The Smiths' Winning Ways/ These Disarming Men, New Musical Express, February 4, 1984
The Smiths voted Best New Act of 1983 by readers of the NME. Interview by Barney Hoskyns
THESE DISARMING MEN
BARNEY HOSKYNS penetrates the heart of Smithdom
"...the touching and bewitching songs that open hearts and purses. Art. Great Art."
- Genet, Funeral Rites
LOVE IS well serviced by pop, something you've doubtless noticed at some point in the last 25 years. It doesn't do too badly out of novels, poetry, opera, or painting either. Even life itself spends a fair bit of time dealing with broken hearts, shapely bottoms and the like.
I dare say you periodically ask yourselves whatever happened to all those songs about buildings and food. I mean, just when was the last tear-jerking ballad about a burst watermains? Can you recall the last torch song about an attractive carpet?
You see, when I look down the old Top Twenty - which I shan't do just now or I probably won't be able to continue writing - what do I see but love songs, love songs, and more songs about love. And after all, what is love? (Oh, bloody marvellous, I do look, right, and what do I find but a song actually called 'What Is Love'.)
No, but seriously folks, we all know what this stuff love is.
For a while it's great and then suddenly it's bloody awful, am I right? It's a hit like drug addiction. The point is, people like to hear songs about love, especially the awful part of it. They like to hear songs on the radio filled with sentiments such as "My world just caved in and I'm sorting amongst the rubble in search of my address book" or "Dammit, I loved you so much, I think I'm going to go and swallow a variety of pills".
No listen, I'm trying to be serious a moment, if you'll only permit me, because it is serious. It's the only thing most of us think we care about (for we give little thought to buildings or food or people who have neither).
People do mad and quite horrifying things when they find out they are not loved. They kill. They die inside. They die. And as I see it, if love makes you blow your brains out there's something wrong with love, or something wrong with the way you see love.
How do you see love? Is it sex? How does Howard Jones see love? What is this love that hangs so forlornly from the lips of pop music?
OK, we're onto it: what is a great love song? Is it some dewy-eyed pixie lisping about tender traps? Is it the Boy doing his Las Vegas tribute to Barry Manilow? Is it Manilow himself, I hear you ask with some urgency, beseeching us to 'Read 'Em And Weep'?
Clearly, people (and in this collective I of course do not include you) enjoy these records because, well, we all like to think of ourselves as victims sometimes. But do we stop to think what these songs might be doing to our thoughts about love? Doesn't a lot of music actually entice us into the rather foolish act of drowning in our own tears?
I may be wrong, but the greatest love songs seem to me to be about either total joy - as in Smokey's almost Wordsworthian 'It's Growing' - or supreme selflessness - Bacharach's 'Make It Easy On Yourself' (Jerry Butler or Scott Walker, either will do).
Modern pop, on the other hand, is filled with loud misery and glib sexiness. It is imprisoned within precise social codes of romance and sexuality, permitting little conscious thought about love, little drama of emotion. Today's love songs just seem to be identifying passes with the relevant data in a totally irrelevant order.
So when something genuinely new turns up, you react, right?
"At least what you are about to hear is new; and if you do not understand the singer, what does it matter? That happens to be 'the singer's curse'. His music and manner you will be able to hear that much better, and to his pipes - dance that much better."
- Nietzsche, The Gay Science (not, incidently, part of the pantheon of homosexual literature.)
ONCE IN A blue haze a pop group surfaces wearing its art up its sleeve; by this we mean a group which will have actual hits and actually will be saying something with them.
This decade's group looks like The Smiths, who are busy making some very powerful but delicate pop music - about love. That is probably why you, as the readers, have selected them as the Best New Act in your poll for 1983.
How much detail is it necessary to go into about The Smiths is hard to know. The importance and beauty of this music seem so transparently obvious. I remember playing 'Hand In Glove' the first time and just reeling, transfixed, around... well, the fountain wasn't working that afternoon.
