by Rob Stimpson
In the summer of 1987 The Smiths, the most important and relevant British group of the 1980s, disbanded after guitarist Johnny Marr walked away from a group fractured by in-fighting, paranoia and jealousy. Foolishly, Morrissey, the bands enigmatic, problematic lead singer, attempted to replace Marr, his song-writing partner and one time dearest friend, but soon realised that The Smiths were already a sunken ship. The summer of 2012 marks the passing of twenty five years since the band’s split. Twenty five years is a long time in any walk of life, but in the fickle, ever-changing world of the music industry, it is an eternity. Despite this, though, the songs, and legacy, of The Smiths are as dynamic and important now as they have ever been.
The story of The Smiths has been covered a seemingly infinite number of times. An incredibly gifted, yet frustrated guitarist fed up of not progressing with his desire to form a successful band approaches a reclusive, allusive outcast who writes songs, and who is similarly frustrated with not only his lack of success in the world of music, but his lack of success in most aspects of life, and asks him if he wants to form a band. The pairing of Morrissey and Marr is formed, and they would go onto become the most significant British song-writing duo since Lennon and McCartney, and with the recruitment of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce on bass and drums, respectively, The Smiths emerged from a grim Mancunian environment intent on changing the glittering and fake musical mien that lay before them.
In their five short years of productivity, The Smiths released four studio albums and a number of stand-alone singles, the unnerving quality of which is something that, in today’s clamouring for unceasing success, artists can only dream of; and yet, the biggest conundrum surrounding The Smiths is that despite the passion and fervour of their loyal fan base, they are perhaps the most underappreciated and misunderstood band to ever plug in and play. A slew of bands and performers have since cited The Smiths as key influences behind their formation and style, including the Gallagher brothers, Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker, artists who all became internationally renowned musicians, and commercially successful ones, at that. Yet, The Smiths always remained the outsiders; still on the periphery, still cult.
It would seem that only now is the music of The Smiths reaching the wider audience that it so merits. The appearance of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out and Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want in the film (500) Days Of Summer brought exposure to an audience not inclined to seek out 1980s British indie music. Even the latter songs appearance in a now infamous John Lewis Christmas advert as covered by Slow Moving Millie still created publicity and hype for the band on an unusually large scale.
The reasons for such slow, and still terribly insignificant, praise for The Smiths are rooted in the unfortunate, unwarranted reputation that the band carry for being miserable. Music is about opinions, and no one’s tastes can ever be wrong, as such, but it is not pushing the boundaries of condescension to suggest that those who hastily write off The Smiths as miserable are perhaps somewhat ignorant of the point at hand. On the television show Seven Ages Of Rock, Johnny Marr noted that with a song called Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now the band should have seen the negative reaction coming; but a title is one thing, the content of the song is quite another.
The songs speak for themselves. Any attempt at simply listing the bands best efforts results in a long, rambling list of blithering proportions. Any straight faced attempt at pigeon-holing the entire back catalogue of the band as miserable is an incredibly lazy form of criticism, for the main asset in The Smiths arsenal is the incredible range of subject matters that are tackled; everything from the ease of turning a blind eye in moral situations (Death Of A Disco Dancer) to an ode to plagiarism (Cemetry Gates [sic]), and from an account of an eventful night at the fair (Rusholme Ruffians) to biting social commentary attacking religion and the royal family (The Queen Is Dead); and not forgetting songs about shoplifting, the idiocy of a hooligan, Manchester schools and vicars in tutus. Of course, there are the songs about heartbreak, isolation and insecurity. These are the songs that constitute The Smiths’ image and reputation on a wider social scale. Songs about such subjects are rarely uplifting, but they have rarely been made as poignant and poetic as How Soon Is Now?, I Know It’s Over or Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.
Regardless of the subject at hand, the lyrics were always crafted with a subtle hand, not ramming the point home in the presumption that the listener has no imagination or input into the imagery. In a contemporary world where Bruno Mars can send people into raptures by singing the stale serenade ‘is it the look in your eyes, or is it this dancing juice?, Who cares baby, I think I want to marry you’; or where Nicki Minaj can splutter ‘you a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe’ ad infinitum, and any number of identikit Topman and Topshop mannequins are carefully pieced together to form a beautiful looking canvas, but whose music is even less interesting than watching that paint dry; ‘the senses being dulled are mine’, indeed. Much like a group of four very normal looking men taking to the stage on Top Of The Pops in 1983, three of whom were dressed in jumpers and jeans, and the other one swinging around a bouquet of gladioli instead of miming into a microphone, blowing away the stale, sanitised pop acts scattered around them, the current music landscape is screaming out for a band to sing songs about us, not overly sentimental clichés aimed at what record executives think people want to hear– ‘it says nothing to me about my life.’
The greatest gift that Morrissey possessed in his years with The Smiths was his ability to present the strains and stresses of the masses, the stories of our lives, in the form of poetry. To have such seemingly benign and ordinary situations articulated so astutely, and accompanied by beautifully structured melodies is in no way the seeking out of misery but one the grandest forms of life affirmation that is possible. If Morrissey and Marr can build a song so beautiful about such a universal feeling as the sadness of loving someone who is in love with somebody else, then the possibilities for creating art from the lives of ordinary people are endless, and that in itself is a joy to behold.
Therein lays the key element of the importance of The Smiths, their music, and why they are needed now more than ever. The art of creating music should inspire those that listen to it to strive for a similar level of creativity, or to at least replicate the beauty and euphoria that it creates within them in their everyday life. It should not be about wondering who is the best looking member of a band, who has the most outrageous stage appearance and who has the most appeal for certain demographics. That is not what music is about; music is the expression of emotion and experience by the person or persons performing the song, and very few have ever performed this as simply, and as fantastically, as The Smiths