things I’ve ever heard. So much better than clichés about loving somebody forever and ever, and it places it squarely on the streets of an alienating Britain. The Smiths are very British. They are Coronation Street, and Open All Hours, and Alan Bennett noticing a chip in the sugarbowl.
After the split, Mike Joyce regretted not taking the opportunity to shove his drumsticks where Morrissey kept his gladioli.
But they also made wonderful, danceable music. Their musical section, surely the most underrated fusion of instrumentalists this country has ever produced, was brimming with originality. Johnny Marr’s waterfall Rickenbacker over the rhythm section comprising Andy Rourke’s vulcanised bass and Mike Joyce’s leashed punk thud is capable of filling a dancefloor in most indie discos to this day. It even cost me my love life once.
So, it’s 1998. I’m in the New World nightclub in Walsall, just up by the railway station. Pound in, pound pints, dancefloor the size of two pool tables. Everything is painted black. The DJ has one working deck and a CD player. The place is so poky they only have to light a cigarette to replicate a smoke machine. This is where I spend most Saturday nights. Fridays are reserved for being packed into the Varsity, where everyone from school goes before heading off to Dream to get royally shitfaced. I go to fit in, but also because every week, the girl I fancy goes too. My love is unrequited, and causes an ache within me which is sometimes so overwhelming I’m unable to sleep. Needless to say, I can barely speak to her. I tell my friends that I like her, and not to tell anybody, hoping that they will tell her and save me the job of having to walk over and get shot down.
One Saturday, nicely off my nut, I am dancing to ‘Pretty Vacant’ when I spot two girls from my circle come into the nightclub. My love is one of them. I have no idea why, or what, she is doing here. It is like my prayers have been answered. I am very toasted, I have been shouting along to John Lydon and this is my habitat. It is like God has squared the ball to me in the six yard box. I begin to speak. I have this.
Then the DJ puts ‘Sheila Take A Bow’ by The Smiths on, and I cry in delight, telling her I’ll be back in a minute and I am off to dance. The last I see of her that night is her puzzled expression, wondering how I can be so excitable over an indie track on a crappy dancefloor in a crappy club next to a railway station. When the track finishes, the girls have vanished.
Maybe I was over-excited by the moment. But while I have got over the girl, I still get goosebumps every time ‘Sheila Take A Bow’ fills my ears.
That’s when The Smiths are best, I think - when you’re a young adult, unsure of your place in the world. They're a perfect band for those times when you experience raw emotions for the first time, and don't know how to deal with how overwhelming it can be. They reassure you that there will be beautiful things again some day. Morrissey reassures us that it’s fine to be slightly out of step, because we all are, more or less. It’s okay to feel like shit sometimes and wear a painted smile, because what else do we do? And people don’t see that in them, because they just see Morrissey, with his flat voice and his theatrical sighs, and don’t open themselves to that feeling he’s really trying to convey: it’s not us that’s ghastly, son, it’s everybody else.
I’m well aware that I probably haven’t convinced anybody by this piece, but I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s not really fair to give Morrissey and Marr the mantle of Most Miserable Musicians (Manchester Branch) because they once used the word “miserable” or talked about hanging DJs (alleged trufax: ‘Panic’ was written after hearing Radio 1 disc jockey Steve Wright segue from a story about the Chernobyl disaster into a record by Wham). That would be like saying ‘She Loves You’ is representative of the entire career of The Beatles, or calling Elvis a depressing sod because he sang a song about a guy being shot on a foggy morning in a ghetto or somebody’s dog getting plugged.
Anyway, The Smiths deserve a bit of love outside of their indie ghetto. Those that love them won’t need me to tell them why, but this is for all you floating voters out there. Try the chummy bounce of the Victoria Wood-endorsed ‘Rusholme Ruffians’. Puzzle over Morrissey’s alternative A-Z of the UK in ‘Is It Really So Strange?’ But when all’s said and done, us Smithophiles will already be dancing in a big girl’s blouse whether you like it or not. Like the man said in ‘Hand In Glove’, “it's not like any other love; this one is different because it’s us.”