Thursday, 15 June 2017

It says nothing to me about my life ...

When you're 13 or 14, the only way to start your weekend was by settling down on the sofa and switching to Channel 4 to watch The Tube.
The jump from Top Of The Pops to Whistle Test (it had only recently lost it's "Old Grey .." moniker) was perhaps to great to take in one step, and so The Tube offered an alternative route.
A music show that didn't take itself too seriously, placed the bands and the music at the forefront (not what they were wearing, or what their favourite sandwiches were), and didn't come over like a glorified Youth Club party fronted by Radio DJs that were virtually ancient, and despite their enthusiasms really showed no great love for the music on offer (John Peel and Kid Jensen are exempted from this observation, as they seemed to spend their allotted half hour subtly ripping the p*ss out of everything)

It was on The Tube that I first heard and saw The Smiths.
The song was "This Charming Man" - it was genuinely exciting on first hearing.  Certainly compared to the relatively lame opposition.  It had that added frisson of excitement being an Indie record (when being "indie" meant being independent not having a guitar and sounding like a pile of other bands).
But I wasn't so taken with the pillock of a lead singer - all hearing aids, National Health Specs and flowers.  What's that all about?  Is he trying to be a northern version of Neil from The Young Ones?

Good song (nay, great song) but my boat remained well and truly unfloated.

School days in 1983/84 is split into distinct factions when it comes to music (and this is a sweeping generalisation):
  • The "girly pop" of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet
  • The Reggae bods - serviced by UB40 and Bob Marley
  • The scruffy metal heads, pretend punks and part time goths - Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead very much to the fore
  • Goths and Indie kids - 4AD, Bauhuas and The Cure.  When it wasn't dark, it was all a bit maudlin and student-y
  • The cool kids who probably read books, wore polo necks and were likely to go to university - U2, Simple Minds and maybe some jazz seemed to be permanently playing on their Sony Walkmans.
The Smiths straddled these last two groups bringing together hitherto un-communicative tribes
Despite owning, and playing to death, a copy of U2's 'War', defending the greatness and importance of the Human League, flexing my "classics of history" chops by listening to The Shadows, and defending the vocal prowess of Rod Stewart, I fell firmly into the scruffy sod category - a designation I felt entirely comfortable with.  Having a predilection for very loud guitars, thumping drums and a general air of chaos meant my occupation of this group was probably pre-determined.  Citing Worzel Gummidge and Compo as fashion icons and only added to the confirmation.
(Hence the title: at the time, it really did say nothing to me about my life - or at least no reference that fully fitted (I had never seen a punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, nor was I the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar)

Now, this wasn't quite the open warfare of Mods and Rockers or Punks and Skins, the battle lines were only shakily sketched and there was great tolerance - or at least "some" tolerance (usually) of each other musical choices (although anyone who declared Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon as the greatest song ever written was likely to get serially duffed up).

I had a sneaking admiration for Morrissey's anti-popstar stance - the moody pictures in Smash Hits, the difficult interviews, a glamourisation of an unglamorous past that I didn't understand, and the use of big words.  And all that was underpinned by Johnny Marr's jangling, insistent guitar.
And whilst the songs I had heard always made me think "mmm ... bloody good that" it never translated into a single or album purchase.

But you can't resist forever, and in early 1987 I finally succumbed and purchased a copy of the compilation 'Louder Than Bombs' on import from my local, friendly Our Price.
The singles "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" and "Sheila Take A Bow" had burrowed their way into my head, and I was now at the point where I had to have more Smiths material - the compilation (despite it's increased cost due to being an Import) was a necessary purchase.
OK, I could've saved myself 3 or 4 quid by buying 'The World Won't Listen' (the UK version of the expanded US release 'Louder Than Bombs'), but this ignores the snobbery of owning an Import, and the fact that the US version had extra tracks, including some earlier material.

I bought this, listened to it, digested it and returned it to the shelf - "Yes", I thought. "there are good songs there.  It ain't half bad.  But it's still not me".
And then over the next few weeks I would find odd tunes or a lyric popping into my head for no apparent reason - I may have become infected (except that was by The The - another band beloved of the Indie Kids and the beatnick-chique Cool Kids)

Yes, I had been bitten - Louder Than Bombs was pulled from the shelf and re-played - this time the jingly guitar and (apparently) downbeat lyrics were going in.  I wasn't a born-again Smiths fan, but I could certainly now appreciate what was going on there, and wanted to hear more.

And then in July 1987, the NME (my paper of choice at this time (with a side order of Metal Hammer) carried the headline: Smiths To Split.
Typical - a band I've just got into, and will spend my hard earned cash diligently buying new releases from are calling it a day.
Timing was never my strong point, and as per usual I'm late to the party ... again

September 1987 saw the arrival of the new (and final) album, and in my state of new found fandom I bought it on the day of release.

'Strangeways Here We Come' is an album, I have come to learn, that divides opinion among Smiths aficionados.  Indeed, 'The Queen Is Dead' is often cited as their masterwork, and this album usually props up the list of  their 4 studio albums.
Some bemoan the stretch, or adoption of different stylings and influences, others cite the glossier, richer production at play.
Me, I had nothing to compare it to in 1987, and all I could find here was an absolute cracker of an album.
From the opener "A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours" to closer "I Won't Share You", Morrissey and Marr supported by Rourke and Joyce are presenting their best work.
OK, "Unhappy Birthday" don't quite cut it, feeling a bit forced and smells a bit of padding.  And "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" almost outstays it's welcome (and all goes a bit Pink Floyd-y), but 2 (not total) clunkers out of 10 tracks aint a bad hit rate for an album recorded in the midst of personality clashes and breaking relationships.
Previously, I would've added "Death At One's Elbow" to the list of "nearly, but not quite", but having re-listened to it, it is a great rock-a-billy workout, almost pointing the route was Morrissey would initially embrace.
"Paint A Vulgar Picture" deserves a mention as lyrically it is a bit of a diatribe against record companies reviving, re-issuing and re-packaging.  It maybe tounge-in-cheek, but it can also be read as a bit rich bearing in mind that The Smiths already had 2 compilations (3 if you include 'Louder Than Bombs') in their catalogue, and would ultimately have their entire output re-packaged several times over in the next 20 years (OK, that was more WEA trying to maximise their returns, rather than the band sanctioning constant re-releases).  To date their are 5 compilations available, and a complete box set of all the albums.

Over the next 12 months or so, I bought the rest of the albums, including the 2 compilations (most of which I already had on the Import copy of 'Louder Than Bombs'. (with the exception of 'Rank' which didn't arrive in my ownership until about 2006)
After listening to them all, I can understand where the doubters are coming from, but can only confirm that 'Strangeways Here We Come' was, and still is, the best Smiths album out there.

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"


  1. Your early relationship with The Smiths mirrors my own. I agree about Strangeways: a very underrated album. In many ways, Pain A Vulgar Picture can be seen as foreshadowing for everything that was to come for the band, not just the way their back catalogue has been exploited by WEA, but also Morrissey's continuing battles with record companies. (Although lately, I'm actually starting to have some sympathy with the record companies!)

  2. I got into the Smiths when i won a copy of Hatfull of Hollow at a concert to raise money for the Miners Strike back in 1984 i think...Billy Bragg gave out the prizes and said something like "i wouldnt mind that myself ,great stuff" and signed it for me...tbh didnt really like them until this lp but then became a big fan...