Fifteen minutes with Morrissey? Well, even on Warhol's clock I wouldn't say no.
'Hand In Glove' is a pure redemption of all the suffering that's ever been poured down love's drain. Its luscious acoustic drive sweeps one towards that split instant of devotion which comes only of abandoning yourself to eternity; and if you don't believe me, listen to it. When Morrissey says his entire life was a preparation for this song he is not mucking about.
I'm being a bit serious, I know, but...
"I'll probably never see you again,
I'll probably never see you again..."
So what is the love of Morrissey? What if not an illicit longing and supreme loneliness? What if not the point where possession and loss of your lover are the same thing?
Hand in glove I stake my claim, but I know my luck too well.
Morrissey seems to me to be singing a new love that detatches itself from all set loves. He does not say "You are mine" or "It feels so good when we touch", he says you are charming and handsome and he is not precisely certain of your sex, or where or what your sex is. He observes the routes desire takes. He sees it flow between you. He catches it on the breeze.
Slap him on the patio. Let him stare, like Jean Marais in Orphee, at his reflection in the fountain. (I'm sorry if this is obscure).
"The desire which leads Orpheus to see Eurydice and to possess her, while he is destined only to sing about her..."
- Maurice Blanchot
As regards the position of The Smiths relative to the rest of pop, can we just say a big Bah! to all the other "guitar bands", be they U2/Alarm/Country or Juice/Sprout/Camera. The first Smiths album is perhaps the simplest record ever made. Everything is quite unnecessarily fussy.
MORRISSEY HAS rented a quite spacious flat in Kensington and already it feels like college digs. We are seated in a room lit only by a very dim, almost infra-red bulb, so that I feel like a newly hatched chick in a school biology lab.
Morrissey pads in, chin and brushtop first, grumbling about the "scumminess" of London water.
How long have you been here?
"Not very long, a matter of hours really. Just over a week.
How long will you stay?
"Till this interview's over at least."
Again I wonder privately to myself whether Morrissey's words do not explore the possibility that love might not be about possession at all.
In your songs, the "you" is either devil or angel. Either someone who's corrupted your innocence or someone who is innocent and whom therefore you could corrupt.
"I never intended to write the same song all the time, I do want some kind of variation, but nothing extreme. I really like the idea of the male voice being quite vulnerable, of it being taken and slightly manipulated, rather than there being always this heavy machismo thing that just bores everybody. All men aren't like that anyway, so I just think it's time for a voice with a different slant on it.'
Is it possible to cast Morrissey in a new role as pop's divine fool, a philosopher/jester/poet of the hit parade?
Most suffering in pop is very strident, it's macho suffering as you say. Yours is a more wistful, reflective sadness, almost depersonalised.
"This is very important, because that 'pity me' thing is really quite boring. I think obviously that though there is this innocent slant that I give over, it's also in a perverse way, a way that won't make any sense at all, quite dominating. People write to me and tell me that I'm a bighead."
I'd have thought you had quite a loving rapport with your audience. I shouldn't have thought they saw you as a bighead.
"Well, I know."
Who are the pop stars who've shown any love to their fans?
"I wish I could name them."
We've determined that your songs are new in form and style, at least partly because they are new in mood and attitude. Why should you be possessed of this melancholy? Are you a Little Father Time, a child who's been made old, as you say on 'Reel Around The Fountain'?
"I think so. I was always one of those very old children, but this point can get very overblown.
How much thought had you given to pop music before writing words for Johnny's music?
"I was always entwined with it, because I had endless interest in what was happening. I was never particularly pleased, but I always thought it was a very thrilling sphere, and I thought wonderful things could be achieved within this sphere, but I never actually saw them happen at any point.
"When we entered the whole thing I really thought it was time for very fundamental language to be used. People seemed to be saying things in a way that was too obscure to be grasped by people who couldn't really think a great deal about certain situations. I always find that the most powerful words are the most fundamental ones, and I thought there were things to be said that really hadn't been said before. It was always important to me to use lines that hadn't been used before, because it wasn't enough to employ the usual pop terminology."
