Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Smiths: addressing some misconceptions

This Monday it was announced that the guitar genius that is Johnny Marr will be given the Godlike Genius award at the 2013 NME Awards. Whilst this filled me with a simple joy of seeing someone deserving getting recognition on such a high level it did remind me of the number of perfectly sane and rational people that are into alternative music but that don’t like The Smiths. This confuses me as The Smiths were one of the key bands of the 80’s who managed to bring to the world, in a body of work that covered five years and four albums, a collection of some of the finest tunes and lyrics that have ever hailed from this fair land.

After a bit of thinking I came to the conclusion that this is not because The Smiths are not as brilliant as myself, along with a number of other commentators, consider them to be but because they are one of the most misunderstood bands that there have been. Whilst it’s clear that a lot of people ‘got them’ at the time (each album went gold in the UK, the last two in the US as well, and a brace of over 20 singles getting ranked in the UK charts) these days they are seen by a number of folk as something that 80’s hipsters got miserable to whilst waiting for the invention of Starbucks (something that is not helped by their cardigans, fixie-bikes and NHS glasses). This includes people who were listening to music in the 80’s, as somehow a mystic force (Morrissey) has managed to rewrite the history of the band into some new and ugly misrepresentation of the past.

So in honour of Mr Marr’s ascension to Godlike status, and so as I have an excuse to listen to the classics in the name of ‘research’ here are the top five things you should know about The Smiths.

They were not miserable, they were incredibly sarcastic.

It’s true that The Smiths were around whilst a lot of people were being very, very miserable. Goth had just kicked off, the New Romantics had brought a lot of people making Very Serious Pop Songs, and the country was trying to recover from the economic clusterfuck that had been the 70’s. However Morrisey, despite being from Manchester, was not miserable during this period. Instead he very clearly took the mickey with a very straight face.

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now’ is about people who have what they want moaning about it, sung in a beautify observed ‘crooner’ style, ‘Girlfriend in a coma’ is a tale of someone trying to break off a relationship with a coma victim without looking like a dick, and ‘Shoplifters of the world unite’ is a direct strike at people confusing petty larceny with political stand point. When you throw in Morrissey’s affected annunciation you end up with the kind of tune Oscar Wilde would have written (should he have been in a bed-site at the time). Whilst never laugh-out loud it is clear that a bulk of their work is not meant to be taken seriously on face-value and that is aimed at uplifting the soul, even if it is in a round-about manner.

They are the link between rock and pop, for the generation that followed.

It’s true that The Smiths did everything they could to avoid any connection to what was happening in Pop or Rock at the time the amount of impact the band had on the next wave of both genres. Their slow, almost 50’s crooner, style mimicking of tea-dance musics built up a non-blues / non-synth sound that could wash over you with the greatest of ease, managing the trick of having both a wall-of-sound and a lot of space to it. It was catchy enough and, on the surface, simple enough to be pop but carried with it just enough punch (and lyrical complicity) to be rock as well.

Their uniqueness, inevitably, spawned copiers and from that you ended up with ‘second wave’ acts like James, The Stone Roses, and even Oasis (You can even blame them for The Libertines, if you want to be a heartless git). To imagine a world with ‘Park Life’ but without The Smiths is pure folly; anything that has been touched by either Madchester or Brit-Pop owes a debt to this band and as that covers mostly every UK guitar band (outside of metal) in the years ’85 to ’96 you can see the impact that they caused.

They were not miserable, they were real life.

Whilst other bands of the time were singing about dragons, rioting in the streets, living in space capsules, or promoting the consumerist nightmare of the Thatcher/Reagan era The Smiths were busy with bedsits, petty differences in relationships, not having a lot of cash, and the general indignity of having to be a generic citizen of the working class whilst everyone else was busy having such an excellent time of it. ‘Panic’, AKA Hang The DJ, is their testament to this: it is a timeless rant about not assuming that your life is actually involved in the interesting things in the news or felling a part of the latest political fashion trend, all delivered in the mildest of fashion.

If you throw in a series of black & white record covers from 50’s and 60’s working class life, a selection of cloths that make the Tesco’s essentials range look bold and outgoing, and a determination to never try and be more interesting you have one of the most reality based acts ever. This is the dull 70’s ‘fly-on-the-wall’ kitchen sink dramas given a back-beat, Alan Bennett poetry if he ever decided to take speed. It’s neither ugly nor pretty, horrific nor fantastic: its dull, easily recognised every-man story.

Johnny Marr is a brilliant guitarist and The Smiths sounded great.

The first 20 seconds of ‘How soon is now’ is a mandatory inclusion in any ‘how to make a spine-shivering song intro’ lesson. That Johnny Marr managed to do similar glory throughout his time with The Smiths is testament to his skills as an arranger, producer and player of the guitar. Compositions like the 15 track ‘This Charming Man’ or the almost flamenco guitar wash in ‘LastNight I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ show both a hidden complexity that few will ever touch mixed in with an initial simplicity that makes anyone think ‘I could do that’. This ‘less is more’ approach is a trick that Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler have also played upon (to very different ends) and that will continue to mesmerise and inspire. And it is that musicality that he brought to all of The Smiths

Away from my opinions there is the more easily verified list of guitarists that have cited him as an influence (John Squire, Noel Gallagher, Bernard Butler), , the number of people that have ripped his style off with no regret (Looking at you, James), the number of outstanding acts that he has guested in (The The, The Pretenders, Crowded House) and the series of venerations he has had from assorted music magazines and award ceremonies.

Oh yeah, and his first gig after The Smiths was doing session work for Paul McCartney

They were not miserable, Morrisey was after the split.

