Melody Maker, March 1985
TRIAL BY JURY
Interviewed by fanzine panel, Melody Maker, 16th March 1985
The following interview was conducted by a panel of fanzine writers including Dave Haslam from Debris, Tim Barlow from Eat Yourself Fitter, Rob Deacon from Abstract, Lesley O'Toole from Inside Out, Jon Story from Bucketful Of Brains, and Robert Watts from Running Order. With Melody Maker editor Allan Jones as acting chairman, the panel met at Rough Trade's London offices on Thursday, February 14, 1985. What happened next is what happens next...
RUNNING ORDER: Why have you decided to do this with fanzine writers?
We had lots of requests and it seemed really snotty to ignore them. It seems like lots of people felt that as soon as we began to chart and became big business, we would forget all our original ideals. And I get so many letters from people who are hysterical and frustrated and it seems that The Smiths are under so much pressure. The implications seems to be, 'When will The Smiths fall down? When will they forget everybody? When will they turn into some rigid, surfy pop group?' Which will never happen. And I get really tired of people suggesting it will... It seems that every single day I have to go before the courts and explain so many things. I think The Smiths are under a great deal of pressure. More pressure than any other group.
INSIDE OUT: Why?
I think probably because so many people had so much faith in us and because we live in such a bleak world people really believed that that faith couldn't really have been authentic and eventually the cloak would fall and The Smiths would turn into... well, something else...
IO: What is the greatest pressure on you?
There are so many. Where does one begin? Well... The Smiths seem to have a lot of critics and the greatest pressure I think is just fending them off. A lot of people don't give you the right to reply about many things and they come to assumptions. But this is just modern journalism.
IO: What about the pressure of being a hero to so many people?
I can take it, I can take it.
IO: I mean, you get all these letters from people saying, 'If you don't write back I'm going to commit suicide...'
Yes, it's difficult. We can snigger about it, but it's very difficult because it happens every day and what does one do? If you reply to these letters you become immediately involved and you become absolutely responsible which is a terrible thing. It's sad to me that so many people do think about suicide and so many people's lives are in a shambolic mess, but here we are...
DEBRIS: Why is it do you think that so many of your songs seem to deal with the adolescent experience, even the work on the new LP? I mean, you are getting older.
I am, indeed. But why... I think if most people sang or wrote words, that's what they'd sing about or write about. I'm not obsessed with it. It was something, as probably lots of people can gather, I didn't cope with too cleverly. So I do feel bitterness, but I'm not massively, incurably obsessed with it.
DEBRIS: Do you think you've made a myth out of the idea that adolescence is something special?
Well, I think it is special. It forms your opinions for the rest of your life. The very obvious things about adolescence really do shape your future. If you have a wonderful adolescence you go on to be a very assured person. But if you don't, you don't really have assurance. It's the stage I think you have to go through successfully and very ambitiously, otherwise you're in some trouble. That's my observation. I think we shouldn't really underestimate it.
EAT YOURSELF FITTER: Do you think now that you are successful you've merely traded one form of misery for another?
No, I don't think so. Virtually everything about the pop industry, I detest. I don't feel a part of it to any degree. But that's fine, because now we're becoming successful and I think it's very interesting that The Smiths can survive, nonetheless, even though we all feel this way. So that's quite unique. But I don't feel absolutely, entirely miserable. I would do if I couldn't do this.
IO: What is success for The Smiths?
It's just really the very obvious things like selling records and having some power, being in the situation where people really have to listen to you whether they want to or not. That's success and that's valuable. Everything else is just total nonsense, really.
DEBRIS: Did you all sit down and say to each other - 'What do we do to make the second LP avoid the pitfalls of the first?'
Yes, we did, and there was only one answer to that and that was to produce it ourselves and have control to the last detail, which didn't necessarily happen with the first LP... but, yeah, the whole idea with Meat Is Murder was to control it totally and without a producer things were better. We saw things clearer.
DEBRIS: What about musical aims - it seems a bit harder.
