By: Patrick Grant
Total singularity in art is impossible. The highest compliment that can be paid an artist is that they got pretty damn close. There aren’t too many bands that accomplish this feat; not to say that most of them are derivative mirrors of their surroundings, but just that ingredients and influence seldom make a product so unique that its reach is incalculable. Enter: post-war Manchester. One of the most fruitful musical municipalities of the late 20th Century, Manchester in the 60s, 70s and 80s was, by most accounts, a pile of shit to grow up in. Between the 1961 and 1983 the area lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs. Mothers and fathers with military attitudes were raising generations of kids who either had to toe the line or completely rewrite how to live.
Some notable pop groups came out of the place in the 60s and 70s (the Hollies, though Graham Nash is technically from Salford, as well as 10CC and Herman’s Hermits). I guess what’s notable about these artists is that they’re all very… good humoured. And palatable. You can’t picture Lol Creme smashing a guitar and telling the queen to fuck off. I imagine it would be very hard to find a lot of inspiration in these groups for a poor pissed off sexually confused teenager in 1975. It would certainly have to come from somewhere more visceral and bare. Which is undoubtedly what happened.
The first real destroyer of the void has to be Joy Division. For reasons that I don’t really feel it’s necessary to discuss here, their career ended rather abruptly but the damage was done: dance music had been coupled with dark, serious stories of alienation from the home town that never really gave much of a damn anyway. The music was at once confined and expansive, lonely music that you could move to. Even if you moved like this.
There are quite a few mega proto-indie guitar bands from the 80s, but none quite like The Smiths. Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce created a collection of music that is delicate without being weak, lonely without being humourless; it has all the dance and pop sensibility of much of the club music released at the time but still seems to reference music and art of a much older tradition. Like Oscar Wilde and James Burton starting a pop band in post-industrial England, Morrissey and Marr’s songwriting takes the everyday and gives it a soundtrack that elevates it to the level of the romantic.
Unlike their predecessors, they weren’t successful by catering to repressed sexuality (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry), free love and psychedelia (the Beatles, countless others), or violence and aggression (Sex Pistols, most of the punk movement). The Smiths version of teenage music involves a teenager that finds himself alienated from his surroundings because he is too intelligent, too unrepressed, too nonviolent. Simply put, The Smiths successfully made music that made teenage alienation feel like a beautiful, self-actualizing experience rather than a hopeless one.
“We don’t have to be violent or ugly or arrogant, just be charming. And what a pleasant world that would be.” –Morrissey
Their debut album was released on Rough Trade in the UK 30 years ago today. Interestingly enough, most people reference “This Charming Man” as their favourite song on the record, but it was originally a non-album single. It was only included as the last song on the first side once the record was released by Sire Records in North America. It’s weird to celebrate the release of one of their straight up studio albums, though, because The Smiths are really more of a singles band. They only have four studio albums total but have ten (TEN!) compilation albums and a whole whack of collectible vinyl singles that have variations in cover art and track listings and different performances of familiar tunes. I, for one, listened to The Smiths singles collection (which opened with “Hand in Glove”, their first single, appropriately. It’s still one of my favourite Smiths songs. Why didn’t they use that perverted “Love Me Do” harmonica more?) far more than any of their records, though I did buy The Queen is Dead very early on.
Some cool things about the debut album: 1) None of the singles performed in any crazy manner. 2) While it isn’t as bash you over the head political as, say, Meat is Murder, it definitely touches on child abuse quite a lot more than other pop music (see “Suffer Little Children“). 3) The cover art is taken from Andy Warhol’s film Flesh, appropriate given his emotional use of mechanical reproduction. 4) It was recorded for 6,000 pounds. Morrissey was not happy with the result, but Rough Trade made them put it out anyway because of the expenditure. 5) It was recorded in piecemeal fashion because of time constraints and as a result they went through several engineers. 6) It was really hard to write this article without mentioning Margaret Thatcher. 7) I’ve never actually owned this record but I still have a whole slew of opinions and feelings about it and can probably sing most of the lyrics. Spooky.
I decided to create a short Smiths Questionnaire in honour of this anniversary. I’ve always been surrounded by people who love The Smiths, but it’s always interesting to see who comes out of the woodwork when fans of any particular thing are called to arms, and generally it’s best to let those people have their say in any celebration. I received responses from a lot of different and interesting people. Thanks to everyone who participated. (I’ll probably fill out this questionnaire for myself one day, but it will have very complicated answers.)
How old were you when you first heard the Smiths? How did you first hear them?
