Keeping Up With the Smiths
Steven Morrissey, the Bookish-Looking beanstalk who sings with the British rock group the Smiths, was thirteen when he fell in love for the first time – with the New York Dolls. He saw the band on British television in the early Seventies and immediately flipped for those five glitter-rock hoodlums from the bowels of Manhattan. In his home town of Manchester, England, young Morrissey would wear Dolls T-shirts to track-and-field practice despite the merciless razzing of school bullies. He collected every press clipping on the band, eventually publishing a book of them in 1981. Finally, in 1982, Morrissey put his love of the Dolls’ vibrant outrage into action; he formed the Smiths with a local guitarist named Johnny Marr.
With their homely appearance, Marr’s Byrds-abilly jangle and Morrissey’s wistful, introspective lyrics, the Smiths look and sound nothing like the singer’s beloved sex-mad Dolls. Indeed, Morrissey himself has been an avowed celibate these past seven years. But as he gazes thoughtfully at the torrential rain outside his hotel window the day after a recent sold-out concert in New York, the twenty-seven-year-old singer tries to explain how much his plain-Jane Smiths – one of Britain’s top postpunk bands, now on the U.S. charts with their fourth LP, The Queen Is Dead – have in common with a bunch of hitless Seventies glam rockers.
“For me, they were the official end of the Sixties,” he says, tugging proudly at the faded, old Dolls T-shirt he’s wearing. “They were the first sign that there was change, that someone was going to kick through and get rid of all the nonsense. It gave people hope.”
The Smiths, in turn, burst unexpectedly onto the British scene in the summer of 1983 like a breath of fresh guitar air amid the preprogrammed ticktock of the Human League and punk’s rage by numbers. Compelling singles like “This Charming Man” and “How Soon Is Now?” (with its funereal Bo Diddley drone) went Top Thirty in England; the Smiths’ 1985 album Meat Is Murder entered the British charts at Number One. The group – Morrissey, Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, drummer Mike Joyce and new second guitarist Craig Gannon, lately of Aztec Camera – has also left in its wake a new U.K. generation of bands like James, the Woodentops and Easterhouse that play evocative but distinctly nonphallic rock & roll.
“Obviously, it’s a different time,” Morrissey notes of the Smiths’ spiritual link with the Dolls. “But it’s the same, in that you can feel that danger.”
On The Queen Is Dead, Morrissey sounds the alarm not with a bang but an urgent whisper. As a lyricist, he is more like Ray Davies than Joe Strummer in his tortured poignance and quiet sarcasm. In the title track, he writes twin epitaphs for England’s fading glory and the country’s impotent royalty, and then, over a jolly music-hall gait, he tells his boss to take this job and shove it in “Frankly, Mr. Shankly.” In comparison, the Smiths’ latest British single, a strident protest against soulless pop called “Panic,” is practically a declaration of war (“Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/It says nothing to me about my life”).
“Many people judge the Smiths as being absolutely dour in their approach,” Morrissey says with the air of an irritated college professor, adjusting his offstage glasses (he is nearsighted). “But I like to feel that whatever assessments people make of the Smiths, the Smiths speak absolutely for now, singing about the way people live as opposed to the way people don’t live, which seems to be the cast-iron mode of songwriting these days. We live in a world which is unlike the way Top Forty records convey it.”
The Smiths experience, he suggests, is actually “like consciousness-raising classes. They’re very depressing. ‘Why should we sit around and talk about our innermost feelings?’ But those little things bring people together. They allow people to open and blossom, to learn things about themselves. That’s what the Smiths aim to achieve.”
For Morrissey (he goes only by his surname), first bloom came in 1965 when he bought his first record, “Come and Stay with Me,” by Marianne Faithfull. He was six years old. After that, he avidly consumed Sixties British pop singles “because it was very street level. You knew a group came from Liverpool because of what they were singing.” He also devoured pithy romantic hits by female singers like Cilia Black, the Marvelettes and Sandie Shaw (who returned the compliment two years ago by covering the Smiths’ own “Hand in Glove”).
“To me, the two-minute-ten-second single was power,” says Morrissey. “It was blunt, to the point.” Yet until his midtwenties Morrissey marveled at that power only in private. The son of a security guard and a librarian, now divorced, Morrissey lived a hermitic existence in Manchester, drawing unemployment, reading Oscar Wilde and writing mostly for his own satisfaction, until Johnny Marr literally appeared at Morrissey’s door with his guitar one day in ’82. “He had heard of me, of this strange literary recluse,” Morrissey laughs. “He was curious.”
With local acquaintances Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, Marr already had the makings of a band. Morrissey had the words and the voice, a tremulous choirboy’s cry. After playing only seven shows together, the Smiths had a record contract with Rough Trade Records, a top British independent label. Just as quickly, Morrissey’s celibacy and the ambiguous sexual point of view in his lyrics became a major issue in the press. BBC Radio, for example, refused to broadcast the song “Reel Around the Fountain” after British tabloids claimed it was about child molesting. In fact, Morrissey explains with some annoyance, the song was about “loss of innocence, that until one has a physical commitment with another person, there’s something childlike about the soul.”
Morrissey claims the lack of specific boy-girl (or even boy-boy, girl-girl) references in his lyrics is quite deliberate. “It was very important for me to try and write for everybody.” Yet there is an implicit erotic quality to Smiths records, due in large part to Johnny Marr’s inventive folk-rock guitar figures, that is quite different from the explicit sexuality of most top pop platters. “I find when people and things are entirely revealed in an obvious way,” Morrissey says, “it freezes the imagination of the observer. There is nothing to probe for, nothing to dwell on or try and unravel. With the Smiths, nothing is ever open and shut.”
A growing number of young Americans have apparently been patiently decoding Morrissey’s lyric messages. Despite an ill-starred American debut on New Year’s Eve 1983 – Morrissey fell off the stage of a New York club during the first number – the Smiths have been welcomed on their 1985 and 1986 tours of the United States by sold-out houses and adulatory stage invasions. Morrissey also believes, quite earnestly, that his words and the Smiths’ singular music can change a few lives in the same way the New York Dolls changed his. If he was a confused, tortured teenager hearing “Panic” for the first time, he says, laughing, “I would burn down a disco, I’d probably assassinate the queen, and I would definitely form a group – called the Joneses.”
This story is from the October 9th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.
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