The Smiths were one of those completely original sounds that came out of Manchester. They seemed to have no precedent sonically in a time when everyone was going electronic. Like an English equivalent to R.E.M., they were a new sound that used old familiar elements. Their debut The Smiths was actually re-recorded by producer John Porter under drawn out circumstances, but the result was the sound that launched 1,000 bands. Like R.E.M. in American, The Smiths would have a lasting legacy that influenced indie rock in the U.K. during the ’80s and ’90s.
In the case of the Smiths, it was guitarists Johnny Marr’s Rickenbacker that lent the band a kind of jangly Americana. I had subconsciously learned to associate most British vocalists as moping whiners, in that distinctive new romantic sort of way. Morrissey, the bands lead vocalist took this tendency to new heights with clever songwriting often about touchy subjects not often discussed in rock or any pop music for that matter.
On their debut the usual subjects of cat and mouse style love gave way to sophisticated and often edgy metaphors about child abuse and various forms of molestation – being willing or by not so innocent persuasion. Despite the gloomy subject, the element of humor gave the Smiths an edge that seemed lacking in a lot of underground rock.
In a typical example of the band’s complex sense of humor and style, obscure album art references would often recall underground or camp imagery from the ’50s and ’60s. The use of a cropped still from Andy Warhol’s Flesh gave the album a homoerotic vibe that was suggested in many of the lyrics (indirectly or by design). Smiths covers seemed to suggest a subtext that was sometimes hinted at in many of the songs (deflowering of boys by dirty old men as in ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ ).
In many ways Morrissey had become the Oscar Wilde of his generation with a talented and innovative guitarist to bring his poetry to life.
As The Smiths rose to chart prominence in England, it would become an underground favorite in America, often played on low power college radio stations. Initially available on Rough Trade as expensive imports the band would later get widespread distribution in America on Sire Records. It would be fitting that my first exposure to the band came from an English student living in the freshman dorm in college. I introduced her to R.E.M. while she turned me on to what then was the Smith’s only album.
While not as popular in America as in England, songs like ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ and ‘Hand in Glove” would speak to a generation of detached kids who grew up thinking of the Smiths as their generations Beatles. Suddenly it was ok to be a misfit, be it gay, nerd or emotional recluse.
It was only after I schooled myself in the band’s many references that I fully appreciated Morrissey’s clever and subversive writing. Fortunately for me, I could not relate to some of the music lyrics, but I certainly was attracted to the almost rockabilly style arrangements and Morrissey’s humorous yet sensitive approach to difficult subject matter.
Who wouldn’t be? The Smiths seemed to get better with time until they split over creative differences as Marr became a much sought after guitarist and Morrissey’s solo career began to take off.