Music

The Smiths: The Greatest Band of the 1980s

An interview with Smiths biographer Tony Fletcher.

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guardian.co.uk

A few months ago, acclaimed rock critic/author Tony Fletcher published A Light That Never Goes Out (Crown Archetype), the most comprehensive book to date about The Smiths, a band—led by Johnny Marr and Morrissey—that had a fanatic following in the UK. Although the duration of The Smiths’ heyday was brief—the first single “Hand in Glove” was released in 1983 and the group broke up in ‘87—their immense influence continues. Fletcher, 48, born in Yorkshire, England, was an active participant in the UK independent music culture and present for the pandemonium that enveloped The Smiths. He moved to New York in the late-80s, and has since written, among other books, biographies of Keith Moon and R.E.M. He now lives in the Catskill Mountains with his family. The following interview was conducted by email two weeks ago. Fletcher’s website is www.ijamming.net.   

Splice Today: The most compelling—and melancholy—section of A Light That Never Goes Out, at least to me, is your long chronology of the Smiths’ break-up in 1987. As a young man fully immersed in The Smiths culture at that time, what did you make of all the rumors about the band’s impending demise?

Tony Fletcher: There weren’t really that many rumors, although the lack of live shows in 1987 certainly didn’t bode well. But the sequence of events was pretty straightforward and remarkably rapid: One week, the NME announced “Smiths To Split,” and the next week Johnny Marr confirmed it. There was a brief and embarrassing period during which time Morrissey attempted to keep The Smiths going without Johnny, which unfortunately overshadowed the release of Strangeways, Here We Come, and then it was all over.

For many people, it may have come as an enormous surprise, a shock, a disappointment and more. Although I had no more inkling about it than anyone else, I had been through this before with the Jam, who at the time were scoring regular UK number one singles. In their case, I actually was on the inside, running an independent label out of their offices alongside Paul Weller, and the split was kept from me until after it was made official. I learned from that experience a couple of important lessons: 1) British bands have a habit of breaking up at the peak of their popularity, and 2) I’m usually the last to know!

On another note, I was busy extricating myself from my UK surroundings and slowly emigrating to the USA at this point in time, and while I had been a massive Smiths fan through the years, I have to be honest and say that their break-up was not the most important thing happening in my life at that time.

ST: I’m still astonished that Johnny Marr was just 23 when he left the band. Perhaps this is inadvertently harsh, but he never seemed to get his bearings after ’87. Sure, lots of session work, and roving superstar guitarist, but never his own band. Do you think Marr simply never found a proper collaborator or was he satisfied staying in the background? I was excited at the time when he teamed up with Chrissie Hynde, but that didn’t amount to much.

TF: I’ve been asked variations on this question consistently since the book was published. My answer is that I don’t want to talk for Johnny. I can only relay what I believe I understand about Johnny in part from my multiple long interviews with him. And btw, I mentioned to Johnny that Paul Weller also broke up the Jam at 23, and his response was that Andrew Loog Oldham “left” The Stones at the same age, which tells you something about our individual tastes!

I do think that the pressures of co-running a band of The Smiths’ magnitude were such that he couldn’t bring himself to go through that again. I also believe him when he says that he always saw himself as more of a studio person and Morrissey as more of a performer, and that his modus operandi in life is to collaborate enthusiastically and furiously with someone(s) for three-five years, and then move on. Even now he has talked about doing three solo albums, almost as if it’s another band project. I think we have to allow him his happiness and not presume that he had to co-lead a band to find that happiness.

All that said, I would cite his work with The The and Electronic as two examples of “proper collaborators.” (I got the impression that he couldn’t deal with Chrissie Hynde’s indecisiveness.) I loved that first Electronic album and would say that it is an under-rated example of the best of indie culture meeting the best of rave culture. I gather he’s playing a couple of Electronic songs on his current tour.

ST: Compared to fans in the UK, as an American, I was late to The Smiths, discovering them, like many, when “How Soon is Now” started receiving heavy airplay on “alternative” radio stations in January, 1985. I was hooked, instantly, and bought all the releases I could find. When the band broke in England, what was your reaction and that of your friends?

TF: I’ve been clear, and honest, in that I didn’t jump on The Smiths with the release of “Hand In Glove” in May 1983. But it inspired enormous buzz about the band, mostly in the form of those BBC Radio 1 sessions, and when I saw The Smiths in September, it was evident that they had a proper following already, which was rare for a band on an independent label like Rough Trade. I saw “This Charming Man” as the fruition of that early promise and happily subscribe to the widely held belief that it’s one of the world’s great pop singles.

