Discovering The Smiths

The silly things we say. I remember doing a lot of stupid things when I was 17. Perhaps the worst amongst them was wearing a Fratellis t-shirt to Reading Festival in the forlorn hope it might attract the opposite sex. In fact, it only attracted a drunk Scottish bloke with a beard you could hang books from: “Mon The Fratellis!” he shouted after me. Nothing announces “I’m a boorish twat with no interest beyond weak lager and sports” better than a Fratellis t-shirt.

Then again, describing The Smiths as “shit” is a crime punishable by forcing the Smiths-hater to listen to Steps’ Greatest Hits on repeat. For ever. Or at least until the prospect of lethal injection seems an easy way out. Which would be about seven minutes.

I bought compilation album ‘Sound Of The Smiths’ and gave it a cursory listen, before confirming to friends with age and wisdom on their side that the band were indeed “shit”. They scoffed. They sniggered. They shot me a deathly stare which threatened violence in the name of defending Messrs Joyce, Rourke, Marr & Morrissey.

Like so many things at 17, I was absolutely certain of my convictions. I knew I was a left-wing rebel and thought I would be attending rallies and occupations like a seasoned crusty as soon as I got the chance. Now I’m at a relatively radical University and I can barely be arsed to turn up at my own lectures, let alone camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral and demand the overthrow of capitalism. I knew what I liked and what I did not. The Enemy were better than the Arctic Monkeys. The Pigeon Detectives were decent. The Smiths were crap. Etc, etc.

Thankfully, my ignorance did not last long. Thinking I may have got this one wrong, I persevered. Days later my head was full of thoughts about leather running smooth on the passenger seat, double-decker buses and ten-ton trucks. Morrissey’s voice is an undulating thing of beauty. I think he put me off at first. When you’re used to northerners spouting sexually connotative slogans over a wall of guitar, to hear a fey, high-pitched, somewhat theatrical voice backed by jangly riffs, came as a culture shock. It’s a giant leap from a chorus which repeats “This is an emergency!” to poetic verse about Myra Hindley, Oscar Wilde and Cleopatra.

‘The Queen Is Dead’ is my favourite album. (Although I appreciate the view that I’ve just left teenage-dom and hence know naff all – only yesterday someone told me “What you’ve got to remember is that you’re twenty years old and know fuck all” – so my stamp of approval is meaningless.) Yet there is nothing I would change about it. Once I got my head around what The Smiths were offering, I devoured the album. It is typical teenage bedroom stuff. “If you’re so very handsome, then why are you on your own tonight?” perfectly encapsulates the feeling of sitting on your bedroom floor, reading lyrics to ‘Never Had No One Ever’ by lamplight, knowing that you should be out there shagging, drinking and dancing poorly enough for people to think you are suffering a mild stroke.

Anyone who says The Smiths are miserable have clearly had their sense of humour surgically removed. Granted, much of their humour is bleak, but how is a line like “I was looking for a job, then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now” nothing short of comedy gold? “Some girls are bigger than others”. “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools”. “Girlfriend in a coma, I know it’s serious”. Not even a smirk?

The morbidness, the high-brow-meets-low-brow and the vulnerability of The Smiths lyrics must have universal appeal for hormonally unbalanced, socially awkward youths since their first single dropped almost thirty years ago. Morrissey was the ultimate social awkward. Contempary interviews with the band at their peak do little to combat the accusation that he is a morose, lifeless vessel doomed to celibacy and irrelevance. He keeps eulogising over 1960s film like a crazed scientist stuck in a malfunctioning time machine.

For me, The Smiths made it OK to be ever so slightly lame. Watching ‘teen’ programmes like Skins, I am made to feel inadequate for not snorting illicit substances and going on wild rampages in abandoned warehouses. Quite often, I’m satisfied with a cup of tea, a pair of chocolate bourbons and a bit of Channel 4 if I’m feeling adventurous. Morrissey manages to make such failures appear heroic: “I don’t dream of anyone except myself” he croons on ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, as if this is the only way to be. When you’re a teenager whose only meaningful relationship has been with your right hand, these words offer solace and reassurance that you’re not alone.