The further we travel from the ’80s, the less it seems to matter to people, sadly, that The Smiths were once the underdogs, the opposition to all that was hateful.
Their achievements were our victories; their crossover was our landslide. The year they emerged – 1983 – was a time for grabbing at morsels: a Fall session on Peel; two good tracks on a Lou Reed album; Monday night repeats of The Prisoner on Channel 4. Politics? Terrifying. The media? About to go into yuppie overdrive. Thank heavens The Smiths came along.
Few bands in any era have seemed to stand for so much. The north. The ‘angry young men’ of ’60s cinema and literature. The celebration of language, wit and singularity (not to mention their gladioli and cardigan subcultures). The constant cache of cultural reference points: Warhol, Kes-like sadistic gamesmasters, “spend, spend, spend”. And the legions of the likeminded: the bashful, the thwarted, the endlessly sensitive.
It took one single (“Hand In Glove”) to make them seem interesting, another (“This Charming Man”) to confirm that they were special, and then an early 1984 B-side (“These Things Take Time”) to prove that they were magnificent. Morrissey – as epigrammatic as Wilde, as nonparticipatory as Flaubert – could elevate the concept of passion-free isolation to a fine art (“I need advice! I need advice! Nobody ever looks at me twice!”), but referred so frequently to death, with the clear implication that suicide might be his ultimate gesture, that any given lyric could leave you conflicted between amusement and shock. “He is the most self-actualised person I know,” his friend James Raymonde once commented; and sure enough, here came the selfs: self-condemnation (“I’m the most inept that ever stepped”), self-glorification (“learn to love me, assemble the ways”), self-exposure (“Do you see me when we pass? I half-die”). As for self-validation, he already had the rhyme ready for it: “just meet me in the alley by the railway station.”
If Morrissey was brilliant, Johnny Marr – his writing partner and musical enabler – was in the same league. Marr looked like a member of Orange Juice but played more like someone in Fairport Convention. It was novel to find a guitar-fixated songwriter-musician in the synthesiser age, when pop music to most people in Britain meant The Thompson Twins: someone singing, someone dancing and someone doing fuck-all. Morrissey and Marr wrote separately, the singer adding lyrics to backing tracks, but there was comprehensive unity in the finished results. Try to imagine the chords Morrissey heard when Marr gave him “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”, and then just marvel at the inspiration that could have put such a melody – a joyous dance for the voice – into the singer’s head. According to the accounts of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, Morrissey’s vocals invariably came as a total surprise to everyone in the studio. But surely Marr knew, when he wrote the music for “The Headmaster Ritual”, that Morrissey would time his entrance thrillingly late.
In the eight remastered albums that comprise the box set Complete, you’ll hear all four members of The Smiths, not just the songwriting team, make what 10cc called “a gradual graduation”. Recorded for the independent label Rough Trade (whose founder, Geoff Travis, ended up on the receiving end of Morrissey’s pen in “Frankly, Mr Shankly”), the albums came thick and fast, reflecting a headlong creative momentum that made The Smiths one of the most prolific and pace-setting bands of the ’80s. It wasn’t unusual for a new single (“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, “Shakespeare’s Sister”, “Panic”) to emerge within a month or two of an album, and for 12-inch versions to feature two new B-sides. As a result, the career of The Smiths was uncommonly exciting to follow, but meant that consolidation was necessary at times. The compilation Hatful Of Hollow (1984) was released in the same year as the debut album (The Smiths) after demand for recordings of the band’s 1983 Peel sessions became insatiable. A second compilation (The World Won’t Listen) and even a third (Louder Than Bombs) rounded up their multiple singles and B-sides of 1985-87.
By playing the songs chronologically, one gets the true sense of how it was. The Smiths begin life as a kind of folk-rockabilly group (Hatful Of Hollow), finding lusher pastures (The Smiths) and moving into darker atmospheres (Meat Is Murder), before an autumn ’85 epiphany (“The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”) points the way towards Marr’s almost orchestral arrangements on The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways, Here We Come. Marr seldom concerned himself with guitar solos – the intro of “This Charming Man” is one of his rare ones – preferring to knit together beautiful, oddly African-sounding patterns and textures inside which a sparkling single note would duck and weave. But he could also be tough. His glam-rock phase (“Panic”, “Sheila Take A Bow”) wasn’t just a homage, it was an attempt to compete with the T. Rex singles he and Morrissey adored. Among the teenage guitarists who studied Marr obsessively were two – Graham Coxon and Bernard Butler – who would have a profound impact on the ’90s.
We are told that the eight albums on Complete (four studio, three compilations, one live) have been personally remastered by Johnny Marr, though it’s likely that the principal work was done by engineer Frank Arkwright, who remastered the 2008 compilation The Sound Of The Smiths. That album divided opinion between fans who enjoyed hearing Rourke’s bass loud and clear, and those who felt the songs sounded too harsh. These new remasters (which are due to be released individually in the spring of 2012) seem ‘softer’, less abrasive, not so teeth-rattling. It depends how you want to listen. If he can tear himself away from footballer Joey Barton, Morrissey might care to give them a spin himself. And remember a time when, like a pop version of Tracey Emin’s bed, he laid bare the minutiae and momentousness of his life, and watched himself become a source of infinite fascination.