The Spectator: "What the Smiths' critics don't get" by Gareth Roberts (June 6, 2023)

It’s forty years since the Smiths released their first single ‘Hand In Glove’. We’ve already seen a slew of articles on the anniversary, and the clichés about this most singular, most wonderful pop group are doing their weary rounds yet again. The Guardian tells us that the Smiths are incredibly influential. But this is sadly not so. I don’t hear any influence, not a note, in anything that’s followed.

‘Over the past 40 years, you can see their aesthetic and spiritual influence in everyone from the Stone Roses to Oasis and the 1975,’ they tell us. If only! Those bands are derivative, certainly, but of the Smiths? Guitars and the North of England aside, it’s hard to imagine greater artistic gulfs. The comparison between the emotional open wound of the Smiths’ output with the 1975’s immaculately hollow, precision-tooled-for-Spotify tunes is laughably wide of the target. I strongly suspect you could remove the Smiths from history, and those bands – and pop music in general – would sound exactly the same.

There is also another repetition of the assertion – first made by John Peel and oddly never challenged – that the Smiths sounded like nothing else when they first appeared, and that everyone was knocked over by their originality. But this is not quite the case. Take a listen to the indie of the time just before the Smiths, and you’ll notice striking similarities with aspects of the band. Almost contemporaneous records, such as ‘Revolutionary Spirit’ by The Wild Swans – with its haughty vocal and jaunty backing – or ‘The First Picture Of You’ by the Lotus Eaters – with its rangy bass, picked mesh of guitars, arty sleeve of a male nude – sound familiar to anyone who has listened to the Smiths.

To many of us at the time, our first encounter with the Smiths saw us file them under ‘miserable rainy Northern indie’. In fact, it took a few listens to ‘get’ them, to understand their music really was something precious.

What made them special? Firstly, there was the music’s incredible unsexiness, despite often being about sex or the lack of it. The songs are often bashingly bouncy but they are totally without the earthy quality of the pop music of that time or of this time. They don’t make you feel ‘up for it’. The band bucked the trend of the day-glo multicoloured world of the 80s: all synthesisers and videos of Bowiefied men disappearing in slow motion or pouting with their cheeks sucked in. The Smiths released albums and singles with sleeves of forgotten 60s actors, their photographs washed in dun, plum, taupe and umber. People have forgotten how funny that was.

Most pop music takes place in some unfathomably remote dream world of aspiration, or a drugged withdrawal from reality. But, as their name suggested, the Smiths were bread and butter, more Ena Sharples than Brian Eno.

Look at the chasm in January 1984 between Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ at number one in the charts and ‘What Difference Does It Make’ by the Smiths at number 12. The first is a pounding multi-platform extravaganza of acrobatic homoeroticism; the latter, the story of a thwarted confession of…something, conveyed in the language of the everyday. The lyrics took in school, jobs, money troubles, fumbles and messy approaches; the actual warp and weft of teenage life.

The reaction from many to this saying of the unsayable by the Smiths, their open self-pity and searing honesty, was embarrassment or laughter. It’s been strange in the years since their passing to read of how loved the Smiths supposedly were. Most people despised and rejected them, and their singles barely scraped the top ten. They were gone before many realised they were even there.

Much as it annoys people to acknowledge it, a lot of their uniqueness came from Morrissey. The rule-breaking sprawl of his vocal lines, the words nobody else would dare sing; take Morrissey out and some of the Smiths’ songs, the shining guitar riffs and the melodic and oddly funky bass of the late great Andy Rourke, would sound almost like Haircut 100 (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The musical brilliance of the other members didn’t translate in the same way afterwards. All of Morrissey’s solo songs sound like the Smiths; none of Johnny Marr’s do.

The disregard of the musical cognoscenti for Morrissey’s post-Smiths career has obvious motivations. Standing under the same umbrella as three ordinary-looking blokes made him more palatable. If they were ok with him, we could be. And we like groups – the relationships between the young members as they navigate their sudden success. We love to remember the first rush of a musical infatuation. Like a husband or a cat though, after a while they’re probably not going to surprise you any more. They’re just there on the chair, reminding you you’ve got old. Morrissey has made some of his best records much later on in his life, but they go unheralded – even, now, unreleased.

