One of the best things about leaving home and going off to college was 1: getting away from my Southern Pentecostal church and 2: all the great music I was exposed to. I still remember my freshman year encounter with the music of The Smiths.
What drew me was an elastic sounding guitar reverb coming from an open door in my freshman dorm. There in the middle of a small cramped room was a rather punk rock looking girl unpacking boxes. I think her name was Kim or something that started with K. She had a vaguely English sounding accent. The song she was playing was “How Soon is Now”, to this day my favorite in a long list of great Smiths songs.
Surprised by my interest (it was a forgone conclusion in the ’80s that black people were not into alt-rock), we talked about music until her man friend arrived. I will be forever grateful for her for introducing The Smiths to me, even if I later learned that she was from Cleveland and the accent was probably something borrowed from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders (a lady from nearby Akron who went to London to be a rockstar).
You couldn’t blame her for taking on an English accent. As the latest sensation out of Manchester, The Smiths made being poor, young and British cool again especially as formally hard punks and new romantics had morphed into top 40 pop. The Smiths were different, even amoungst their alt-rock peers. The vaguely retro Americana that was Johnny Marr’s guitar strumming combined with Morrissey’s sublime songwriting was an irresistible mix for rebellious teens armed with a basic understanding of classic English literature and a hatred for Ms. Thatcher.
Sonically, The Smiths could be described with some of the same adjectives given to The Cure minus the caricature of goth overtones. Actually The Smiths and others like Loyd Cole represented a small but growing British wave of highly literate singer-songwriters who draped their sharp witted prose around jangle rock guitars.
England had a proper alternative to the jangle rock scene in America and it’s new star arrived in the form of a mopey somewhat sexually ambiguous girly man with a biting and perverted sense of humor. The Smiths was as much about Morrissey’s wit as Johnny Marr’s innovative guitar playing. When the band’s second album Meat Is Murder arrived in 1985, they had taken already the U.K. by storm and were beginning to establish a following in America.
Meat Is Murder is also about the time that Morrissey’s lyrical focus sharpened to include political statements about Thatcher era Britain and all manner of saucy subjects that were as awkward to talk about as they were to hear in a lyric (for the uninitiated of course). The new sarcasam of Morrissey was ahead of it’s time, but must have been off putting to some giving him the impact of a punk rocker.
Perverse humor saved the day, especially where touchy subjects were addressed. One of my favorites was the line from “Nowhere Fast” that goes something like I would like to drop my trousers to the world. I am a man of means – slender means. The lyric repeats with alterations, each time changing it’s meaning but retaining it’s humor.
Morrissey could get serious on subjects dear to his heart. The title track would establish him as the poster boy for vegans and animal lovers the world over with his firm anti-meat stance. The album’s cover photo sums up the irony of The Smiths. Taken from an Ohio boy (Marine Corporal Michael Wynn) during the Vietnam War, it features some choice photo altering of his helmet’s hand written message, sending mixed messages about war, big industry and even bigger government.
In expanding the lyrical content of songs, the band also expanded it’s stylistic influences to forge the now iconic sound made mostly from lead guitarist Johnny Marr’s trusty Rickenbacker. The instrument lent a strong rockabilly influence to songs like “Rushlome Ruffans”. It would be a sound that would be as heavily copied as R.E.M. version of jangle rock. There were also some surprises in the form of a mildly funky slap bass on “Barbarism Begins at Home”, and the “The Headmaster Ritual”. Once again, “How Soon is Now” would be re-issued on some versions of the album and in America became a breakthrough hit of sorts.
As usual for great underground English bands from this era, finding The Smiths small back catalog was an exercise in patience and persistence thanks to their then import status. Their first and second album were available in odd sequence, just as compilations were being released making it difficult to tell what came from where or when. The confusion would be remeded as the band moved from Rough Trade to a U.S. distributor. By then The Smiths had become one of the biggest bands of the decade and could be found almost anywhere music was sold.