Some Bands Are Better Than Others

A now-legendary John Peel session made me aware of the Smiths but it was ‘This Charming Man’ that sealed the deal. It bolted me to the floor the first time I heard it. I had only recently turned 19 years of age, and like the vast majority of new sounds I was consuming at this time, it was Peel who first played it to me. As context, the ‘80s was shaping up to be a decade to generally forget. John Lennon had been murdered in New York at its birth by a fame-obsessed loner, and furthermore, a favourite book was being cited as an accessory after the fact. Joe Strummer had gone missing and with him as it turned out, the future of The Clash. The Jam had split and although Weller had made a reasonably quick and spirited comeback, it didn’t feel the same. Nothing did after that. The Falklands War had started and although my small group of mates didn’t know where the Islands were, we all assumed it was only a matter of time before we were conscripted and sent to fight Ardiles, Kempes and the rest of General Galtieri’s military junta. 

Music was becoming divided on the battleground of the emerging Independent record labels putting up a defiant resistance against the Majors. It would reach something of a peak around 1986. In the early ‘80s though, the New Romantics were the predominant genre. The predilection for males wearing make-up wasn’t new. Bowie had even inspired me to wear some black and purple eyeliner to less than positive effect a few years earlier, but the music of this new era wasn’t up to scratch. The early Spandau Ballet records upon which much of the hype was based were, in my opinion, poor second rate karaoke versions of Bowie’s Lodger LP. The production was tinny and aimed at radio and the whole culture - exemplified by ridiculous opportunists like Marilyn and Steve Strange - appeared to be a triumph of style over any kind of substance. But then just as it seemed I had lost course, along came the Smiths.

The Smiths were the ‘80s for me. Other bands orbited my interest in music at this time but for the best part of five years the Smiths were the centre of the Universe. And it all started with ‘This Charming Man’. I had honestly never heard anything like it before. Hearing the first Ramones LP in a friend’s bedroom in 1976 was the only time previously that I had felt so similarly euphoric. Of course, as time passed I’d boastfully claim to disinterested fellow students that I first heard of The Smiths as early as May 1983, when that now legendary first Peel session broadcast. Days after, ‘Hand in Glove’ was released as the band’s first single to a generally muted reception. Five months later though ‘This Charming Man’ felt to me what ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ must’ve felt like to millions of previously repressed and directionless American teenagers.

Musically the Smiths neither belonged to this burgeoning ‘New Pop’ nor the parallel universe of the ‘Post-punk’. There was no clear sexual orientation to the lyrics but still they offered a highly literate take on the traditional guitar, drum, bass, vocal rock sound I’d grown up with at a time when synthesizers had virtually rendered guitars obsolete. 

There was something immediately unique about Morrissey. He looked like an amalgam of Elvis Presley, James Dean and Albert Seaton. But he wore ordinary if slightly antiquated clothes like those that could be found (and subsequently altered) in your dad’s wardrobe. His words had an archaic sonority which hinted at more literary reference points. I didn’t appreciate it when I first heard it but the multitude of bookish northern influences was very much in line with my own developing interest in modern English literature. A few years earlier, I’d come across an early book by Barry Hines entitled The Blinder. It was a typically northern story of a young footballer Lennie Hawk, whom many believed to be something of a reincarnation of another flawed genius from his club’s past. Lennie Hawk had it all. He was handsome, charming, intelligent, quick-witted and a footballing genius. He was still only 17. As with the real life sixties icon on whom the story was obviously based, it would all end badly as he burned the candle at both ends. The book reflects the social values of the mid ‘60s when it was written. England had just won the World Cup and ‘Revolver’ was the LP of the year. The text remains fresh to me and is a fantastic reminder of those more straightforward times when the local sporting heroes still played for their local team and drank with the supporters in the local pubs after the game.

The book was very descriptive. I could easily visualise the grime of the red brick back courts of Northern England and the small terraced house that Lennie and his mum lived in with its living room opening onto the street at the front and sharing the same tiny cramped space as the kitchen at the back. I loved this book and it led me to A Kestrel for A Knave by the same author, and the outstanding Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse. The film of this book had a long lasting effect on me. It painted a monochromatic picture of a country struggling to come to terms with the end of Empirical power in the wake of two devastating wars. Everyone in Billy Fisher’s world is trapped by these circumstances, apart from Liz, the beatnik girl played by Julie Christie. She represents freedom; an escape from a life of pram-pushing drudgery or factory conditioning. Billy Liar’s influence on The Last Days of Disco isn’t very far from the surface.