“I honestly can’t remember how old I was when I first heard The Smiths; they’ve just been with me my whole life it seems. Meat is Murder was definitely the first record I heard though, which probably same some correlation to when I became vegetarian.” –Robb Johannes, vocalist in Toronto indie band Paint and current mayoral candidate
“I grew up in England so it’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact age I first heard them because they were always around. My first real memory of being exposed to The Smiths was on a popular television show called Top of the Pops. It was a weekly chart show where musicians would mime along to their most recent single. They often showed flashbacks of older performances and there was Morrissey swinging this insane bouquet of flowers around his head in this barbaric fashion. It was “This Charming Man”, and the riff from that song stuck in my head for days.” –Katy Maravala, local punk, alt & metal aficionado
“I think the first time I heard The Smiths I was 13 and in a used record store in Burlington, Ontario. The guy working at the record store was playing The Queen is Dead. I walked in, heard “Big Mouth Strikes Again” and needed to know what it was. I had never heard anything quite like Morrissey’s voice or Johnny Marr’s guitar style before and was instantly hooked. It was the early 2000s and little did I know I was at least 15 years late to the party. I used the last $5 I had in my pocket to buy the album on cassette. My best friend Caitlin bought Meat is Murder, also on cassette. I lived in Toronto and she lived there in Burlington, so we only got to see each other on the occasional weekend and on summer holidays. We would lend our tapes back and forth to each other. We also listened to those tapes on loop while hanging out in the boat house at her family’s cottage that summer.” –Jessica Thorp, Performance Studies PhD student
“I was probably around 12 or 13. My brother liked to think he had free reign over my little hand me down MP3 player and he put them on. I think it must’ve been “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” or “Ask” or something that he put on my player, I don’t remember but it was definitely off of Louder Than Bombs.” –Defne Inceoglu, local musician
“I was around 14 or 15. The origins are slightly blurry, but they definitely involve some confluence of high school (I’m sure most Smiths origins stories do), a cool girl (same), and Jeff Buckley covering “I Know It’s Over” and “A Boy with the Thorn In His Side” live.” –Jeremy Woodcock, the Urbane Explorer and member of The Sketchersons
“Cue the opening scene of occult symbolism and fiery blue lightening-lit skies in the movie “The Craft” perfectly accompanied by “How Soon is Now”. I was thirteen, already full of angst and remember feeling like a found a secret boyfriend in Steven Patrick Morrissey when I heard The Smiths for the first time; I had become a new member of a Dead Poet’s Society of sorts.” –Sarah Shafey, local musician
“I couldn’t give you an exact age. I could give you a made up age, but that wouldn’t be truthful. Young will have to do. I’ve always been a bit of a daddy’s girl. When I was growing up, my father and I would spend Sunday afternoons in the living room listening to his records. This happened to be one of the favorites within his collection. Later they would make my CD collection when training/running/riding, (iPods weren’t so popular yet).” –Vanessa Evelyn Lee, local badass
“Actually I started listening to The Smiths later than a lot of people, when I was 24. I’d always heard of them, but growing up I mainly listened to hip hop and r&b music. And most of the “alternative” music I listened to at the time wasn’t really good, with the exception of a few bands. It was my first year of of the Communications program I was in. I made friends with this guy who was really into artists like The Jam, Boomtown Rats, Elvis Costello, etc. and he introduced me to The Smiths.” –Riaz Charania, local music publicist with Pow Pow Pow
What personal relationship would you say you have with the band? How do you account for this?
“Morrissey once said that most popular music at the time (and still now I would say) would insult the intelligence of its audience by catering to populism and watered down messages. The Smiths, on the other hand, gave their audience credit for being intelligent and discerning people. As a result, not only could The Smiths incorporate a greater intellect into their music, but their small and highly declared fanbase felt like they were a part of a mutual exchange of ideas. The line between the audience and the performer disappeared, and given my own roots in punk, I highly admire that. It’s surely made its way into Paint’s ethos as a “pop” band.” –RJ
“The Smiths are a very dear band to me, I HATE talking to other people about The Smiths because I don’t believe anyone can really understand the depth of what they mean to me. Its almost useless to put into words. The Smiths are genius, it’s an objective truth and there’s no need to make it into a long conversation. I might be a little nuts.” –KM
“I was not a happy teenager; in fact, I was quite depressed. From ages 13-21 The Smiths were in very heavy rotation in my musical listening. I found The Smiths at point in my life when I really connected to their melancholy, post punk vibe. Despite how dark their songs are thematically, many felt like they still had somewhat hopeful quality to them. Their songs made me feel a little less crazy and a little bit more normal. Throughout high school I listened to The Smiths while studying, on the bus and subway, when hanging out in my bedroom, while spending too much time on online forums, and occasionally while making out with cute boys. The Smiths were in nearly constant rotation in those formative years. Later, during my undergraduate years, their songs came to represent a kind of familiar and nostalgic soundtrack to soothe frazzled nerves when pulling all-nighters. I still listen to their albums on occasion and never skip past a Smiths song if comes up on shuffle on my iPod.” –JT
