Lay before me was musical perfection: all eight of the Smiths albums on vinyl – from their self-titled 1984 debut to Strangeways, Here We Come, which came out in September 1987 after they'd split up. I stood there looking at all 8; elegantly framed and presented on the wall in my living room, a work of visual art made from the aural artistry of my youth. These were the albums that formed me, and taught my cold English heart how to love. What more can I say.
Such riches. Preserved forever as art, only to be played in times of absolute necessity. That is the vinyl I am talking about of course, the music already uploaded via freshly remastered discs into the hard drive of my computer. And later the spotify playlist full of every track available via the platform....
It's like bumping into one's first love looking at these. I feel nervous, memory-snagged, vaguely apologetic for having drifted into other genre between 1987 and now.
The memories this wall evokes - of Johnny Marr's melodies of course, but the power of Morrissey and Marr telling the story - just wow. There is a reason that The Smiths live on forever in hearts.
I am transported back to the tail end of 1984, I am engrossed in 'Hatful of Hollow' with my best friend Mark Amory - this was an album featuring Radio 1 studio recordings of singles with their b sides, which we had heard on the John Peel show over some late night pool in Marks bedroom. The very same album that now adorned my living room wall. Still with the sticker on the front of the gatefold sleeve, informing me that i "should not pay more than £1.99 for this Long Player".
Fees for no reason and fees for no reason is murder...
I vividly remember queueing outside Circles records with a mate from school, to buy tickets for the 1985 tour in Sheffield. The tour was to promote their second album “Meat Is Murder”. This was before the days of ticketbastard (sic) and their fees for no reason. Where’s the fun in spending several frustrating hours on a jammed phoneline trying to get through to a venue or booking agent when you could join several hundred like-minded souls camping out on the pavement outside a record shop or venue to ensure you get your grubby mitts on a pair of tickets to see The Smiths? Sheffield City Hall was pretty full, potentially sold out. Support came from fellow Mancunians James, who were being touted as the next big thing. They told us to sit down - no chance of that. The Smiths entered to Prokofiev’s Romeo And Juliet played at an extraordinarily high volume. Then, among the highlights, a first hear of the new single Shakespeare's Sister. This was a great gig from a band who at the time seemed to be unstoppable. Sadly two years later The Smiths would be all over.
As Rose collects the money in the cannister, who comes sliding down the bannister.... | VICAR IN A TUTU
I get captivated by the cover of The Queen is Dead, jumping off my living room wall, tapping melodically at my memory cells. 1986, what a year that was to be alive, and what an album. Every track a classic. I played this album to death - much to the annoyance of my Mother who couldn't quite get her head round the romance of a double decker bus killing 2 star crossed lovers. She still can't actually. At this time, my Grandma, my Mum's Mum lived with us. She would spend her days drifting between crochet, quiz books and watching snooker - in a huge armchair overlooking the valley from the back window. Her name was Edna, and like most people of that generation, she was a good practising Christian - so how simply incandescent she would become by hearing lyrics that describe stealing lead from a church roof and Vicar wearing a pink tutu.... Well, frankly Mr Shankly, it was hilarious. Her reaction pushed me to play it more, and sing it louder, I was after all a rebellious teen. On top of this, the sound quality emitted by my parents Bang and Olufsen amp and speaker set up, was just awesome.... It would reach a volume so loud, that you literally couldn't hear your own voice. I never did this whilst anybody else was in the house of course, but the neighbours must have hated me. Mind you, who gives a fuck, the guy next door was an absolute first rate arsehole.
Yep. That Summer - 1986, was as I recall it, a Summer spent largely with my best pal Mark - playing cricket on the street, pool in the bedroom, smoking regal kingsize and puncturing the silence with the awesomeness of The Queen is Dead. Or as an alternative, A Kind of Magic by the true genius that were Queen. I say that, because the Smiths were my bag, Queen, were Marks. However the mutual appreciation was both of ours.
I want to live and I want to love, I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of | FRANKLY,MR SHANKLY
What really captivated me about the Smiths at the time, was Morrissey's dancing. He'd appear on Top of the Pops, swaying and teetering, tugging at his open-buttoned shirt and dowdy jeans, a bunch of glads hanging out of the back pocket, his flailing body moving like one of those windsock men you see outside a petrol station, or a tyre garage - movements that are the antithesis to the body-popping moves and syncopated stylistics of pop acts of the day - to which the studio audience, bounced along merrily.
Nothing about Morrissey seemed to add up; there, below the mirrorballs and spinning lights, oblivious to the streamers and balloons fizzing around, waving a bunch of gladioli like a school teacher on a left wing demo. By the time of "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" he had progressed to sporting NHS specs and a hearing aid. When I first caught sight of him, his semi-co-ordinated assemblage of gestures, was at once vulnerable and imperious, it was a revelation. It captured the soul of anybody that didnt feel like they had a comfortable place in society.
In 1983, the Smiths stood up for ordinariness – their name itself a bold statement. Its out there as a refusal of the sartorial overload and white suit rock opulence of most chart pop.
