Band members, their closest collaborators, fellow musicians, MPs and activists on how the politics of the mid-Eighties shaped The Smiths' radical album

Many of the people working directly with The Smiths during this period were already close associates of the band. John Featherstone, for instance, had been on board since November, 1983. Rough Trade’s Richard Boon, meanwhile, had first met Morrissey while running Manchester’s New Hormones label: “He sent me a cassette of him singing, saying, ‘I have to whisper because my mum’s next door.’ It had an early version of ‘Reel Around The Fountain’.” But as tight as this grouping was, it fell to Stuart James to handle the band’s day-to-day duties. “I was their buffer in the middle,” he reveals. “I’d be the person Rough Trade would go to if they wanted to get in contact with the band directly. I’d have to report their views back to the label, whether it’s what they wanted to hear or not. It was taxing. They’d sometimes plan things I wouldn’t find out about ’til it was far too late. It was the same on one occasion when Morrissey was on a train in one direction and the rest of the band were on a train going in the other direction. Morrissey was on a train up to his mum’s and the rest of the band were on a train to London to do a TV show.”

Nevertheless, James – who was sacked and then rehired during the summer of 1984 – accompanied the band to America on Concorde for their first US tour. “It was a bit of a waste of money, certainly in terms of vegetarian food. It was far too dainty for them. Their vegetarianism at that point was beans and chips without the sausage. If they’d have been presented with something like a couscous salad, it wouldn’t have gone down well with them.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkAI9YAfR6g

Indeed, as the tour wound its way from Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom (June 7) to the 16,000-capacity Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in California (June 29), the band found it increasingly difficult to maintain a purely vegetarian diet. “I remember arriving in LA and we got picked up by a mini bus,” recalls James. “We left the airport and on Manchester Avenue the next thing we see is ‘English Fish & Chips’. It had taken a considerable amount of grief getting everyone onto the minibus, then five minutes later it was all ‘Let’s stop for fish and chips!’ So then we’re all eating fish and chips. I think fish was still acceptable at that point for everyone, although I can’t vouch for Moz. Maybe Moz was put off once, when he was being encouraged to eat fish by our security guy, Jim Connolly. ‘You’ve got to have a bit of fish, Moz.’ When it arrived it still had its head on, and he turned up his nose. I think that was the last time he tried to have fish.”

On June 11, The Smiths played LA’s Warner Theatre. In the audience was Dan Mathews, who’d recently begun working for PETA. In his memoir, Committed, Mathews recounts cold-calling Morrissey in his hotel room when, to Mathews’ surprise, the singer agreed to an impromptu interview: “Since this is for the animals, obviously I’m duty-bound,” Morrissey explained. “I always thought animals were very much like children,” he continued. “They look to us to help them and protect them…”

At the conclusion of the interview, Morrissey offered Mathews an unreleased live version of “Meat Is Murder” – recorded at the Apollo Theatre, Oxford in March – for inclusion on a PETA compilation album, Animal Liberation. “In addition to interviewing him a few times we’ve had many dinners and gone out on the town a few times in LA,” says Mathews. “I also connected with him once in El Paso on tour. Hates spicy food, loves Italian food, hates Madonna, loves [drag performer] Lypsinka, hates parties, loves Champagne, hates sensational news programmes, loves Golden Girls.” (Morrissey continues to support PETA; though no-one interviewed for this article could confirm if he’d actively engaged in dialogue with other animal rights groups).

“They were great shows,” says Billy Bragg, who supported The Smiths on the US tour. “When you first tour the United States Of America, it’s so exciting. To be part of that with a bunch of guys who were doing that, it was a privilege. They were really at the top of their powers.”

Andy Rourke explicitly cites the band’s first American tour as a turning point in the band as a live entity. “We were changing,” he admits. “We thought we needed to bolster up the sound a bit. So we were all going full throttle. Johnny was using a ton of effects, and four amps at once.”

Noting the differences between UK and US audiences, Stuart James says there were “less bed-sitters” among the US crowds. Rourke elaborates. “The first thing that I noticed, we had a female following in America. Whereas in England it was predominantly pale young boys. The fans used to go crazy in America. A lot more exuberant.”

“We were doing these shows that were blowing people’s doors off,” adds John Featherstone. “It was our first US tour, we did two nights in the Beacon Theatre. In Chicago, we stayed in the Ambassador East, which is the hotel from The Blues Brothers. That was one of the sacred cultural icons of The Smiths. The Blues Brothers, Spinal Tap, Richard Prior…”

Reflecting on how Morrissey responded to America, Billy Bragg recalls: “One thing with Morrissey that’s universal is that he’s an outsider. And where was he more of an outsider at that point than America? But English music at the time had a real credibility in the USA. REM were in a similar sort of groove to The Smiths and had in Michael Stipe another outsider character.”

“As a performer, Morrissey relished the euphoria,” acknowledges Featherstone. “But he took slight offence to the perceived lack of culture in some of the fans. A lot of the US audience, particularly at gigs out west, like San Diego and Oakland, were more ‘Whoo, let’s party.’” Featherstone also recalls the choice of opening act on a number of the dates: transvestites. “That was Morrissey just trying to poke fun a bit. It was done through the agent. Morrissey came up with the idea, for sure. It was a little more formalised than an open casting call, yeah.” Featherstone laughs broadly at the memory; he also speaks fondly of Johnny Marr’s wedding to his girlfriend Angie Brown in San Francisco. “I remember the Meat Is Murder tour being surrounded by friendship and laughter more than anything else.”

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