Yes, it does. And in a way that's intentional, because now that we have quite a big audience it's really important to me that people realise that we haven't become sloppy and we haven't become cushioned and we haven't become fat and lazy. Because we didn't want to go into the big league, as it were, and adhere to all the rules. That's pointless. It makes the entire history of The Smiths totally pointless. There has to be something that separates us. And to be quite honest, we are very angry. I mean, in very simple terms we are very, very angry. We're angry about the music industry. We're very angry about pop music. And I think it's about time that somebody said something and somebody did something that is of value. Which is always very difficult because when you try to say something with value and intelligence, you have to stand trial, you have to go before the jury, as it were, and explain yourself. People who are idiots and idiotic and bland and pointless and stupid and poppy - they can do what they like and nobody pins them against a wall and says, 'Why are you doing that?' But if you try and do something with a grain of intellect, you have to answer for it every single day of your life. Which to me is the most irksome part of the music industry. In a way, it means you are being taken seriously, but then as I recollect, it was always the very, very dull people in music who were ever taken seriously. So there's really a lot to do. It's not easy.
MELODY MAKER: What specific targets do you have for your anger?
Journalists, mainly. Well... Here we are in critical times, Allan, very critical times. But would we know it if we looked at popular music and what's being churned out by the old sausage machine? Would we know that we're in critical times? I mean, if some strange creature landed from another planet and checked out the hit parade, as it were, he or she would just presume that we're living in a life of absolute discofied jubilance - which, of course, is true in your case. There has to be a grain of realism.
MM: So you're saying that not enough music reflects the times in which we live?
Some music does, but sadly it's all in the independent chart, which, of course, is of no use to the masses because nobody hears the independent chart. It's of no practical value, whatsoever. There's no point being incredibly enlightened and incredibly aware if nobody can actually hear you. You do have to break through. And I think The Smiths are the first group in musical history to do that.
DEBRIS: How do you feel about your treatment by the national papers over the last year?
It's been wonderful and it's been atrocious. It's really impossible for me to have a very clear view of it, so I don't really know. A lot of it has made me really distressed, but it's really only made me distressed because I care so much, which is quite wrong. But I do care a great deal and I do get very distressed about vulgar comments. But it's worth it for the times when people actually really understand what you're doing.
MM: What about the general thesis that people, in times of crisis, actually want entertainment?
Well, I don't really know what entertainment is. I mean, when we say the word 'entertainment,' we think of Leslie Crowther - who's never entertained me - we think of The Price Is Right. The word entertainment doesn't really belong to any scientific language, does it? I don't think so. I mean, the things that entertained me in the past always horrified everybody else. So what does the question mean?
DEBRIS: This is going to be very pretentious...
You always are, Dave...
DEBRIS: ... but don't you think one of the things about our 'critical times' is that there is a gap between what is considered art and what is considered entertainment? In a way, a lot of things are shovelled off into so-called art and ignored, or shovelled off into entertainment and ignored, and, as you say, there's nothing really that is considered to bridge the two...
No... because I don't think most people believe that they can be bridged. Most people think that popular music is the lowest possible art form, and anything that happens in popular music really isn't important. If a character like Pete Burns existed within classical music it would be a world revelation, but because he doesn't, he's just there and he's very silly and he's very funny and he's very entertaining and ultimately he doesn't mean anything.
RUNNING ORDER: Did you ever get to meet him?
Yes. I think he's a wonderful person. He's one of the few people I can feel a great affinity with. Namely, because he says exactly what he wants to. Which, of course, is a national sin within music, especially considering the things he wants to say.
EYF: It's been fairly trendy to sort of scorn and mock Morrissey because you dwell on the unhappy side of life, but has this strengthened your resolve to provide an antidote to, like, Wham!?
It's fuel. It's really fuel for the old anger. I'm glad about it.
EYF: Is that what that track That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore is about?
Yes, it is. When I wrote the words for that, I was just so completely tired of all the same old journalistic questions and people trying, you know, this contest of wit, trying to drag me down and prove that I was a complete fake. And I was tired of that because it just seemed that, like, even the people within popular music, even the people within the music industry, didn't have that much faith in it as an art form. And they wanted to really get rid of all these people who are tyring to make some sense out of the whole thing. And I found that really distressing.
