The first album to sell one million copies on compact disc alone was Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, a fact that does nothing to boost this writer’s faith in the collective good taste of humankind. Brothers In Arms knocked Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required off No.1 to become best-selling album on the Australian charts during 1985, and was beaten in 1986 only by Whitney Houston.
The first album to be manufactured on compact disc by the Phillips-owned PolyGram pressing factory was ABBA’s The Visitors, in 1981, and the first album commercially released on compact disc came the following year, with Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. This roll call of pop’s biggest stars indicates just how advantageous the compact disc (CD) format was to major artists, and to the record labels that owned their work. Like no other format before or since, the CD became a financial bonanza for major labels – labels that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly became subsidiaries of enormous multinational corporations.
Credit for the development of compact disc technology is generally given to the consumer electronics companies Philips and Sony, who joined forces in 1979 in order to speed up the research and development of a digital audio disc, which both companies had been working on independently. In his book Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, writer Steve Knopper points further back – all the way to 1965, and the height of the vinyl era – in locating the origin of CD technology. American physicist and inventor James T. Russell, who worked for Battelle Laboratories, worked throughout that year in building a prototype “mechanical-optical structure” that used binary-encoded glass plates, read by an optical laser, to play recorded sound. Patents filed in 1966 by Russell would be used, decades later, in court cases brought against Philips and Sony for royalty payments owed. Both companies agreed to pay US $10 million, but the money didn’t go to Russell. It went to the Optical Recording Corporation, who had bought the inventor’s patents in 1985 – the same year that Dire Straits became the first recording act to sell one million CDs worldwide.
The specifications of CD technology make for dull reading, but it’s worth knowing the basics. A CD is a polycarbonate plastic disc, with a thin reflective layer of either aluminium or gold applied to it. Binary data (the zeroes and ones that form the basis of digital files) is encoded as a series of microscopic ‘pits’, read by a laser and converted to audible sound. Sony launched the first commercially available CD player in Japan during 1982, and the CD format was aggressively marketed as a solution to the characteristic ‘crackle’ of vinyl, caused by the accumulation of dust in the record’s grooves. Thirty years on, we know that CDs are just as susceptible to scratches and damage as vinyl – not to mention ‘disc rot’, bronzing and other defects that render them unplayable – but upon first appearance, many people believed the CD represented an infinitely stable format that would perfectly reproduce recorded sound. Classical music was – and still is – a huge sector of the CD market, with audiophile listeners taken by the crisp, crackle-free playback of their favourite symphonies.
CDs and their associated technology – pressing plants for manufacture, digital tape recorders and mixing desks for use in the studio – were expensive, which is why the technology benefited large companies. Philips and Sony both owned major record labels in the early 1980s (PolyGram and CBS, respectively), which in turn incorporated dozens of smaller ‘imprints’, or subsidiary labels. Both companies also had enough money to build and operate CD pressing plants. A company able to manufacture CDs with music recorded on one of its own labels, and with the enormous marketing budget to promote that music via press, MTV and radio, stood to make a lot of money.
Because CDs were more expensive to produce than vinyl records, they were also more expensive for listeners to buy. A key factor in the resistance of major labels to the rise of MP3 and web-based music distribution in the late 1990s and 2000s was the dramatic – and rather literal – reversal of fortunes from the hugely profitable 1980s. As Knopper points out in his book, labels used the advent of the CD to restructure the contracts they signed with musicians, deducting as much as 25% of royalty payments earned in order to cover the cost of packaging and manufacture. Musicians were paying for their label’s overheads, while fans were paying steadily increasing prices for CDs – buying new music, but just as often replacing their vinyl collection with CD reissues.
While vinyl never disappeared entirely as a format – and has in fact undergone a noticeable revival this decade – during the 1980s it increasingly became the preserve of second-hand collectors, DJs, and independent bands. The ‘DIY’ aura of a self-pressed record, or the outré finds of a dedicated crate-digger, did nothing to dent CD sales which made the US record industry $103.3 million in 1984 alone, just two years after the format became commercially available. As record stores dispensed with their vinyl ‘bins’ – large racks in which to display 12” vinyl records – the main alternative format to CD in the 1980s remained the cassette, which, being significantly cheaper than CD, was especially popular with teenagers. The Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player available in Japan from 1979 and in the US from 1980, was the listening device du jour for surly adolescents, bored commuters and perspiring joggers alike. Though Sony portable CD players were released as early as 1984, they did not achieve global popularity until the early 1990s. For Sony, the money rolled in any which way: from their record labels, and from the company’s market dominance in the manufacture of CDs, CD players, and Walkmans.
