1987:

August-December

Photo of The Smiths by Andre Csillag. Reproduced without permission.


NEWS ITEMS

The following news item originally appeared in the August 1, 1987 issue of New Musical Express.

SMITHS TO SPLIT

THE SMITHS look likely to call it a day after the release of their next album in September, and insiders are blaming a personality clash between Morrissey and Johnny Marr - the group's nucleus and songwriting partnership - for the split.

There's no official word from Rough Trade, apart from a rather flippant dismissal from Mozzer, but NME understands that relations between the two main men are so bad that they won't even enter the same studio together.

And promoters have been instructed not to arrange any live shows, either in Europe or America, to promote the new material, it is believed.

Morrissey, when approached through his press office for a comment, said: "Whoever says The Smiths have split shall be severely spanked by me with a wet plimsoll".

While NME newshounds await the arrival of young Steven with soggy footwear, sources in both London and Manchester continue to feed us with snippets which point towards the decline of the nation's top indie band.

Marr has reportedly told friends in Manchester that he and Morrissey are no longer pals, and he is sick of the singer acting the self-centred star. He says the working relationship has also suffered considerably.

Morrissey is not pleased with the company Marr is keeping, acting the guitar hero and playing on albums by Keith Richard, Bobby Womack and Bryan Ferry.

The final straw was allegedly Marr interrupting Smiths recording sessions to fly to the States to record with Talking Heads, and using Rough Trade money to pay for the trip. Insiders say Morrissey blew his top and declared it was the end of The Smiths, and he never wanted to work with Marr again.

In Manchester last weekend, a friend of Johnny Marr's told an NME mole: "I'm surprised that the press hadn't got hold of this earlier. It's been brewing for months, Marr and Morrissey haven't spoken to each other for three and a half months. There's a situation where they now see it as backing down to do so."

As mentioned earlier, Rough Trade have said next to nothing, and EMI - who are due to release Smiths material in 1988 - are none the wiser. But what about the secondary characters in the band? In/out bass player Andy Rourke could not be contacted, but a series of calls to drummer Mike Joyce hinted that all was not well.

The phone was answered by a young woman who, discovering it was the NME on the line, said Joyce wasn't in and wouldn't be back for a few days.

When told we wanted to ask Joyce about the break-up of the band, she said, "He doesn't want to comment on that. He has nothing to say". No surprised reaction, no flat denial.

Meanwhile, The Smiths' next single, 'Girlfriend In A Coma', will be released by Rough Trade on August 10. The album, 'Strangeways, Here We Come', follows on September 28.

The single is backed with 'Work Is A Four Letter Word', a cover of a Cilla Black song from the 1968 movie of the same name. The 12-inch features an extra Morrissey/Marr track, 'I Keep Mine Hidden'. Shelagh Delaney is the sleeve cover star.

'Strangeways, Here We Come' is The Smiths' last studio album for Rough Trade - and their last ever? - before the planned move to EMI. It was recorded in Bath, produced by Morrissey, Marr and Stephen Street, though not necessarily at the same time.

The full track listing reads 'A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours', 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish', 'Death Of A Disco Dancer', 'Girlfriend In A Coma', 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before', 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me', 'Unhappy Birthday', 'Paint A Vulgar Picture', 'Death At One's Elbow' and 'I Won't Share You'.

A South Bank Show on The Smiths, which could turn out to be their swansong, will be screened in the autumn.

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.

Note: Although erroneous in several important respects, this news item in NME nevertheless proved instrumental in Johnny Marr's decision to finally leave The Smiths.


Click to enlarge original item


The following news item originally appeared in the August 8, 1987 issue of Melody Maker.

MARR QUITS

JOHNNY MARR has left The Smiths - but Morrissey and the band plan to continue and are currently auditioning new guitarists.

That was the official version of events according to the band's record company Rough Trade this week. A statement issued by the label said that "although Johnny's departure is sad the band wish him happiness and success with his future projects."

Smith's PR Pat Bellis told the Maker that Marr's departure was entirely amicable but at the same time would be permanent. This effectively scotches rumours that the split was just a temporary bust-up caused by Morrissey and Marr being locked up in the studio for too long together while recording the new album "Strangeways, Here We Come". It's no secret that the pair's lifestyles differ and this has caused several arguments between them in the past.

"It isn't over one particular argument," Bellis said. "Johnny just wants to move in a completely different direction." She pointed out that the split had nothing to do with Marr's increasing amount of guest appearances on albums by the likes of Bryan Ferry and Talking Heads. She also said reports claiming Marr had interrupted Smith's sessions to work with the above artists and that he and Morrissey had not spoken for three months were completely ficticious.

Pat also denied that Morrissey was "unhappy" with the company Marr was keeping. "Half the time he doesn't even know who Johnny's seeing. Johnny keeps these things very private."

Although The Smiths are already auditioning new guitarists they say it will be a few months before any decision is made. Rumours that Craig Gannon, who joined the band as second guitarist in 1986 only to leave eight months later, would rejoin were also discounted.

"Craig's an extremely good guitarist but he hasn't done a lot of songwriting. I think he's a bit young for them," Bellis said. Indeed, Gannon said on his departure in December '86: "I knew they weren't happy with me personally. That's one of the reasons I left." Rumours circulate that Marr is now looking for musicians to form a new band. However, the man himself is keeping quiet. Meanwhile, the prospect of a Smiths tour to accompany "Strangeways, Here We Come" looks almost non-existent now.

