For several years in a row now the powers that be have denied the ’80s British rock band The Smiths entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Snubbery is nothing new to the Smiths and Morrissey, of course, who made a career out of being the wayward child, the voice of the voiceless. In fact, so sad-sack is their woeful image, if the Smiths were suddenly accepted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame it would be shocking to all concerned.
Over the past few years I’ve become more and more disdainful of prizes, laurels and other accolades—perhaps because I personally seem to rarely win them myself (sour grapes?), but also because such praise isn’t really something one “wins,” per se. Rather, tributes are cast upon the recipient from some kind of external taste-maker in aesthetic judgement. Prizes are exterior, a popularity contest or political insider’s game—something a band or artist can’t actually control. On this level, part of me hopes the Smiths never gain entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which is only half a notch above the Grammy’s in respectability (Cheap Trick? Seriously?). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to prove it’s not the repository of dusty classic rock.
Yet, even though the Smiths are widely adored on this side of the pond by a certain niche audience, especially by those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s—as the Smiths, and then Morrissey solo, captivated indie radio stations everywhere—they still seem somehow foreign to American mainstream rock and roll tastes. Too British? Too sexually ambiguous? Perhaps it has to do with the dryness of Morrissey’s bleak worldview and humor, perhaps it has to do with Morrissey’s sometimes mannered singing voice which escalates low to high, often rising into falsetto toward a song’s closing moments. In many respects Morrissey’s voice is actually closer to Brian Ferry or David Bowie than it is to the Beatles with whom the Smiths were/are often compared (as a result of their many melodic tunes). In a sense, also, the Smiths appeared too early and are perhaps a victim of their own advancement—peaking before Nirvana and company fully proved that alternative music can also translate into big money. The Smiths are rather patronizingly tapped as the predecessors of such (lesser) bands as Oasis and the many Manchester bands of the ’90s.
Just for the record though, no band currently on the nominees docket can be more deserving of laurels than the Smiths. Yes, their run was short-lived (a mere six years) and devoid of numerous American Billboard hits, but in terms of sheer musicality, the Smiths are right up there with U2, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., and the Replacements in terms of ’80s alternative rock and roll quality of production. In fact, though for my money Elvis Costello was perhaps the most impressive and important rock and roll musician of the late ’70s to late ’80s, the Smiths are not far behind and I personally listen to their disks with far more frequency than I do those of the others.
What made the Smiths so great? As with most great bands, one can’t point to simply one thing. Critics usually mention Morrissey’s wordplay (one of the best if not the best lyricists of his generation) coupled with Johnny Marr’s impressive guitar. However, I would add the rhythm section into the equation as a highly unrecognized quality of the Smiths. Many of the Smiths’ songs are propulsive precisely as a result of Mike Joyce on drums and Andy Rourke on bass. Joyce in particular can be included in the discussion as the best drummer of his generation (we already know Marr is in that discussion for guitar). Furthermore, it’s notable that in an era of synths the Smiths performed straight-forward rock and roll and every single one of their albums offers to the listener a high quality earful. There are very, very few dogs in their discography.
But in my book the most striking quality of the Smiths has to do with the way they put their finger on the stories of the dispossessed and bitter in a melodic manner. It’s all about the songs. The typical Smiths song presents themes of death, unrequited love, disappointment or acrimony—in other words, the stuff of life. I mentioned Nirvana earlier: just as Kurt Cobain gave voice to the anger of a generation with his lyrics and gut-wrenching howls, Morrissey offered up mordant and witty tales of ambiguous reality. Morrissey, in particular, was brilliant with first lines and/or memorable one-liners—shades of his hero Oscar Wilde. Here are several examples:
- “What Difference Does it Make?” Unquestionably a rock song, not some kind of synth-pop trifle. “I stole and lied just because you asked me to…but I’m still fond of you…I’m feeling so tired and I’m feeling so sick and ill today…but I’m so fond of you.”
- “This Charming Man.” Such an uplifting jangly song, so bloody tuneful. “Won’t you bicycle on a hillside….”
- “Handsome Devil.” “Let me get my hands on your mammary glands.”
- “Hand in Glove.” Love the harmonica. “If people stare then people stare.”
