About Plundering Desire

Plundering Desire is a vast online collection of pop writing on the British band The Smiths, covering practically all stages of the group's brief but spectacular career and offering a chronological, colourful, in-depth, and sometimes contentious, look at one of pop music's most unique, well-loved and enduringly popular bands.

A devoted Smiths fan in my youth I followed the group's progress in the music press with relish, cutting out and keeping every article, interview, review, news item, and photograph I could get my hands on. The best of these various items are collected here alongside many others recently unearthed in musty secondhand book stores or on internet collectibles sites.

The first piece of rock journalism I read on The Smiths, 'Fanfare for the Common Man', appeared in the New Zealand music paper Rip It Up, the source of some of the material found here. The bulk of articles, reviews, etc derive from British and American pop and rock publications including New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds, Time Out, Record Mirror, Jamming!,The Face, Rolling Stone and Creem, among many others. Items sourced from decidedly teen-oriented magazines like No. 1 and Smash Hits highlight the Smiths' crossover appeal to a larger, pop audience than was usual for an indie band at the time. Additional reading, in the form of supplemental material and transcripts of various audio and video interviews, can be accessed through the menu. Memorabilia such as album and single covers, photos, ads, promotional posters and lyric sheets, has been included throughout.

Links to the Plundering Desire scan archive THE SMITHS IN PRINT appear regularly throughout the site. Click on a link to see an item in its original form, or read related items not found at Plundering Desire.

To copy a Plundering Desire page link, right click on the menu box and open page in a new window.

There's no best way to approach this website. But as the material is presented in chronological order starting at the beginning and reading through to the end will produce the best insights. Alternately, jump in and out of the material as you see fit. Go directly to reviews of your favourite Smiths LP to compare and contrast opinions - and decide if you agree or disagree with the criticisms. Or read the interviews first and gorge on the wit and wisdom dripping from the silver tongue of Morrissey. But however you wish to approach this website, repeat visits will help shape a cumulative picture of the Smiths' changing critical and commercial fortunes, and promote a deeper understanding of this most unusual and enigmatic of pop groups - The Smiths.

Introduction

It was at the Hacienda that we, the public, goose-pimpled to the spectacle of Morrissey mercilessly flailing a bunch of daffodils against the matt black stage."

This sentence is taken from the Smiths' very first interview in New Musical Express ('Crisp Songs And Salted Lyrics') and refers to their debut performance at Manchester's Hacienda nightclub on February 4, 1983. This vivid picture of The Smiths captured onstage will be familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the group. However, at this early stage, Morrissey's efforts to brighten the venue with daffodils - not gladiola - had yet to define the image of The Smiths. Instead we see a group keen to break away from the strictures of Manchester's moribund post-punk musical scene and forge an identity and sense of style all their own.

The music press adored The Smiths. At a time when Progressive Rock and Heavy Metal had returned to widespread popularity, guitarist Johnny Marr's restrained style of playing made the instrument cool again. Morrissey's literate and beguiling lyrics, a startlingly fresh take on pop's classic themes, cast him as rock's most original and unlikely frontman. For a jaded pop press the mix was irresistable.

The state of contemporary British pop disheartened Morrissey and Marr, and together they made it their mission to reinject popular music with the sort of openness and optimism that they believed had been absent since the earliest days of Punk. Although groups like Buzzcocks and Magazine were important early influences - most notably on Morrissey's lyrics - The Smiths largely distanced themselves from the music of Punk. The plangent chime of Marr's Bryds-tinged guitar in combination with Morrissey's sensitive and introspective lyrics certainly didn't sound like Punk; well, not usually. Yet Morrissey and Marr appeared on the UK music scene fired by a radical idealism borne out of the Punk era, and Smithsongs became a call for a new passion and emotional honesty in popular music.

From the outset The Smiths refused to make promotional videos, insisting on the necessity to put out strong records. Television appearances and music press interviews became the main avenues of promotion for Smiths releases; and Morrissey - a natural with words and the group's most obvious spokesperson - taking on the lion's share of interview duties, quickly emerged as the most articulate, contrary, and witty pop star ever to subject himself to the strange ritual of the interview process. Critics and fans alike were soon in thrall; and by early 1984 the Smiths' presence in the music press was impossible to ignore.

