NME, September 24th 1983
THE SMITH HUNT
David Dorrell, NME, 24th September 1983
It's no exaggeration to say that it came as a shock, a numbing body-slam to the nervous system.
But then what would you feel if you opened a daily newspaper and discovered you had been all but directly accused of molesting children?
The Smiths know: they feel reviled... and confused.
Only a few days before, they had finished a session for The David Jensen Show. Their first single Hand In Glove had achieved positive press criticism, and they'd hoped that their follow-up, Reel Around The Fountain, would build on that success. Everything was great.
Morrissey was singing in excelsis, Johnny Marr's guitars and harmonica were precisely etching the very face of the session, and Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke had lifted the rhythm of their drums and bass until it hammered at the ceiling and crashed to the floor. On a temporal stage The Smiths know it's Heaven when they're up there.
And they smile with devilish intent.
And as for notoriety... well is one thrashing a bouquet of golden daffodils onstage anything more than poetic license? Or is the sensitive profile of a naked man on a single sleeve aspiring to subversion?
But two weeks ago, The Sun ran a news story by their showbiz correspondent, Nick Ferari, which alleged that BBC Radio chiefs were to hold an emergency meeting to decide whether a "song about molesting" should be broadcast on The David Jensen Show.
According to the garbled and inaccurate article the track in question was entitled Handsome Devil - and it contained "clear references to picking up kids for sexual kicks". When questioned by The Sun about his "controversial lyrics" Morrissey is reported as saying "I don't feel immoral singing about molesting children."
What man would sign his own death warrant thus? That Handsome Devil had not been recorded for the session did not affect the paper's verdict on the band; nor did any of the other flagrant fabrications (including the interview). What did matter was the crash of breaking glass as a thousand lonely housewives dropped their milk-bottles...
Following the spot-the-pervert accusations in The Sun, Sounds ran a damning indictment of the band in their gossip colum Jaws - penned by none other than Garry Bushell, a fervent enemy of the Mancunian quartet.
Bushell has been blamed by The Smiths' record company, Rough Trade, for giving The Sun its derogatory and misleading information in the first place. Bushell, when asked, denied such claims and in turn accused his arch rival Dave McCullough - who is an ardent fan of The Smiths - of mis-interpreting the band's lyrics in a feature that he wrote: thus instigating the whole story.
As Morrissey says: "It's really their affair and we're just bait."
Since then Rough Trade's solicitor has dispatched letters to both The Sun and Sounds asking for a retraction. If no such retraction and apology appears legal action is likely to be taken.
So there, condensed and shrink-wrapped, you have the none too pleasant tale of how The Smiths, a wan and wonderful phenomena from Manchester, crossed the great divide between independent fame and national infamy. How do they feel?
"Well, we're still in a wild state of shock," an ashen Morrissey replies. "We were completely aghast at The Sun allegations, and even more so by Sounds. We really can't emphasize how much it upset us because obviously it was completely fabricated," he claims. "I did an interview with a person called Nick Ferari - and what developed in print was just a total travesty of the actual interview. It couldn't possibly be more diverse in opinion.
"To me it's about somebody else, they're writing about another group... it's so strange. It's tragically depressing...
"Quite obviously we don't condone child molesting or anything that vaguely resembles it. What more can be said?"
What more indeed? Since the deplorable rape of a six year old Brighton boy, The Sun has picked up a new word for its meagre vocabulary: "paedophilia". And now that word has been used as a wedge to open the door for an onslaught on anything that doesn't fit into its own Moral Bible.
Paranoia or persecution? If this strikes as a symptom of the former, then take heed: it's as likely to be a concrete encroachment from the latter. Nothing, not even Bingo, can boost a reactionary tabloid's sales like a jingoistic war cry or a MacArthurian witch hunt. Are we so pathetic as to believe that Fleet Street's crusaders march out with unsoiled hands?
As guitarist Johnny Marr states: "It seems on the surface of it as the obvious hatchet job against a new, rising band who are getting a certain amount of publicity. But on every level the whole thing's got completely out of hand... and it's affecting us personally now.