- “You’ve Got Everything Now.” “What a mess I’ve made of my life.”
- “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” So utterly human—a plea for a little luck. Rodney Dangerfield would be proud.
- “I Know It’s Over.” “Oh Mother I can feel the soil falling over my head.”
- “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” “Sweetness I was only joking when I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head.”
- “Some Girls Are Bigger than Others.” The Smiths’ funniest song? “Some girl’s mothers are bigger than other girl’s mothers.”
- “Stop Me If you Think You’ve Heard This One Before.” “I still love you, only slightly less than I used to.”
- “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” “If a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.”
- “Girlfriend in a Coma.” Comas caustically funny? Yes.
- “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” The ultimate Smiths song? “What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed.” And “Why do I smile at people who I would much rather kick in the eye?” As Weasel, the infamous local D.J. at WHFS, the local alternative station, would say in his high pitched voice, “The miserable Stephen Patrick Morrissey.”
It’s easy to dismiss the Smiths and Morrissey in particular as whiney or self-involved or overly self-pitying or catering to teenage angst. It’s true, they had a certain indie Revenge of the Nerds vibe that can’t be denied. However, many haters focus on Morrissey’s operatic personae as the beginning and end of the Smiths. I think this is a misreading of their music (especially the Smiths). While Morrissey’s personality can certainly be grating—he doesn’t suffer fools, can be nasty and offers compliments grudgingly—I’ve never taken the Smiths’ songs to be mostly or only autobiographical in the least. The songs are not entirely about Morrissey; the songs are universal. Perhaps the reason they have been excluded from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has more to do with buying into the bristly Morrissey and less to do with actually listening to the music. One can’t deny their tuneful quality or musicality. Moreover, most of their songs are mid-tempo and upbeat in melody. It’s as if the Smiths present this equation: Life sucks, but here’s a tune to acknowledge it. Sing along, it will make you feel better.
It’s not an accident the Smiths have been appropriated by so many indie films and television shows over the past few decades—500 Days of Summer, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Shaun of the Dead, Girls, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The Smiths have become for many Gen Xers of a certain alt-stripe and now some millennials, the go-to sing-along background music. I’ll never forget the time my friend, in a large gathering didn’t know which CD to play—so he chose The Smiths. Music we can all agree on, sing along to, quote from. Stick them in the Hall of Fame, dear voters. You won’t be disappointed—and if you are, welcome to the domain of the Smiths. As their now-most-famous song goes, “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.” Ironically, there is something comforting and cheer-inducing about the Smiths. With their ready acknowledgement that all is dross and disenchantment inevitable, your life seems somehow less miserable. The Queen is Dead and “Strangeways, Here We Come” in particular are two of the best albums of the ’80s.
As a side note, Morrissey’s Autobiography is worth a read for those curious or who simply want to revel in many a grouchy (and often hilariously so) one-liner and passages of gloriously over-written prose (“Putrid smells reduce me to a pitiful pile, and none are more vomitarian than school dinners. All foods of miasmic fragrance disturb me, and the mere hint of garlic induces the shakes, as fish cooked or uncooked causes gut-wrenching panic”). Yes, a portion of the memoir focuses on Morrissey’s bitterness at lack of support from Rough Trade and disappointing sales. However, most interesting to me are the moments when Morrissey acknowledges his limitations (he is nothing if not self-effacing). One particular moment stands out. In the mid-80’s Mick Jagger shows up for a Smiths show in New York but leaves after four songs. “But I felt no hurt at his departure because I could, even then, understand how my general being (which we dare not term a persona) was difficult for a lot of people to take. As the Smiths’ singer I consigned all of my best efforts to conviction, and all of my being went into each song. This can be embarrassing for onlookers—an embarrassment that makes us turn away whenever someone bares their soul in public.” Morrissey gives Mick too much credit here, who in the 80’s was more interested in ignoring his band and prostituting himself (or attempting to) for the all-mighty dollar. But Morrissey makes a great point—the Smiths were often ignored or partially ignored by the taste-makers, patted on the head and shooed away. This still continues. Moving forward, reading Morrissey’s book I believe he can always carve out a second career as a novelist. His expectations might not be so high in that dreary jurisdiction.