Which brings us to another of the caveats, what the Guardian calls ‘the singer’s current views’. Morrissey’s trenchant opinions during the lifetime of the Smiths (wishing death on Mrs Thatcher, supporting animal rights terrorists, etc) didn’t bother the music press, when these could be categorised as left wing. There is also a silly attitude to Morrissey’s character. His every song, right from day one, is about being strange and spiky and having awkward social interactions. Yet his critics delight in pointing out that he’s strange and spiky and has awkward social interactions, as if they’d uncovered a shocking hidden truth. You may as well splash the headline Rod Stewart dyes his hair.

Morrissey remains almost unique as an artist in the pop world, as his only means to communicate clearly and sincerely is in the poetic, lyrical mode. Everyone else seems to have forgotten that’s what we have the poetic, lyrical mode for.

For forty years, he has seemed like an interloper in the milieu of indie – the priggish students, the turgid music press and the Guardian. Of course, these people always get it so wrong. The Smiths were always too big, too exceptional, for that narrow little world.

It would be interesting to see the difference between 7 & 12" sales.
Obviously the 12 German maxi singles, other imports or Japanese 3" CDs (with adapter) I bought didn't count towards sales, but I don't ever remember buying just a 7" or 12" - always together.
Hadn't thought of that! Yes, if Smiths fans were more likely to be "completists" buying more than one version of each single, that would impact the data. I'm assuming that kind of info is lost forever, now?
This is really interesting, and it's made me do some @Mozmar style number-crunching!

Here's a graphic of The Smiths singles and how long they lasted in the UK Top 40:

View attachment 91835

And here's one of Morrissey's solo singles, using the same method:

View attachment 91836

What this doesn't tell us, of course, is what The Smiths' or Morrissey's chart longevity (longevities?) were like compared to one or two of their contemporaries. Any suggestions as to which bands / artists we could look at for the sake of comparison?
Great to see graphical representation catching on!! (y)
A 'picture' paints a thousand words, etc, etc. Nice one!
I love The Lotus Eaters "First Picture Of You", but it was released 2 months after Hand In Glove - and they were a one hit wonder, so to say before The Smiths and an influence is clearly nonsense
I love The Lotus Eaters "First Picture Of You", but it was released 2 months after Hand In Glove - and they were a one hit wonder, so to say before The Smiths and an influence is clearly nonsense
I don’t think he’s necessarily saying the jingle jangle indie sound and haughty vocals of The Lotus Eaters pre-dates The Smiths but that sound was already in the air. It was evolving out of early goth and late New Wave. First Picture of You was broadcast as a Peel Session in October 1982 before The Smiths had properly recorded anything.
The Spectator is a right wing publication so less of a surprise than if it had been written in The Guardian or Independent.
Regardless of the politics of the publication, there are indeed some articulate and original observations here.
It’s not actually really *that* right-wing, it just gives room for opinion on the right (as well as some of the left) which is something The Guardian et al simply wouldn’t do the reverse of.
Not a bad article really, just a shame it came from a shitrag like The Spectator. There's a few things I totally concur with, and some that I definitely don't.
Roberts is correct when he says that the idea that The Smiths arrived with no obvious influences is completely erroneous. This idea seems to stem from the John Peel interview within The South Bank Show special in which John claims that when he first heard The Smiths there was no clear sign that this was a band that had been listening to The Doors or The Velvet Underground....but you COULD tell that they had been listening to Patti Smith for one. There are a few bands from around 1982/83 that also seem to seep into The Smiths DNA. Several of the bands who appeared on Cherry Red Records(and on the much loved 'Pillows & Prayers' compilation from that era) sound like contemporary bedfellows. Felt being an obvious suggestion. The two bands Roberts mentions, The Lotus Eaters and The Wild Swans also fit the bill, albeit The Smiths never used synthesizers(until 'Strangeways...' anyway). When I first heard 'This Charming Man' it immediately reminded me of a song I had taped off John Peel; a Peel Session version of 'Enchanted' by The Wild Swans. The guitar and bass could easily fit a Smiths composition, but the synthesizer and far-too-busy-cymbals drumming sound out of place. Singer Paul Simpson's loooong vowel stretching vocals also sound very Morrisseyesque, the line 'Niiiiight, spread your skirts around' matching 'I would go out tonight, but I haven't got a stitch to wear' in camp androgyny. Morrissey's earliest vocal stylings(as in the 'Hacienda' bootleg, their third ever gig) is very similar also to the likes of Martyn Bates of Eyeless In Gaza, although the similarities end there as EIG's music tend to be atonal synths and electronics. The overall sound of The Smiths in 1983 certainly wasn't as 100% unique as modern writers would now have us believe, but it would grow in stature and leave lesser lights behind.

