Date stamp, band camp
On Thursday 31st August 1978* Stephen Patrick Morrissey and John Martin Maher – a wee while before he would metamorphose into guitar star Johnny Marr – had a brief encounter at a Patti Smith gig at the Manchester Apollo, having being ‘introduced’, however, fleetingly, by a couple of guitar-playing mutual acquaintances from Wythenshawe, Stephen Pomfet and Billy Duffy.
What difference does it make? Well, Duffy inadvertently plays a crucial role in the Smiths story, having personally influenced Marr to start performing as a guitarist, and encouraged Moz to make his first foray as singer/frontman with a short-lived punk-rock act entitled The Nosebleeds, of which Duffy was guitarist before going on to join Theatre of Hate and The Cult.
Johnny had been vaguely aware of Morrissey as that bookish bedsitter who wrote endless, interminable letters to the music press on a weekly basis, and it’s doubtful the two said anything in the other’s direction beyond a quick, cursory hello. The 14 year-old Marr recalls Mozzer showed no interest in him whatsoever: “I did not like him then,” Morrissey later admitted, with typical acidity. “We were continents apart.”
It may have taken another four years before they would meet properly, but bonded by a pathological penchant for music – particularly 1960s girl groups like the Brill Building quartets the Crystals, the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles, and 1970s glam rockers T-Rex, Roxy Music and David Bowie – the Morrissey/Marr alliance would go on to found one of the most acclaimed, nay, revered British bands of the post-Beatles era.
The Smiths were an achingly English quartet, undoubtedly quietly revolutionary, whose distinct sound and kitchen sink realism came to define British guitar-based pop in the 1980s, characterised by Morrissey’s languid vocals and Marr’s lush, layered guitar twangs. They were, of course, competed with admirable flair by ‘the other two’: Andy Rourke’s strident, staccato bass and Mike Joyce’s solid, muscular drumming. “But it wasn’t a band of equals. Thirty-odd years later I think anyone can see that,” Marr told The Guardian recently.
Whatever anyone says about the curmudgeonly contrarian today, Mozzer was a poetic genius and a fearless and fluent commentator that could never be accused of following the sound of the crowd. Nestled among the five-year succession of startlingly idiosyncratic songs were nascent cult classics such as William, It Was Really Nothing, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, Handsome Devil and Hand In Glove, the fister’s favourite that alluded to a deliciously deviant sexual act a good year before Steve Strange followed through with Visage’s wide to receive Love Glove.
In retrospect it’s amazing how blatantly homoerotic The Smiths were in their early days. The early recordings broke through a barrier of rock and roll masculinity, proving to be as exciting as any previous three chord wonder. The Morrissey’s lyrics were startling, and so obviously about working class gay experience that it was disappointing and painfully embarrassing to see him equivocate about his sexuality in later interviews. By this time commercial successes and record company pressure dictated a slightly more coded, oblique approach (cf Marr’s future collaborators, the Pet Shop Boys).
Marr says his relationship with Morrissey was as close as is possible without being lovers. Was he in love with Morrissey? “No, because I was in love with Angie (his then girlfriend, now wife), but we definitely loved each other. I think we all did.”
Interestingly, Seymour Stein, the man who signed Madonna, The Pretenders, Depeche Mode, Echo & The Bunnymen and a whole raft of Eighties mainstays to his Warners Stateside subsidiary Sire Records, recalls in his autobiography how he received a phone call from Geoff Travis, who founded the Rough Trade record store and would soon sign The Smiths to the label of the same name in Britain: “He said, ‘I have just seen this band and I am so in love with them’,” Stein says. “‘The only thing I can tell you is that I believe you will love them even more than I do’.”
The band were playing again in a couple of days, so Stein hopped on a Concorde to London, and sashayed over to the ICA to see them. Stein offered The Smiths an American record deal on the spot, and says Steven was really something: “One of the greatest artists I have ever worked with,” but also writes that he “wondered if maybe Morrissey harboured a deep unrequited love for Johnny Marr. I do have that feeling,” he says. “I could tell. I am pretty sure of it. I could see it and to tell you the truth I felt sorry for both of them because I didn’t think Johnny was gay – and he wasn’t – and I could feel for Morrissey.”
Whatever the object of Moz’s affections, between 1982 and 1987 The Smiths released a brace of brilliant singles, at least two classic albums, provoked several outbursts of outrage from Britain’s self-appointed Conservative-voting moral guardians and stirred scenes of fan hysteria on a scale not seen since the heyday of glam rock a decade previously. Perhaps more importantly, though, at a time when the new synthesised pop of Wham! and Duran Duran ruled the charts, the Smiths almost single-handedly reclaimed and revitalised the ailing tradition of the guitar-driven, four-piece rock group.
With the 35th anniversary of the band’s debut album looming here’s a potted history of the formation of one of the greatest, most visceral songwriting partnerships in rock history. The odds are they said something to you about your life.
Marr was a bright Grammar school boy. Like most creatives, he was good at English and art. But beyond that he didn’t care much for academic work. It’s the ultimate cliche – not to mention an extremely cheesy song – but music was his first love. In 1982, Marr decided that he wanted to establish a band. It takes a particular self-confidence for one unknown musician to pronounce to another that their first meeting has the hallmarks of legend.
But when Marr, now 18 and ‘of age’ arrived uninvited on the doorstep of Steven’s Stretford home one May afternoon he had such confidence in abundance. What he did not have – and it was the reason he had come knocking on the door of the nondescript semi-detached council house at 384 Kings Road that day – was a partner for his singular skill on the guitar. As ambitious as he was talented, after playing with a number of bands Marr decided it was time to find a partner who could put the right words to the sketchy skeletons of songs that he had.