The thought passes fleetingly that Morrissey has achieved a quite fine balance between the staple Brill Building love lyric and Costello-style wordplay.
Morrissey is more general.
"The bottom line is that you might have some talent, but you also must have the talent to sell your talent. It's not just enough to be a phenomenal guitar player, coz you could stay in the bedroom forever. You have to know a way to put what you have across."
How does the style of The Smiths set itself apart from the styles of various other aggregations, other than via an amusing absence of novel detail?
"Style is such an expansive word, really. When you say style, I'm not really sure what I should think about or what images I should conjure up.
I think certainly within The Smiths it has nothing whatsoever do to with clothes. I think the whole thing is really quite innate - you can either sing or you can't sing. There's no point in going to school and trying to learn to write The Great American Novel, it's either there or it isn't there. But the style thing is so expansive that I become immediately confused."
But presumably you employ such antiquated terms as "charming" and "handsome" in order to indicate a style which has nothing to do with fashion.
"Yes, it's also to try to revive some involvement with language which people no longer have. In the daily scheme of things, people's language is so frighteningly limited, and if you use a word with more than ten letters it's absolute snobbery, which I can't really cope with, especially with me coming from an absolutely working class background.
"I always found it enormously difficult, and people thought I was absolutely fake because I really tried to think about things in a manner which didn't seem to appeal to the average person. It's just like the brow-beaten artist really, but that sounds almost vaudevillian."
"In the lover's realm, there is no acting out, no propulsion, perhaps even no pleasure - nothing but signs, a frenzied activity of language: to institute, on each furtive occasion, the system (the paradigm) of demand and response."
- Roland Barthes
EVEN BONDED by the codes of give-and-take (or demand and response), by the aspirations of courting and the accusations of rejection, how very furtive The Smiths are!
"I think what The Smiths are is something quite beyond popular music, which could almost sound like an absurdly brash comment but it really is the truth. I think that's why I'm asked very serious questions. If we were simply blending in with modern popular music... we wouldn't be having this conversation."
What did you hear in Johnny's music that attracted you?
"He had really quite simplistic ideals, which at the time was rare, and that was a perfect foundation for what we wanted to do. He also works very quickly, without anxiety, which I like. So many people seem to enjoy talking about things and so few people seem to enjoy doing them. And that's really been the history of the group, that we've just got on with things."
What were you doing when Johnny rescued you from reclusion?
"Reading. I read persistently. I swam in books as a child and at some point it becomes quite ruinous, it gets to the point where you can't answer the door without being heavily analytical about it. But ultimately I think they've proved to be positive weapons for me now. I feel that if I hadn't been through that very swamped period, I perhaps couldn't deal with this whole new situation, or The Smiths would simply be just another group, just hovering along and disappearing quickly. I really and sincerely believe that."
Apart from Oscar Wilde, who are the writers that have anything to do with The Smiths?
"So many, really, but I'm moved by certain works rather than people. I can mention books by certain people that have set me alight. For instance, Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd set me alight, but The Mayor Of Casterbridge didn't. And I feel that about so many people that I've liked, apart from perhaps Shelagh Delaney."
How much further do you think you can go in writing love songs that are not boy-meets-girl? How far can you push these laconic garlands?
"Well, it's really terribly naive, but I make a conscious effort never to think about the future. I simply want to bask in what's happening now, to enjoy, for example, speaking to you."
Are you enjoying the way people see you?
"Sometimes I sit down and say, well yes, I'm satisfied when I think of certain things, but then other days I'm really quite horrified. I hate being misquoted because I take interviews very seriously, and I also hate this 'festive faggot' thing which seems to come through, because people listen to 'This Charming Man' and think no further than what anyone would presume. I hate that angle, and it's surprising that the gay press have harped on that more than anyone else.