IO: Do you see yourself as a humorous writer at all?
Yes, I do. Nobody else does, I don't know why. And it's distressing because I often feel that if people don't consider me to be remotely humorous, who on earth do they consider to be humorous? So I do feel that I need some recognition in that area. But then again, knowing my luck, people will probably start comparing me to... um... it's so difficult to name names these days... you meet people at Top Of The Pops and they're incredibly civilised and it spoils everything, because you really want to get in some horrific criticism.
MM: Do you think that too much civility simply leads to hypocrisy because people aren't being totally honest about how they feel about each other?
I don't know if that's civility. You can meet people and they're terribly polite to you, but it's not really civility I don't think. I think it's something else. I think it's just a matter of being two-faced. But no... I'm all in favour of civility. I think we need a lot of civility. Buckets full of it.
EYF: Do you think old-fashioned virtues like courtesy have gone by the board?
I don't think that courtesy is really old-fashioned.
EYF: People would consider it as such.
Well, they shouldn't do. I think civility and common courtesy are really buried within everybody, but now we're in an age when people feel really embarrassed to be polite, and feel quite embarrassed to open doors for others. And I think that's sad, but it's only because I think that to be that courteous is considered to be quite weak and trivial.
DEBRIS: Don't you think that the tendency which has overtaken is the tendency towards violence?
Oh, completely, completely. But this is because, in my opinion, of nuclear weapons. Because it seems that ultimately, regardless of what happens in the world, the only way to solve our disagreements is by violence, is by nuclear weapons. And as long as we live in a world where nuclear weapons are the only answer, and the ultimate answer after conversation has failed, I think people will be violent.
DEBRIS: How explicit is the link between personal violence in the home - or 'Rusholme' - and institutionalised violence like the meat industry and war?
It's completely connected. It all weaves in and it's all kind of embroidered to make one overall foul image. From the time that you get hit when you're a child, as covered in a song called Barbarism Begins At Home, violence is the only answer. Conversation is pointless. And it continues through school. Certainly if you go to a working class school.
EYF: Are you equating human violence towards fellow humans - 'Barbarism,' The Headmaster Ritual - with violence towards animals? Are you saying it's all the same thing?
Yes, it is. Because violence towards animals, I think, is also linked to war. I think as long as human beings are so violent towards animals there will be war. It might sound absurd, but if you really think about the situation it all makes sense. Where there's this absolute lack of sensitivity where life is concerned, there will always be war. And, of course, there will always be war as long as there are people willing to fight wars in armies. Which is quite another matter, which I must cover one day on a B-side...
DEBRIS: Where did the image come from on the cover of the LP? That makes a link between war and, well, meat is murder.
Yes, it does. And the link is that I feel animal rights groups aren't making any dramatic headway because most of their methods are quite peaceable, excluding one or two things. It seems to me now that when you try to change things in a peaceable manner, you're actually wasting your time and you're laughed out of court. And it seems to me now that as the image of the LP hopefully illustrates, the only way that we can get rid of such things as the meat industry, and other things like nuclear weapons, is by really giving people a taste of their own medicine.
DEBRIS: To be more specific, where do you stand on an issue like the Greenham women? They are using peaceful methods.
Yes! And it's a total fiasco. It's failing. They're being kicked about, they're being thrown around, they're being laughed at, they're being shot. I think it should register in their minds that it's not actually working. Something else has to be done.
MM: Violence has to be met by violence?
Yes, it does. That's the tragedy. That's the massive tragedy of all these issues. It has to be, because of the present government, who can only think in violent terms. I wish it didn't. Personally, I'm an incurably peaceable character. But where does it get you? Nowhere. You have to be violent.
ABSTRACT: In that case, do you sympathize with the miners and the way they've been violent?
Completely. I mean, just endless sympathy. What can one say? It's more distressing than most people realise, I think. I think it's the end if they go down, the absolute end. And, of course, it just simply proves once again that democracy in this country doesn't exist in any form.