As for The Smiths not really influencing anyone.....really?? Look at a lot of IndiePop released from say, 1985 to 1990, and tell me there's no influence there. Records like those released on labels like 53rd & 3rd, Sha-La-La and especially Sarah Records(although Sarah founders Matt & Claire will furiously dispute this) took clear influence from The Smiths; all trebly Rickenbackers and dolorous vocals of broken hearted boys. Some early Creation Records bear a resemblance too, 'Therese' by The Bodines sounds like 'Jeane' at twice the speed. Bands who remained forever cult heroes like The Visitors, Reserve and Bob all bore more than a trace of Smithdom(one of Bob's songs featured the lyric 'slow hand Johnny and Steven P M'). Short lived Indie Darlings The Siddeleys had a female vocalist called Johnny(hey, a girl called Smiths!) who was always called 'a female Morrissey', and Anna Yu from early 2000's alt-rockers LoveLikeFire is also frequently referred to as a 'female Morrissey'.
Of course in the early days The Smiths were always linked with the co-emerging James, and Bourgie Bourgie, all three bands being lumped together as 'Handsome Bands'(anyone else remember that?).
Then when we get to the 90s, there's Suede and Gene...two bands clearly and openly influenced by The Smiths. When Radiohead were recording 'The Bends' they claimed to listen to The Smiths the whole time, and 'Knives Out' was their attempt at writing a Smiths song....not a bad attempt at that.
So, just by looking at chart or mainstream music, yes you may not see much influence, but dig deep and there really is a lot there.

I agree completely that Morrissey only seems happy when he's causing controversy. It seems to have been like that since day one. He seems to thrive on winding people up. Obviously when he's talking about killing Thatcher, bringing down the monarchy , or supporting the IRA or anti-vivisectionists who blow shit up, it all seems cool and edgy. When it's dubious comments about immigration or a pro-Britishness(I never get how an Irish Catholic would want to be so pro-British!!...maybe that's why he feels he has to sing 'Irish Blood, English Heart' at virtually EVERY show these days!), then it all gets a bit murky, and I admit myself that I don't 'get' his views on such subjects. But it's not going to taint my love for his lyrics/voice/music etc one jot. I totally despise the self-righteous preening of the 'Love The Smiths - Hate Morrissey' mob. They can f*** right off! You either get the whole package or you don't.

So yeah, not a bad article at all. Certainly made me want to contribute my own thoughts to the issues.
Love The Smiths - Love Morrissey - Love The Whole f***in' Kit & Kaboodle:hibiscus::hibiscus::microphone::microphone:
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I would be inclined to agree - for me his best work is Quarry, Ringleader, World Peace and Low in HS.

But then I'm a noughties indie-kid so I would say that
It’s not actually really *that* right-wing, it just gives room for opinion on the right (as well as some of the left) which is something The Guardian et al simply wouldn’t do the reverse of.
I guess it depends on how right wing one is. If one is so far to the right that you consider pieces like this not *that* right wing, then I can understand why one might consider that point of view.

The above image is from the article as it was originally published, but it has since been edited.

I guess it depends on how right wing one is. If one is so far to the right that you consider pieces like this not *that* right wing, then I can understand why one might consider that point of view.
View attachment 91938

The above image is from the article as it was originally published, but it has since been edited.

Seems an unfortunate headline, but of course German soldiers were not necessarily Nazis.
I know pundits have to earn a living - but the cynicism is still breathtaking.


Morrissey was talking about Prince & expressing left-wing views.


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