Though I didn't have the language to articulate this at the time, it was also a political rebuttal, two-fingers stuck up to the Tory politicians who were in the middle of another rescue of the economy following a disastrous term of Socialist government. Britain was being forced to change, to ride the shockwaves of modernisation. By contrast, the Smiths were the enemy, Stuckists who clung to old ways. Back-to-basics Britpop of a later generation. Johnny Marr's guitar playing alone – that glistening jangle later to be heard from Oasis and Blur, setting the tone, and staking the place for real music from real instruments played with passion, from artists with talent. The mid 80s was not great for talent, however catchy the tune.
Ordinariness – which Morrissey dramatised, even romanticised with unparalleled passion, irony and eloquence – was also the dominant feature of my life growing up. I was raised in Rotherham, a fading industrial town in South Yorkshire.
I'd read a lot in those days - a second-hand copy of Shelagh Delaney's 'A Taste of Honey' got more than one outing because of an interview I saw Morrissey do on TV. Afternoon TV, was not yet chocker with cookery or property shows, and often featured black-and-white films starring George Formby, Norman Wisdom or the like. I loved these as well, being quite the romantic. I also dabbled with reading The Guardian... I was a student, thats what you read if you were on trend. I didn't really care about its political viewpoint at the time - though nowadays, I would rather walk on broken glass, preferring to find out the truth than extreme political rhetoric.
Iconic Salford Lads Club
The fading industrialism of Salford, where the Smiths hailed from, was also very real in Rotherham where I was born; many a father of friends waking early to catch the works bus to the pit or the steelworks, and returning home, aching and caked in dirt 12 hours later. Rotherham stands 8 miles from Sheffield, and within a few miles of the Orgreave coking plant, scene of the worst riots of the 1984 Miners strike. Absolutely, As a soundtrack to life in those days, The Smiths were perfectly ordinary, or is that extraordinarily perfect?
Don't pay more than £1.99 for this long player
The first Smiths record I owned was Hatful of Hollow in 1984. I was introduced to it by my pal Johnny Haigh. His Dad worked at a works factory somewhere, and we would use their social club room for snooker days, when we didn't fancy school. Our first trip there ended in a 10 - 6 frame score to Johnny... but I had won something far more valuable. So, I had retraced the timeline from Hatful of Hollow to The Smiths first self titled album, and from there, the love affair has never stopped. My life changed forever. I became almost addicted to alternative and/or late night radio, where the indie rock scene was king. It was a way to own the coolest music - to tape songs off the radio using a cassette recorder. I'd spend some evenings lying in my bedroom hoping Janice Long or John Peel would play the latest Smiths single, my finger hovering over the record button. I remember vividly, the evening I got Bigmouth Strikes Again... I was straight round to Marks for a fag, a game of pool and another listen.
These C90s became field recordings of humdrum town life in the mid-1980s: Girlfriend in a Coma is supplemented by the sound of a distant ice-cream van; Sheila Take a Bow by that of the milkman ringing the front doorbell; That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore with my Mum, yelling at me to come downstairs and eat dinner – We are having salad with Tongue, followed by stewed apple and homemade uhu glue (yoghurt) smothered in Bran. "Your brother will eat it if you don't!" she would say... "I bet he fucking won't", I would think.
I'd tape multiple versions of each song, one after another, their intros smothered in DJ patter and their final seconds often lopped off to cut away to the news.
There was nothing unusual about the levels of devotion the Smiths inspired in me – countless young men and women all across the world, then as now, treated the band as a lifeline or lighthouse. I was most myself when I was yearning; or as Morrissey would later claim: "I am only attracted to the things I can never become or get." There was surely a sexual element to this skinny boy yearning, one which I prepared for since my early teens, for a future in which however much I tried, there would be no girlfriends... They were all for the good looking cool lads, why would they want to go out with me.
Sample Artist Impressions
It would be wrong to portray the Smiths simply as an enclave for the alienated and afraid. From the first moment I ever heard them I was struck by their fierce intelligence, their self-reflexive wit, their galvanising swagger. Morrissey's droll interviews were just as engaging as his band's music: in them, as much as in The Queen Is Dead. He made explicit the politics of the Smiths, venting a hatred of the blue-blood establishment as venomous as anything to be found in the pages of the NME ("Obviously I'd marry that person," he replied when asked what he'd feel if someone murdered Margaret Thatcher). That didn't matter to me, because the music, the music was what made it for me. Very few British pop bands - Pulp maybe – have emerged in recent decades who have married eloquence, righteousness and working-class outsiderdom to such transforming effect. None have captured my heart and imagination like the Smiths.
When you're young, you can feel as though you're the only person in the World. If somebody affects you in a positive way, by giving you hope and, further, an idea of how you could live your life, then that's a very powerful bond. The Smiths were outsiders and made music for people like themselves: the fact that they remain popular and relevant shows that, for all the jibes, they made great art.
However pristinely and authentically the songs have been remastered on spotify, they can never pin and mount me in the way that my vinyl records or my fuzzy Memorex tape recordings of them still have the power to do.
Even though I left the North and travelled South, there amid the doorbells, I hear the real Smiths – still ill, still vengeful, still a port of call for the weak and wounded.
That is the difference that it makes.