Sounds, November 19th 1983
Bill Black, Sounds, 19th November 1983
Befitting a band verging on greatness, the Smiths have a keen sense of their own history.
In its annals are recorded such celebrated moments as the fated (and feted) meeting of tuneSmith Johnny Marr and wordSmith Morrissey, the release of their daunting debut Hand In Glove and "The Smiths as child molesters" scandal that would have destroyed lesser groups - and rocked this one not a little.
A messy affair that has still to be completely cleaned up, the sordid details do not bear repeating here (see other music papers for a full, fatuous account glorying in deed and misdeed).
After all, this piece isn't designed to cross-examine anyone about the harmful outcome of wilful ambiguity and reckless interpretation, simply to investigate further the hysterical rumblings that threaten to crease the very carpets of the Sounds office in their clamour to be heard. The message? That the Smiths are just the most important band around at the moment.
But there's no forgetting the gravity of the accusations levelled against The Smiths - or its source. With Sounds in the red corner and the band's label Rough Trade in the blue corner, where does that leave Bill Black - in the doghouse?
"It's all past history as far as the group is concerned," comforts their instantly likeable manager Joe Moss as we wait in a West London recording studio for The Smiths' imminent return from a Thames-side photo session.
But when the four of them return from the muddy location chosen for the shoot there is, for the first few minutes at least, a certain hugging of our respective ropes. Drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke busy themselves by making cups of reviving tea before slipping quietly away to challenge each other on the obligatory PacMan while the interview takes place.
Morrissey, guarded at first, soon warms to the challenge of self analysis and with the mop-topped, slightly elfin Marr, exudes a confidence in the strength and resilience of the Smiths that is unquestionably honest.
These charming men? Morrissey and Marr share a polite yet earnest nature. They are unflinching in their views; often uncomfortably so. One can only seek solace in the knowledge that they are invariably right.
We agree to skirt around the legal minefield that has now taken the place of the battleground of charge and counter charge over the nature and intent of Morrissey's contentious lyrics, but not before the wordSmith has taken the opportunity to unleash an eloquent and elegant tongue-lashing on the hypocrisy of contemporary morals. 'Nuff said. The Smiths have a keen sense of their own history and that's just what the whole matter is now - history.
"We want to make friends, we want to have people around us. Isn't that what everybody wants deep down? I'm sure when you were at school all you really cared about was being popular. All we really care about is being popular and that's why we try hard to please."
Morrissey responds succinctly, unnervingly (only someone with the skill and temperament of McEnroe truly enjoys having the ball hurled back into his own court) to an observation that The Smiths, above all else, seem keen to please.
It's telling that he should bring it all back to childhood and the constant if often fruitless pursuit of happiness. His own memories of teenagerdom are of "Morrissey: The Wilderness Years". Like some nightmarish Lost Weekend, his teens were a period of isolation and self-hatred.
Until that day towards the end of last year when a youthful Johnny Marr came knocking on his door to see if he would be interested in collaborating on some songs. Marr had discovered from the wise Joe Moss that Morrissey's needs had for some time been "exclusively literary". Just what Marr needed, he thought, to complement his own approach to strumming his Rickenbacker (once owned by Roger McGuinn) - an escape into sanity.
For Morrissey life began again - at 23.
"I had quite a happy childhood until I was six or seven, after that it was horrendous. At the age of eight I became very isolated - we had a lot of family problems at that time - and that tends to orchestrate your life. I had a foul adolescence and a foul teenage existence. Except you couldn't really call it an existence. I just sort of scraped through, escaping into films and books until the Smiths happened and allowed me to live again!
"I think if I'd led an acceptably frivolous teenage life I wouldn't be singing in this group. I'm sure if you have a great time and get everything you want, all the friends you want, then you tend not to be so ambitious. If you're deprived of certain things it makes you very resilient and you kick very hard for what you want. And I wanted something very special because I'd led such an unspecial life previous to The Smiths."
The Smiths are special. They combine rock's primary colours of guitar, bass and drums in a fascinating way: you get the feeling of pleasant familiarity as if you've heard it all before, but you can take immense and almost criminally intense pleasure from the knowledge that there are boundaries as well as hearts being broken.
Morrissey has only been partially successful in making use of his own teenage traumas. He has come to terms with his own celibacy ("An involuntary decision!" he assures me) but little else. The Smiths, he knows, will change that.
"I remember for a long time feeling totally charmless and unhandsome and I know there are so many others who still feel the same way. It's time that all those people moved in on this whole shebang and if necessary pretend to have charm. For too long this sphere of entertainment has been dominated by the big mouths and the small minds."
If there is a central issue that lies at the heart of the Smiths' motivation, this must be it.
Johnny: "The reason why Morrissey and I got together in the first place to write songs - and the reason why it was so successful - was because we both felt the need to react against what we'd been hearing over the past X years. Basically, we had a lot of gripes. I don't think groups can succeed unless they've got something they feel uncomfortable about. If you're happy with the music you're making and the music around you then you're going to be complacent, boring and safe."
Morrissey: "Nothing spurs you on like anger and we were angry about all the ugly people who control this business and all the ugly faces on Top Of The Pops. Why all the ugliness?
"It's very strange - this complete lack of intellect and complete lack of sensitivity. And of course there was nothing more repellant than the synthesizer, so it was really time to sweep all that down the drain.
"To say everything is hopeless, which is what people have been saying up till now, is a pointless attitude and that's where our belief in beauty and charm comes in. It's not to do with having a perfect profile or alabaster teeth."