Before The Smiths he annoyed people by being pedantic to Melody Maker, setting up more band fan clubs than is strictly healthy, and generally being precocious. After The Smiths he did tracks about being depressed, asked for the head of Elton John on a platter (to be fair this is understandable), ripped into Band Aid, did more songs about being upset, slated all reggae ever, moaned about every politician or political thinker ever, toyed with far-right politics and imagery in a manner even David Bowie would consider reckless, and generally whined at anything he could. However whilst he was in The Smiths he had a sense of humour and, as hopefully explained above, wasn't a miserable git.

Passing off the whole of The Smiths work as miserable because Morrissey went off the deep-end once they broke up is like rejecting all of The Beatles because of what Lennon did with Yoko Ono. Please, look at the work as a whole and not based on what that arsehole did next. 

View it for the ground-breaking work that it was, for the lyrical intelligence and musical creativity that it brought into the charts, and for the fact that it is some frankly great tunes.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

In other news: a map of English Folk Music!

This is a rather excellent way to show how all the different strands of the genres work and relate to each other. I don't have the source so if anyone can provide it I'd be more than happy to link to the original.

Chris Brown is a terrible person

So poor, little Chris Brown doesn't understand why people don't like him. For those who don't know the details, here's a quick cheat-sheet of events for you:

  • February 8th, 2009 - Assaulted Rihanna
  • January 14th, 2012 - Assaulted Frank Ocean
  • August 2012 - Broke the terms of probation
  • November 2012 - Threatened to shit in Jenny Johnsons mouth, on twitter
  • January 2013 - Falsification of community service records

Those are the definate items and leaves out the other less savoury elements which are more opinion based, such as:
  • Switching his version of the assault on Rihanna on multiple occasions, including on the same day, to lower his responsibility for an act he admitted to
  • Comparing himself to Jesus on the cross for people criticising him for the above incidents
  • Failing to understand why going to a party dressed as a Jihadist suicide-bomber could be considered 'in bad taste'
  • Claiming that being asked questions about his ongoing probation for assault and continued acts of violence (threatened in public and actual) are "brining  past shit up"
See, he's not really the most stable of people and him being a quite good/very popular performer doesn't let him get away with that shit. He appears (based on his behaviour, which we can agree has a certain pattern to it) to have an inability to keep his shit together and keeps on running away or lashing out whenever any picks him up on these things. If no-one is saying 'no' to you and everyone is telling you that you are prefect (which, when you are the key element of a multi-million dollar performance vehicle, is kinda understandable) then you're going to see the world a little differently to everyone else. However if he keeps this behaviour up (specifically the assaulting people) then I really do hope he just gets sent to jail like any other person, or performer of lower stature, would be.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Further adventures in DJing

Due to a list of improbable reasons, the likes of which I will not go into here, I'm back on the event organisation kick with Noise Bastard.

Part kick-ass evening of industrial music, part attempt to see what we can really do with the Q Club space. It's on March the 15th and it should, assuming we do it right, be a rather spectacular evening all be told.

So if you're interested then come along, worst comes to worst I'm sure I'll be posting up some set lists from the premier outing of DJs Church & State.

2013 - the year so far.

I started this year with the inevitable hope that it would be filled with kick-arse music of the highest order. The signs were good: Black Flag are getting back togetherNSYNC never will, and Johnny Cash got made into a stamp (which completes his accession to Sainthood in a lot of peoples eyes). There was hope, there was possibility, there was joy.

Then not only did Coldplay's "Clocks" (a 4:18 intro with the passion of a dandelion going off) get voted the best track of the last 10 years (that's 10 years in which we've had Adel, The Streets, The White Stripes, The Arctic Monkeys, and a million other quality mainstream acts) and proved Radio 6 to be for people who have stopped actually liking music but now Fall Out Boy have decided they are going to get back together for a new single, a new album and a tour. Clearly we need more pain in our lives and I'm quite sure that FOB are going to deliver it.

I would like to point out that I don't normally have too much of a problem with bands like this. It's not my cup of tea but I accept that for others its the finest of wines. The total media saturation of that follows them whenever their strike a cord tends to annoy me somewhat (especially if I venture into a rock channel on TV to them find them gurning back at me for 5 days on a row) but they have a major amount of record label money behind them so can buy all the publicity they want. Nope, my problem comes from two simple sources:

1 - I really don't think they are very good.
They can do light, catchy tunes but it's the same tune every-time  They can do precision produced videos, but it's the same video each time. They can do live shows but its the same moves (spin 2,3,4 jump 2,3,4 kick 2,3,4 slowbit 2,3,4). They can do 'meaningful and heartfelt lyrics' everytime but... actually they are just bog awful when you sit down and listen to them. Or rather when you read the lyrics-sheet because the singer has got such a weird warble to his voice that it all comes out like a flurry of jam at a hyperactive dinner table. It's been done, to death. They are popular because they are the boiling down of all that has come before to its most easily consumed nothingness.

2 - They are total sellouts.
Now this is a term I don't use much as I tend not to have a problem with artists making money. However FOB used to be a hardcore band until they decided to turn emo and be as commercial as possible. This was not 'right time, right place', this was solid intention and has resulted in them going for the mass appeal with the precision of a cruise missile. They are Hot-Topic at its very worst: this is a brand that is innately inoffensive being pushed as the next big thing to upset your parents even though your parents won't realise your listening to anything that even begins to describe itself as 'punk' or even 'rock'. The band makes a lot of noise about liking pop but they fail to mention that their main influence is Maurice Starr and Lou Pearlman.

I try to keep these things positive but on this one I just can't. There will be no classic singles or memorable concerts from their return, just a steady stream of cash into their banks and a flood of over-exposure. Meanwhile the thing that could have been the next big thing will have to spend this year brushing up on their act rather than having the chance for their big break.