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Many Happy Returns To...'The Smiths'

Thursday, 20 February 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

With pop music approaching its keyboard-soaked zenith in 1984, one of the year’s most important releases, almost certainly its most enduring, made waves in an entirely different manner. Released on February 20, ‘The Smiths’ redefined what could be expected from an indie record.

The Smiths were formed in 1982 by guitar maestro Johnny Marr and Steven Patrick Morrissey, writer, budding miserabilist and New York Dolls fanclub president. The pair had met several years earlier following a Patti Smith show at Manchester Apollo and in Autobiography, Morrissey recorded that Marr’s first words to him were: "You've got a funny voice."

Marr had already cut his teeth in other Manchester bands, quickly building up a reputation as something rather special, and it was as a live act that the Smiths - whose nondescript moniker placed emphasis on their music and flew in the face of the era’s flamboyant naming conventions - soon began making waves.

Early shows featured bassist Dale Hibbert and Morrissey’s fellow New York Dolls devotee James Maker - who would form the short-lived but feted Raymonde - dancing in a  “cool and understated manner” and providing backing vocals, but it soon became clear that Morrissey’s black humour and devilish charisma needed no embellishing.

With Marr’s school friend Andy Rourke recruited on bass and Mike Joyce on drums, the band’s classic line-up was in place for the release of their debut single, Hand In Glove, in May 1983. Written during the band’s earliest throes and released on Rough Trade records, it made the upper reaches of the indie chart and received radio play from John Peel, although mainstream recognition would have to wait until October of that year, when the classic This Charming Man reached #25.

A Top of the Pops appearance gave the wider UK audience its first glimpse of this strange band, who looked and sounded like nothing else around at the time. The enigmatic Morrissey gained most attention, with his curious shuffling gait and flower-wielding swirls, while Marr’s dextrous, Byrds-like Rickenbacker jangle stamped its mark on the music.

“At the time, there'd been this question of whether it was cool to go on Top of the Pops, probably from the Clash refusing to do it,” Marr later wrote in the Guardian. “But we were a new generation and it felt like there were new rules. It's paradoxical, but a connoisseur's approach to retro music was modern.

“Plus, when the members of the Smiths were children, Top of the Pops was one of the most important days of the week. Suddenly we found ourselves on it. Previously, we'd been synonymous with the John Peel show, and suddenly that culture was on Top of the Pops – John Peel started to present it, and it was a new phase: post-punk going mainstream.”

NME readers subsequently voted the Smiths the best new band of  1983, something that the magazine announced alongside a photoshoot curated by Anton Corbijn, who would later make his directorial debut with Control, a film focusing on the life of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.

But it was in 1984 that the Smiths truly arrived. Their debut was released to considerable acclaim and sported an iconic sleeve, which featured actor Joe Dallesandro in a cropped still from Andy Warhol’s 1968 film Flesh. Preceded by another single, What Difference Does It Make?, the album soared to #2 in the UK album chart behind the Thompson Twins, a bone of contention for Morrissey to this day, but it had been a struggle to get there.

Initial production duties were performed by ex-Teardrop Explodes guitarist Troy Tate, but with various parties dissatisfied with the finished product, former Roxy Music bassist John Porter re-recorded the album in London and Manchester during breaks in the band’s live schedule.

According to Simon Goddard’s Mozipedia, Porter described the Tate sessions, now widely circulated in bootleg format, as being “out of tune and out of time”. The author, meanwhile, also recounts Rourke’s opinion that the band perhaps weren’t capable of delivering the widescreen finish that Morrissey and Marr’s songs required at such an early stage in their career.

Despite his misgivings about the initial mix and the subsequent second take, Morrissey was in typically bullish mood when speaking to Melody Maker’s Allan Jones in March 1984. “I’m really ready to be burned at the stake in total defence of that record,” he said. “It means so much to me that I could never explain, however long you gave me. It becomes almost difficult and one is simply swamped in emotion about the whole thing. It’s getting to the point where I almost can’t even talk about it, which many people will see as an absolute blessing. It just seems absolutely perfect to me. From my own personal standpoint, it seems to convey exactly what I wanted it to.”

Lyrically, the ferociously well-read Morrissey toed an ambiguous, often provocative line. The dark Reel Around The Fountain, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and the album’s closer, the controversial Suffer Little Children, which is about the Moors murders carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, are tragic, bleak pieces. "Oh, Manchester, so much to answer for," Morrissey sings on the latter.

The frontman displayed a fascinating relationship with sex in the build up to the record, something that continued through his words on it. By avoiding the subject, his status as a sex symbol added another contextual layer to his lyrics after the fact.

“I think by being completely sexless, it has caused some degree of attention, so people believe I’m totally obsessed with sex,” he told Jamming! in May 1984. “It’s a strange paradox - if I wrote about breasts, people would probably ask me about the Clash all the time. Because I’ve said publically that I’m not interested in sex, people are always asking me about it.

“So much rock ‘n’ roll is masturbatory in a way, very phallic at times - sex is almost completely linked with it. But I can’t help that - it’s just the history of the entire syndrome. I think it is very masturbatory because it’s the height of glamour. It’s just like somebody standing on stage, saying ‘I’m up here, this is what I can do, you must worship me now’. I think that sex element does come into it.”

Following Reel Around The Fountain’s uncharacteristically sedate pacing, things speed up as the record rolls on. The excellent You’ve Got Everything Now culminates in some Marr wizardry before the enigmatic Miserable Lie begins at a canter only to morph into a surprisingly upbeat take on love’s many woes, with Morrissey wailing away between more agile guitars.

Released at a time when vinyl still dominated the market, side two blew the first half of the album away. In the US, This Charming Man kicked off the second half in stark contrast to the first’s slow rumble. Still Ill is another slice of fantastic Morrissey, as he croons: “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body, I dont know.” The double whammy of singles, a reworked Hand In Glove and What Difference Does It Make?, follow before I Don’t Owe You Anything and Suffer Little Children close the album at a purposeful stroll.

Following the release of the record, the band were far from done. Before the year was out they would put out classic singles in the form of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and William, It Was Really Nothing, which came backed by the iconic How Soon Is Now, later a single in its own right, on the b-side.

Both would be compiled along with earlier BBC sessions on ‘Hatful of Hollow’, a collection released in November 1984 that for many Smiths completists is as essential as their debut. William… also provided the band with another Top of the Pops moment as Morrissey ripped open his shirt to reveal the slogan ‘Marry Me’, a reference to the song’s dismissive stance on the subject.

A whirlwind three years then saw revered masterpieces ‘Meat Is Murder’ (1985) and ‘The Queen Is Dead’ (1986) cement the Smiths’ status, before exhaustion caused the band’s premature demise following the recording of ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ in 1987.

Morrissey embarked on a successful solo career, albeit one that’s tepid in comparison, while Marr recently launched one of his own following years as a collaborator of distinction. The Smiths’ legacy would later be soured by legal wrangles and constant reunion speculation, but when judged solely on their records, there are very few guitar bands that come close to them.

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