One format that the CD did away with almost entirely – except in the genres of punk, reggae and indie rock – was the 7” single. CD singles were certainly pressed and sold, but unlike their vinyl counterpart they never represented value-for-money. Individual songs were increasingly promoted by video, especially on dedicated music television channels like MTV, and the onus was on fans to buy the accompanying album. Gone were the days of stand-alone singles (unless the song in question was a real one-hit wonder) and a carefully chosen B-side. The very idea of the B-side as a repository of an artist’s interesting failures or non-album gems gave way to cheaply produced remixes, essentially aural padding for CD singles. Only in dance music and hip-hop, where producers knew their craft and catered to vinyl-loving audiences, was the single remix – generally on 12” format – taken seriously.
A CD’s capacity for 74 minutes of data (later stretched to 80), as opposed to an average of 40 minutes (20 each side) for vinyl, encouraged artists to record longer and longer albums – or alternatively, for labels to stuff CD album releases with remixes, ‘bonus’ tracks, demos and other filler, particularly in the lucrative market of CD reissues. The Beatles hit number one in Australia for 30 weeks with their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which at 39 minutes, 42 seconds was very close to the absolute length for a vinyl album. Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, by contrast, was 55 minutes long, while thirty years after Sgt Pepper’s, Celine Dion ruled the Australian charts in 1997 with Let’s Talk About Love, which clocked in at a bloated 74 minutes and 35 seconds, the outer limit of the CD format. (No prizes either for guessing which company profited from Dion’s excess: Sony, who owned the Epic label that the Canadian star was signed to).
So if the CD format put paid to the single, made overlong albums technologically viable, sidelined vinyl and brought in billions for multinational companies, then what were the benefits for listeners? Debate still rages as to whether CD or vinyl is the better format for audio storage and reproduction, with many musicians, engineers, producers and fans arguing for the ‘warmth’ of analogue over digital sound. But there’s no denying that for the average music buyer, the convenience of hitting ‘play’ on a CD player, without the careful handling, dusting, and flipping of sides necessary to vinyl, was key to the CD’s commercial success. If stored properly – away from heat and light, in plastic cases – CDs do last a long time, and are certainly superior to cassettes for long-term storage. Their durability and relative compactness compared to vinyl (it’s the compact disc, remember) has been the basis of CD ubiquity in the computer industry, at least until recent years, with CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW and CDPhoto formats all proving massively popular for data storage. And without the optical technology that brought CDs into being, we wouldn’t have DVDs or BluRay. In fact, we’d probably still be watching VHS, which beat out Sony’s Betamax to become the reigning video format of the 1980s. It’s one of the few times Sony has ever lost a lot of money, or launched an electronic technology that it didn’t then dominate – until Apple’s iPod changed the music industry all over again.
The Smiths, regarded by many critics as the finest guitar band of the 1980s, have always ignited contrary passions. Ferociously snobbish punks, who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead listening to anything less bellicose than Black Flag, will weep at ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. Morrissey’s Los Angeles fanbase of gay Latinos is legendary. The Smiths unite punks and skinheads, cardigan-clad indie kids and ageing rockers, shy girls and shyer boys, as few other bands can. On the other hand, their musical classicism and cultural nostalgia, mixed in with their singer’s occasionally dubious pronouncements on race, have long provoked ire.
The British music press, so pivotal to the group’s rise, were divided from the start. Certain writers at the NME and its rival Melody Maker threw their lot in early with The Smiths, championing the group as British guitar music’s brightest hope for the 1980s. The Smiths, signed to the independent label Rough Trade, were seen as an alternative – musically and ethically – to the noveau riche froth of synth-pop bands like Duran Duran and Tears For Fears. Morrissey once quipped that he would rather “talk about athlete’s foot or death than about synthesisers”. To other critics however, it was Morrissey’s unashamed musical conservatism that was the problem. The Smiths positioned themselves explicitly against the emergent genres of hip-hop and dance music. “Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ”, Morrissey sang on ‘Panic’, and for some, this hostility appeared at least in part to be racially motivated. Morrissey’s declaration that “All reggae is vile” – he later claimed it was a deliberate wind-up to the NME – certainly didn’t help to win over his detractors.
