Creem, July 1987
Andy Hughes, Creem, July 1987
IWhen you come to interview a man who personifies the term "English" in the way that (Stephen) [sic] Morrissey of the Smiths does, it's no surprise that tea is served early in the proceedings.
"You do take milk, I presume?" inquires Morrissey ("No one has called me Stephen for a very long time."). "And if you do take sugar, I'm afraid you'll have to leave the room." Couldn't I sneak a couple of hits while you avert your eyes, I wonder.
"I spend most of my life averting my eyes," intones Morrissey, solemnly, as the twinkle in his own negates the seriousness of the moment. It's a sort of test. I think I passed.
It's this kind of quirky, off-beat Englishness that Morrissey brings to life in the Smiths that has made them a massive world-wide success, with hit singles in every country except the U.S.A. Why don't the Smiths have hit singles in America? Because their record company doesn't release their singles in America. But, hopefully, all that is about to change.
Some time ago, American music lovers switched on to Morrissey's unique diary style, which he uses to chronicle the angst of every world citizen. But it's only recently that Sire, The Smiths' American record label, has tuned into the potential mega-units the band can sell in that country - based on the Rough Trade singles from Britain that move so well in U.S. import stores. Sire has released the double album Louder Than Bombs in an effort to seep up these consistently healthy import sales. Meanwhile, the Smiths are in a British studio where their next vinyl opus is taking shape. For this release, they're leaving Rough Trade for Britain's EMI... and the considerable benefits of major label attention, not the least of which is an advance of between two and six million dollars, depending on which story you believe.
The debate concerning the ethics of big record labels swallowing the offspring of the independent labels in the U.K. is far too involved (to say nothing of being utterly pointless) to sidetrack Morrissey as we sip our tea in the elegantly appointed lounge of the studio where the Smiths are recording. Still, with a major label behind them in Britain and the band hopefully about to become an American hit singles band, Morrissey appears to have watched the dictation of what President Reagan would call "market forces" with some amusement.
"There is a great bulk of unreleased Smith material which has been consistently rejected by our record company in America," he says. "They've released the studio albums, but not the Hatful Of Hollow collection. I think if they had released singles simultaneously in America and the UK, the picture could have been a lot rosier."
That may be, but even as an "import" attraction, the Smiths' picture is far from fuzzy in America. And Morrissey knows this well.
"It never ceases to amaze me how Smiths fans in America feverishly collect everything they can get their hands on. They have to wait. They have to queue up. They have to sell their mothers - but they do it."
You'd think that such rabid American fandom would have meant American release from single one onwards.
"This keeps me awake every night of the week," Morrissey reckons with that earnest expression that once again makes me wonder just how seriously he means it. "The records were sold by Rough Trade in America. Sire didn't organize distribution. They probably didn't even know it was going on. They do now, though. Hence, the release of Louder Than Bombs'."
Doesn't that make you angry?
"Not angry, no. I think the record company was short-sighted. The Smiths could have had a hit single in the U.S. by now. I find it very hard to believe that they continually checked the material, and said, 'No, that's not right.' It's hard to believe that How Soon Is Now ? was not a hit. I thought that was the one - and there have been others. I think the record company's atitude was The Smiths are a cast-iron immovable albums band, and that's how they'll stay, and that's how they'll grow. I think that's a shame. I like singles. We've had hit singles in every country in the world, except the U.S., where we have a massive following. It's confusing."
True, it is confusing. In certain areas, the Smiths are a huge concert attraction, often outselling acts with major action in the American charts. Would Morrissey care to name a few names here?
"Well, I can, but I don't want to sound bitter or twisted. An example might be A-ha, whom I happen to like a great deal. On the last tour, we were doing two shows, as they were cancelling their one show because they couldn't fill the auditorium. And yet a look at the charts showed them with a single at number two and an album at number nine."
So it would seem that all that's missing for The Smiths in America are a few hit singles, such as a few of the cuts that can be pulled off Louder Than Bombs. Surely, that must be the idea?
"In a sane world, yes. But I wouldn't like to speak for record companies." That is Morrissey's closing remark on the subject, delivered, as usual, with a solemn tone and twinkling eye.
Like the person in one of his best songs, Morrissey is a veritable "charming man," a refreshing discovery after the misconceptions delivered by certain music writers who've crossed his path. It's not that he's difficult, simply that Morrissey doesn't enjoy people who aren't genuinely interested in The Smiths and their music. Inquiring, as one journalist did, why he chose to use a picture of Elvis Costello (rather than Presley) on a record sleeve, or wondering what happened to the flowers he used to distribute at early gigs, are guaranteed to turn him from a warm and articulate conversationalist into a frosty mannequin incapable of saying anything but "Ummm," "Aaaaah" and "Maybe." The Smiths are quite fortunate in having him as spokesman, while tuneSmith Johnny Marr - who, as we speak, is busy recording a new song in the depths of the building - is equally able to turn out a witty phrase and a thoughtful observation. But a media man, Morrissey is not.
"And happy to not be so!" he affirms with a laugh. "I was starting to become one around 1984 when I would do anything to gain some ground for The Smiths. I did hundreds of interviews then, but I soon decided that wasn't the way I wanted to live my life."
Adjustments followed. Morrissey now carefully chooses his interviews. And the visual side of The Smiths is an area he is happy to ignore. Indeed, he takes pains to ensure that it exists as little as possible. Photographs are carefully worked out, and off-the-cuff snap situations are out of the question. Morrissey is not a man to be caught unaware. This also insures that The Smiths delete that most major of all '80's rock 'n' roll promotional devices: that is, the Smiths won't (gasp!) make videos.
