Melody Maker, September 1987
GOODBYE, CRUEL WORLD
Gary Leboff, Melody Maker, 26th September 1987
Strangeways, Here We Come is the last album we will hear from The Smiths, following Morrissey's dramatic decision to end the group's career after the departure of Johnny Marr. Gary Leboff spoke to Morrissey shortly after the album was completed and found him already counting the days to the band's inevitable demise.
Why "Strangeways, Here We Come"?
"Because the way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised if I was in prison 12 months from now. Really it's me throwing both arms up to the skies and yelling 'whatever next ?'. Strangeways, of course, is that hideous Victorian monstrosity of a prison operating 88 to a cell. I don't have any particular crimes in mind but it's so easy to be a criminal nowadays that I wouldn't have to look very far. Life is so odd that I'm sure I could manage it without too much difficulty."
How does the new album differ from its predecessors?
"Strangeways perfects every lyrical and musical notion The Smiths have ever had. It isn't dramatically, obsessively different in any way and I'm quite glad it isn't because I've been happy with the structure we've had until now. It's far and away the best record we've ever made."
What do you see as the high points?
"There are so many I wouldn't know where to start. Anyway - isn't it your job to work those out?"
I've only heard the album a couple of times - what if I bribe you to give me some clues with part of my meagre pay for this piece?
"It's true I could do with the money, but... I think not."
If Strangeways is the perfect Smiths album, where do the band go from here?
"I expect when the dust has settled after Strangeways there will have to be some degree of rethinking because we can't go on forever in our present form. Inevitably certain aspects of the band would become tarnished so a slight readjustment will have to be made - I think now is absolutely the right time to do it. When something becomes too easy and it's all laid out for you, one is robbed of the joy of achievement. When there's no need to fight any more, it'll be time to pull up the shutters on The Smiths. I don't think EMI have much to worry about - we're not planning anything drastic or supernatural - we'll still basically [?] people. It has crossed my mind to crystallise into a butterfly now and then but I don't think it's quite the right time at the moment."
Which other "objects" would you quite like to be?
"There isn't that much choice - being a tree might be nice but I'd still want to retain some control over my own destiny - which rules out becoming a bollard. I can't say I've ever felt particularly human anyway."
Is it true that every record company in the land was queueing up to sign The Smiths? And why EMI?
"As far as I know every record company wanted to TALK to us, but not really to offer us anything spectacular. EMI gave us a very concrete offer and at such times, when you just want to get the whole thing over with, one tends to lose a certain amount of rationale and the whole experience becomes very draining and emotional. EMI made us the best offer, so we signed. All this talk of £1 million signing-on fees is complete fabrication - it's a nice idea - in fact it's a VERY nice idea - but all complete fiction. I really can't tolerate the trite attitude that's surrounded The Smiths signing to EMI - the concept that it's like getting into bed with Hitler is pathetic. The indie scene in England is very negative - groups within the indie movement come and go and you never even hear about them. They're never on TV, never on daytime radio - half the time I've no idea why the independent movement bothers to exist. They seem to regard remaining isolated from the pop mainstream as being somehow morally virtuous - it's just so self-destructive. No one even knows about these ethically wonderful songs, made by these people with tremendous moral strength and willpower, so what's the point? I truly believe that to make any impact at all you have to get into the big, bad world of major record companies, ruffle a lot of feathers and kick a lot of bottoms."
How important a consideration in making the decision to switch record companies was The Smiths relative failure in the singles chart?
"Why do you think The Smiths have yet to reach the Top 5?"
Every night, as I climb into bed, that's the very question I ask myself.
"The main problem seems to be that we're not exactly overburdened with airplay and don't receive nearly the number of invitations to appear on TV that our chart status would seem to merit. The record industry regards The Smiths as a private concern - we exist in our own world, selling records to 'our' fans and no-one else. Frankly, we've always suspected the records are simply abandoned as soon as they start dropping down the charts. There's also the logistical problem that because our fans trust The Smiths and buy our records immediately upon release, there are none left in the shops in week two. I'm just keeping EVERYTHING crossed that none of these factors crop up with EMI or that's another theory gone west. The situation is identical in America which is equally mysterious because we've done two tours that have been impossibly, overbearingly successful, and we sell a lot of records, but it doesn't show up in chart terms. I don't think our US record company (Sire) ever thought The Smiths would break and therefore never pushed to any real degree."
You once said that "for me, writing is a human necessity like brushing my teeth" - is this still the case?
