In many ways The Smiths are the perfect sort of band to analyse and to obsess over – there are just four original albums. There are a bunch of non-album singles and alternate versions – but there is a finite collection of music. And will they ever reform? Most likely that’s a no. (Fingers crossed anyway).
But far more important than obsessing I think they’re a great band to listen to. And that’s (really) what it’s about, right?
I was slow to The Smiths – I didn’t have the older sibling that was interested in them first. I didn’t have mates that were obsessed with them. The band’s music passed me by at the time – I was too young to be aware of it. It didn’t – for a bunch of reasons – reach me.
Then when I started to read about Morrissey and see some of his clips I had the feeling, at first, that Morrissey and The Smiths were interchangeable. Not true, not true. There’s certainly plenty of crossover and it’s a gateway situation that offers entrance at either end. You can get to Morrissey through The Smiths or to The Smiths through Morrissey. You can like them equally – as entities. Or you can prefer one to the other. But they are not (at all) the same.
As you know I married a Morrissey fan. That might mean that I’ve heard more from Morrissey in the last decade than might, otherwise, have been the case. I formed my own bond with Morrissey’s music thanks to his You Are The Quarry album. It might not be the correct best album to like by Moz but it is my favourite. I like him in the crooner role. It suits.
But I can take or leave most of Morrissey’s solo career.
The Smiths though; that’s something else. That’s another beast altogether – distinct from what Morrissey and Marr would go on to do. The music of The Smiths has a hunger to it; four eager, young lads. Lean, angular guitar lines. Johnny Marr was the hunter/gatherer of the pack fighting against Morrissey’s absurd catchphrases and faux-ideologies. Meat Is Murder. No wonder there’s a hunger, no wonder the music is lean and searching. Morrissey’s lecturing and posturing kept the hunt from fully prospering.
I’ll stick with Strangeways as my favourite – it’s the best range of material, the best flow as an album and includes many of my favourite songs from the band. But it’s about the flow and feeling of it as an album too; it hangs together whilst hinting that the band is falling apart. It is the perfect swansong album for this group. And it still sounds like that now. It sounded like that when I first heard it.
There’s a simplicity to a lot of The Smiths’ music. And the Marr/Morrissey songwriting partnership plays out brilliantly – Marr the straight man (pardon the pun), creating tasteful (and tasty) guitar parts. Morrissey the tragic clown, for all the eccentricities and absurdities of the man he played the knowing clown almost as well as he has gone on to play the unknowing clown.
I take Marr very seriously when I listen to The Smiths – even though it sounds like he might have been the one actually having fun.
It’s hard to take Morrissey seriously when I listen to The Smiths. Even though it sounds (far too much) like he was all serious intentions.
Joyce (drums) and Rourke (bass), they had their roles. They played them well/fine – but do they really matter in the scheme of things? They are not the reason anyone listens to The Smiths. Well, not unless it’s other people with the surname Joyce or Rourke. Proud family members aside, as much as rabid fans will tell you that the group is what matters – the sound of the four of them – the band works (now) because of what Morrissey and Marr had to offer. And because of what they now represent.
Marr is (still) the straight man. Some of his post-Smiths work has been brilliant. Some of it has been unnecessary – but he is still vital. I stood through (some of) a gig by The Cribs because it was my chance in this lifetime to see Johnny Marr.
Morrissey is (still) the absurd, swooning goon, this (rarely) charming Manchurian disappeared up (and inside) his own id at least 15 years ago. He was still actively rehearsing/researching the role of Morrissey when in The Smiths. Possibly even for the first couple of solo albums. But he’s been living the white-lie that is Morrissey for most of the last two decades now. He’s both not quite as smart as he thinks and a lot smarter than we’ll ever know. But then, how could I possibly know how he might feel.
Okay, maybe Joyce and Rourke are very crucial elements after all. Marr and Morrissey have never quite sounded like the Marr or Morrissey of The Smiths in their solo pursuits.
I love so much of the music by The Smiths because if feels like it’s contained, persevered – living (as happily as it needs to) in its own bubble.
Great pop songs, tunes that spangle, that shimmer, that squeeze so much into just two and three minutes. I have no desire for a reunion tour. I would not go to see them if they played in my town. That won’t happen of course. But if it did I would not go. I’ve lived inside those four Smiths albums long enough (and the singles-capturing compilations). I can hang out there whenever I need to.
Morrissey once said he’d rather eat his own testicles than partake in a Smiths reunion. He pointed out, too, that he is a vegetarian. Always eager to suggest there’s extra weight behind his words, that boy. Master too of the empty gesture.
There is no need for a victory lap. It wouldn’t work. Couldn’t be one. It’s best just to sit with their music from that time – 30 years ago – the wee bubble they existed in. I just like their music. I think they did what they did brilliantly. There’s remarkable depth in what is, ultimately, a slight catalogue. And I’m happy with what I got by cottoning on to this band when I did.