RO: Have you received much feedback from your comments in your last MM interview about the Brighton bombing?
Yes. I was hounded from pillar to post. Immediately after that, I went to Ireland and everytime I woke up there was some journalist sitting on the end of the bed - but we won't go into that. Yes, that was just the absolute rope around the old... ah... young neck, and I couldn't get away from that. It seemed almost as if I was responsible for the assassination of Thatcher.
IO: Do you regret anything you said?
No! I'll say it now and I'll say it louder and I'll say it any time you want me to say it.
MM: You believe in the idea of justified violence?
Yes, I do. Because the violence in this case is in order to preserve the rest of civilisation. It's not simply violence because one is bored because it's raining and one wants something to do. It's self-protection. It's either them or us, as it were. I mean, when it gets to the issue of life and death, you have to protect yourself, don't you?
DEBRIS: Do you think you change people's minds through music?
Yes. And I know that because people write to me, otherwise I wouldn't be aware of it... yes, it does seem to happen. It all comes down to the written word, I find. It all comes down to when people are alone in their bedrooms and they're actually listening to records and they're thinking about the words and then it seems to strike home with people...
BUCKETFUL OF BRAINS: Do you think they maybe use you as a crutch, because they can't sort out their problems for themselves?
Yes, I think so. But that shouldn't really be a shameful thing. In a very fundamental way, everybody needs friends and a lot of people don't have them. And a lot of people who buy records believe that the artists who make the records are their friends. They believe that they know these people, and they believe that they're actually involved in these people's lives and it's a comfort. We shouldn't have a condescending attitude to that.
DEBRIS: Are there any allies in your particular field of work - ie pop music - who you consider can help you?
No, I don't. I feel entirely alone. There are people that I like and there's people I admire, but I think ultimately we are alone. I really believe that, and I'm glad about that because not being a part of the major music industry makes massive sense.
RO: Are there advantages to being an outsider?
No. None whatsoever. It's a horrible life.
MM: What would your reaction have been if you'd been invited along to the Band Aid recording?
I think I would have read the letter at least 18 times and then I would have begun to think about it. If I had listened to the record beforehand, I wouldn't have done it because I think it's tuneless and I think that's really important. I mean, it's one thing to want to save lives in Ethiopia, but it's another thing to inflict so much torture on the British public. So for that reason, I absolutely disapprove. It's quite easy to sit here and agree and feel very passionate about the cause. Everybody does. But what about the record? Nobody's actually mentioned that foul disgusting thing.
MM: Would you prefer just to make your own statements on these various issues?
Yes, because I don't feel any alliance with people. We get numerous requests to do benefits, but although I believe in the causes, one has to look at the people involved. One has to look at the people who are in control and the way you're projected in this whole sphere. And I don't know them, so why should I really put faith in them ? I feel that whatever we have to say, we'll do it on our own, which is perfectly fine.
EYF: What do you think of the news of moves being made to parole Myra Hindley?
I think it's mildly laughable if the case itself weren't quite so serious. But I don't think it will ever happen. And if it ever happened she'd certainly regret it. So obviously I entirely oppose it, completely. I find it quite dramatic, though. She obviously believes she's somewhat of a film star. She wants to make a film. She wants to open an orphanage in Germany. I mean, the list of ambitions that she has is quite endless and I think when one simply scans the list of her ambitions it's really like a certificate of her total insanity. So we need go no further than that.
RO: Did you anticipate the reaction to Suffer Little Children ?
Yes, I did. Yes, I did anticipate it - and when it arrived, I wasn't ready for it in the least. I was quite confused. I was very distressed by that but I was only distressed because nobody would actually let me comment on it. It appeared in national newspapers the length and breadth of the country - Morrissey does this and Morrissey says that and Morrissey believes... and nobody asked me a thing. Nobody knew what I believed or why the lyrics were there. So that was the only distressing element. But I'm glad the record got attention, ultimately.
MM: Were you alarmed at the way the sentiments of the song, the basic concept, the basic sympathies of the song were so disfigured?