"I've got a younger brother who is 11, who on the day it was in The Sun went to school and was hassled by kids, hassled by teachers."
Morrissey continues: "It's really difficult to conceive such... savage critique. Because it's not just 'bad' it's about as bad as you could possibly, humanly get it. And there is so much hatred from Sounds..."
Wasn't it possible that the Sounds piece was a joke?
"Well, they might be 'jokes' but they're really not funny," Morrissey soberly replies.
"I'm sure," says Johnny, "that if the mother of the young lad in Brighton was to read the statement concerning us, or anybody who has strong feelings about the case, then they're not going to see it as a joke.
"I think if there is that ambiguity there, then it was there with that purpose: for whoever wants to believe it. I think there are more people that are gonna take it seriously than do regard it as a joke. It's more than ambiguous."
And The Sun's piece?
Morrissey: "It's quite laughable coming from a newspaper like The Sun - which is so obviously obsessed with every aspect of sex. So it's all really a total travesty of human nature that it's thrown at us, such sensitive and relatively restrained people. I live a life that befits a priest virtually and to be splashed about as a child molester... it's just unutterable."
However fatuous and fantastic The Sun article was, it did succeed in its dirtying The Smiths name (for reasons unknown). It also ensured that the session, which wasn't being "investigated," was censored and that a six minute version of Reel Around The Fountain was removed. According to Mike Hawkes, the producer for David Jensen's show, the specially commissioned track was removed purely as a precautionary measure. As for the article itself, all the BBC press office could offer was that veritable cliche, "The Sun got it wrong again".
Unfortunately Morrissey was saddened to hear that Aunty had decided to drop the track because "The record itself is protection because of its innocence.
"Curiously though, at the end of the day, the BBC did pledge their allegiance to us. So I think that's more important than anything else."
And for The Smiths that's probably true. The BBC have not banned their material and plan to play the single when it is released. In fact, their sad treatment at the hands of the Bingo Barons and other writers of prurient pap may well by the foundations for their success.
What obviously attracted the flies to the meat was Morrissey's blunt but beautiful lyrical style. For many of the songs the leit-motif is that of an ageless, genderless love; and an unrequited love at that. Unfortunately the nebulosity of each song's protagonist does inject a certain sense of ambiguity into the storyline. And that was a red flag to The Sun...
Morrissey: "It's completely taken out of context - but it depends on where the individual's mind lies. If you want to read something in particular lyrics you will - whether it's there or not."
What - "A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand, I think I can help you get thru your exams"?
Morrissey: "Yes. If you read the rest of the lyrics then it completely complies. And the message of the song is to forget the cultivation of the brain and to concentrate on the cultivation of the body. A boy in the bush... is addressed to a scholar. There's more to life than books you know, but not much more - that is the essence of the song...
"So you can just take it and stick it in an article about child-molesting and it will make absolutely perfect sense. But you can do that with anybody. You can do it with Abba."
To meet Morrissey is to meet somebody of unsettling calm. Broad, square and white, he is imbued with the same sense of enormity that marks the great men of religion. He is - in varying measures - bashful, sarcastic and serene. Thankfully his often caustic wit and his elastic ego are countered by his zealotry and passion. At times he is both Missionary and heathen. And at times he writes the best love songs since The Buzzcocks.
His partner in contempt of crime is Johnny Marr, a nervous, effusive creature who hides behind dark glasses and plays great scores.
"I live a saintly life," Morrissey laughs. "He lives a devilish life. And the combination is wonderful. Perfect."
"Hand in glove/The sun shines out of our behinds"
- Hand In Glove
Of course to hear is to believe. And with their debut Troy Tate-produced LP set for imminent release, more will hear and more will believe.
An American distribution arrangement has been agreed with WEA and their hopeful conquest of the Atlantic shores will come as no surprise. Though, no doubt, the question of their lyrical content will surely be mooted by that country's more puritan forces.
Not that it matters.