"If anything, writing has become MORE important for me than ever. As a writer and lyricist I think I improve hourly - a lot of people say the first surge of Smiths' records were the best but I really, really disagree. I make sure I write something every day and my flat is strewn with the debris of lyrics, finished and unfinished. I get ideas from almost everywhere but especially supermarket queues - I have a talent for eavesdropping and it's amazing what you learn while waiting to pay for your fruit juice. I go to the supermarket every day of my life and one time I was choosing some butter when this zoom lens appeared from nowhere and on the end of it was a Japanese tourist behaving like David Bailey. I nearly died on the spot - it's as near as I've ever come to chucking it all in and becoming a hermit. Another time I was shopping for some, shall we say, personal items - no I won't tell you which ones - when I was seized upon by two fans. You've got to be so careful - you never know who you might bump into in Boots."
Getting back to writing - the essence of The Smiths lies with the marriage of your, let's face it, morbid lyrics, and Johnny's supreme melodies. Given those ingredients, was Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want the perfect Smiths song?
"I think it was very close indeed, and hiding it away on a B-side was sinful. I feel sad about it now although we did include it on Hatful Of Hollow by way of semi-repentance. When we first played it to Rough Trade, they kept asking, "where's the rest of the song?" But to me, it's like a very brief punch in the face. Lengthening the song would, to my mind, have simply been explaining the blindingly obvious. Having said that, I often wonder if we shouldn't explain ourselves more, especially as an astonishing number of people completely misunderstand The Smiths "humour". Take Bigmouth - I would call it a parody if THAT sounded less like self-celebration, which it definitely wasn't. It was just a really funny song - whenever I heard it on the radio it made me laugh and the same was true of at least half The Queen Is Dead. The Smiths do tease people - making them laugh, then making them cry - operating at opposite ends of the emotional scale. What we're ultimately hoping to do is make them laugh and cry at the same time."
Let's go back to the beginning. Quoting the Rough Trade biog - "Morrissey was unearthed by Johnny Marr" - how did you feel about being disinterred?
"It was an event I'd always looked forward to and unconsciously been waiting for since my childhood. Time was passing - I was 22 - and Johnny was much younger, but it seemed that I'd hung around for a very long time waiting for this magical mystical event, which definitely occurred. I had a slight tremulous feeling a long time before then, that something very unusual would happen to me and I interpreted it as fame of some magnitude."
Did you "prepare" for fame in some way? For instance Ian Botham's mother recalls her son polishing his autograph technique when he was seven?
"It does seem to be true that people can sense notoriety of whatever kind heading in their general direction. I certainly prepared mentally - although I'm not telling you how. I didn't take up yoga or anything."
Within the music industry, most bands promote themselves by wearing clothes of either a sexy or garish nature, whereas The Smiths managed to popularise NHS specs.
"It wasn't a stab at hipdom, more like a tongue-in-cheek chicdom. It was a complete accident - I wore NHS spectacles, which I still do so it wasn't a mantle or a badge - and suddenly I saw all these people who didn't need to wear spectacles doing so in imitation of The Smiths and bumping into an awful lot of walls. Other bands have tours sponsored by Levi's - maybe we should find a large firm of opticians. It was much the same with the earplugs - I never needed a hearing aid but recently I caught a serious ear infection and literally went deaf for about four weeks. Naturally I took this as retribution for wearing a hearing aid. It was hellish - four weeks of "pardon" jokes at my expense. Someone coined it as disability chic, through which The Smiths reached out to certain parts of the public who never felt they fit the perfect mould of "pop fan". There are lots of people who want to be a member of the audience, want to get involved in the music and the lifestyle but don't feel interested in the constant chase for fashion perfection that most bands inflict on their audience. Fashion has gone through periods of being completely redundant - mainly the fault of fashion magazines illustrating the things you can buy if you're dramatically, overbearingly rich, but are of no use at all to ordinary people living in humble places. I find with, for example, Comme Des Garcons clothes, their style of being quite basic but hellishly expensive is very interesting."
"Fame, fame, fatal fame, it can play hideous tricks on the brain" - what tricks has it played on yours?
"I still find it difficult when people come up to me in public places because I tend to get approached in lots of different ways and learning how to cope with them is a nightmare. People can approach me and be very emotional or openly hostile and you're at a distinct disadvantage when they know everything about you and you know nothing about them - especially when I realise they don't like me very much. It's a very odd feeling - people come up to me and say the most unpleasant things - I'm not sure why they do it - the trick is to walk away - backwards and slowly."