And this is before we get to the tabloid controversies. From vegetarianism (‘Meat is Murder’), to republicanism (‘The Queen is Dead’), to the Moors Murders (‘Suffer Little Children’), it is easy to forget how inflammatory The Smiths were in their time. They look benign from a distance of several decades, with their baggy sweaters and upright hair, but they wrote about subjects that had barely been touched before in popular music. Morrissey’s coy, ambiguous sexual persona – he publicly declared himself a celibate, yet his lyrics and The Smiths’ carefully chosen sleeve art were brimming with gay signifiers – was intriguing to some and infuriating to others. ‘Handsome Devil’, a B-side to The Smiths’ first single ‘Hand In Glove’, was targeted by tabloid newspaper The Sun for its supposed paedophiliac sympathies, which Morrissey wittily – perhaps too wittily – denied. “I don’t even like children,” he lamented. The furore over ‘Handsome Devil’ was entirely homophobic: a resistance to the song’s exploration of youthful, gay sex.
The topic was central to several early Smiths songs (‘Reel Around the Fountain’, ‘This Charming Man’), while Morrissey’s short-lived affair with singer Billy McKenzie, of The Associates, resulted in one of The Smiths’ most wistful tunes, ‘William, It Was Really
Nothing’. (McKenzie replied with ‘Steven, You Were Really Something’). A feminist sympathiser, Morrissey’s lyrics also took a mordant perspective on heterosexual relationships: “Loud, loutish lover/Treat her kindly/Though she needs you more than she loves you”, he sang on ‘I Know It’s Over’, perhaps The Smiths’ saddest song. This doesn’t quite explain ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’, which threw away one of Johnny Marr’s most ethereal, melancholy guitar riffs on a lyric better fit for a saucy seaside postcard, circa 1945. Still, it was memorable.
This symptomatically British nostalgia was, of course, largely the point. The Smiths looked backwards for their musical and aesthetic influences to a degree that was unusual amongst their peers. In our current decade, when almost every popular indie band is a dull tribute-show retread of past innovations, such overpowering nostalgia can pass without comment. But during the 1980s there still existed an active sense amongst artists, critics and fans that ‘newness’ was the key to musical achievement. Morrissey had lived through the year-zero of punk, after all, in which anything was possible. Synthesisers, sampling, DJs and MCs were on the rise: stylistic and technological innovations that would, combined, result in hip-hop, which changed popular music forever. The Smiths turned their backs on all of it, constructing for themselves a duotone universe of French film stars (Jean Marais, Alain Delon), Warholian icons (Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling) and northern British actresses (Pat Phoenix, Billie Whitelaw). Their music married the jangling guitar tones of The Byrds to the pop melodrama of Dusty Springfield. The Smiths were firmly and stubbornly stuck in the 1960s, but it was not a ‘swinging sixties’ of psychedelic drugs and London fashion; it was northern, and working-class, centred on the terrace houses, boxing clubs and wild moors of Manchester. The Smiths’ aesthetic touchstone was the British ‘New Wave’ cinema of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, and especially A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking depiction of interracial romance, teenage pregnancy, and gay life in Salford, Manchester. Delaney herself, nineteen when she wrote A Taste of Honey as a stage play, appears on the cover of The Smith’ singles collection Louder Than Bombs.
On the one side a working class, female playwright and on the other an aristocratic, defiantly gay Irish dilettante: Oscar Wilde, Morrissey’s great literary idol. Wilde’s sharp wit and taste for camp aphorisms goes a long way to explaining The Smiths’ own humour – and they were funny, a fact which even their fans can sometimes overlook. It’s hard to pin down The Smiths’ intentions: they can be spectacularly self-pitying and make fun of self-pity, often within the same song. Johnny Marr’s minor-key melodies are moving and quite straightforwardly beautiful, but when they get mixed up with Morrissey’s indulgent wail and comedic figures – vicars in tutus, fat bald Buddhists, buck-toothed girls from Luxembourg – the effect is rather complicated. Are we meant to cry or laugh? Both, is probably the answer, but the mixture of tones is one of The Smiths’ divisive qualities, and comedy is a notoriously subjective field: if you don’t find The Smiths funny then you probably won’t care for them at all. I’m not the only fan who has discovered that The Smiths’ humour is a quality that lets you grow older with them, and vice versa. What seems like desperate, lovelorn tragedy to a fourteen year old – ‘How Soon Is Now’, for instance – becomes more and more amusing as you age; what’s best is that the knowingness is built into the song. “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar”. Now that is deftly, flamboyantly funny. And Morrissey remains one of the only songwriters to have anticipated his own redundancy at the very height of his fame, with the brilliant ‘Rubber Ring’: “But don’t forget the songs that made you cry/And the songs that saved your life/Yes you’re older now/And you’re a clever swine/But they were the only ones who ever stood by you.”