“I have a really disgustingly personal relationship with The Smiths. I mean, they punched me right in the face when I was 12 and I haven’t stopped listening since. Morrissey held my hand figuratively and literally through high school and university. (I say literally because when I saw him live in 2012 he held my hand for like three seconds from the stage and I had a mental breakdown.) They are the dudes who are there when you get dumped, when you’re miserable with your job, sad about your friends, worried about your future. Albeit Morrissey isn’t very optimistic about these topics but he hits the nail on the head. I won’t say the Smiths are the reason I’m a vegan but Meat is Murder is a great anthem to yell at people. His little face is also inked permanently on my leg, can’t get more personal than that.” –DI
“As both a writer and musician myself, I switch back and forth constantly between being really absorbed in what Morrissey is doing (and being influenced by that) and what Johnny Marr is doing. I used to think I was all about their lyrics, to the point of just reading them on the page and reading interviews with Morrissey, and gradually they become more a nice addition to that incredible non-cliche music.” –JW
“Other than Morrissey being my secret boyfriend in jewels, The Smiths as a band have taken me on a journey through lyrical compassion and psychedelic chants. I would definitely include them as an influence on my own music.” –SS
“I’ve heard remarks on how “depressing” or how much of a “downer” The Smiths are, but personally, it’s a very different relationship. When I’m feeling a little blah, it’s one of those tastes of home. Some people have comfort food. I have comfort music. (That’s not to say it hasn’t gotten me over a bullshit relationship or two.)”–VEL
“I have gone through phases of listening to The Smiths on heavy rotation. And probably still listen to them at least once a day. I have a couple of slightly melancholy memories that are attached to Smiths songs, particularly “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” I also remember the first time I heard, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” I think that song solidified Morrissey’s brilliance for me. The way that song starts is incredible and really sets the tone for the entire song and in my opinion kind of captures the beauty of The Smiths. Sure Marr, Rourke and Joyce are brilliant in their own right, especially Marr, but it’s Morrissey’s melodic choices and changes through the song that really drive a Smiths song for me. His voice is the ultimate instrument in the band. That song may be the ultimate love song ever.” –RC
Their debut album turns 30 on February 20th. How does that make you feel?
“Old. Haha. But not as old as, say, someone with the Beatles being on Ed Sullivan 50 years ago. But I don’t feel old enough; I wish I could have experienced The Smiths as a young adult instead of long after they had broken up. It’s no surprise we’re still talking about them. They were legends, and Morrissey and Marr still are in their own rights.” –RJ
“Sometimes I watch old performances and wish I had been alive during their heyday to see them perform live and in the moment.” –KM
“That’s kind of hard thing to wrap my head around. Though I started listening to The Smiths 17 years after the release of their first album, their music was still an integral part of my adolescence. Even knowing that it’s been 13 years since I first heard them makes me feel old, though logically I know I’m not. It’s hard not to feel old when I have been listening to their music for exactly half of my life.” –JT
“It makes me feel incredibly proud! Isn’t it brilliant that they’re still relevant 30 years later? I’m all smiles thinking about it.” –DI
“That’s my age too, so it might make me feel old if I had discovered them earlier. I was always wonder if I would have been cool and in-the-know enough to know about some bands like The Smiths, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, if I were around at the same time they were. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been.”–JW
“It’s a fact of life. Age never should dictate quality. I’m fairly indifferent about it.”–VEL
“If I listened to them from a young age, I’d probably say it makes me feel old. However, since they’re still a fairly new discovery in my life, I’d say that it makes me feel good about music. They haven’t lost their relevance and their songwriting is more fresh and honest as most things you’d find today.” –RC
Anything else you want to say?
“I have no idea how Johnny Marr does what he does, and I’m fine with that. I think I know exactly how Morrissey does what he does (though it’s so so much easier said that done), but I’m still very glad he sat down and did it.” –JW
“I’ve really tried to get into Morrissey’s solo music but have never connected with it as much as with The Smiths. The only possible exception to that statement would be Irish Blood, English Heart.” –JT
“To end, I know The Smiths are sometimes over quoted and over done. People assume if you are a Smiths fan you’re a sad sack of shit. Which is true. But although Morrissey sees the cynicism in life, Marr’s riffs make me want to dance. Listening to The Smiths is like a game of tug-o-war. One end you have the sad, the other you have the happy. I could turn this into a cheesy metaphor about life but I’m not going to bother. I don’t especially care for anyone else’s opinion on what I like and what I listen to, especially when it comes to The Smiths. They are my own little self-help section-groove in my room by myself-combo.” –DI
“Meat is delicious. Shut up Morrissey.” –VEL
“I think that when it comes down to it, The Smiths songwriting, the Morrissey and Marr partnership for what it was at the time, will always stand up as brilliant. The ability to find humour in pain is an amazing thing, and their songs demonstrated that. Life is experiencing many feelings at one time, rather than one feeling at one time. Like their music, life is upbeat and down trodden, it is hilarious and it is sad, sarcastic and blunt, all at the same time, and I think that The Smiths exemplify that. Those are the reasons they will always be relevant to me.” –RC