However, one of the advantages of fame is that it gives you a platform for subjects close to your heart - ie, vegetarianism and celibacy. Is celibacy really a victory of guilt over lust?
"I wish it was, I wouldn't feel so badly about it then. In fact, I wish it had any purpose whatsoever. It certainly wasn't something I ever tried to instil on the public at large - I never expected a massive movement of celibates storming down Whitehall - it was just something that slipped out really. In a manner of speaking. It's just the way I choose to live and the way I've always lived. I can't even recommend it. It's just right for me and wrong for the rest of the population."
Why don't you write songs for women?
"I'd always believed, obviously erroneously, that I WAS singing and writing for everybody. But after the thousandth person came up and said, "why don't you write songs for women?" I had to confess I was wrong. I've always felt that I write in a universal language that's relevant to every sex, race and creed. Oh well, another myth strikes the dust."
Can you imagine any circumstances under which you might possibly consider trendsetting?
"Good gracious, no. But then again, in doing what I do, it's almost unavoidable. I don't like anything new - I'm really not modern to any degree at all. Take houses - I like old, dark properties, Victorian or Georgian preferably, with very old furniture. I can't stand maisonettes. It's really nothing to do with coming from the north - southerners always regard having lived in the north as a strange medical phenomenon or the reason for having an unusual diet or peculiar haircut. But I was never aware of people in the north sharing my views on furniture or housing. I do not think taste is something you automatically acquire by virtue of being born south of Milton Keynes. 'Style' is such a loose word - I tend to find that I'm chained somewhere in the middle of this century. Almost everything in the art world that appeals to me is not even post-war."
Are you a grim person?
(Guffawing with laughter): "Yes, I suppose I am really, I think it's an attitude that should be encouraged. ...No, I don't really think so but people tend to look at my interviews and regard me as some kind of character from a Dickensian soup kitchen. There ARE plenty of things that do give me pleasure - although I can't actually think of any at the moment. I've been termed a manic depressive - usually by people who've never met me, but I am capable of looking on the bright side - I just don't do it very often. One of The Smiths' skills has been to take subjects which people might lazily presume are dark and morbid and make them interesting, or turn them into the subjects of interesting songs. I'm hardly some kind of crazed remnant of total monolithic depression. Am I? I do have taste above all, which is why I'm considered out of step with anything that could be regarded as slightly hip. And because I have taste, and I don't really blend in with the general colour of 1987, people think I'm some sort of monument from the last century."
Could that be partly due to your, aherm, gaunt appearance?
"No, I don't think so. Lots of people are gaunt and run around on skateboards."
You seem worried by the general level of bad taste pervading in life, the universe and everything?
"It's something I'm very, very concerned about - but it's such a huge, uncontrollable monster that I can't imagine tackling it successfully. Finding people with genuine, bona-fide taste is such a very rare thing nowadays. I believe that everything went downhill from the moment the McDonald's chain was given license to invade England - don't laugh, I'm serious - to me it was like the outbreak of war and I couldn't understand why English troops weren't retaliating. The Americanisation of England is such a terminal illness - I think England should be English and Americans should go home and spoil their own country. Shopping centres are the worst - they're a boil on the face of the Earth. I regard modern architecture as more dangerous than nuclear war - it'll absolutely slaughter the human race. And as for council houses - they can only be designed for the purpose of eliminating the working classes from the face of the Earth."
Are The Smiths the last conscience of England?
"It's an interesting statement and I suspect if you bullied me I'd agree with it. We're always being advised to go abroad for 12 months to avoid all this awful, dreadful, nasty tax but I couldn't go anywhere for 12 weeks, let alone 12 months (which is why The Smiths have never done a world tour). I could never live anywhere else - I absolutely adore England, I really do. Not many people see what I see - so many romantic elements of English life buried beneath the corrosion. I'm the only person I know who can take a day-trip to Carlisle and get emotional about what he sees. I do object to the level of taxes I have to pay - every time I get a tax demand and I look at the figures, I literally drop 11 stone in weight. Which makes me a very light person. Other pop people have similar reactions - mostly they cry, openly cry in the middle of the street. It is truly a terrible sight for onlookers to behold. Coming from a Labour background I still vote for them but my affiliations are obviously more confused than they used to be, although no more compromised."
Then again, you're hardly noted for compromise?