Around the time of its release, it was evident that The Smiths had something special and I can tell you that people were talking about them in a way that was different from other bands. Certainly, at our Jamming! offices, there was considerable excitement regarding their collective musical potential and Morrissey’s appeal as a front-man/lyricist, and with the fact that I was working on The Tube TV show, for which The Smiths were filmed performing “This Charming Man” in a segment on Rough Trade for which I interviewed Geoff Travis, and for which I interviewed Morrissey at the Hacienda on the eve of their first album’s release, I had something of a ringside seat to that excitement. I maintain that the debut album was then something of a disappointment, but that with “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and then that incredible triumvirate of “William, It Was Really Nothing”/”Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”/”How Soon Is Now” it was evident that they were, indeed, the best band of their generation.

ST: I was surprised, in reading the book, that Marr was so proud of many of the band’s ballads, the Morrissey weepers, as I thought of them. I remember, after introducing a buddy to the band, his initial comment was, “Marr’s an amazing musician. I just can’t stand Morrissey’s voice. If I could eliminate the vocals, it’d be great.” And I viewed songs like, say, “Miserable Lie,” “I Know It’s Over” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” and about half of Strangeways, as necessary evils, maybe like Lennon & McCartney’s sappy tunes. Do you think that’s a function of age—I wasn’t quite 30 when first hearing The Smiths—and not being part of the peculiar teen angst culture?

TF: To the question at the end of your statement, the simple answer is “Yes.” But to the bigger comment, that of your friend, it’s a typical reaction, not limited to Americans, and one that completely misses the magic of The Smiths. Of course Morrissey’s voice was untutored, possibly even un-tuned at times. And of course, by comparison, Marr was “an amazing musician.” But it was the combination of these two strong characters, the quality of their songwriting partnership, their mutually beneficial qualities and their deep five-year friendship that rendered the Smiths utterly and totally unique. You can’t have one without the other. (And if you could, why don’t we cite The Smiths’ instrumentals when we put together our Best-Of lists?)

Morrissey’s voice drove some people crazy, but it was meant to: that was part of the (insider) appeal. And after all, he was singing his own words, which drove some people equally crazy, and again, that was all grist to the mill, to use what might be a very British expression! Interestingly, all these years later, newcomers react incredibly positively to Morrissey’s voice on his solo work; it could be argued that he became a better formal singer over the years. As for the general idea of Smiths ballads, I think they work best for their relative rarity, and personally I love “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” almost as much as any Smiths song, but I would just ask why you omitted from your list arguably the most popular (and certainly most covered) Smiths song of all, “Please Please Please…”

ST: My favorite song from the 80s is “What She Said,” followed by “The Queen is Dead” and “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side.” (No slight intended to the Pogues or Cure.) But it’s your show: what are your five favorite Smiths songs, with the understanding that the list probably changes from time to time?

TF: It does change. My favorite artists, including The Smiths, are typically those who created a sufficiently varied catalogue that you can choose a different song or album depending on your mood any given day. (The Who and R.E.M. would be two great examples with vastly larger catalogues than The Smiths.) Over the course of promoting the book, I’ve tended to hone in on “Still Ill,” “The Headmaster Ritual,” “Cemetry Gates,” “Paint A Vulgar Picture” and yes, “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side,” in a deliberate attempt to avoid the most obviously cited classics, which would include the song “The Queen Is Dead” and many of their singles. But I’m tempted to include “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and “Miserable Lie” on this list just for you; I love them both.

ST: You wrote about the band’s increasing popularity in the U.S., and that on the ’86 tour here, the audience had changed a bit, and included what are today called “bro’s,” and back then “jocks” or “frat boys.” I saw the band in Washington, D.C. on The Queen is Dead tour, and didn’t notice that at all. In fact, at least at that particular show, which was great, the crowd tilted heavily female and Goth. Can you expand on that?

TF: I have taken a small amount of stick for this assertion. In the UK, the shift in audience was absolutely evident, not only in the show I attended at Kilburn (recorded for Rank), but via the incidents that occurred elsewhere on that tour, some of which made newspaper headlines. I did not see The Smiths perform in America, but I went by the claims of those who were part of the band and had toured the States the previous year as well. It may have been city-specific, or it may have been more prevalent at the bigger venues attended by more than just the long-term and hard-core fans. (A couple of the CA venues were vastly bigger than DC.) I think the overall theme is well expressed in the book but I am happy to debate it further!

ST: You moved to New York in ’88, after a precocious and successful career in England. What was your immediate impression of living in the U.S. and how long did it take you to assimilate?

TF: Per your opening question, my move began right around the time The Smiths broke up. I was living out of suitcases between Princeton and Cambridge (and no, I was not attending the Ivy League universities!) for several months and made it into a Manhattan apartment on July 4 1988. I had fallen in love with New York City upon my first visit, in April 1986. Having been brought up with an innate amount of anti-American prejudice, I realized that, whatever misgivings I might have about certain cultural aspects of the wider national lifestyle, I was destined to live in New York. In fact, I saw my upbringing in London as mere training for the real thing.

