The passing of time often takes the edge off great albums, rendering them merely ‘good’ after a decade or so of weighing up their relative merits. Others seem to get better with age, going on to becoming iconic of their generation and the people who bought them…
The Smiths was released into the grey, snowy gloom of February 1984 on Rough Trade records. The band’s streetwise guitarist Johnny Marr later explained that they had been encouraged to sign for Manchester-based Factory Records, but refused because it was “yesterday’s label”. They were right to choose a London-based indie label, because Geoff Travis’s imprint was just big enough to get the band into the collective consciousness of the music media based there. The New Musical Express headquartered in Carnaby Street was soon a fan, and this lead to two John Peel sessions in the summer 1983 which later appeared on Hatful of Hollow.
The world first heard the band with the single Hand in Glove, realised in May 1983. It was a bracing breath of fresh air, in an already highly creative and prolific period for independent British music. From Orange Juice to The Associates, Simple Minds to The Cocteau Twins, there were talented bands getting into their stride yet The Smiths’ debut rang out like bells in the night. Their distinctive sound was there from the start – layered guitars set behind the unique vocal stylings of singer Stephen Patrick Morrissey. It was those lyrics that set us all aback, however. Instead of the usual bland variations on the ‘boy meets girl’ theme, we got sad yet hilarious platitudes, delivered in a dreamy yet acerbic style. Like Kate Bush on her debut single Wuthering Heights some five years earlier, the world had heard nothing like it before.
Hand in Glove was one of two singles on The Smiths, the other being What Difference Does it Make? The sleeve was as distinctive as the music; designed by Morrissey it featured American actor Joe Dallesandro in a still from Andy Warhol’s 1968 film Flesh. The album was recorded at various studios in a rather piecemeal way, but still emerged as a cohesive work with a uniquely strong sense of self-belief. The lyrics conjured up powerful images of poverty, despair, romance, mental illness and alienation – but were at the same time often hilariously ironic or self-depricating, almost like narrative fiction with the storyteller putting himself up to ridicule.
Set behind Morrissey’s plaintive vocals was the most delicious wall of guitar sound we had heard since the likes of Be Bop Deluxe’s Modern Music seven or so years earlier. Despite being so young, Johnny Marr was a precocious talent and was confident enough to borrow from the likes of Bill Nelson, Keith Richards and George Harrison without descending into pale parody. His songs were beautifully crafted, intricate and melodic – yet had a swagger to them that he obviously hadn’t learned the night before. Behind this were Mike Joyce on drums and Andy Rourke on bass guitar, both of whom lent an unshowy, post-punk sensibility to their roles.
This was all the more striking because at the time, Britain was in the grip of a synthesiser pop boom. Boy bands with big hair, heavy make up, shiny suits and shoulder pads were crooning to the backing of Roland Juno 60s as Linn drum machines pounded behind them. For The Smiths to go back to the basics of vocals, guitars and drums – and have a sparse, almost anaemic production courtesy of John Porter – on their first album was an audacious statement of intent.
The Smiths was bought by a new generation of gaunt, pale indie kids in their hundreds of thousands – it reached number two in the British album charts, and got no small amount of help doing this by moral panics whipped up by several national newspapers. First, it was alleged that Reel Around the Fountain was about child abuse (it was not), and then that Suffer Little Children was about Manchester moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady (it was). Most startling though was the sheer erudition of lead singer Morrissey, who it fast become obvious was as big a figure as Johnny Rotten or Boy George before him. He was a natural.
The Smiths is not usually put up as the band’s best album, but I feel it was nothing less than the reinvention of guitar music – in a world of glossy electronic pop. It was so influential that within three years the whole genre was full of Smiths copyists of some description or another. It is sparse yet immersive, melodic yet intense, provocative yet romantic too. It has dated, but in the way that all great albums do – with their grace and goodness still sealed in.
The band went on to become the most successful indie combo of the nineteen eighties – and were just on the verge of breaking America and going global when Johnny Marr left due to ‘artistic differences’. It’s a testament to the chemistry of the group that nothing its solo members did matched their collective work with The Smiths. In the words of Hand In Glove, “the sun shines out of our behinds. We may be hidden by rags, but we have something they’ll never have…”