Well, this is the world we live in. It's not a reflection of me, it really reflects the absolute and barbaric attitudes of the daily press and so I don't really feel that I was in the dock, I feel that they were really. And in essence they were just really saying how narrow-minded and blunderous they were. Some of the reports in newspapers in Portsmouth and Hartlepool - all the places that really count - some of the reports were so full of hate, it was like I was one of the Moors Murderers, that I'd gone out and murdered these children. Some of them were so full of hate that one just had to do something, but not read them. It was incredible.
MM: Do you think this is the price any writer or musician will have to pay for dealing with such bitterly sensitive subjects?
It is, but the sad fact is that I don't think many other artists will actually be in that situation. Because when one considers the standard of writing in popular music, it's largely unlikely that anybody will be subjected to that. As before, the people who are saying strong things have no audience. They're in the independent market, they're not in the top 40, so it doesn't matter. I wish it did, but it doesn't.
MM: So you see yourself in an increasingly unique position: you have a large audience to whom you can address these concerns and you're going to be noticed - has this made you nervous at all about tackling subjects so straightforwardly?
No! It hasn't made me nervous because I'm so dedicated and I'm really prepared to go down with the ship, whatever happens. And I'm prepared to risk everything because I don't have anything else. This is all that I have and this is all that I am, and all those very dramatic statements... but it's absolutely true. So, if somebody from the Daily Mail comes along and shoots me, that's the way it has to be. I'll die defending what I say.
IO: Is there a danger that you're abusing your position as a public figure and turning into a preacher?
No, because everybody on a public platform is a preacher. But most people preach absolute monotony and it's accepted, but, because I like to feel in an absolutely misguided way that I don't, everybody sticks their pins in me. Which is incredibly painful.
RO: Changing tack slightly, do you find now that, like with the songs on the new LP, people are aware of the subject matter before they've heard the songs - like The Headmaster Ritual and How Soon Is Now ? for instance?
I can't really see how they can be aware of it.
RO: Is it not on your mind at all?
No, not really. I think there's a familiarity now which wasn't there before, because we hadn't made any records. But I don't really see how people can be aware completely, not really. I mean, I never felt any embarrassment about writing about school... I know it's been done before and it's been done very badly, but that didn't put me off. I still have things to say.
RO: The newer songs sound more straightforward - do you agree, and is that due to being misquoted and misinterpreted?
I agree with it, I do agree with it, because I don't necessarily want to be ambiguous because when you're ambiguous I feel people don't really grasp what you're on about. So that's quite defeatist, really. The whole intention really is to be as crystal clear as possible.
MM: Several of the songs on the new LP seem to have a much more direct and stronger narrative line than on the first LP...
Yes, they do. That's certainly there. I didn't really have any intention of being misunderstood with the words on this LP. A lot of people wrote about the first LP and they said things that were very poetic and very interesting and absolutely inaccurate. So I just felt that on this LP people should really know which hammer I'm trying to nail, as it were.
RO: Sorry to seem obscure, but you did once refer to a track called 'Father And Son'. Did that emerge as How Soon Is Now ? ?
No. It hasn't emerged. It's about to emerge, and I'm sure it will change your life.
EYF: Did you get beaten by masters at school?
Yes. I wasn't really on the hit list, I wasn't one of those people who were dragged out every single day, but I found that I was certainly in the running for that. I always found that I was hit and beaten for totally pointless reasons, which is what I'm sure every pupil would say. But I think in my case I demand special consideration...
MM: So to what extent are we to take these songs as autobiography as opposed to social observations?
I think they'll always be autobiography, and when the day arrives where I can't write in that sense or I'm drained, I'll just step down. I won't go on. There's nothing worse, really, than the writer, the singer, who's outlived their usefulness and who've really drained their diaries, as it were. Which I still haven't done. There's nothing more embarrassing and pointless and sad than that. So when I've drained the resources, I will step down, much to the relief, I'm sure, of the British public.
DEBRIS: Do you consider yourself to be an ordinary or an extraordinary person?
