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The Smiths: Out to Save Rock & Roll

As Britain goes wild for the 'fourth-gender' Smiths, Morrissey contemplates the state of mankind

Johnny Marr and Morrissey from The Smiths in London.
Clare Muller/Redferns
June 7, 1984

He goes by a single name, Morrissey. He calls himself a "prophet for the fourth gender," admits that he's gay but adds that he's also celibate. He's got an immense ego, and though he claims he's from a poor background, he speaks with a very upper-crust accent. He's also prone to making extravagant statements. He says, for example, that his native England is in such a deplorable state that its only hope is that someone will assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, he thinks pop music is on its last legs, and he is convinced that he and his band are the only people who can save it.

The name of Morrissey's band is the Smiths, and in the past year, they've become the most talked-about group in Britain. Without the help of a major record company (the group is signed to the independent label Rough Trade), the Smiths have notched up three successive hit singles ("Hand in Glove," "This Charming Man" and "What Difference Does It Make?"), while their eponymous album entered the U.K. charts at Number Two.

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All that success, however, hasn't made Morrissey a happy man. "I think that what we did is quite revolutionary and historic," says the Smiths' lead singer, lyricist and chief spokesman. "We didn't spend a penny on promotion; we didn't do a video; we didn't take up any advertising space all the things the industry says you have to do to be successful. And I feel quite slighted that our achievement has been over-looked by the industry.

"People who dislike the group say that I'm terribly arrogant, but those people don't really interest me. I'm really only concerned with people who actually like the group, who never say I'm arrogant. They always say I'm quite confident which sounds a little more appealing to the ears. But I can't see any reason to be shy about the whole thing. I'm terribly proud of this group."

Morrissey is sipping a cup of tea in the living room of his apartment near the posh Kensington High Street in London. The room is full of books, but two subjects James Dean and Oscar Wilde predominate. "They [Wilde and Dean] were the only two companions I had as a distraught teenager," Morrissey explains. "Every line that Wilde ever wrote affected me so enormously. And James Dean's lifestyle was always terribly important. It was almost as if I knew these people quite intimately, and they provided quite a refuge from everyday slovenly life."

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'The Smiths'

Morrissey's depressed adolescence is a favorite topic. It almost inevitably comes up in his interviews, and he apparently hasn't tired of it yet, even though he's now twenty-four. Morrissey he says it's his real surname; he "abhors" his first name and prefers not to divulge it was born in Manchester, in England's industrial north. As a small child, he says, "I was quite deliriously happy. We had no money, but they were naively pleasant times. But as a teenager, I could never stress how depressed I was."

Though Morrissey is vague about what exactly caused this state, it seems that it was a case of ennui. The usual teenage pastimes things like sports, or school, or dating didn't interest him. Though he hung out on the fringes of the Manchester rock scene, he was essentially a loner. He wouldn't go to school, wouldn't get a job. "I lived a hopelessly isolated life," he remembers. "I literally never, ever met people. I wouldn't set foot outside of the house for three weeks on a run." What he would do was read, write and listen to music. "The power of the written word really stung me, and I was also entirely immersed in popular music. I thought the marriage of both things was the absolute perfect."

Enter Johnny Marr, a young Manchester guitarist. Marr had been writing songs and needed someone to help with lyrics. He had heard about Morrissey and decided to approach him to see if he was interested in writing songs together. By November 1982, their partnership had evolved into the Smiths, with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce being added as bassist and drummer, respectively.

From the start, Morrissey and Marr's goal was to write songs that were accessible and thought-provoking. For the most part, they've succeeded. The music on The Smiths is simple, guitar-dominated rock. No synthesizers. No fancy production. The only thing that stops it from being ready for American radio is Morrissey's voice. He doesn't really sing so much as he speaks the lyrics in an often droning monotone that can be irritating.

A sensitive, literate lyricist, Morrissey writes songs that deal almost exclusively with sex. "It's what most people are motivated by, whether they're involved in it or not," he says. And though it would appear that his is largely a homosexual viewpoint, he explains that it's really not that simple. "The sexes have been too easily defined. People are so rigidly locked into these two little categories. I don't know anybody who is absolutely, exclusively heterosexual. It limits people's potential in so many areas. I think we should slap down these barriers."

More than anything, Morrissey hopes his songs convey a sense of passion about humanity and about life. It's something he feels the world needs. "There's a certain spirit that people now crave because everybody is depressed. We're moving rapidly into a sphere that nobody wants to go into. Progress doesn't seem to be in any degree pleasant. Everything modern is quite foul."

In Morrissey's eyes, nothing is more foul than Margaret Thatcher, whom he blames for many of Britain's troubles. "The entire history of Margaret Thatcher is one of violence and oppression and horror. I think that we must not lie back and cry about it. She's only one person, and she can be destroyed. I just pray that there is a Sirhan Sirhan somewhere. It's the only remedy for this country at the moment."

Right now, Morrissey and the Smiths' energies are directed toward their home country. Though their album has been released in America on Sire Records, they're not in any hurry to ride the British Invasion bandwagon. "It's very important to me not to fall onto the rock & roll treadmill," says Morrissey. "The very obvious thing that all groups do is to zip straight toward America. I want to go to America when we are wanted there. I'm very, very immersed in England and what's happening here, and I don't want to leave this country to work anywhere that might be utterly futile."

This story is from the June 7th, 1984 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Nightshift”

The Commodores | 1984

The year after soul legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson died, songwriter Dennis Lambert asked members of the Commodores to give him a tape of ideas. "And the one from Walter Orange has this wonderful bass line," said co-writer Franne Golde. "Plus the lyric, 'Marvin, he was a friend of mine' ... Within 10 minutes, we had decided it should be something like a modern R&B version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Heaven,' and I just said, 'Nightshift.'" This tribute to the recently deceased musicians was the band's only hit without Lionel Richie, who had left for a solo career.

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