"They did say at the start of this year that they wouldn't be playing in the UK," Bellis said. "However, a proposed tour has been on off for the last six months basically because the band's last agent's contract ran out at the end of last year."

EMI, who signed The Smiths last October, are refusing to comment on the situation. But a spokesman said: "Nevertheless it is grounds for a certain amount of anxiety. Obviously we'd rather have a Smiths with Johnny Marr than one without but, if it is true, we'll be getting two [acts] for the price of one."

Under the terms of their deal The Smiths and individual members are contracted to EMI if they release further records. If nothing else EMI will definitely get a live album from the original line-up. A number of shows on their winter tour last year were recorded with that thought in mind.

Note: The live Smiths LP on EMI never eventuated.

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.


Click to enlarge original item


This news item was originally published in the August 8, 1987 issue of New Musical Express.

MARR SPEAKS

THE SPLIT IN the ranks of The Smiths - exclusively reported in last week's NME while the other titles were blithely announcing tour dates - has now been confirmed by the group's record company, Rough Trade.

A statement issued on behalf of the band (but written, it later transpired, without the knowledge of guitarist/composer Johnny Marr) ran: "The Smiths announce that Johnny Marr has left the group. However they would like to confirm that other guitarists are being considered to replace him. The Smiths would like to state that although Johnny's departure is sad, they wish him every happiness and success with his future projects."

The obvious questions thrown up by this statement - What exactly constitutes "the concept" of The Smiths? Can that concept possibly survive the departure of half of the band's creative force? Who are those "other guitarists"? - remain unanswered. Some of the mysteries surrounding the break-up of Britain's biggest (still) independent band were, however, cleared up when Marr himself rang NME to put his side of the case.

"First of all," he said, "it's very important to me to clear up some of the inaccuracies that were in your story last week. There is nothing even approaching 'acrimony' between myself and the other members of the band. I've known them all a long time and I love 'em. Nor was there any truth in the idea that Morrissey has any problem with the company I keep, personally or work-wise; we're very different people and lead different kinds of lives but that stuff is just patently untrue. And lastly, the stuff about me using record company funds to pay for a trip to America is totally wrong."

Why, then, the split?

"I'm not denying that there weren't certain problems involving the band, and it's also very true that a group like The Smiths can begin to take over your whole life and all your energy. That's certainly happened to me, but the major reason for me going was simply that there are things I want to do, musically, that there is just not scope for in The Smiths."

The infamous "musical differences"?

"I've got absolutely no problem with what The Smiths are doing. The stuff we've just done for the new album is great, the best we've ever done. I'm really proud of it. But there are things that I want to do that can only happen outside of The Smiths."

One potential source of acrimony yet to emerge from the split is the use of the name "The Smiths". Marr was genuinely surprised when informed that Morrissey intended to continue using it, but contented himself, when pressed for a response, with "I think that's probably tied up in a whole load of legal things..."

Although understandably uncertain about his immediate plans, Marr intends getting back into public view as soon as possible.

"I've already recorded some stuff and it's gone really well. If the rest of it goes as well, there's every chance that I'll be forming a permanent group, though obviously it's a little early to be too certain about that. But I definitely want to have some live dates set up by the new year at the latest, regardless of the situation with other musicians."

"Part of the reason I've spent so much time in America recently is to get exposed to some different music. The stuff in this country at the moment has got me baffled; I can't find much in any of it. But it's a pleasure listening to new ideas and trying to use them. I've not been unhappy with the things I've done up to now - far from it - so don't expect me to explode off into some crazy new direction, but there will be some changes..."

Any further thoughts on the parting of the ways?

"I don't want to get too over-emotional about this but I really am massively proud of all the things that The Smiths have done and achieved and so from that point of view, of course, it's all really sad, especially for the group's fans who've always been brilliant. But on the other hand, I'm looking forward to doing new things, and to hearing what Morrissey will come up with. I think the change will actually do him a lot of good. I certainly hope so. But, in the final analysis, the thing that used to make me happy was making me miserable and so I just had to get out."

"But I never, ever, wanted to turn The Smiths into The Rolling Stones. That was just more lazy journalistic bullshit..."

SO WHAT BECOMES of the "million dollar" long term deal The Smiths have with EMI? No doubt it will have to be renegotiated, as it is unlikely the label will want to commit themselves to a lengthy contract with what is, without Marr, an unknown commodity.

Nick Gatfield, head of A&R at EMI, couldn't shed much light on the situation: "It's all up in the air at the moment, we're not sure what's going to happen."

But Gatfield did confirm that EMI have the rights to any recorded product from either Marr or Morrissey's revamped Smiths.

"Both artists have signed on the dotted line, every contract has a clause which gives the label the rights to any work they do whether the band splits up or not. Essentially we now have two acts for the price of one."

That may be so, but with The Smiths split right down the middle, who can guarantee there will be positive creative results from either camp? And what of the name? Morrissey intends to continue under the banner of "The Smiths" but he could face a new legal obstacle along the way.

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.