Morrissey: "I'm certainly not going to change the way I write because I think it's essential. If I have to be accused of anything, it's because I write strongly and I write very openly from the heart... which is something people aren't really used to. They're used to a very strict, regimented style - and if you are too personal, and I don't mean offensively personal but just too close then it's what a 'strange' person, let's get him on the guillotine."
Will that hinder your commercial success?
"No," he continues vigorously. "At the end of the day the truth comes through and we shall find the highest success.
"Our egos are not so fragile that we are shattered by anything some mini-streamroller at Sounds could write. We're not that fey - good grief. Neither were we really affected that much by The Sun. It's just the rest of the world you have to worry about - you have to take their feelings into consideration - which is a great burden.
"It really proves that you don't have as much control over your destiny in this business as you think you do. There are people who like you and there are people who hate you. So why should you give the people that hate you precedence? Really we should stamp on it. It's history already."
Throughout, Morrissey speaks of himself and his band in elevated tones almost as if he holds a certain disdain for the soiled and grubby cameo that the rest of us portray as life. He sees the body as the Taoist temple of the mind: he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke and he doesn't swear. Above all, he is celibate and has been for a long time. He sees himself as more than a rival to Cliff Richard.
Yet undeniably his penmanship constantly returns to the throes of Love: in all its tempered glory. And through it comes the weakness and forced purity that underlies the solidity of his work. When he sings his voice is that of an angel in purgatory. And his stigma is the anguish of the damned.
"You can pin and mount me like a butterfly But take me to the heaven of your bed Was something that you never said"
- Reel Around The Fountain
Are you removed from love?
Morrissey: "I'm physically removed, but there are so many aspects of it. Much of what I write about is unrequited.
"I feel that I do have a unique view of it because obviously it dominates every individual's life - which I've observed for quite a time. I feel I have a particular insight, which sounds terribly pompous and terribly ostentatious. It's funny though that most people that get enchained to the idea of 'absolute love' are usually totally irresponsible and self-deprecating individuals."
Isn't that a sterile view of love?
"No. I'm not a bitter and twisted individual with a whip crashing down on lovers in the park!"
All in all it smacks of an almost religious devotion to an ideal; an ideal that is clouded somewhat by its own grandeur but is basically akin to the awe-inspring moments that make the Bunnymen so crystalline in their magnificence.
Yet Ian Mac is firmly rooted in his own background and belief, and therefore bows to the world and possesses humility. Morrissey, on the other hand, is quite content to let his lofty aspirations get the better of him and as such fails to win on a human level. His songs are all from a birds-eye view and until he admits to his own weaknesses the best part of The Smiths' creed will remain frozen and other-worldly.
Is this man, you ask, an egotist?
Morrissey: "It's not really ego. If you have something and you know that you're good why be shy and hide behind the curtains? There's no point..."
What does all of this mean to you?
"It's more essential to me than breathing - it's more natural to me than breathing. I don't know why I'm here, it's like being hurled on an escalator and you go up and you don't have any say in the matter. That's all really...
"The whole thing really is a matter of life and death. And that's how serious we are..."
Aren't you worried that people might not take you seriously?
"Some people won't, some people will and the fact that some people will and do already, means that it's been valuable, it's been worthwhile..."
Do you feel that you have to be a threat to be successful?
"No, not in the least. If the whole threat thing means you have a brain and you use it, then we're a threat. But if it means anything other than that, well, I don't really see how we're dangerous in any way. I don't think we'll disturb anybody - and I don't think it's coy to say that."
In less than a year The Smiths have forged a resilient beauty. Their candour, their confidence, has blossomed into the most melodic of spiritual sounds. There is a rawness in their music that belies their musical age; a fresh, ethereal ability that captures more than just the routine of "making" good songs. In a great Smiths song there is an overview that simply towers above the congregating mortals in the popforum. And for that I'll say a little prayer.
"The good people laugh/Yes, we may be hidden by rags/But we have something that they'll never have"
- Hand In Glove.