I'm probably extraordinary.
DEBRIS: And yet a lot of ordinary people can feel great affinity with things that you write.
That's because probably everybody's extraordinary and the minority of people in this world are very ordinary.
EYF: What's behind the fierce outspokenness against the work ethic in your lyrics?
The realities of work, I think. The realities of being in a situation where you can't choose your employment, which is an awful way to be when you don't have any skills and you have to take what's dished out, take what's available. There's nothing worse in life than having no choice, I think. And this is tolerable, I think, in all areas except unemployment. When you have to take a job, even if it's a job you can mildly stomach, if you have to take it and you have no choice, merely the fact that you have no choice crushes your enthusiasm for doing the job.
EYF: Did your parents cram the work ethic down your throat when you were a child and so you are rebelling against that?
No. I lived with my mother, who didn't. She let me do what I wanted to do. She gave me absolutely full rein to be what I wanted to be, and that was very helpful. But, no... as a direct result of not wanting to take anything, I didn't work for years and years and years...
EYF: So your mother doesn't really resent your observations on your background?
To this day, she's completely behind everything I say.
MM: Does she recognise the things that you write about?
Completely. She dissects them, she completely dissects everything that happens. She reads every single interview. She produces long monologues... she's very, very much involved in what I do. And her's is the only opinion that I really take remotely seriously. So it's quite treasurable.
RO: Were you being slightly flippant when you said your love songs were written from total guesswork?
No, I was being absolutely serious. Which isn't really funny.
RO: Where did a song like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle come from?
Well, that comes from a relationship I had that didn't really involve romance. So if we're talking about romance, well, I don't really know that much about it. But in other things, I'm quite capable of making an observation.
RO: An observation, in the way that Girl Afraid seems to be...
Yes. I think Girl Afraid simply implied that even within relationships, there's no real certainty and nobody knows how anybody feels. People feel that just simply because they're having this cemented communion with another person that the two of you will become whole, which is something I detested. I hate that, that implication. It's not true, anyway. Ultimately, you're on your own, whatever happens in life, however you go through life. You die on your own. You have to go to the dentist on your own. It's like all the serious things in life are things that you feel on your own.
RO: Is the problem in relationships largely one of being inarticulate?
Totally, yes. Totally. Which stems from... I seem to have an answer for everything, I know... but it really does stem from the society that we live in where the real things, the things that count, you're supposed to suppress...
IO: Did you ever make a conscious effort not to write about love?
Yes, I think so.
IO: Do you think it's trivialised by other people?
Completely, yes. It's just one dimensional. They see it in a very flimsy way. In a way that's always perfect, whatever happens. Even when it's doomed and it fails, there's always some curious perfection to it. Like in a Lionel Ritchie video...
DEBRIS: How closely do you analyse your motives for doing things?
Too closely. To a dramatic fault, really. I'll just have to stop and get a sun tan and false teeth.
BOB: You're about to embark on a massive tour - what have you learned from previous experiences to avoid?
Touring's interesting because it's fascinating to me to meet people. That sounds silly, but unless we actually tour we don't actually meet the people who buy our records. Which is strange. You can have a hit record, or whatever, and loads of people can buy your records, but you don't actually meet them. And I never meet Smiths' apostles ever - so it's only by touring that I can actually come face to face with these people.
BOB: Is that not one of the instances where you could use violence?
Well, it is... but when you're just under six foot, you decide to retreat. It's the only thing. The next LP is called 'Retreat!', actually...
BOB: Talking of the future...
No, no, no, no, no... let's not talk about the future.
BOB: Well, talking about the present, do you expect to take a single off the LP?
The next single is called Shakespeare's Sister, a brand new track, and it's obviously not a track from the new LP. But I feel quite edgy because something from the LP should be released because I think they're too good to be buried.
IO: Do you think that everyone should listen to The Smiths?
Well, I've not yet discovered a reason why they shouldn't.
IO: But earlier, you were saying that people should have a choice...
(with a final mischievous flourish) Well... in some cases they should. But it is nice to dictate occasionally.