From The Archives: 1984 - The Year Of The Smiths, By Barney Hoskyns
, February 16th, 2009 07:46
With Morrissey's new album Years Of Refusal out today, we team up with Rock's Backpages to bring you Barney Hoskyns' appraisal of The Smiths from 1984
GAY MEN PAVED pop's way this year. With Boy George's wardrobe fully open, all the closet cases came spilling forth: Burns and The Bronskis, Frankie and NRG.
The subtlest victory was Morrissey's – his the least fairy-tale, the least gaudily exhibitionist. Maybe its because he conjured a ghost from all our pasts: the outsider, the Weird One, the pariah you put at full-back so you didn't catch his leprosy. When Morrissey refused to play "festive faggot", he was appealing to something fundamentally more lonely in us. He was making the outsider a star.
I met him just as 'This Charming Man' was peddling up the Top 30. I didn't warm to him; he seemed too bright to be a pop star. I see now that music had freed him from himself; that the unhappy invert who'd hidden a way in a monastic Mancunian garret had found a complement in the music of Johnny Marr which was not simply stylistic but even, perhaps, spiritual.
Marr's music is Morrissey's fumigation. (It must have been awfully stuffy in Whalley Range). What he acts out in their brittle, brilliant vignettes is a sustained drama of self-pity. He indulges narcissism in order to overcome it. The Smiths' finest songs are a marriage of camp melancholy, petulant distress, and musical grace.
Briefly to retrace: the first I heard of The Smiths was this dingbat character declaiming never so sententious tones that 'Hand In Glove' should be translated into all languages – that this whole life had been merely a process of crawling towards its three mighty minutes. I was impressed, and the song duly swept into my heart. How to get close to it, other than to say it just seemed so proud, so heroically sad? (Something to do with the matting of bass and guitar, the injunction to "stay on my arm", the way the song hang so absolutely between affirmation and desperation – hasn't Morrissey himself spoken of those songs that "speak with a biblical force?")
Next, I went to see them play: their first major engagement in the capital. Watching two dozen teenagers thrashing about onstage amidst shredded gladioli, with Morrissey loudhaling "Accept Yourself". I began to get a clearer picture of the group's mission. The music sounded like Tim Buckley backed by the Nightingales, but something purely their own pierced through. May be they were just a pop group, yet as twits go, the tragic clown with Jimmy Hill's chin was so confidently out of place.
That night, too, The Smiths played a first take of the 'Charming Man', Mozart to 'Glove''s Beethoven: did anything more sparkling, more kinkily witty, ever rise so high through so much sludge? Well, a hit later and an album arrived. People said it was "dour", and two-thirds of it was. On the other hand, 'Reel Around The Fountain' was magnificent, and so was 'You've Got Everything Now'. The key to the resigned rebuke of 'Reel' is the perverse exactness of its "fifteen minutes with you"; love has become a strange sad ceremony, (Morrissey frequently plays the ornate off against the colloquial – "You can pin and mount me like a butterfly" is only two lines from "two lumps please/you're the bees' knees" – so that there's always a kind of tension between courtship and contempt).
The marvelous 'Everything Now' follows in perfect sequence, pushed forward on one of Andy Rourke's most sturdily neutral bass lines. A great putdown anthem, it rails elegantly against the "oafish clods" who left Morrissey's school to become executives while he starved. So often music seems to be Morrissey's way of dealing with the pedestrian problems of his past, problems he doesn't try to turn into Greek tragedy but simply observes with humour and pathos.
Aside from these, 'I Don't Owe You Anything' is The Buzzcocks announcing their engagement to Burt Bacharach (to be intoned, cabaret-style, on a high stool). The remixed 'Glove' burns a shade less brightly. The hysterical Russ Mael falsetto of 'Miserable Lie' is tiresome by a third play. Long acoustic dirges like 'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle' and the Moors Murders saga 'Suffer Little Children' are meant to be sinister but do actually lull one into deep slumber. Finally, 'What Difference Does It Make?' the third single, is an unremarkable bonehead boogie stamp.
A pity, The Smiths, since an album featuring the good songs and 'Charming man', plus B-sides like 'Handsome Devil', 'Jeans', 'These Things Take Time', the achingly pretty 'Wonderful Woman' and the as yet unrecorded 'The Night Has Opened My Eyes' would (hypothetically) have been a great record.
Further singles have followed that suggest that Morrissey may have little left to report other than that misery is a state which can be celebrated with both humour and grace. It's hard to tell how easily he's slipped into the role of pop's Great Outsider. What is he if not the perverse creature who leapt out of "that horrible, stupid, sloppy Steven", the Steven Morrissey who was always "entwined" with pop but never part of it, and whose homo-erotic fascination with Angry Young Men led him to mistake Johnny Thunders for James Dean? (When it transpired that he'd written a whole book about the New York Dolls, I found it all but impossible to connect him with the hollowed-out "Coulda Binna Contender" Thunders whose heroin habit I was once obliged to subsidise for a day). What is Morrissey if not the critic become star?
One could say . . . one could say that The Smiths have made pop sound acute again. One could note that Morrissey breaks the codes of the western love song, that he will never inhabit the body of a pop star, that he writes of an England that is ill and dying, an England of iron bridges over rivers of lead that comes gift-wrapped and video-taped from movies by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson.
I feel he does more than this. He gives pop some point. "The only catharsis," he has said, "is to meet other people and to blend with them." The Smiths do this. If he can transcend his own finely ironic sense of himself as Lost Boy, there's no telling what further fruits the union of his mind with Marr's will bear.
© Barney Hoskyns, 1984
To read more from Rock's Backpages and find out subscription details, visit the Rock's Backpages website. Barney Hoskyns' new book Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits is published on March 5th