SEE ALSO: Christchurch Star news item


Morrissey on...

Marr's departure

Interviewer: You must be extremely worried now that Johnny Marr has decided to leave the group? Marred for life?
Morrissey: "To a certain extent I'm upset and it's quite harrowing, but it's really just something I have to live with. I'm certainly not going to lie down and die, not by any means. Sorry. Most of what I ever felt about The Smiths came from within me anyway, and it can't really be touched by, shall we say, any comings and goings. It was brewing for a long time, and although many people didn't realise it, I certainly did. It was less of a blow really... not terribly surprising..."
But he's half of the creative team of the band!
"I know, and it's distressing, but it's not The Smiths' funeral by any means."

- i-D, October 1987

SEE ALSO: Axeman Cometh


SINGLE REVIEW

GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA - released August 1987


Click to enlarge

"His girlfriend may be hovering between life and death, but Morrissey's catch vocal seems non-commital about the whole thing, while the overall feel evokes shadows of The Beach Boys and other early '60's teen vocal groups."

Jay Strongman
New Musical Express, August 15, 1987

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.

See the full review here


"The title alone has to be one of the most wickedly inspired of the Eighties. Morrissey's customized homage to the Shangri-La's school of teen histrionics, whilst not quite as much a masterstroke as its title, is irresistable."

Uncredited reviewer
The Face, September 1987

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.


NEWS ITEM

SMITHS SPLIT!

THE SMITHS have split.

Morrissey is going solo and is currently writing new songs with Stephen Street, the band's engineer since March 1984. Remaining members Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke were asked whether they wanted to contribute to the new material. However, Joyce declined saying that he thought it was time to move on. He is presently talking to a couple of Manchester bands. There is no official comment from Andy Rourke as yet, though Rough Trade insiders say it's doubtful he'll join Morrissey and Street.

The pair will begin recording the new songs in October. A studio outside London has already been booked for the sessions which will be the first for EMI to whom The Smiths signed almost exactly a year ago.

Sources say that the new songs the pair have demoed still have a recognisable Smiths' guitar sound, though this could change dramatically when they get in the studio - Morrissey is understood to want to get completely away from The Smiths' musical past and Street is reportedly keen to use string sections on some of the new songs. There is no possibility of any live shows this year, though some look likely in 1988.

It's now understood that no replacement guitarists were ever auditioned following Johnny Marr's departure from the band last month. Although a statement at the time indicated that The Smiths would continue, sources suggest that Morrissey felt that the pressure of expectation on any new members would be far too great and was already planning a solo career. All the names mentioned as possible replacements for Marr were merely recommended by Rough Trade and friends of the band and were never formally auditioned.

However, The Smiths' final studio LP, "Strangeways Here We Come", released by Rough Trade on September 28, may not be their absolute swansong. Rough Trade are sorting through the few official live tapes that exist of the band. In particular, a BBC tape of their Kilburn National Ballroom show last October could surface as a live LP sometime around Christmas though nothing is definite as yet.

Legally, everything already recorded by the band, including live material, is the property of The Smiths and Rough Trade. However, it's known that there is very little studio material left of reasonable quality. This is evidenced by the fact that the band originally wanted to release three singles from the "Strangeways" LP but had to trim this to two, due to the lack of a suitable B-side to accompany a third release.

FINALLY, The Smiths have their four-and-a-half year career placed under the microscope in a "South Bank Show" special, which will be transmitted by ITV on October 18 at 10:30pm. The programme features interviews with each member of the band as well as interviews with people who've been closely connected or involved with their career, including Sandie Shaw and Nick Kent. It also features footage of Morrissey in the back of a car with Viv "spend, spend, spend" Nicholson. In the light of recent developments the programme has been revised and updated and will include details of Johnny Marr's departure and the eventual split.

Melody Maker

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.

Note: It has since come to light that Easterhouse guitarist Ivor Perry auditioned for the remaining Smiths as a possible replacement for Johnny Marr.

See the original item here

SEE ALSO: Smiths Split Confirmed

To read Simon Reynolds' epitaph in the September 26, 1987 issue of Melody Maker, click here


ALBUM REVIEWS

STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME - released September 1987

"'This story is old - I know/But it goes on,' bleats Morrissey on the Smiths' fifth album. Perhaps it will, but not in this form. Recorded last spring, before guitarist Johnny Marr left the band (followed in turn by Morrissey's announcement that he would pursue a solo career), Strangeways, Here We Come stands as the Smiths' unexpected swan song. Ironically, it also stands as one of their best and most varied records: much like R.E.M. on Document, this is the sound of a band unbuttoning its collective collar despite the problematic artsiness of its lead singer.

If you've ever considered Morrissey a self-obsessed jerk, Strangeways, Here We Come isn't likely to change your mind. He's still indulging in angst chronicles like 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,' which is saddled with a turgid, string-drenched melody to boot. But throughout the album, Morrissey keeps returning to the themes of death and parting ('I Won't Share You,' 'Death at One's Elbow'), almost as if he had seen the breakup coming, and dishes out bitter indictments like 'If you should die/I may feel slightly sad' ('Unhappy Birthday'). And in 'Paint a Vulgar Picture,' a bittersweet elegy to a dead rock star, Morrissey makes the mistake of putting down record-company marketing ('Reissue! Repackage!/Reevaluate the songs/Double-pack with a photograph') on an album that has a merchandising address printed on its inner sleeve.