When I began to dissect Morrissey’s lyrics, particularly on the debut album, I found a soundtrack to these books and a multitude of associations and pointers to other sources detailing life (and shockingly tragic death) in these northern towns. It’s often said that Bob Dylan’s lyrics read like short stories; Morrissey’s read like the draft outlines for the ‘Play for Today’ shown in gritty monochrome on the BBC during the late ‘60s. The grim up north subtext of the Smiths early songs concealed an extremely funny and identifiable perspective for anyone prepared to delve deeper. When the options included being asked to Wake Up before I Go Go, I didn’t take too much persuading. Underpinning these phenomenal lyrics was Johnny Marr’s incredible music. Uplifting and intricate, it reminded me of everything that was great in my musical frame of reference - yet it still sounded original and unique. For Charming Man, Marr had taken some influence from the Postcard singles of Orange Juice and especially Aztec Camera’s teenage frontman Roddy Frame. It was written in a much higher key than he had previously used. As a result the record had a more upbeat vibe than the previous single. Although it has been included on the re-mastered CD versions of the debut album, it doesn’t feel at home there. Like subsequent singles, it stands perfectly as a one-off.

In truth they were not a band to be listened to on CD. Even though the CD started to make an impact in the middle of the Smiths brief career, the structure of the tracklisting of each album, and the perfection of each single package were made for vinyl. They shared this categorisation with another northern foursome.

 The Smiths have often been described as the Beatles of my generation led by the Manc Lennon & McCartney. I realise that this may be an unpopular thesis but in my opinion, they were better. Don’t think so? Okay, as David Frost used to say after watching Loyd Grossman breaking and entering into a complete stranger’s house; ‘let’s examine the evidence’.

First off, there were a number of basic similarities between the bands that make direct comparison appropriate. Both were groups comprised of four young northern lads from predominantly working class backgrounds. They were brought together through a love of music or culture from previous generations. They were constructed around a classic formula of guitar, drums, bass and voice although in the Fab Four’s case there was more than one voice and rhythm guitar to supplement lead. Marr dealt with all guitar duties for the Smiths. Their careers were relatively short-lived ending in some degree of acrimony between the band members where petty squabbles degenerated into long term feuds. Both groups have become synonymous with their home cities with heritage tours of key sites and reference points remaining incredibly popular with loyal followers decades after their demise.

The Beatles have become somewhat synonymous with the birth of popular culture, at least in the UK.  They played a key role in the influencing of films, hair styles, pop art and fashion; setting a precedent for large scale stadium concerts, conceiving popular music as an art form, and in the introduction of eastern philosophy into western society. They are part of the genetic material of our culture and they certainly encouraged a whole generation of young people to assert themselves in a way that had not happened before. However there is a lazy tendency to credit the group for everything of significance that took place in the ‘60s including the gradual thawing of the Cold war. Their music certainly began to permeate Russian youth and possibly persuaded them that English speaking counterparts might not necessarily be ‘the enemy’.  But just as one critic once questioned whether the Beatles ‘lit the fuse or were simply sitting on top of the rocket’, a comparison of the musical output with a band who became their ‘80s equivalents isn’t as favourable to the moptops.

The myth of the Beatles suggests that at the time of their split in 1970 they had created a pop music language that had ceased to be about innovation. Everything from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on would simply be about reworking existing templates. They had said everything that could be said. Sgt. Pepper is also considered to be the point where music made the shift from rock and roll to rock music. It has become the exemplar of what most people would class as a great album. The common argument for its position at the pantheon of musical achievement is that although there are undoubtedly better albums, even from the Beatles themselves, they all assume greatness only when measured against Sgt. Pepper. All of this seems to place Sgt Pepper on a level with Guernica or Ulysses. Undoubted works of art that become far more significant due to the legend that has attached itself and the changing cultural landscape that they were born into.

