I was a little late catching on to The Smiths. They broke out like a wildfire in Britain in 1983 thanks to the John Peel BBC show, ruling the UK indie charts (and emotions of the kingdom’s youthful denizens) as the new lords of independent aka “Alternative” music. They were popular in the UK for the next two years before they found their way to me, a 22-year-old Army medic stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, which was a world as far away from Steven Morrissey’s Manchester as could be found. You had to be a serious music seeker to discover the Smiths in America in 1985; they didn’t make videos for MTV and they got no airplay on American radio. Therefore, in America they didn’t exist.
My introduction to The Smiths came in late 1985 via a young nerdy kid who worked at record shop in Athens, Georgia. If the actor Andy Dick could mate with Michael Stipe of R.E.M., their love child would look like this kid. He was allergic to every element on the Periodic Chart, which caused him to spend his entire life immersed in a tepid pool of snot and slime and soggy, used kleenex. When many people talk, they often include a few “umms” every now and then to help collect thoughts before saying the next thing. With this kid after every three words he either sniffled or sneezed, and the timbre of his voice was always muffled by his snot-filled airways and nasal cavities. His breath was as foul as the air inside an old outhouse in summertime.
However, this kid, this Boris Snotbreath, as I called him, was cool. The coolest. Beyond cool; he was the cool avatar. This cool kid introduced me to The Smiths. They have been my favorite band since that day and have remained in the top spot twenty years later. They were the band that changed everything. So obviously Boris Snotbreath had to be the coolest human ever.
Snotbreath’s first rule to me: the first America-released record by The Smiths was crap. Total crap. Well, not total crap, but certainly they could do better. Instead, he said, if you want to know The Smiths, first listen to Hatful of Hollow, which contained alternate—better—versions of songs on their first record, plus it contained a few new singles they released after the record the Smiths came out in 1984.
Hatful of Hollow is a masterpiece. The Smiths sounded best playing live in a studio, with no overdubs or multi-tacking, just the lads kicking ass in unison, in one take, as if playing at their favorite gig on a Saturday night. Their tracks for John Peel’s BBC show, recorded live in the studio, are simple, direct, tense, and brilliantly vibrant, and were so refreshing in 1985 that I felt honored to have found them. This, I knew immediately, was going to be my favorite band.
The opening tracks, “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “What Difference Does It Make,” “Handsome Devil,” “This Charming Man,” and “These Things Take Time,” display The Smiths at their snotty best, so utterly brilliant, clever, and cocky, simply knowing they are the Next Big Thing; you feel their magnificence and forget every band or song you ever heard previously. On future records they would sound brilliant in many different ways, but they never got better or worse than those first blasts from Hatful of Hollow.
The Smiths, you see, were always great and were never—not once—bad on any record (Boris was wrong: their first record was brilliant; Hatful was simply better). They started out as the best band of their generation and they never retreated from that lofty post until they broke up in 1987. Every record was a masterpiece. Every single they released was as vital as the previous or next one. And when they broke up, they did so while Strangeways, Here We Come topped the charts in Europe and was fairly popular—reaching 55 on Billboard’s album charts—in America; not bad for a British band with little MTV exposure or radio airplay outside of college towns.
The Smiths weren’t Punks or Mod-Revivalists or New Romantics or some other Punk/New Wave hybrid; they were just an English rock band in the tradition of the Beatles and Stones and Who. They were not part of any silly movement or ephemeral style. In America they’d get tossed into the “alternative” bins at record stores, but they were not an alternative rock band.
These four lads from Manchester were something new and something necessary, the next logical step in the evolution of pop and rock. Forget the silly hairdos and slick New Wave fashion of their peers in the UK; that was thrown out the window after the opening bars of “Hand in Glove.” Forget the phony folk heroism of U2 or Springsteen or Mellencamp; Morrissey killed all that feel-good Live Aid idealism with his first ironic ditty sung into a microphone while backed by Johnny Marr’s masterful guitar licks; Morrissey knew rock stars were not saints or saviors, they were just rock singers—pop stars—which was all they needed to be; they were the Lord Byrons and Oscar Wildes in tight trousers—they were not Joan of Arc or Jesus Christ. Forget the macho posturing and campy glam of Metal; Morrissey may have been gay (not that we fans gave a fuck), but he made Metal stars look like the silly, narcissistic fags that they were. Forget videos too; the Smiths never really embraced that medium, yet became the first band in the MTV era to sell records in America despite not getting airplay on MTV.