"That's true of every aspect of my life even when I was unemployed and a hopeless medical case back in Manchester years ago. I would never attempt to obtain anything that wasn't exactly what I wanted. Whether it was a job, or books, or furniture, I could never make do. I find there are so many people who start out 'making do' with certain things in their life and find out 30 years later they are still 'making do' and waiting for their lives to begin. If you don't have very strong principles it's SO easy to fall into mediocrity. Neither Johnny nor I are compromisers which, plus the fact that we've never been prepared to do anything for money, means we've avoided many of the classic temptations of the "Whirlwind Of Pop". But because it's never meant anything to me, it's been relatively easy to sidestep all the glamour and gloss and the whole facetiousness of the pop industry. Obviously in some ways The Smiths have lost out, but in other, more effective ways, we've gained by remaining relatively secluded."
But the attaining of wealth must have made some impact on your personality?
"Having money HAS changed me in some ways but the intrinsic parts of my character which go to make me so remarkably interesting haven't changed at all. I'm still very humble and foolishly grateful - it only changes you to the extent that you know you're not going to starve to death next week, but in the very serious ways it hasn't changed me at all."
You've developed a much-envied reputation for shit-stirring. Anything or anyone you'd like to have a go at this time around?
"I can't think of any 'institutions' I'd particularly like to attack at the moment, but I'm always on the look-out and if I think of any new ones, I'll let you know. When it comes to ruffling feathers I think I'm doing pretty well, don't you? I'm certainly getting about - in fact there isn't really much left. That's another function of songwriting - if people double-cross me, I'll just sit down and write a nasty song about them. I haven't purposely developed the shit-stirring image - it's just because most people who make records haven't got anything interesting to say, so if you do have a viewpoint it's fostered to the point of melodrama. It's very rare to find anyone in the pop world who has useful opinions or is even moderately entertaining - whether as a person or someone from whom you can draw knowledge or gain inspiration. Almost anything intellectual is too much to ask from the majority of pop performers. I don't think too much importance is given to pop music but I do think that too much importance is placed on people who are not important within the pop world. At the risk of over-using the word "important"; conversely, too little importance is given to people whose views actually do matter - they're the ones who tend to get shunted to one side. Pop people who are intelligent, in any event, get less involved with the whole merry-go-round as they find it too boring. In a way The Smiths have backed off - for instance we aren't on TV as much as our status befits and part of that is deliberate - we get asked on too many programmes we'd rather not do, and too few programmes we'd like to appear on."
You may complain about insufficient exposure but your refusal to shoot videos is a contributory factor.
"Yes but songs are at least 50 percent about imagination and videos crush that element of imagination that's the listener's contribution. What you don't put in, you can't get out. My other fundamental objection to videos is that everyone who makes them look so silly - if I thought videos had a chance and there was something salvageable in the whole medium I'd give it a whirl. But videos have the opposite effect on me they're meant to - whenever I see a bad video I always think - (moans) "oh no, WHY did they do it? - Now I DEFINITELY won't buy that record". Of the Jarman videos, Panic was easily the best. We never actually met Jarman - he did them privately while we were in America, which was absolutely the only way we'd agree to it. Videos are just too time-consuming - every hour of the day I think about lyrics and songs and record sleeves - videos are just too much of a gigantic distraction from things that are really important."
Do you miss living in the north?
"I do, but it's just not feasible to stay there at this time in my life. Old ladies still leave presents outside my house in Manchester - cards, fruit, flowers, fluffy toys - all of which are much appreciated. Why do they do it? They want to mother me I suppose. Yes, I am ready to be mothered - all comers are welcome. All they need to do is make an appointment. The whole Gracie Fields, George Formby, Frank Randall (a well-known northern comedian) mentality is one I completely worship. I adore those old northern troupers and I'd love to be remembered as following in their tradition, but it seems doubtful I'll be remembered at all. When they bury me in church and chuck earth on my grave, I'd like the words 'Well at least he tried' engraved on my tombstone."
What do you regard as the most upsetting experience of your life?
"I don't drive because I cannot cope with the Highway Code. I took a test 10 years ago and failed on the Highway Code - isn't that ludicrous? I'd hate anyone to know that... although it's too late now of course. That was definitely the first major shock I ever had. What was the second one? I'll let you know when it happens."
Finally, what are the central Smiths philosophies?
"I've always thought that people can generally listen to the records and understand how we as individuals feel about most things. It may be a cliché but I expect the records to speak for themselves. I'll tell you what - have another listen and call me up if anything remains unclear."