Keeping up with The Smiths

Joyce, Morrissey, Marr, Rourke

Joyce, Morrissey, Marr, Rourke

The audio on the cassette tape had been dubbed a number of times before it got to my ears, yet still it cut through the hiss. What IS this music? Virtuosic guitar that’s neither rhythm or lead, drums and bass that sound like their own song pulsing along underneath. And that literary, lovelorn moaning over the top. No picture on the cassette. It’s recent music, but lacks the polish and production pizazz of everything else I’m listening to.  Someone’s written ‘smiths’ in biro. Who cares what they look like? This music is amazing.

Me and Stephen Wilson Flinders Street Mall 1985

Me and Stephen Wilson Flinders Street Mall 1985

I’m 16. I live in Townsville. I’ve started to play the guitar, but I’m not much chop. I’ve had a Motown moment. I still love Simon and Garfunkel. I’ve flirted with Spandau Ballet and my secret love of Wham points to my growing awareness of the link between taste in music and self-identity. I’ve started to learn about other music from friends: Greg’s love of The Jam, with Michael it’s Chisel and with Steve Wilson,  recently arrived from the big smoke (Brisbane) It’s Ska and Style Council. We try to start a band, but mainly sit under Adrian’s house playing The Sunnboys’ I’m Shakin’ and The Specials version of A Message to you Rudy over and over again. Steven says we should be called the Empty Hy-Chairs. I fiddle with the pitch-bend on Nick’s keyboard. We never perform. My electric guitar feels heavy and useless.  Then I hear the guitar playing on that cassette.

The guitar of Johnny Marr isn’t about heroics. You won’t find him bent over backwards, gurning, one foot on a foldback wedge with flames shooting out his headstock. His work’s delicate. Refined. Layered. He was cool, and he knew it. He’s an old geezer now,  but listen to this:

The vocals of (Stephen Patrick) Morrissey are an acquired taste, apparently, but how many sips can it take? I’ve read that he tended to get his vocals down within three takes, which is pretty extraordinary when you listen to some of the performance he pushed out in the studio. Often he’d compose to Marr’s instrumentals, and the lyrics and melody would only be revealed in the studio as they recorded. What an extraordinary moment that must have been for those present.

His keening, yearning melodies, punctuated by whoops, yelps and interludes of falsetto redefined the work of the male pop vocalist, and of the masculine vocal in general. The ever-ascending I Know it’s Over: like a Roy Orbison song. The uplifted sadness and strange mundanity of the lyrics in ‘Well I Wonder’

The songs are incredible. Lyrically and musically complex, yet instantly accessible, you keep wanting to go back to them. Like poems. How did they write these things? How can it be that a song like There Is a Light That Never Goes Out can capture romantic nihilism of youth so perfectly? There’s two layers going on here: the lyrical & musical picture is completely believable  It swoons, and at sixteen you know intimately the feeling of being so in love that you want to die. It’s classically romantic.

And yet, as you get older the song still works – though what it depicts now is a true, sweet and respectful affection for those kinds of youthful yearnings. There’s irony at play, but it’s not cool or distanced. It’s one of those songs where you curse the fadeout. You wish it would never end, like the car journey and love affair it describes. Then youtube brings this slightly rougher version where there isn’t a fade-out. You can hear the band raggedly finish playing. And there’s the hint of a new lyric. The light’s in the eyes of his loved one. Wish granted.

As a musician, getting inside tunes like this is hard. I was approximating it for years, trying to pick out guitar lines by ear – but it’s not clear – what is what? Marr would regularly layer five guitars doing different things, using the studio as an instrument. He had such good taste that he made 80’s synthseisers actually sound like strings. Now there’s youtube, smiths nerds showing you how to play every note. But none of them have the style of Marr.  The feathery guitars in the aural sugar-rush of William It Was Really Nothing. Short, but perfectly formed. No-one’s come close.

As a hobby for a while I tried my hand at Smiths covers, recording truncated instrumental versions of their songs. I struggled to even approximate even some of these guitar parts, demoing them at home with my crummy guitars  & work-experience keyboard playing. It turned out like Smiths Muzak, but learning to play these tunes on guitar and bass gave me a new appreciation of Andy Rourke’s bottom end. As it were. Here are three in a row. This Charming Light Begins at HomeLive. In performance, the fey, loose-limbed waggling dance of Morrissey (where did I see it – it must have been Rage rather than Countdown) mincing about with, as one of my school-friends so indelicately put it “… a bunch of flowers stuck up his bum.” [it was his back pocket actually]. The subdued, super-cool, sixties style of Marr, always to Morrisey’s right, always playing a vintage guitar. And the rhythm section, style-less and guileless, looking like ring ins visually, but locked in rhythmically.

These are the boys in the band, but his is a bit different to Cold Chisel or Dire Straits, isn’t it? I liked these bands too, but The Smiths offer musical masculinity that’s not beer-swillingly mainstream, not the geekiness of The Housemartins nor the clothes-hoarseness of (my guilty pleasure) the new romantics. In an environment where listening to Marvin Gaye can get a straight boy teased for being a ‘poofter’, this is enticing music.

a musical embrace: Morrissey and Marr

a musical embrace: Morrissey and Marr

Dancing at a distance. The relationship between Morrissey and Marr is artistically productive, that much is clear, but there’s something else going on. There’s something in this dance between the two creators in this live performance of Barbarism Begins At Home that I really like. The normally expressionless and mostly motionless Marr busks a fifties twist: The frequently flamboyant Morrissey responds in turn with a shy dance that while shared,  delineates distance between them. They’re dancing their relationship. It’s clearly a set-piece. They perform it elsewhere. Morrissey keeps his shirt on this time. Scroll forward to 5:40 where it starts. And check Andy Rourke’s bass playing while you’re there: 

pretty in pinkMovie syncs. An audition sequence in The Commitments has (among many comic cameos in a doorway) some loser singing Heaven Knows I’m  Miserable Now and having the door slammed in his face. This sums up the miserable lie of Smiths music and fans being pathetic and depressed. Of course The Commitments go on to perform RSL-style Motown covers,  which is WAY cooler.

A bit disappointing to see The Smiths synced with a mainstream movie like Pretty in Pink (1986),  but if any cinematic character deserved a bit of musical solace it was John Cryer’s Duckie. Despondent after failing yet again to connect with the love of his life he slumps against his bedroom wall listening to  Please Please  Please Let Me Get What I Want. Unsubtle, but perfect. That celtic mandolin coda of Marr’s talks back to the yearning of Morrissey’s lyric. 

Musical tributes. The gorgeous Lucksmiths from Melbourne write ‘There Is a Boy Who Never Goes Out‘. And cover There is a Light.  Radiohead do The Headmaster Ritual in their cellar. Badly Drawn Boy’s I Saw You Walk Away is surely a cousin of ‘There is A Light that Never Goes Out’. It’s even in the same key. Billy Bragg charges through Jeane. Jeff Buckley does I Know It’s Over.

In this music you’ll find despair and humour equally honoured: domestic detail and grand gesture,  often simultaneously. Those that find its apparrent angst hard to stomach are in denial about the pangs of youth and love we’ve all experienced. The Smiths are one of the few groups that actually deserve the fawning praise of the UK music writers and ageing fan-boys like me. They’ve had the good sense not to reunite.

The band’s story ended in pain and confusion but then what love story doesn’t?

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