Morrissey is much more effective in 'Death of a Disco Dancer,' which pinpoints Marr's importance to the band, as it builds from his scraping-fingernail fret work to a cacophony of guitars and keyboards. Throughout Strangeways, Here We Come, Marr - who's credited with strings and saxophone arrangements as well as guitar and piano - continually conjures up rich, Gothic frameworks for Morrissey's ornate phrasing.

Bright acoustic guitars add a folksy grace to 'Girlfriend in a Coma' and 'Unhappy Birthday,' and a pumping piano turns 'A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours' into a demented tango. In the album's most propulsive number, 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before,' Marr and the Andy Rourke-Mike Joyce rhythm section whip up a frenzied brew that amply compensates for Morrissey's tale of rituals of self-punishment following a failed love affair. Marr's piercing solo at the end of the song not only is one of the record's emotional highlights - it also proves it's best the band split up rather than attempt to replace him."

David Browne
Rolling Stone, December 3, 1987

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.


"An inconclusive, and frankly disappointing full stop to this decade's most brilliant career. Strangeways saw The Smiths lose touch with their distinctive musical style. Morrissey, picking at the scabs of familiar emotional cuts, was unable to do anything but run on the spot."

Unknown critic

The source of this brief review is probably the Melody Maker end-of-year special issue.

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.


"This is the Smithses (sic) last album as a group. What killed them? Was it mizzable yet oddly detached songs like 'Girlfriend In A Coma,' 'Paint A Vulgar Picture' and 'Unhappy Birthday'? Is it because the song titles are longer than the actual songs, i.e. 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before' - ironic, ain't it, since it's the only song that vaguely resembles the kind of good work that the Smiths used to do - and a few more I don't even have to mention.

All this is fine and dandy - after all, one of The Smiths best tricks of old was weird novel-length titles and clever word play. However, the ingenuity of a dog playing dead gets a little boring after a while, and so does the constant WHINING of lines like 'I was delayed, I was waylaid/An emergency stop/I smelt the last ten seconds of life/I crashed down on the crossbar/And the pain was enough to make a shy bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.' But will it make him shut up?

On The Queen Is Dead, Morrissey somehow painted melancholy little vignettes of life that were very touching. How is it that most of the songs on Strangeways seem false, spiteful and sort of bitchy? Surely internal strife must have affected them, but certainly not in a depressingly constructive manner. Some of the songs don't even sound as though they were written together. And I never thought it was possible, but Morrissey's usual moany, groany voice and Johnny Marr's (somewhat) cheery guitar work, a combination that was so endearing on The Queen Is Dead, now just seems really trite and uncomfortable and untogether - something like that monthly pain they talk about on TV. This is not exactly the way I wanted to remember them."

Suzan Colon
Star Hits

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Tomb It May Concern

'Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower. He fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay' (Anglican Funeral Service).

"The Smiths are, after all the speculation, finally heading the queue for the Crem. Look at the pit they dug themselves: signed to deadly EMI; Johnny Marr - the decade's most original rock guitarist and musical keystone of the combo - had done a runner, and Mike Joyce followed, while bass player Rourke struggled on with his drug problem. Surely the odds stacked against them creating another flawed Meat Is Murder, let alone an LP of universally-acclaimed quality like The Queen Is Dead?

Predictably, in these circumstances, Strangeways... finds Morrissey with one hoof heavily into his sarcophagus. From the opening line of the positively raunchy 'A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours' - 'I am the ghost of troubled Joe' - it seems as if he's determined to give his fun 'n' money-lovin' critics as much ammo for derision as humanely possible. He even seems to relish calling a song 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before', in the face of those who perpetually take the piss out of him and reckon that every Smiths song sounds the same.

To my ears the major criticism of Morrissey has been that he's a miserable defeatist who encourages negative, rather than positive, responses from his admirers. There's some truth in this, as revealed here in 'Death Of A Disco Dancer' and 'Death At One's Elbow', the weakest links on 'Strangeways...'. The first is overlong (like 'Barbarism...') and, despite Marr's ingenious plinky-guitar crescendo, totally predicatable: 'love, peace and harmony/love, peace and harmony/Oh very nice, very nice, very nice, very nice/but maybe in the next world'. The second is fast and furious and as much of a slim self-parody of The Smiths' best as 'Sheila...' and 'Shoplifters...' were.

But it's the weird balance of Morrissey's mortal humour with Marr's beatific melodies that establishes The Smiths' final greatness. Mozzer as the jilted, unrequited lover, 'The one you left behind' who spoils the party with 'Unhappy Birthday' wishes: 'drink, drink, drink, and be ill tonight'; Mozzer as the 'hairbrushed and parted' provocateur of 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish', a classic pop song that seems to echo - believe it or not - the treasured oeuvre of T.Rex, Mud and The Glitter Band!; Mozzer as the emotionally dithering laddo in 'Girlfriend In A Coma'.