"I hate it when people talk to me about sex in a very trivial way, because I can't talk about it in a trivial way, and I think the images we thrust forth are really quite serious and important, and when people simply debase them because they can't be bothered to think about things clearly, when they have this very juvenile street-level approach to sex, I can't see why they even listen to our music.
"It's really curious once you come into this business suddenly there's loads of people saying this is what you should do and you shouldn't do that and you shouldn't dream of wearing that. It's really funny how when you're really struggling no one cares, but suddenly there's a thousand voices coming towards you, people feeling that you need some kind of direction and instruction. It confuses me, because if we weren't the strong people that we are, we wouldn't have formed the group in the first place."
Will you last?
"I don't think I'll wilt quickly. We'll never be a flavour of the month, I think we're just a little bit too clever for that."
I LIKE THE tart juxtapositions you use, like "I know that windswept, mystical air/It means I'd like to see your underwear."
"It's just being honest. It's saying, I don't want to sit here for hours and hours talking about W.H. Auden when we just want to exchange underwear or something. It's just the whole point about romance and love songs, people seem to make things very difficult for themselves."
But at the same time it's not trivialising sex.
"Not in the least. It's just... y'know, saving time."
What are your feelings about Cupid's arrow in the modern world?
"I constantly spectate upon people who are entwined and frankly I'm looking upon souls in agony. I can't think of one relationship in the world which has been harmonious. It just doesn't happen."
Perhaps it doesn't happen because people feel it should happen.
"It's best really in modern life to have no expectations."
What about films?
"Well, at the moment I'm completely handcuffed to Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, which I will never ever tire of, and I find it disturbing that I can watch particular scenes for the hundred and twelfth time and I'm still caught unawares by a line which I have said repeatedly throughout the day. I can't describe the poetry that film has for me, especially that of Albert Finney in the Arthur Seaton role."
It's interesting that the films you've listed in your Consumer's Guide are mainly like that, i.e. '60s interpretations of the Angry Young Men, because your landscapes seem very much to hail from those films - A Taste Of Honey, A Kind Of Loving, etc. Iron bridges, piers, and of course, parks and bushes...
"I think the time when those films emerged was a time when people were only prepared to be very real about things. For the first time in British films we had people who were speaking in very down-to-earth voices. Before that everybody had a very clipped, theatre-school way of talking. And for the first time also you had very real images, and it wasn't just Hollywood pantomime.
"That period was very brief, however, because very soon after we went back to the whole escapism bit, which I never ever liked, and today's film industry is dead because of that.
"So yes, I'm really chained to those iron bridges, I'm really chained to the pier! I'm persistently on some disused clearing in Wigan. I shall be buried there, I'm sure, and I shall be glad to go at that point. I mean, I certainly don't want to be buried at Rough Trade!"
Could someone make an interesting film about England today? What about Julien Temple's film of Absolute Beginners?
"Well, he's such a terrible snob that something will lack. I think principally what the British film industry needs is this very real element which it never ever utilises. I mean, there is no British film industry, let's be honest. We can talk about Chariots Of Fire, which was profound dross... I think the industry really requires imagination, it really requires someone who is quite desperate, and nobody is, everyone's lazy and fat. There's no point in affectations of being down-to-earth, you need people who are enchained to those situations."
English culture has become so fossilised that we're living in a gigantic museum. It's as though our class roles have all been written in advance.
"I think the main blemish on this country is the absolute segregation which seems to appear on every level, with everything and everybody. There is no unity, certainly not within popular music. But of course this is because of the present government, which thrives completely upon it. The country is governed by a government that doesn't really care that much about it."
IS it really fair to say that the synthesiser has all but killed modern pop music?
"It's been directly responsible. I can't think of anything that can share the blame. The synthesiser should be symbolically burned."
Is the synthesiser false where the guitar is true?
"Well, it's quite simple. They become instruments that do not involve connection with human beings."
So it's basically Marx's theory of alienation!
