Some of you might know The Smiths as one of the seminal indie rock bands of the 1980’s, responsible for such landmark albums as Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead. Others (myself included) know them as “that band that Zooey Deschanel listens to in (500) Days of Summer“. Thanks to Ms. Deschanel’s music-savvy temptress and, now, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the group that made Morrissey and Johnny Marr household names is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. But there’s much more to these Manchester lads than weepie teen fiction.
Tony Fletcher, an English music journalist who came of age during the Smiths explosion, has written a new biography of the group called A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths. In it he chronicles the band’s rapid, unlikely ascent to pop stardom despite their rigidly leftist politics; their raucous, yet nearly catastrophic, tours and the live shows that earned them a reputation as one of the best live acts around; and their ultimate implosion as a result of competing personalities and appallingly poor business practices. Theirs was a brief but wildly influential career, during which they earned critical and popular acclaim to rival The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and established themselves as paragons of alternative thought and style for an entire generation of British (and some American) youth. All without ever having a proper manager.
Due to their untimely collapse and the pay distribution scandal that continues to sully their reputation – the rhythm section were all but stiffed – Fletcher originally wanted to call the book How Not to Succeed in the Music Business; he decided against it, though, because in spite of themselves, The Smiths were incredibly successful and left behind a monumental cultural legacy. A Light That Never Goes Out tells their story, blessed with that precious benefit of hindsight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like being in your late teens when The Smiths were taking off?
TONY FLETCHER: It was evident early on in ’83 that The Smiths were a band that was coming through at an incredible pace. In the space of two months, everybody was talking about them. From my personal perspective, I got it early on. I went to see them, and I got it. But it was with the second single, “This Charming Man,” I realized the potential of what people were talking about. The Smiths very quickly became the group for working class people in Britain. They were doing a lot of things that hadn’t been done for a while. They managed to cross the northern/southern divide that was evident in the UK. They managed to be extremely outspoken and political and somehow be a top band. It was interesting to see a band on the TV show Top of the Pops that somehow looked like they belonged and was so clearly not like the other music that was on the show at the time. Morrissey achieved something that was really remarkable and unique. He managed to speak for all these disenfranchised, disaffected youth, whether they were male, female, lesbian, gay, straight, or — as he claimed to be — celibate; whether they were unemployed or woefully employed. And yet they were a cracking rock band. The Smiths on stage were a full-on, in-your-face rock band. And that’s the part that I think sometimes gets lost in the discussion of Morrissey. We look at his character and what he said and what he represented and think of him as being a very frail, effeminate frontman. But he wasn’t – the Smiths rocked.
A lot of Americans idolize flashy guitar players like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen – why did Johnny Marr’s subtler style become so popular?
Johnny, from the moment people heard him, was evidently one of the two or three greatest young guitar talents in England. He was like 19 years old when they released “This Charming Man” — this was somebody who was churning out these very complex guitar riffs that, at the same time, were not complicated to enjoy. There was no showboating. I think the British respect that. If you take U2 out of the equation, British rock fans don’t like much showboating. For the indie generation which the Smiths typified, it wasn’t about the guitar solos. He could dance on stage, he could pull the moves, but there was no attempt to show off. It was always about his guitar skills serving the music and not the other way around. The only other talent I think that was equal to him was Roddy Frame from Aztec Camera. There was no other talent within a million miles. I played guitar, and I was in a band, and Johnny wasn’t just a league ahead. We’re talking several leagues ahead. I think most people in Britain listened and heard a unique talent and went, ‘Wow, he’s being modest with it.’ And that’s very rare.
Can you talk any more about the uneven dynamic in the band?
Smiths fans at the time viewed The Smiths as a rock band, as a gang, as a bunch of lads. The people who were more attuned would not have viewed them as a group of equals. They would have seen that Morrissey and Marr led the band, and they would have no problem with that, because Jagger and Richards led The Rolling Stones, and Strummer and Jones led The Clash, and Lennon and McCartney led The Beatles. I don’t think anybody had any illusions that there were two guys writing the songs, and that there was this incredibly proficient rhythm section that only got better. Mike Joyce came into the group a little behind, but he caught up very quickly. And live, it would have looked as you would’ve expected it to be. The focus is on Morrissey, then on Marr. Andy Rourke is one of those bass players who stands still, but you could not have replaced that rhythm section and had the same group. And I think that fans were somewhat disillusioned to find out that Andy and Mike had been struck a very rough deal. And it was not to do with songwriting, because there are many acts that agree the songwriter gets paid extra. But I think it genuinely disappointed a lot of people, not the least Andy and Mike, to find out that The Smiths were not the group of equals that they were packaged as. I think it’s something, though, that all the members of the group are having to spend the rest of their lives dealing with that to some degree. It took me quite a bit of pushing, gentle pushing, in an extremely long conversation with Johnny Marr, but he came out and said, “My advice to any young group is, (a) get it on paper, and (b) split the proceeds equally.” I think he’s recognized that it was a mistake. I don’t know if Morrissey has recognized that it was a mistake, but I think that Johnny has. It’s a shame. It’s a real shame. That’s the part that tarnishes the group’s legacy.
In the UK, are Morrissey and Marr considered in the same echelon as Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards?
Increasingly. And I would say with a younger generation, I actually think the answer is yes, they are. I added up the number of songs that Morrissey and Marr wrote in what was really about four years of writing songs, and it was 70 compositions. I added up the number that Lennon and McCartney wrote in their first four years of recording and it was 86. So Lennon and McCartney wrote more, but not a lot more. And The Beatles were playing live for maybe six years before they had a record contract, while The Smiths were playing for like nine months before they got a record contract. It’s pretty prolific, and those songs stand the test of time.
Their music does hold up much better than a lot of music from the ’80s.
At a period when Frankie Goes to Hollywood was the biggest group going — I mention that because in 1984, Frankie Goes to Hollywood had three #1 singles in the UK — that was all that the mainstream media was interested in. If you played Frankie Goes to Hollywood now, there’s a certain kitsch charm to it, but Meat is Murder was this massive statement that got people thinking about vegetarianism and animal rights. It was a very indie record, and it also knocked Bruce Springsteen off #1 in the album charts. I mean, that was enormous. The first #1 album for the Rough Trade label, and it knocked off Bruce Springsteen. “The Queen is Dead” was just an incredibly powerful statement that seemed to say so many different things. It was at a point when Thatcherism was very dominant. There were plenty of groups making left-wing music and attacking the government, but there was only one group that was consistently as successful and as creative and as popular as The Smiths. That’s that thing about saying that you could see them on Top of the Pops, yet here’s this singer, Morrissey, that’s calling for the assassination of the Prime Minister. The times would be a lot less interesting had The Smiths not existed. I shudder to think what those years would have been like without The Smiths.