The point, of course, is that pop is a confidence trick; it pretends it's a world of harmless entertainment and yet continually bombards us with the we're-having-a-good-time-and-there's-something-seriously-wrong-with-you-if-you're-not philosophy; a world where 'people who are weaker than you and I/they take what they want from life' ('A Rush And A Push...'). In response The Smiths tackled bloody serious subjects in tandem with addictive tunes; Morrissey could turn spina bifida into a Top Ten hit and probably will.

Those who believe that Steven Patrick Morrissey should address himself to the political affairs of this nation will again be disappointed. Lyrically he fails to allude to Roy Hattersley's girth or the indignity of Labour, and instead continues to mine that seam of fatal realism. Excuse me, but Saul Bellow observed that 'Ignorance of death is destroying us. Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.' And it often seems that Morrissey's philosophy and humour (like Woody Allen's) arises from a similar obsession with the inevitability of turning one's toes up, of popping one's clogs. Hence the emphasis on life's priorities like love, sex, laughter and bicycles.

'No, don't mention love/I can't take the strain of the pain all over again.' Love, sex and death remain constants in The Smiths' Strangeways... songs. The universal appeal still stems from Morrissey's comic, deliberate ambiguity about who he can and can't have: 'I grabbed you by the gilded beams/That's what tradition means.' He's sexy and risque but never crude or sordid; he wears his heart on his sleeve, I see no reason why he should have to make clumsy public proclamations about his sexual preferences.

In the same way that he took time out on Meat Is Murder to propound vegetarianism and on The Queen Is Dead to satirise his own Wilde-like plagiarism, on Strangeways... it's Rough Trade that get the treatment. 'Paint A Vulgar Picture' is a bitter attack on the label's exploitation of the band's success - 'At the record company party/on their hands a dead star' - and on its marketing ploys: 'satiate the need, slip them into different sleeves, buy both and feel deceived', 'please the press in Belgium'. Morrissey also deprecates his own status as 'spokesman for a generation', pokes fun at his fawning fans' alarmingly close identification with him and his beliefs ('I walked apace behind you at the soundcheck, you're just the same as I am'), scoring a direct hit on people like me.

Morrissey's assured us that 'it's impossible for anybody to change me as an individual, and it's certainly impossible for a record company to change me'. Thus The Smiths had sentenced themselves to that Strangeways of pop, that long-term institution, EMI; a multinational which seemed to celebrate news of the split with the tell-tale comment, 'essentially we now have two acts for the price of one'.

Whether Morrissey or Ferry-sidekick Marr can thrive in this new environment remains to be seen but, listening obsessively to 'Strangeways...' I can't help feeling that this is a once in a lifetime partnership, a uniquely complimentary marriage of talents that's developed from a long-established friendship.

Coming to Strangeways... I was half prepared to put the boot into The Smiths. I was sure that mid-production upsets - the breakdown in communication between Mozz and Marr (the absence of Marr's beloved B-side instrumentals from the last four singles and Marr's remaining close to sacked Smiths manager Ken Friedman) - would tarnish its quality. But Strangeways... contains two of Morrissey/Marr's greatest moments since the Fab Four's inception.

There's the warm Mersey acoustics of the final track 'I Won't Share You', which beautifully echoes both 'Back To The Old House' and 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. And, outstandingly, there's 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' - which builds from atmospheric solo piano and madding crowd noises, then explodes into Morrissey's most emotional unloveable vocals, and reaches a 'Wild Is The Wind' falsetto climax coupled with a thousand violins. It's as great as 'I Know It's Over'.

I don't think there's any point in comparing The Smiths with their pop contemporaries; a couple of dodgy singles aside they remained above and beyond the rest, ploughing their own furrow (digging their own grave?), setting their own standards. I passionately hoped this was not to be their last breath, but nevertheless, in case you haven't guessed by now, Strangeways, Here We Come is a masterpiece that surpasses even The Queen Is Dead in terms of poetic pop, and emotional power.

Yes, very nice, very nice, very nice, very nice..."

Len Brown
New Musical Express, September 12, 1987

Thanks to Len Brown for allowing this review to continue to appear at this website.

See the original review here


A FAREWELL TO ARMS

"I don't believe The Smiths breaking up will make any difference to anything - to pop, to the mess Morrissey's got himself in or to the world at large. But let's face it, "Strangeways, Here We Come" is bound to attain the status of epitaph; a status it doesn't deserve.

People will say that, as Marr quit so soon after the album was recorded, there must have been tensions in the studio which affected the outcome, which twisted it out of The Smiths' cosy caustic mould and into some serious self-evaluation. But then, Marr and Morrissey never seemed to work together anyway - the records always sounded as if the instrumentals where laid down and then Morrissey arrived later and lonesome to scan his prose poems willy-nilly over the rhythms. Surely this was part of their appeal, part of their otherness; that they never really were a group.

I don't believe "Strangeways" is the beginning or the end of anything. Morrissey is hardly likely to go off and record a disco inanity with Stock, Aitken & Waterman and neither are the chances of him performing a duet with Aretha Franklin very high. No, Morrissey's central and apparently insoluable problem remains - how to pursue a career based on misery when he's outlived his early works' suicidal tendencies and when his introductions of humour, parody and pastiche have all been successful and now prove stale.