"We''ll, you can literally put them in a room and they'll play on their own, so it's really quite strange. I prefer music by people who really have to play it, and who really have a burning desire to play it."
It sounds a bit sentimental, as though our pop worker must have his hand soiled before he can testify to his soul.
"But why is that sentimental?"
Well, it sounds a bit like William Morris. Maybe it's the seductive power of good synth music it hints at another world, but it's still a potentially sensuous experience to me.
"It's a world where human beings have no place whatsoever, and I've really got the interests of the human race at heart."
Do you love the human race?
"I despise them. No, I think they're worth saving."
Do you do unto your breathen as you would have them do unto you?
"I'd like to, but the scope for it in daily life is really quite slim. You know, if you brush past someone on the tube, everybody screams as if there's been a horrible invasion of privacy."
This is sad.
"I think it's horrific, but it's just a measure of how far human relationships have narrowed themselves. I mean, if you ask someone to come round and see you, the implications are horrendous. People think that you want to molest them in front of the fireplace, which is nearly always the case, but..."
Freud was wrong, wasn't he? I mean, sexual neurosis is not caused by celibacy, it's caused by sex.
"He just made people feel so neurotic about their lives. I mean, if you dreamt about a lampshade, it meant that you wanted to be whipped by the local vicar or something."
What has happened to the record with Sandie Shaw?
"The record isn't finished yet, which is a constant source of anxiety to me. It really should be out as we speak. But working with her has been an endless thrill, it's almost like meeting oneself in a former life. She's very down-to-earth, very humourous, there's a certain veil which she lowers at a particular time of the day..."
What, you didn't try the fireside bit with her, did you?
Is there anything you wish to say in your defence?
"Not really, I'm just so pleased that I've scrambled through an interview where somebody has not asked me about flowers. This is a tremendous relief, and quite a breakthrough for me."
There goes my last question.
WE PREPARE to depart for Holborn Studios, where the three other Smiths are gathered for photographs. For five minutes I'm left with Morrissey's books and pictures. I learn that he does not possess a record player.
Pictures of James Dean occupy focal positions on the wall. There are lots of movie books, but even more feminist ones. Wilde's De Profundis (the sort of epic reproach to a lover that Morrissey himself would make) catches the eye. I don't spy Nightwood or The Well Of Loneliness, nor any Edmund White, but Semiotexte's Polysexuality is visible, and makes me reflect further on what Morrissey may be trying to do.
Is it not perhaps possible that what we have here is a minstrel who is actually thinking the thoughts Paul Morley was trying to plant in the tidy minds of, say, Jim Kerr and David Sylvian? Someone who is actually confronting the visions Morley attributed to the shrilly massed chorus of a thousand Altered Haircuts?
"Consider the current conventional usage of bisexuality. 'Is he/she homosexual?' 'No, he's/she's bisexual'. You have to be identified, fit 'Sexuality', be one or the other or both, the same one in the end. Somehow the sum has got to be made to come out right, the problem preserved, the required number produced. The regiment marches on, one-two, one-two, one... what you cannot be allowed to be is sexual, multiple, various, a kaleidoscope of moments and possibilities, infinitely desiring..."
- Stephen Heath, The Sexual Fix
Hence Morley and the art of boys, hence the dreamy 'Moments In Love', hence... but of course. Hence love.
"There need never be longing in your eyes. As long as the hand that rocks the cradle is mine."
IN THE CAR we await Johnny Marr, whose appearance suggests an impish Jim Honeyman-Scott. Morrissey asks what I think of 'What Difference'. I say it sounds like Status Quo doing 'Private Idaho'. He says he never wanted it released. Nevertheless, he's just been told it's gone in at 26, so they'll be doing TOTP.
When we arrive, I whisk the good-natured Marr into a sideroom.
What did you want to do with pop music before you met Morrissey?
"I wanted to be in the position I'm in now exactly, in every aspect of it. I knew as soon as I started playing guitar that I'd never be a frontman, and all the people I've ever looked up to were always musicians' musicians. I wasn't into doing the Tom Petty bit either.