The Smiths were the band that changed everything.
Not only were the Smiths the most brilliant and original band to enter the scene in years, they refused to play the rock star game and triumphed magnificently despite this. They didn’t cuddle up to the BBC, MTV or the rock press. They didn’t just replace New Wave—they assassinated it with glee and began something newer and better, more honest and cool, and certainly more human. They rocked. They rolled. They made you laugh. They made you dance. They matured and yet never lost their DIY spirit. They were as much Elvis as they were The Who, Small Faces, Ziggy Stardust, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division. They were what the Jam should have been—as popular in America as they were in the UK. Morrissey and Marr were the 80’s John and Paul, Mick and Keith, Bowie and Ronson, Tyler and Perry, Eno and Ferry, Mick and Joe; without the one you cannot have the other; a creative symbiosis that generates greatness.
After The Smiths, fans would demand integrity, honesty, and sincerity—and not phony rock god posing or outlandish fashion statements—from their favorite rock bands. Rock stars didn’t need to be sex gods wearing codpieces who swaggered on stage in ugly spandex trousers and poofie hairdos like burlesque queens. Maybe rock music wasn’t just about sex, drugs, glamour, and partying. Maybe it didn’t need to be about hero worship. Maybe image wasn’t everything. Maybe the music should matter the most, not the stars or their stupid fucking style or image. Once the Smiths debunked the rock star myth, every cool band that followed could be themselves and not have to worry about their hairstyle, clothes, or public image. No more silly costumes or gimmicks were needed. Just play music, be cool, and be yourself. When you think of the Pixies, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Blur, Radiohead, Oasis, Coldplay, or Interpol, you probably know their music much better than their faces.
The Smiths were—are—my favorite band. By 1986 the world was divided into those who got the Smiths and those who didn’t. If you liked Bon Jovi, Metallica, Whitesnake, Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue, or Guns n Roses, you were not a Smiths fan, nor were you welcome in our world with your girlie hair, spandex, sock-stuffed undies, and god-awful “Metal” ballads. If you went to a show and let out a rebel whoop every time the lead singer shouted, “Let’s Party, Cleveland/Milwaukee/Skokie/Denver/Indianapolis!” then you were not a Smiths fan. If you cried while listening to an Ozzy-Lita Ford duet or at the end of Top Gun, you were definitely not a Smiths fan. If you didn’t read books you weren’t a Smiths fan. If you had a mullet you weren’t a Smiths fan. If you thought Ronald Reagan was a great President or Maggie Thatcher was a great Prime Minister you were not a Smiths fan. If you thought Kenny G was a jazz artist you were not a Smiths fan. If you did the “Electric Slide” you were not a Smiths fan. If you referred to women as “pussy” you were not a Smiths fan.
All the seminal 80’s bands like the Jam, Hüsker Dü, R.E.M., Undertones, XTC, Violent Femmes, The Church, Replacements, Pixies, and Sonic Youth, but first and foremost by The Smiths, who were clearly the best band of that era, head and shoulders above their peers; anyhow, what these great bands had was intelligence and passion, and they loved rock and roll as much as any long-haired stadium rocker; they just loved it differently. And so did we.
When The Smiths broke up in 1987 I was already starting to get bored with them, so it was a perfect time to part ways. I was sad, of course, but not as devastated or angry as when The Clash split. For the next 18 years I would store Smiths records away for years and then for no real reason pull them out, and for the next few years they were back in favor. And then it was back to the closet for another few years. It’s gone in cycles like that since the breakup, but my love for their music has never waned. They will always be my favorite band.