"Strangeways" would, indeed, have been The Smiths album we've all been waiting for (and would fittingly have been their final testament) if Morrissey had addressed himself to this problem or at least admitted it. But "Strangeways" is really just more of the same, torn between Morrissey's puerile urge to antagonise convention and outrage the public and his more intellectual aspirations to actually achieve something positive. Of course, pop can encompass the former very easily - the tantrum and the sulk are its traditional currency and, since 1976, it has made a habit of attacking itself. As to the latter, I think it's impossible.

"Strangeways" sounds to me like a struggle for novelty where it no longer exists and where, really, Morrissey no longer has any right to expect it. We all know how adept he is at shocking the norm, at turning the showbiz back to the commonplace, at squeezing slivers of reality into the fantasy land of the charts and "Girlfriend In A Coma", "Unhappy Birthday", and the album title itself are all more examples of this. Except... when The Smiths were new, it was a surprise how pop, so set in its ways, could be so easily tickled and teased and turned on its head by one band and a mystery why no-one had done it quite this way before. But then it became apparent that their small revolution was essentially inverted, selfish, unsharable and it was sadly inevitable that they'd have little widespread effect. Their literacy just served to illuminate pop's illiteracy, and their achievements how little pop was capable of or interested in achieving.

Morrissey's miserable and, later, mischevous art was bound to grow more constipated as he refined it, more selfconscious, more smug as it lost its naive crudity. Hence the shock of "Girlfriend In A Coma" and "Unhappy Birthday", the lovely literary conceit of "Death At One's Elbow" ("one's"!) and the sharply aware and ironic "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" (The Smiths were always being accused of sounding samey and the "If You Think" is beautifully barbed and sarcastic) all carry their total impact in their titles. The songs themselves needn't exist; they add nothing lyrically to the exquisite labour of wit Morrissey has obviously expended on naming them. They're all wisecracks stretched across a whole song and I don't hear any ideas.

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" is better, not because the lyrics are particularly poignant, straddled as they are over another of Marr's appropriations from T Rex, but because the idea of writing a song from a rapist's point of view and treating it with confusion rather than HM machismo or sheer moral repulsion is brave in itself and the muttered sentence, "Okay Stephen, do that again", over the fade-out could be Marr [actually producer Stephen Street - BB] at the controls or a brutally honest reference to the helplessness of the character in the song or...

It's at times like this, when they reverberate, that The Smiths reach a peak and they could never hope to top "Death Of A Disco Dancer" for availability of dimensions. Lilting over an absolute steal from The Beatles' "Dear Prudence" via The Banshees' version, one can only hazard guesses at why they should have chosen such an inapproriate setting. Could it be Morrissey gloating over rock's return to the charts in the wake of his exhortations to "Hang the blessed deejay" and his anti-dance interview in last year's MM? Or could it be mourning that such moronic mysticism is clogging up the charts with more cliches? Or could it be exasperation at the mechanical way we react to music - dancing all night to the get-down-together-in-harmony grooves then assaulting each other on the way home? Whatever, it's a puzzle and quite an irony in the light of the didactic "Panic" and "The Queen Is Dead" when you consider Morrissey's at his most intriguing on "Strangeways" when you can't really tell whether he's being clever or muddled.

What is certain is that Morrissey and The Smiths were largely lost for inspiration recording "Strangeways" and turned from politics back to pop (I know they're the same, but we're dealing with degrees of emphasis here) in a mistaken bid to relocate fresh frames of reference. "Paint A Vulgar Picture", therefore, is the worst Smiths song ever, a hackneyed condemnation of the workings of the music industry that sounds like something Jimmy Pursey might have fumbled up.

What a waste of bile but, then, that's typical of "Strangeways" because pop isn't a worthy target; it's like kicking a senile pensioner - too old and sad and inarticulate and babyish to respond.

Only once does Morrissey seem to acknowledge this, during "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" where, over a monstrous Marr movie theme, he claims "This story is old - I KNOW, but it goes on" - a pathetic excuse.

So The Smiths were going nowhere and now it's come to this. In last Sunday's "Observer", Morrissey said something more pertinent to his malaise than the whole of "Strangeways" put together. He called himself "Kenneth Williams' understudy" and he's right. He's exhausted himself picking on pop and he looks fairly ludicrous in those grey flannel shorts arguing Aristotle with the five year olds in the playground. It's time he grew up and put himself to the test. He should quit the charts and inhabit the chat shows instead. After all, with his quick camp way with a titillating one-liner and his longstanding desire to be a housewife superstar, his future surely lies with Wogan.

Sadly, though, there's not enough evidence of self-awareness on "Strangeways" to make this move likely. It's as if Morrissey's made such a career of self-awareness that it doesn't register anymore and, if he really thinks there's a notorious future for him in pop, he really needs to talk to someone fast. That shrink in Strangeways perhaps?"

Steve Sutherland
Melody Maker

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See the original review here

To read about the making of 'Strangeways', see the article 'Jailhouse Rock' in Appendix A


SINGLE REVIEW

I STARTED SOMETHING I COULDN'T FINISH - released October 1987

"Typical me, typical me, typical me" moans Morrissey, lamenting that lost jigsaw piece. This is a fairly pointless bit of posthumous whingeing with some horrible guitar playing from Johnny Marr; still determined to drag the Smiths kicking and screaming into the 1970's. If he carries on at this rate he'll end up in The Pretenders! This is going out not with a Bing but with a hamper; Morrissey ought to get himself a string section and stop swanning about pretending to be Melvyn Bragg."