I don’t think the music itself is deserving of these comparisons. Throwaway songs like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ are obvious precursors to some of Paul McCartney’s more self indulgent moments. ‘Honey Pie’. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. ‘Ebony & Ivory’. McCartney has always had a fondness for the more vaudevillian side of post war music. Nothing specifically wrong with that though and The Smiths also nod to George Formby in the arrangements for the song ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’. This song’s premise in fact recalls the fantasy resignation speech of Tom Courtenay in the film of Billy Liar. But it has a level of wit missing from most of the Beatles’ output and is one of the factors that made the Smiths absolutely unique.

Although the Beatles albums are correctly lauded as groundbreaking in terms of recording technique and innovative structure, there was always the odd duffer on each album. They usually compounded this by allowing Ringo to sing it. Morrissey and Marr wrote four studio albums in just over four years. Added to the diverse and unimpeachable run of singles, most of which didn’t initially appear on these albums, this adds up to around 80 songs with barely a foot put wrong. The control of the artwork with its iconic cover stars chosen from the Morrissey hero archives was astounding. The whole package exuded taste and originality. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, the split in 1986 preserved forever the identity and integrity of the band. All releases had the same Rough Trade independent label imprint. There was no potential for selling out to EMI who had bought their contracts. Like the Beatles, the Smiths legacy and influence has benefitted from not being subject to the relentless repackaging and reissuing that Morrissey scornfully described in ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’. Sadly, his own solo work has not followed the template.

The Beatles versus The Smiths is a battle between pop mainstream and artistic edginess. It is obviously possible to love and admire both at the same time. I’ve just always felt that there’s more depth to the Smiths. Then again, they were the band of my era. The Beatles belonged to that of my parents, and you can never really admit to being completely in love with something that your parents loved first, can you? At least not until you’re old enough to recognise that they were simply part of a musical lineage that you grow to understand.

I saw the Smiths live many times and they were the best I’ve seen. Morrissey’s uniqueness as a lyricist was matched by his stage persona. The NHS glasses, the hearing aid, the torn Levi’s and cardigan combination, the gladioli: an amalgamation of freshness, style and charisma so different from anything else around. Most bands leave you bored after around 30 minutes; an inability to shift gear or alter the template causing you to start looking at your watch after about five or six songs.  The most memorable time was in July 1986 when the band played the legendary Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow. ‘The Queen Is Dead’ LP had just been released to universal critical acclaim and the live music had a beefed up sound due to the enhancement provided by new recruit Craig Gannon. The songs, particularly the newer ones were now being reinforced by set piece props. ‘Panic’ was accompanied by the sight of the singer twirling a hangman’s noose whilst a large placard proclaimed ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as their new material continued an attack on the House of Windsor that had started on the older ‘Nowhere Fast’.

The Smiths were phenomenal that night, even accepting that they had come on stage almost two hours late. The official explanation was a delayed trip north following a Top of the Pops recording in London. I went with my girlfriend and it was just after midnight when we left the old dance hall to run west back into the city centre in the vain hope of catching a late bus or train home. A couple of friends we’d gone with had left earlier deciding that it wasn’t worth missing a day at work following a late concert. They were wrong.

We went to Central Station hoping to see someone who knew my Dad. He worked in the Parcel Service under the main concourse, but since he no longer lived in Kilmarnock I hadn’t seen him in a while. Finding such a person took around half an hour but he couldn’t suggest anything positive beyond phoning a parent from a call box which I wasn’t about to do. He also advised that bumming around the station would draw the attention of the police. The first train home was at 7.15am and although it was late summer it was pretty cold. In a fair degree of desperation I figured the best option was to break into a ‘parked’ carriage and sleep there until morning. I found one on platform 3 which clearly wouldn’t be going anywhere soon and when the few people around weren’t looking we bolted down the platform and onto a dark empty coach at the front. Despite one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent anywhere and a whole series of bizarre noises keeping us awake thinking we’d been rumbled, that night remains the best concert I’ve ever been at.

Of those 80 odd songs, ‘This Charming Man’ is The Smiths’ Strawberry Fields. Not just the record that pushed them over the top into the land of Saturday morning television and daytime Radio One, but arguably the most life affirming piece of seven inch vinyl ever produced.

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