*

Together with massive grass roots support, and a handful of well-received Radio 1 sessions, the Smiths' ubiquity in the music papers assisted their debut LP (simply titled 'The Smiths') into the UK album charts at Number 2. In the February 11 1984 issue of Record Mirror, Morrissey declared the album to be nothing less than "a complete signal post in the history of popular music". It was this sort of comment that saw accusations of arrogance coming in from some corners of the pop press. Yet the album was a genuinely revolutionary record: in one brilliant stroke 'The Smiths' revitalised British guitar music and reshaped the pop lexicon. The album was widely regarded one of the year's most promising.

Throughout 1984 The Smiths maintained a ticklish presence in the charts, scoring two Top 20 hits with 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' and 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. But when both these songs later turned up on the compilation LP 'Hatful Of Hollow' (released in November) alongside radio versions of album tracks and single B-sides, there was some speculation the music of The Smiths was beginning to stagnate. Moreover, Morrissey's introspection and prevailing sense of self-pity had begun to wear thin; and his overexposure in the pop press and on television threatened to turn Morrissey's carefully cultivated pop persona into something of an irritation.

Most critics responded to these developments in a fair and constructive manner, balancing the group's shortcomings with a reassessment of their many strengths. Others weren't quite so gracious, however, and criticisms directed at the band were frequently personal. The ambiguity of Morrissey's lyrics (not to mention his tendency to plagiarise the work of other writers) proved a sticking point for those commentators who doubted the singer's essential honesty and sincerity. Morrissey's reluctance to talk about aspects of his past led others to wonder if he had something to hide.

Morrissey responded to these criticisms in typically sardonic fashion. On the cover of the August 3 1985 issue of Record Mirror he appeared with the word 'FAKE' neatly stencilled onto the side of his neck. A few months earlier Smiths fans had been treated to an issue of New Musical Express showing cover star Morrissey kitted out as... Jesus Christ, sans beard but crowned with a resplendent halo, blood trailing down to his elbow from a gash in the middle of his left palm. Taken at face value this outrageous image symbolized the recent deification of Morrissey and The Smiths in the pages of the pop music press. But in fact, Morrissey, who was raised a Catholic, despised this sort of imagery. The cover was a send up that cocked a snoot at critics who couldn't quite convince themselves of the Smiths' essential sincerity, or fathom the band's often self-deprecating humour.

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt

Morrissey's playing of the role of martyr was grist to the mill for opponents who saw him as a self-pitying sap. But Morrissey and the Smiths' victimization at the hands of the pop press was quite real; and since the earliest days the band had been beset by controversy. In 1983 The Smiths attracted criticism in both the tabloid and the pop press over the lyrics to the songs 'Handsome Devil' and 'Reel Around The Fountain'. In the August 25 issue of The Sun, showbiz correspondent Nick Ferrari questioned Morrissey about his 'controversial' lyrics. In response, Morrissey was reported as saying "I don't feel immoral singing about molesting children." When Sounds ran an indictment written by reporter Garry Bushell (he disliked the group) in the paper's gossip column Jaws, The Smiths found themselves bearing up under their first serious roasting in the national music press.

When it was finally established that Morrissey's statements in The Sun had in fact been fabricated, Sounds compensated by running an interview with the band in the November 19, 1983 issue ('Keep Young And Beautiful'). This unseemly episode demonstrated just how complicated and tangled the Smiths' relationship with the music press had already become; a fact particularly ironic given it was in Sounds that some of the best and most appreciative early writing on The Smiths first appeared (most notably, the work of Bill Black and Dave McCullough). Perhaps this incident can be put down to a failure of imagination on the part of the writers involved. After all the Smiths' vision was genuinely new, and shockingly original - and open to misinterpretation. Unfortunately this was not the last time The Smiths were to be subjected to the fiery accusations of an incensed, and irresponsible, pop press.

If they don't believe me now, will they ever believe me?

The Smiths' second studio album, 'Meat Is Murder', saw the group turning away from the loveless introspection of previous releases and towards a more radical, political world view; as signposted by Morrissey in his infamous statements on the Brighton bombings in the November 3, 1984 issue of Melody Maker. This tougher approach was also evident in the album's production, notably more punchy than on the occasionally lacklustre debut. The LP was an immediate critical and commercial smash, entering the UK album chart at Number 1.