The Smiths were certainly famous in their time, with each of their four albums reaching either No. 1 or 2 on the British album charts, but they were not superstars in the way that U2 were, and their singles often failed to make the top thirty. They fell out with Rough Trade over the delayed release of their third album, The Queen Is Dead, and signed to EMI for what became their final record, Strangeways Here We Come, in 1987. Their switch from an independent to a major label provoked criticism among fans and the press – this was when the difference between the two types of company actually meant something; before most purportedly ‘independent’ labels became imprints of large corporations – but it was growing, eventually irresolvable tensions between Morrissey and Johnny Marr that split the band up. They remain one of the few high-profile groups of the 1980s to have not – so far – reunited, having turned down rumoured offers of as much as $40 million to play again. Their legacy is, I would argue, all the more potent for having never been compromised: so attuned to nostalgia and the melancholy glamour of passing youth when they were actually young, it makes perfect sense that The Smiths would refuse to countenance a vision of themselves as ageing stars, gathered onstage for one last reel around the fountain.
Even without a global reunion tour or a Don’t Look Back concert, The Smiths’ influence is pervasive. It began when they were still together, with British indie also-rans like James copying their gentle melancholy, and continued shortly thereafter with The Stone Roses, fellow Mancunians who were equally as fond of a jangly pop tune but not nearly so hostile to dance music. Like The Smiths, The Stone Roses were powered by a song-writing partnership of peculiar intensity: this very British tradition runs from Paul McCartney and John Lennon through The Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), The Stone Roses (Ian Brown and John Squire), Suede (Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson), to The Libertines (Carl Barat and Pete Doherty), each duo touched, to a greater or lesser degree, by a latent homoeroticism that eventually – perhaps inevitably – gave way to acrimony and estrangement.
During the 1990s, Suede best capitalised upon The Smiths’ combination of lyric realism and bohemian flamboyancy; their first album very consciously echoes The Smiths’ first in being self-titled, using a sexually ambiguous image on its cover, and opening with precisely the same drumbeat that introduces The Smiths. Suede also revived the art of 12-inch singles and accompanying B-sides that The Smiths had done so well: far from being throwaways, The Smiths’ B-sides were among their best work and featured heavily on compilations like Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen. Britpop peers Pulp also inherited something of The Smiths’ legacy: Jarvis Cocker’s wit, his fondness for writing about awkward sexual encounters, and his working-class, northern British pride (Pulp were from Sheffield) all found their antecedent in Morrissey. Radiohead have periodically gone in for the intricate guitar melodies that were Johnny Marr’s musical signature, and Thom Yorke’s high tenor voice treads a fine line between miserable self-indulgence and conscious self-parody in a way that Morrissey’s once did. Colin Greenwood, too, is the most quietly inventive bass player in a British rock band since Andy Rourke.
Though their female fans are legion, it is more difficult to pick female artists who have been influenced by The Smiths. 1980s duo Shakespeare’s Sister named themselves after a Smiths song (which was in turn a reference to Virginia Woolf’s influential feminist essay A Room Of One’s Own), and Russian lesbian teenagers Tatu scored a Eurovision hit with their cover of ‘How Soon is Now’ in 2002, but beyond this the trail is harder to follow. Morrissey’s feminist sympathies co-existed with an uneasiness towards women that is apparent on Smiths songs like ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ and ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ (“How can you stay with a fat girl who says/’Would you like to marry me’?”). It’s no surprise that the sexual universe of The Smiths has made itself most felt amid male songwriters, whether flirtatiously androgynous (Placebo) or openly gay (The Magnetic Fields).
Beyond – and sometimes in spite – of their taboo-breaking sexual mores, The Smiths’ legacy can be seen and heard in countless fey indie bands who flaunt prescription glasses, charity shop clothes and paperback novels as signifiers of entirely un-rock-n-roll (and therefore hip) rebellion. Thin, pale Morrissey with a bunch of flowers in his hand is the antithesis to a bare-chested rock god like Iggy Pop. It’s worth remembering though that The Smiths’ air of underfed, over-read intellectualism was on par with their peers The Fall: working-class northerners who loathed the very idea of employment; autodidacts and aesthetes whose class resentment never wavered. Every member of The Smiths left school at 16, and their eccentric pantheon of literary, cinematic and pop music idols, so beautifully displayed across their cover art and through their lyrics, was an exercise in self-education that they shared with fans just like themselves. It is their best legacy.