"Round about when I was 14 or 15, I came into contact with Morrissey through a couple of friends who knew him because of his New York Dolls infatuation, and I was just sort of completely struck by him, because of his lyrics I think. So all the time I thought, well, that would be the ideal person for me to be in a group with. I mean, it wasn't that I was going around for four years thinking, oh, I've gotta find Morrissey, but nothing before The Smiths was serious. I played in a couple of groups with Andy, but all I really did was stay in my room writing cassette upon cassette of tunes.
"It was important for me to be working with a frontman, and obviously someone who could write lyrics prolifically, and someone who could handle himself with journalists (!), because if I was the main spokesman for The Smiths I'm not sure we'd have got the sort of press we have done. I'm not sure it would have been so spontaneous. So I'm in the ideal position so far as my relation to Morrissey goes."
I liked what you said about the only '60s thing you were reviving being the fact that you were a songwriting partnership like Goffin and King. How do you and Morrissey get on?
"Morrissey and I are total extremes. He's completely the opposite of me. Onstage Morrissey's completely different to the way he is offstage, he's extrovert and he's loud, whereas offstage I'm too loud and onstage I'm quite quiet. Everything - he's a non-smoker, he doesn't drink coffee, and I live off coffee and cigarettes. He's not a great believer in going out, cos he doesn't have fun when he goes out, whereas I go out every night, so we're two completely opposite cases."
Who are your musical exemplars?
"I think I was attracted to guitar playing before I discovered records that seriously. Marc Bolan was probably the first I saw and thought he looks so good with a guitar, and at school I just had this vision of me being Marc Bolan. But I never got fanatical about one group, it was always my singles collection that impressed me. The emphasis for me was always on songs. A record like 'Alright Now' would drive me mad cos I'd think there was no real song there and I'd go and play my mum's old copy of 'Walk Away Renee' and I'd think, yeah, that's a song.
"I used to study a lot of different kinds of guitar parts, which I think has been an advantage, because I haven't got stuck into any type of guitar-playing mould. I mean, I'd love to step on this Roger McGuinn infatuation bit, just cos I've got his guitar. I've got it because Rickenbacker made guitars for him, so his one is the best, not because I want to sound like The Byrds. People think I've deliberately got his hairstyle too."
What is Morrissey's secret?
"He knows that you have to calculate how to be uncalculating."
WHEN I confront the final two Smiths - the worker Smiths - with the idea of a brief chat, they exchange dry smiles.
"You know of course that this is highly irregular," points out drummer Mike Joyce.
Sure, guys, I appreciate that. All I really want from you is what you wanted to do in pop music before you became Smiths.
Are you both happy with the way things are conducted, as in for instance your not usually doing interviews?
"I'm sure if I wanted to get into interviews it would be quite easy to do, but I'm perfectly happy to take a back seat."
To what extent do you share Morrissey's sexual politics?
Andy: "Well, Morrissey's lyrics we hear after we're put the music together, so they don't inspire the music at all. I suppose it compliments it."
Mike: "I listen to the emotion. I remember when we were doing 'I Don't Owe You Anything' at Dingwalls, I was nearly reduced to tears, it was just so powerful."
FROM YOUR drummer I'd think you'd agree this is quite an accolade. I can't think of a great deal more to say about The Smiths, and that seems like a fitting enough conclusion. We'll end, however, with a mournful tableau which, though I am no great fan of Saint Genet's KY porn operas, fills me with a wonderfully calm sense of Smithdom:
"It was regrettable that the little girl had died no sooner than she was born. The maid would later have taught her the art of two-part singing so as to beg in the street, just as she herself had been taught by her mother. In her little room, near a window that looked out on the yard, they would have gravely learned to sing, in strict time, the touching and bewitching songs that open hearts and purses..."
Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only. Photos by Anton Corbijn. Reproduced without permission.
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