The across-the-board smash success of 'Meat Is Murder' saw The Smiths following through on their promise to subvert the landscape of mainstream pop while confirming their early commercial potential; and soon they were on the road in support of the LP, playing to an ever-swelling rank of enthusiastic fans. However the euphoria of the 'Meat Is Murder' tour was quickly undercut when the next single, 'Shakespeare's Sister', failed to breach the UK Top 20. Some commentators wondered if the song's weak production or poor mix was to blame for its poor chart performance. But record company indifference (plus lack of daytime radio play) was the more likely reason - a situation mirrored in America where Morrissey and Marr were signed to Sire - leading the pair to consider a change of label. The lovely, wounded 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' was probably recorded with an eye to more radio play; but the release, another chart failure, had many critics wondering if the fire had gone out of the Smiths' sound and vision.

'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' was only a minor hit, and the follow-up, 'Bigmouth Strikes Again', was another flop. Fortunately this lack of traction in the singles chart couldn't prevent the Smiths' third studio LP, 'The Queen Is Dead', from hitting Number 2 in the national album charts and enjoying positive reviews in the music press. Recorded in late 1985, 'The Queen Is Dead' was testament to the Smiths' brisk musical development after 'Meat Is Murder'. Johnny Marr's fierce sonic assault on the title track underscored the era-defining quality of the album, while Morrissey's biting, self-satirising lyrics - encompassing both British cultural heritage and current political concerns - consolidated his position as pop's most celebrated and irreverent wordsmith. 'The Queen Is Dead' remains the cornerstone of the Smiths' considerable reputation.

Fame, fame, fatal fame/It can play hideous tricks on the brain

The incendiary single 'Panic', released as The Smiths toured 'The Queen Is Dead' in America, was further evidence of the band's revived clout as pop insurgents, landing them back inside the UK Top 20 for the first time in 18 months. 'Panic' was the first in a run of hit singles for the group that included the ground-breaking and provocative releases 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite' and 'Girlfriend In A Coma'.

The success of 'Panic' re-affirmed the Smiths' mastery of the pop single format; yet the release was to prove significant in another, less edifying, way. To the band's chagrin it was suggested that the line 'burn down the disco/hang the blessed DJ' was an attack on black music and musicians. (The song was in fact an assault on Britain's conservative daytime radio culture, most pointedly Radio One's DJ Steven Wright.) Morrissey responded to these allegations in an interview with Frank Owen in Melody Maker; unfortunately his derogatory comments on modern black dance music only added to the furore. Reader's letters to Melody Maker's Backlash column revealed the extent of the outrage: fans were hurt, shocked and disillusioned by Morrissey's strange outburst.

Did Morrissey really believe in a black pop music conspiracy? (His comments were surprising to say the least; in the past he had expressed a deep affection for Motown and the black girl groups of the 1960s.) Morrissey always did enjoy a good wind-up. Were his statements in the Maker simply meant to raise the hackles of those who would sully the good name of The Smiths? In any case, given the specious nature of the racism accusations, Morrissey’s extraordinary comments seem merely a product of the moment: a rash and misguided response to the clamouring of a persistently sceptical, and occasionally hysterical, pop press.

The final Smiths studio album, the posthumous 'Strangeways, Here We Come', saw the group expand on their signature sound even as the Morrissey/Marr songwriting partnership was beginning to fracture. It's an interesting exercise to imagine how The Smiths would have fared on EMI. At the time Morrissey and Marr's signing to the label was greeted with brickbats and cries of 'SELL OUT' from critics and fans. But it's doubtful whether their sense of purpose and outrage would have been dulled with the move to a major; in a 1987 issue of Melody Maker, Morrissey promises to "ruffle a lot of feathers and kick a lot of bottoms". Vociferous to the end, The Smiths were one of the 1980's most uncompromising, original, and genuinely subversive, bands. They've earned their place in the pantheon of British pop.

It's time the tale were told...