"I don't even use the word 'video,'" he confirms with an expression that makes me wonder if he's found a cigarette butt in the bottom of his tea cup. "Sometimes it will slip out, but I prefer to say 'film' or 'promotional device.' Anything we've done has been under extreme pressure from Rough Trade when they've been desperate to hand something to Germany or Holland. I liked the film for Panic that was made by Derek Jarman. It had a nice intensity about it. But the others... I wake up in the middle of the night biting my pillow in frustration at their very existence."
Can this be? A band on the threshold of major media coverage in America - the mighty promotional machine poised and ready for action - and this Smiths fella's trying to say they won't be doing any videos? He must be kidding. People expect videos in 1987!
"Well, they shouldn't," is Morrissey's disarmingly simple solution to an MTV programmer's worst nightmare.
"It's obvious that video is never going to work for The Smiths. I totally and utterly despise video, more now than I ever did. It's totally vacuous and uninteresting. I love music. We all do, and we listen to it constantly. But whenever I see a group I like in a film, I always end up thinking, 'Such a shame, they look so silly...'"
Actually, Morrissey has a point. I saw the vid... uh, promotional item for an early Smiths' release, and he's quite right. It'll never work for The Smiths.
But are they worried? Of course not. We're talking about a band that made huge inroads into the American national consciousness without radio play - a feat which made a lack of MTV coverage seem like an oil leak in J.R. Ewing's Cadillac. Morrissey pours more tea, settles back, and explains.
"We did have the support of the college radio stations for a while, but I've never, ever heard the Smiths on a network station - and I've been to America many, many times. I have heard our records on daytime television soap operas during two separate occasions. Maybe that is more important (in America). I don't know. As a result, we were very surprised at the live reaction we got the first time we toured the States in 1985. We were amazed at the size of the venues we could play. And when we came back in 1986, we were doing two nights in some venues that we considered very large, 10 to 15 thousand people."
By British standards, that is large. In the U.K., a top chart act will be delighted to fill an average concert venue that holds two-and-a-half thousand people. Mega-stars will sigh with relief if "Sold Out" signs adorn a 12,000 seat hall. This makes The Smiths very big cheese, indeed, a fact that is studiously ignored by the British music press who prefer to debate the ethics of leaving a street-credible independent label for the evil capitalist advances of a major deal. Meanwhile, The Smiths repeat their success formula from the UK, across the pond in the States: heavy on the worthwhile, limited radio exposure; laid-back on the heavyweight press analysis. Oh, yeah, and a live reaction that knocks spots off of most minstrels tapping out a tune these days.
"The atmosphere has been frighteningly hysterical sometimes," Morrissey ruefully recalls. "There have been riots. I've been dragged into orchestra pits and the stage set has been destroyed. And that was on our first American tour! I think it's just people having a good time, and they've never intended any serious harm. We've broken through in America with records and radio sessions the same way we did in England. People hear our music before they read any blurb in the music press, so it's just people reacting to our records. It's obvious that The Smiths could never be promoted in that typical slaggy way."
Riots? Morrissey being manhandled by rabid Smithies? As someone who saw them on their first British tour, watching Morrissey handout flowers from a three-foot high stage to rows of static, open-mouthed believers, I can only wonder and shift my imagination into overdrive.
Of course, that was then, but this is now. There have been riots in England, too. One tabloid scandal sheet wanted to underline the faint but persistent buzz of scandal that follows Morrissey's more pugnant views by insisting that the crowd who yanked him offstage at one concert were outraged supporters of the Royal Family who found themselves unable to cope with the presence of a man who'd have the audacity to name an LP The Queen Is Dead. Morrissey lends no credence to that sort of hysterical crap by discussing it at length, but it must point to the possibility that, somewhere along the way, the Moral Majority and PMRC will probably be sticking their septic noses into a Smiths' lyric sheet. Morrissey isn't worried.
"It could get me into trouble. No doubt there is someone out there waiting for The Smiths to blow into their town. I've never been aware that any of my lyrics are controversial. But in the morbidly barren world of pop music, they tend to stick out, so journalists get excited and want to turn what is essentially a statement into a campaign. A journalist's life must be so mundane - think about the people you have to interview - so when I come along with something mildly pointed, it becomes a movement. Which it was never meant to be, and, in fact, never was."
Thought for the day: what will those same journalists make of an album title like Louder Than Bombs ? Or even The Smiths' next studio LP, which I'm reliably informed will be called Strangeways, Here We Come ? Well, be the first on your block with at least part of the scam. When the local stiffneck starts foaming at the mouth over yet another subversive pop act, you can coolly clue in that honcho that "Strangeways" is the name of a large prison in the Smiths' hometown of Manchester, England. Any other interpretation is left up to the individual. That should give you a good 10 points on the underdog-music-genius justification scale. But if the gates of commercial success really open the way I believe they will, you won't need to stick out your neck at all. The Smiths will be a household name, no matter what they call the next record.
Of course, it's just my neck that's being stuck out here. I ask Morrissey to join me on a projected ego trip, fueled by the satisfaction of major talent realized at long last. He simply smiles and is called away to add some vocals to a new track. Somewhere down the hall, The Smiths' genius rolls on and on.
I'm left to smile and collect the tea cups of this charming man.