Johnny: "It's a very optimistic feel that people get from our records and our gigs and that is of paramount importance to us. Even our name ties in with it. We're really sick of all this dressing up in designer clothes and having your hair done by whatever hairdresser is in vogue.
"All those sort of groups were very remote and that might be one of the reasons the Sixties have become so attractive again. The fact that someone like Sandie Shaw, who wasn't particularly beautiful or glamorous, could be a massive star is tremendous. Morrissey's lyrics offer a great deal of hope to people who are normal because they're saying there's nothing wrong with that. The Smiths are saying it doesn't matter who you are or what you do, as long as what you're saying is positive."
The Smiths are saying normality is making a comeback and they're saying it positively, but let's backtrack a minute and pick up Johnny's remark about the Sixties. It was prompted by the continuous links that are being made between attitudes prevalent during that debauched and de-bunked era and our own wonderful Smiths.
OK, so Morrissey might wear a forest of beads around his neck and get through the contents of a small market garden during a live set as he charms all with his bunches of gladioli, but yet another stab at reviving psychedelia?
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable the Smiths ain't.
But it needs saying more forcefully than that. Despite their "conventional" instrumentation, the Smiths are rooted (pun not intended) more firmly in the present than any of the so called "fingers on the pulse" industrial groups - Test Dept, SPK - can ever be.
Because (and it's been noted before) the sound of contemporary urban decay is not simply the clanking of steel plates or the chomp of a metal grinder. It is much more than that, infinitely more human. At the risk of straining the point, the soundtracks of post industrialism is the sound of misery. The sound of suffering humanity, the scream of a million English roses flailed against the landscape of depression - or a few dozen gladioli thwacked against Morrissey's handsome thigh.
Regard or discard as you like, but the Smiths are NOW. No argument. Which doesn't stop the Sixties tag cropping up in reviews, so how do they feel about the connotations?
Johnny: "Well we were very conscious when we started of not being preconceived. Even that sounds preconceived! When me and Morrissey got together to write a catalogue of songs it became immediately apparent that the songs we were writing needed bass and drums to make them work - so the 'conventional' set up was completed.
"We try and be adventurous but not to be overbearing, but then again we'd hate to be trapped by some revivalist tag, whatever it might be, because that's not what we're about.
"At the same time I can see some of the similarities and that's fine - if you dig into either of our collections you will find music of quality from every era and we're very aware of the fact that there is good to be had from every period of popular music.
"For instance, in the Sixties records were actually worth something. People went out and bought a seven inch piece of plastic and they treasured it, which they don't seem to do any more. We're trying to bring back that precious element which is, I suppose, reminiscent of an earlier time, but then so what? It's good to take a part of pop culture and bring it alive again and bring the human spirit back into it.
"It's exactly the same with the songwriting partnership Morrissey and I have. The whole idea of two people getting together with lots of common ground but with separate influences to bring out something we believe to be the best we've ever heard is something we feel has been missing since the Sixties. The Seventies was the decade of the solo artist and the solo writer and that doesn't appeal to me at all. I really get a buzz from the unpredictability of the way a Smiths song turns out. It's joyous the way we work together and if that's reminiscent of the Sixties that's fine."
It's time to talk around the subject a bit more and make some enquiries about the band's home town Manchester. Is it, as McCullough would have us believe, deserving of thorough investigation to find the reason for its consistently crucial musical outpourings? Morrissey is bemused, preferring to see the Mancunian fetish as a release for the capital-weary breed of London-based music journalists.
After all, he reminds us, The Smiths can take no credit for the place, having only been born and brought up there, not responsible for its size and stature. Come now...
Morrissey: "I can't pass judgement on James because I haven't heard any of the records or seen them live, but if what they say is how they feel then I'm in complete agreement."
Another name synonymous with forward-thinking Manchester is the Hacienda.
Morrissey: "We've had a great deal of personal support from the people at the Hacienda when they could easily have ignored us for signing with Rough Trade in London rather than Factory in Manchester and that's good because, as Johnny says, that means attitudes are at last changing."
Personal support? It suggests a shoulder to lean on when the going got tough a few months back following the muck-raking. It's also time to challenge Morrissey on the purposefully ambivalent nature of his lyrics. He chooses to write in a genderless style to remove the greatest block to understanding and acceptance - sexuality.
This inevitably leads to gender confusion and dangerous interpretations, so isn't well-intentioned obscurity a commercial as well as artistic liability? I suggest the Smiths are out to confound people.
Johnny: "You confound people by using gimmicks like having long unintelligible names and that's exactly what we're reacting against.
"Morrissey's so confident about himself that he doesn't have to cloud his lyrics in metaphor. A lot of writers verge on saying something important but because they're afraid of their own stature they use imagery as a way of saying 'if you can work it out you're "in"'. That doesn't appeal."
Morrissey: "My lyrics are only obscure to the extent they are not taken directly from the dictionary of writing songs. They're not slavish to the lyrics rule book, so you'll never catch me singing 'Oh baby, baby yeah'. My only priority is to use lines and words in a way that hasn't been heard before."
Despite the efforts of the "school fool" writers, Morrissey believes popular music is not a washed-up creative force yet; there's still plenty of things that need communicating and he's ready and willing to man the Morse key. And the bass, drums and guitar set up is far from redundant. Morrissey enthuses about the fluid yet wonderfully fractured playing of Marr ("Johnny can take the most basic, threadbare tune and you'll just cry for hours and hours and swim in the tears!") before announcing triumphantly:
"As far as I'm concerned the guitar hasn't even been picked up yet!"
Never mind the Svensons, you've got to keep up with the Smiths.