Ben Thompson
New Musical Express, November 7, 1987

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See the original review here


"MARR will certainly adore The Pretenders, all those power chords; this one has a massive bump'n'grind riff borrowed from T-Rex. It's an enjoyable canter over familiar terrain, the same old Smiths story really. As Simon Reynolds said, they've defined this turf so tightly, precisely that it's hard to see where they could have gone next, other than self-parody. There's no great one-liners here, but still more wit in Morrissey's sighed, "Ah, typical me!", than anywhere else on this page. It's all the song needs to say, and almost all it does. The despair at the world of, say, "How Soon Is Now?" seems well tempered by humour here, Morrissey well able to live with himself. Not in anyway a depressing record."

Ian Gittins
Melody Maker, November 7, 1987

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Morrissey on...

'Strangeways, Here We Come'

"Strangeways perfects every lyrical and musical notion The Smiths have ever had. It isn't dramatically, obsessively different in any way and I'm quite glad it isn't because I've been happy with the structure we've had until now. It's far and away the best record we've ever made."

- Melody Maker, September 26, 1987


SINGLE REVIEWS

LAST NIGHT I DREAMT THAT SOMEBODY LOVED ME

- released December 87

"This must be the lowest placing a Smiths single has ever had in the NME. [The review was placed last on the page - BB.] If I could get it on the next page I probably would. Taken from their worst LP, 'Last Night' treads no new ground whatsoever. A melodramatic, almost operatic intro slides into an average Morrissey-Marr number that is two-and-a-half minutes long and a ton too light. The Queen is clearly dead here and Johnny Marr's not looking too bright either."

Neil Taylor
New Musical Express, December 9, 1987

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"So what is there left to say? Only that The Smiths were one of the few bands who got better as time went by, and if you fail to be moved by songs like "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me", then you are missing out on a beautiful experience."

Unknown reviewer
Smash Hits

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'The Last Single'


ALBUM REVIEWS

Nick Kent (The Catalogue), Jim Farber (Rolling Stone) and Robert Sandall (Q) review The Smiths' posthumous live LP 'Rank', released September 1988.

"In Manchester this summer, the first Smiths convention is held, effortlessly attracting thousands of the faithful. In London the New Musical Express tirelessly trumpets an ever emergent possibility of a Smiths reunion, each wafer of dubious information a certain sales booster. From elsewhere in the country, the Daily Mirror finds and runs a news-story in which a mother blames The Smiths for the suicide of her teenaged son ('He jumped in front of a train... There were Smiths records in his collection").

Little over a year after their exeunt, this force that we call The Smiths and their journey into the annals of immortality and cultural infamy continue ever upwards, categorically unstoppable. Their parting left a chillingly large hole in the pop landscape - one no rival act has shown even the vaguest dint of flair in helping to fill, and one, more urgently, that our Morrissey is having difficulty in supplanting, with his rather 'speculative' solo work this year. This is understandable, really. The Smiths were a phenomenon, after all, and like all other departed of their ilk, their very absence orchestrates an ever-spiralling 'appreciation' of the same.

Further orchestration will doubtless ensue with the availability this September of Rank, the much-anticipated live album, recorded almost two years ago during the group's final tour. First and foremost, like all The Smiths' records, Rank is a 'statement'. I mean, who else in this age of compulsory technology would dare release, as their one and only live album, an undoctored tape of a single live show already broadcast on BBC Radio 1? Some may accuse them of sloth and abject indifference to the desires of their fans (more later), yet The Smiths have always been committed to presenting their music in as 'unadorned' a way as possible, and Rank, after all, simply takes that attitude to its 'warts and all' conclusion.

So - what's it like? Well, it's good enough, good enough. Rank, you see, is mostly, unabashedly, hard rock, a fact that will undoubtedly surprise many detractors who never heard them live.

By 1986, the Morrissey-Marr partnership, having already well-founded The Smiths' archetypal plangent style, seemed bent on usurping a more orthodox rock backdrop for Morrissey's lyrical persona to niftily subvert. This was apparent from much on The Queen Is Dead album and, particularly, the release of 'Panic'.

The former's title track kicks off proceedings (after an opening salvo of Prokofiev piped over the PA as introduction) as a bracing exercise in punk clamour, Johnny Marr's scowling wah-wah guitar inflections underscoring Morrissey's scathing political burlesque of a lyric. This is immediately, noticeably bravura, not that silly shallow stuff which begat the term 'rockist', but the real article; music hard, charged and self-possessed, answerable only to themselves. This sets the tenor of the whole album, though judged individually, some tracks are less convincing than others.

'Panic', 'The Boy With The Thorn...', 'What She Said' - all have received better live airings, whilst 'Still Ill', the only inclusion from the first album, seems to drag slightly. Rank's ascendant moments level all this out. 'Rusholme Ruffians' and 'London' both hail from the band's most boisterous canon of music-making, yet here the twin measures of force and focus (Marr's high-energy guitar pop savvy; Morrissey's blunt idiosyncratic rhymes, naked hectoring persona and stabbingly acute imagery) merge into performances of epic substance. On 'Rusholme' the music seems to spin faster and faster, an aural Ferris wheel giddily threatening the same mindless violence its lyric details, whilst on 'London' it hurtles along like the train in the lyric, running on fearful uncertainties and portents of doom.

