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.
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