Plundering Desire tells the story of The Smiths through the pages of the pop music press. There's a vividness and immediacy to this material that goes beyond simple nostalgia, just as the music of The Smiths continues to have meaning for new generations of fans. It is my greatest hope that Plundering Desire captures a sense of the excitement surrounding this remarkable, inspirational band while they were still with us - these charming men, Vivid And In Their Prime!

STAY HANDSOME!

Braceneck Boy
31 January, 2008

 

Notes on Content and Referencing

In putting together this website the best possible effort was made to reference all articles, reviews and photographs. When I originally cut out and collected these items, I never imagined I would one day attempt to compile them in any way. No conscious effort was made to record the date items appeared in their respective publications, nor the names of writers. (News items were usually not credited to a particular writer; parody pieces were written anonymously.) In a lot of cases, more by accident than design, this information has survived. In other instances the information is incomplete or is simply not available. In the case of live reviews, where the original publication date is not known I was at the very least able to source the date of the concert itself and record it alongside the review. With respect to articles and single and album reviews, where the original date of publication is known it is included as a reference even though the name of the writer/reviewer is not known. (In this case I write 'Unknown author' or 'Reviewer unknown'.) In all other instances the date of publication was arrived at as the result of an educated guess based on available release date information for singles and albums or contemporaneous articles or reviews. Consequently these are somewhat vague, referring to the month and year of publication only. In the case of some of the material taken from Australasian publications (Australian Smash Hits and the New Zealand music paper Rip It Up) dates are even more vague still as it was typical for singles and albums to be released several months after the UK release. (Complicating the matter somewhat, some Smiths singles were only available in Australasia as imports.) In these instances, where even the month was difficult to ascertain, I cite time of year (eg, early 1985) only.

Cover Stars

1983:'Hand In Glove', unknown model photographed by Jim French, taken from Margaret Walters' book 'The Male Nude'; 'This Charming Man', Jean Marais, from the Cocteau film 'Orphee' (1949); 1984: 'What Difference Does It Make?', Terence Stamp, outtake from the film 'The Collector' (1965); 'The Smiths' LP, Joe Dallesandro in the film 'Flesh', directed by Paul Morrissey; 'Hand In Glove' (with Sandie Shaw), Rita Tushingham in the film 'A Taste of Honey' (1961); 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now', Viv Nicholson, from her book 'Spend, Spend, Spend; 'William, It Was Really Nothing', anonymous model from a US advertisement for A/D/S loudspeakers; 'Hatful Of Hollow' LP, unknown Cocteau model, from a French magazine, 1966; 1985:'How Soon Is Now', Sean Barrett in the film 'Dunkirk' (1958); 'Meat Is Murder' LP, a still taken from Emile de Antonio's film 'In the Year of the Pig' (1969); 'Shakespeare's Sister', Pat Phoenix, from her personal collection; 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore', unknown Italian child actor, taken from 'Film and Filmmaking' magazine; 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side', Truman Capote, photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1949; 1986: 'Bigmouth Strikes Again', James Dean, photographed by Nelva Jean Thomas in 1948; 'The Queen Is Dead' LP, Alain Delon in the film 'I'Insoumis' (1964); 'Panic', Richard Bradford, in the 1967 ATV series 'Man in a Suitcase'; 'Ask', Yootha Joyce, on the set of the 1965 film 'Catch Us If You Can'; 1987: 'Shoplifters of the World Unite', Elvis Presley, photographed by James R. Reid; 'The World Won't Listen' LP, from the book 'Rock and Roll Times' by Jurgen Vollmer; 'Sheila Take a Bow', Candy Darling, from the film 'Women In Revolt' (1971); 'Louder Than Bombs' LP, Shelagh Delaney, the 'Saturday Evening Post'; 'Girlfriend in a Coma, Shelagh Delaney; 'Strangeways, Here We Come' LP, Richard Davalos, on location during the filming of Elia Kazan's 'East of Eden'; 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish', Avril Angers in the film 'The Family Way' (1966); 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me', Billy Fury; 1988: 'Rank' LP (Live), Alexandra Bastedo, taken from the book 'Birds of Britain', photographed by John d' Green.

Group photo by Joelle Depont. Reproduced WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only


 All material included at Plundering Desire has been reproduced without permission

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