New York was London on steroids: it was easy to get around, it was inexpensive, it was easy to barter, it didn’t shut down at 11 at night, and the drink measures were ludicrously generous! I was at the right age to thrive on the chaos and danger, though I have to assert that I actually found New York City more polite than London. More to the point, and this was really my main reason for re-locating, I found New York City (in particular) and America (in general) simply more accepting, more encouraging, more open. In Britain, you weren’t expected to break out of your box; in New York, you were fully encouraged to do so. It didn’t harm that the girls liked an English accent!

I eventually tired of New York City the way many people do: by getting married (to one of those girls), having a kid, and realizing it wasn’t as much fun any more. (And that it had gotten way more expensive in the meantime.) I was happy to move upstate to the thriving artistic culture of our part of the Catskills: Woodstock and surrounding towns. I eventually decided to become a citizen, and no sooner had I done so than I ran for local school board. So I guess I assimilated okay. I am going through a period of incredible frustration with the system of government here, especially in light of the horrendous death toll that too many politicians accept as the price for our “freedom” to own guns of all shapes and sizes and killing capacities. Our violent death rate is out of bounds with any other First World country and shames us in the eyes of the rest of the world, most of which loves the American people and most of their culture. I don’t like the increased odds of my children (or indeed myself or my wife) dying via the barrel of a gun compared to those other countries and am trying my limited best to do something about it.

ST: You were born in 1964, and so missed the immediate rock/pop tumult of the 60s. Had you been a teenager then, what bands do you think you’d have gravitated to? The Who vs. Kinks? Beatles vs. Stones? Dylan vs. Donovan—okay, a mismatch there? Easybeats vs. Searchers?

TF: No contest. The Who. In fact, I did gravitate to The Who, which will allow for a nice segue into your next question.

ST: Your next book?

TF: On July 4, William Heinemann in the UK publishes Boy About Town: A Memoir. It’s an account of my schooldays in South London in the 1970s, told as a Top 50 countdown. It’s full of sex, drugs, football, and rock 'n' roll. I fell in love with The Who at a young age, and as such, was perfect fodder when The Jam came along. I started a crappy school music fanzine at the end of 1977, the year of punk, and it slowly took off, changing my life in myriad ways, all of which are detailed without shame or apology! I regret that it doesn’t have an American publisher as yet (it is a very British book) but I believe it’s the best thing I’ve written.

And I’m working on a proposal for my next non-fiction book.

ST: In the book’s acknowledgements, you write about your young son’s playing the guitar, and how that made The Smiths’ songs fresh again. I do think that their catalog has aged well, and my own sons, 18 and 20, are huge fans of the band. Sharing music with your children is a lot of fun. Has your teenage son introduced to bands you might not have come across otherwise?

TF: Actually, my teenager is remarkably, some might say bizarrely, free of interest in popular music. That gene appears to have been inherited by my younger son, who is something of a guitar prodigy at age eight, and can already play most of The Who singles, perfectly. He is just growing out of an obsession with Gustafer Yellowgold, a fictional children’s animated character whose songs use the similar kind of “passing chord” progressions as Johnny Marr. (Interestingly, the musician behind Gustafer, Morgan Taylor, claims to have been influenced by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera.) So, no, I have been introduced to very little pop music by my kids with the exception of Alex Day. (Look him up!)

ST: What current bands owe a stylistic debt to the Smiths?

TF: The Shins and The Decemberists among the bigger of American bands. I think Thom Yorke owes a debt to Morrissey. If you just look at the number of American acts who have covered The Smiths, that debt becomes quite apparent. But, allowing that I am not in touch with new music the way I once was, I would cite The Smiths’ legacy as being mostly a cultural one: Morrissey changed the way we look at lyrics, Johnny Marr’s chord structures are widely emulated and imitated, and I really don’t think that the expression of teenage angst would be quite the same had we skipped The Smiths.

ST: Finally, one recollection of The Smiths stands out for me. I was in London when “Panic” was released. I’d read about it and went to the Tower Records on Piccadilly and there was a long line to buy the single. What’s your single most powerful memory of The Smiths when they were still together?

TF: Good question. Media headlines aside, probably attending the “Jobs For A Change” festival in London, June 10 1984. All right, so it was a free outdoor gig, and there were some other semi-decent names on the bill, and I knew lots of people would go for that reason alone. But the presence of such obsessive Smiths fandom that day—people literally climbing the courtyard walls, hanging precariously off drain-pipes for a better view—was an eye-opener. It was evident then that this was the indie nation’s favorite new band. (We didn’t use the term “indie nation” back then, I should note.) I recorded that gig on cassette by the way, and have never heard any other recording of the show. One of these days I might even find the tape. I have a dozen or more boxes of cassettes in a storage room awaiting my old age!

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

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