Johnny had an inspiration and reference point all of his own for this unscripted meeting with the mysterious Morrissey. He’d recently watched a documentary about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that detailed how, way back in 1950, asixteen-year-old lyricist (Lieber) had knocked on the door of a fellow teenage pianist (Stoller) with a view to forming a songwriting partnership. The pair had gone on to become one of the most successful in popular music. Marr decided to do as Leiber and rang the doorbell of the guy he was going to make history with.
Morrissey, four years Marr’s senior and a writer of speculative merit, wannabe music journalist and a singer of absolutely no repute whatsoever, managed only occasional bursts of self-assurance. Though he had been a figure about town since punk had exploded in Manchester with a special vigour back in 1976, and was respected, even liked, for his quick wit and nerdy intellect, he had a reputation as an eccentric loner (he’d even been known to send unsolicited scripts for imaginary episodes of Coronation Street to Granada Television) who frequently retreated into a shyness that, as he later described on How Soon Is Now with devastating certitude, was “criminally vulgar.”
Unlike Marr, who seemed to be on first-name terms with almost everyone involved in Mancunian street culture, Morrissey could count his friends on the fingers of one hand, a characteristic that persists almost four decades later. He lived at home with his divorced mother. He was unemployed—by choice, for sure, but unemployed all the same. He was turning 23 that month. By any standard measurement, time appeared to be passing him by. Yet, Marr knew he was his man, having had the chance to read some of his poetry and a book he authored about the New York Dolls the previous year. Back then, Moz’s effortless oddness was such that Manchester scene-maker and head of Factory Records, Tony Wilson, would later remark: “Anyone less likely to be a pop star from that scene was unimaginable.”
Against all the odds, though, the mercurial Morrissey invited the nervous young boys up to his bedroom, where a pair of cardboard cutouts – one of James Dean, the other of Elvis Presley – stood sentinel like twin arbiters of their owner’s pop dreams loomed large over the requisite record player and a collection of neatly filed 45s.
Johnny, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music was arguably unrivalled among Mancunians his age, immediately gravitated to the vinyl, and Morrissey, whose own outspoken opinions on the form had seen him ascend from letter writer to concert reviewer with the weekly inkies over the years, invited his guest to play something. If this was a test of taste, Marr was thrilled to take it: the singles were heavy on the Sixties girl pop that he himself had been busy accumulating on recent trips to secondhand stores, the sort of music he hadn’t dare assume anyone else in his vicinity followed with quite such a passion.
Mozzer enthused about Sandie Shaw, Johnny wasn’t sorry when he praised Dusty Springfield and then pulled out a rare 1966 flop single by the Marvelettes on the Tamla Motown label. It was an American jukebox copy, with the centre hole punched out, so it didn’t specify the A-side. So rather than play Paper Boy, which had the traditional uptempo Motown feel, Marr put on its flip, You’re The One, a slower Smokey Robinson composition, and then sang along to prove that he knew the song, that this was more than just a cute gesture.
Morrissey was impressed; Johnny later said that he felt that was the moment that initiated their friendship. The pair talked excitedly and non-stop for the next couple of hours, Pomfret fading into the background, painfully aware that for all the talk of him as a potential second guitarist in their future band, he was already superfluous to requirements. By his own admission, Marr had merely used him as a gofer to get the man he wanted.
Morrissey and Marr, so different in age, dress sense, social skills, and various other interests, quickly bonded over that which they had in common: music—a journey that took them from the present day back to Patti Smith, then to Iggy & The Stooges and the Velvet Underground, and on through a love for rockabilly advertised by their matching retro quiff haircuts. “It was pretty phenomenal that we were so in sync because the influences that we had individually were so obscure,” Marr commented later. “It was like lightning fucking bolts to the two of us. This wasn’t stuff we liked, this was stuff we lived for really.”
As they sat there in Morrissey’s bedroom, they spoke of seeing their own names on a record label—not just as artists but as composers. That Morrissey had but a handful of half-formed lyrics currently to his name or that Marr had never completed a song to his own satisfaction mattered little; they could sense in each other a shared sense of purpose and dedication, of craftsmanship and intellect.
To borrow a phrase from more of their influences—Lou Reed describing his and Andy Warhol’s work ethic with the Velvets—neither of them was kidding around. Their passion for music made them inseparable. Marr couldn’t help himself. “Hey,” said Johnny, “This is just how Leiber and Stoller met!” The very next day Morrissey called Marr to tell him that he would be the singer in the band. And the rest is Smiths-tory.
*19 years later August 31 would also be date of the death of Princess Diana; still the subject of a tsunami of conspiracy theories, which had been somewhat freakily foreshadowed in The Smiths’ 1986 epic The Queen Is Dead
BONUS BEATS: The Smiths’s very first TV performance, on the Belgian program Generation 80 in December 1983, never ended up airing — which was presumably a huge bummer for the overly emotional Morrissey and the beatnik garnered Marr. But thanks to the wonders of t’internet, this truncated clip recently resurfaced, bringing fans a previously unseen and beautiful early performance of This Charming Man.
Morrissey is 24, at the peak of his billowing barely-buttoned shirt years, and already sporting his signature floppy hair and even floppier gladioli/chrysanthemum/whatever.
With thanks to A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths. Copyright © 2012 by Tony Fletcher