Rewind: The Smiths Revisited

Were eighties Manchester legends The Smiths the most important British band of the last 30 years? 

Although bands like The Stone RosesOasisBlur and the Arctic Monkeys can all justifiably stake a claim to that title, it is significant that all of these bands have cited The Smiths as a formative influence, writes Paul Page.

The Smiths Band, Music website Between the Bars

The Smiths were a truly ground-breaking act – in the vapid world of eighties pop, they were peerless; an almost alien presence in the British charts. They were the antithesis of the Club Tropicana escapism of bands like Wham and Duran Duran; they appealed to an audience that up until that point had found nothing in pop music that reflected their daily reality in any real or meaningful way. The Smiths spoke to their audience in a way that stirred an almost religious fervour – the BBC once described them as “the band that inspired deeper devotion than any British group since The Beatles”. They seemed to strike a chord with people who felt isolated, alienated and disenchanted in eighties Britain, where unemployment was rife, and the right wing Thatcher government offered cold comfort to those on the margins of society.

In Morrissey and Marr, they had the most talented British song-writing duo since Lennon andMcCartney, a prolific partnership that yielded five albums (including early compilation ‘Hatful of Hollow’) and eighteen singles between 1983 and 1987. Steven Patrick Morrissey was truly unique – a remarkably gifted lyricist, quite unlike anything we had seen before or for that matter, since. His meeting with the most talented guitarist of his generation Johnny Marr now seems like one of those seminal, fated moments in pop history, and with drummer Mike Joyce and bass player Andy Rourke, these four musicians with strong Irish roots went on to change the landscape of British pop music forever.

When Johnny Marr walked away from the band in 1987, it precipitated a bitterly divisive legal wrangle that almost certainly ensures that this is one band that will never jump on the gravy train of reforming bands desperate to make a quick buck. Over the years, there has been talk of lucrative offers to reform but Morrissey’s declaration in 2006 that “I would rather eat my own testicles than reform The Smiths, and that’s saying something for a vegetarian….” seems pretty definitive. Their legacy lives on to this day, in the remarkable body of albums and singles they left behind.
Here we take a look at the legacy of the Smiths, the albums that continue to captivate a new generation of music fans.

The Smiths (1984)

By the time The Smiths released their debut album in early 1984, their genius had been revealed. ‘Hand in Glove’, ‘This Charming Man’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make’ made for a stunning trio of singles and announced the Smiths as a seriously talented outfit, with radio DJ John Peel a notable early advocate. Their self-titled debut album released in early 1984 was let down a little by the flat sounding production but it still contained some of the Smiths best loved songs in their canon.

 

It was also the beginning of the bands fraught relationship with the British tabloids; the song ‘Suffer Little Children’ catapulted the band into a storm of controversy. A tabloid led frenzy of outrage ensued when the papers cottoned on to the fact the song was about the Moors murders, a subject that was still very raw in the North of England at that time. Fortunately, the controversy didn’t blind critics or fans alike to the fact that this was a debut to rank up there with the very best.

Hatful of Hollow (1984)

By the end of 1984, the band took the unusual step of releasing a compilation album of singles, b-sides and radio sessions hot on the heels of their debut release. Hatful of Hollow illustrates the extraordinarily prolific nature of the band in their early years – what is even more incredible is the fact that this was no odds and sods release – the album hangs together as a cohesive body of work of startling originality and creativity. Morrissey and Marr were writing songs of such quality that some of the bands most revered songs appeared as b-sides first time around.

The epic ‘How Soon is Now?’ first appeared as the b-side to ‘William It was Really Nothing’ – both songs are included on Hatful Of Hollow. Another b-side included here, ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ remains one of the most beautiful songs that Morrissey and Marr even penned, while the tongue in cheek classic ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ features here also. As a starting point for new fans, ‘Hatful of Hollow’ is a perfect distillation of what the Smiths were all about at that time.

Meat is Murder (1985)

As a measure of the bands confidence and growing stature on the music scene, the release of Meat Is Murder in early 1985 was some statement. Their third album release in just twelve months, Meat Is Murder was Morrissey at his most caustic and confrontational; nobody was safe with the education system, meat eaters and the thug culture of his youth all coming in for withering attacks.

The seven minute quasi funk workout that is ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’ made slap bass fashionable for a brief moment, while the utterly gorgeous ‘Well I Wonder’ showed a more tender side to the band. ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ featured Johnny Marr at his most sublimely inventive on guitar but it was the title track with its strident pro-vegetarian message that confronted Smiths fans with the notion that the Smiths were more than just a band – they were now almost a lifestyle choice.

The Queen is Dead (1986)

The Queen is Dead, released in June 1986, is considered by many to be the bands finest album. It peaked at number 2 in the British charts and contains two of best songs the band ever recorded. ‘The Boy With the Thorn In his Side’ and ‘There Is a Light and It Never Goes Out’ would feature in many fans Top Ten Smiths songs, and by now, the band were one of the biggest draws on the live circuit.

They had the world at their feet but behind the scenes, cracks were beginning to appear. The band were in dispute with their label Rough Trade, Johnny Marr was beginning to feel the pressure that came with shouldering most of the responsibility for the bands business affairs as Morrissey began to behave more and more erratically and became almost impossible to deal with. Bass player Rourke was fired from the band because of an alleged heroin habit and yet despite all of this, the band followed up this album with two killer singles, ‘Panic’ and ‘Ask’, later that very same year. The Queen Is Dead is rightly revered as one of the bands best albums, but there is a sense that had they stopped for a break just after its release, the ensuing split might have been avoided.

 

 

Strangeways Here We Come (1987)

Strangeways Here We Come, released in September 1987 is a bittersweet affair. It was released in the wake of the official announcement that the band had split, and although not their finest hour, it shows that this was a band still at the peak of their considerable powers. ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ was The Smiths at their most melodramatic; ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’ does exactly what the title suggests, showing as it does Morrissey’s obvious distaste for the machinations of the music industry while ‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’ shows a new found Marc Bolan-like glam rock side to the band.

As good as it is, ‘Strangeways….’is the sound of a band beginning to fracture –Marr was starting to exhibit guitar hero inclinations while the clever Morrissey witticisms that were such a feature of early releases were thinner on the ground on this record, as the obvious stresses behind the scenes began to take their toll. Listening to it now, it is hard to avoid the tantalising thought of what might have come next had they made it through this fraught period.

The Smiths: Ten of the Best

1. How Soon Is Now
2. What Difference Does it Make
3. This Charming Man
4. There Is a Light and it Never Goes Out
5. Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
6. Half A Person
7. Panic
8. Well I Wonder
9. Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
10. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side

The Smiths – How Soon Is Now