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.