Rank's downside occurs when one searches for examples of the group's more classically plangent approach. There's a fine 'Cemetry Gates', the noble failure of 'I Know It's Over' (the studio version will never be equalled) and, best of all, 'Ask', here presented as the joyous pop 'La Bamba' for the Eighties.

It's here that serious grievances have to be aired. The Smiths were one of rock music's greatest live groups, whose ability to achieve a genuinely thrilling poignancy this live release only hints at glancingly. What this record lacks is the vital dimension of mystery and depth, that ultimate virtue in The Smiths equation.

It's this absence that rankles far more than the fan's disappointment at being seen-off with a live broadcast most of us have long since taped and filed away.

The point is this: The Smiths were the greatest rock band of the '80's because they seemed to function on sixteen cylinders when everybody was tootling along on four. Rank will do the job of topping the LP charts over here for a while to come and, I'll wager, it will finally truly break them in the States, because this is good bracing rock music loaded with cranky visions and authentic weirdness, and there is nothing musically in the air to remotely threaten its worth. In other words, Rank is The Smiths at eight cylinders.

It's an indictment of Rank that they've not allowed themselves to do better, yet still some testament to their greatness that at half their strength, they still sound so right."

Nick Kent

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See the original review here


"'Rank,' a concert album from the late, great Smiths, offers the liveliest postmortem imaginable. Rather than being an exploitative rehash, it realizes the greatest goal of a live album, namely, to offer a full reinterpretation of a band's work.

The songs are significantly speeded up, compared with the studio versions; they are toughened up as well. Johnny Marr's guitar is sharper, scrappier and fuller than anything he offered in the studio; it's obsessive, ravenous and ever changing. He slams out chunky rockabilly riffs in "Rusholme Ruffians," spins shimmering leads in "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" and chews the scenery in "The Queen Is Dead." Likewise, Morrissey sings at a breathless pace, spitting out lines, biting off phrases and making his venom understood all the while. The clear production drives it all home; every pricked guitar chord and sneered vocal phrase is made to kick. As a result, the wallowing quality of the studio albums is turned inside out.

While the band's studio efforts excel at moping introspection, the live versions function like an exorcism. Their manic pace pushes Morrissey's depression into anger, liberating his self-pity into righteousness. Better yet, divorced from the lonely confines of home listening, the Smiths' songs in concert become the rallying points of unity for the alienated, as rousing and deeply felt as any of Springsteen's anthems. In the process, the album captures the one element of the Smiths left undocumented elsewhere – their fury."

Jim Farber

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SEE ALSO: Australian Rolling Stone review


Stinging

"Perhaps it's appropriate that the group which was for ever going on about death in one form or another should have waited until after its own before releasing a live album. Ticklish ironies aside, "Rank" serves as a superb epitaph, greatest hits compilation and concert memento all rolled into one. And sporting as it does one of those Morrissey-designed archive photo sleeves, bears the unmistakable imprimatur of The Smiths themselves: this is not a record company milk-the-myth enterprise.

It comes just as it was originally recorded at the National Ballroom, Kilburn in October 1986 for a Radio One live transmission, and has a stingingly bright sound. It also finds a band capable of wobbly moments on stage (and a singer with a notoriously approximate way with a tune) in well-nigh note perfect form. Best of all though is the way it belatedly answers the Smiths' detractors. Because by no stretch of anyone's imagination can this swirling, churning rush of guitars and vocal larks be written off as weedy, miserabilist indulgence for the emotionally starved inhabitants of bedsitters and suburban bedrooms.

In fact it shows just how clever The Smiths were in having their cake and eating it. As long as Morrissey was beguiling those of more delicate, '80's-ish sensibilities with his camp send-up of traditional rock posturing, Johnny Marr had carte blanche to be as rock'n'roll in as many different ways as he damn well liked. It was a strikingly successful reconciliation of polar opposites and if The Smiths' studio productions tended to weight the scales in favour of Morrissey's cod-operatic celebration of cemeteries and hospitals, the brisk 14 track recital here redresses the balance in favour of Marr's guitar - and the presence of sometime fifth member Craig Gannon, playing another, obviously helps as well. The opener on side one, 'The Queen Is Dead,' shows the way. With Marr dishing out the power chords and Morrissey epitomising powerlessness with a selection of mock roars, squalls and howls, the song devolves into a sort of modernist thrash boogie with a sly, satirical vocal topping. And though there is plenty of intricate picking elsewhere, on 'Vicar In A Tutu' and 'Ask' for instance, and Morrissey is allowed to stretch out in his glum aria 'I Know It's Over,' what we basically have here is tough post-punk rock of stature and wit.

The material contains a few surprises. There's a neat medley tie-up of 'Rusholme Ruffians' and the Elvis classic 'His Latest Flame,' a furious Marr instrumental 'The Draize Train' and a couple of B-sides. But most of the names here are familiar ones - as befits a memorial. So, farewell then The Smiths, there will be dancing on your grave for a while yet." *****

Robert Sandall

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SEE ALSO: NME review


Postscript

 





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