Johnny Marr was only 18 years old when he formed the Smiths and only 23 when he pulled the plug .Seventeen years after The Smiths split eighteen year olds fill internet message boards about what the band mean to them . In Manchester there are regular Smiths nights at The Star And Garter , where a DJ turns up and plays nothing but Smiths and Morrissey singles on vinyl only from 9pm to 3am and the venue is packed to the rafters the majority of them under the age of 25 .
One year ago Morrissey was without a record deal . The blessed Moz had fallen out of favour , over the age of 34 and demographically so wrong , also it niggled with fans that he‘s not The Smiths , his solo work was a curate’s egg , some parts good , some parts bad . Then Morrissey agrees to a documentary-lite on Channel 4 in which we see him living in Los Angeles , taking tea with Nancy Sinatra plus a bit of back stage shenanigans at his Albert Hall gig . The result of the documentary is that Morrissey shrewdly negotiates a new deal with Sanctuary records . Morrissey is back as eminently quotable as ever and in full attack on his debut single ‘Irish Blood , English Heart’ , a rallying cry to reclaim the Union Jack from the racists , giving Britain a flea in the ear for her imperialist past and saying dump the Royal Family . It’s a fun record .The album ’Your Quarry ’ promises to cause just as much of a stir . Over the past few years we’ve been patronised by a parade of non-entities with no opinions to give except that they like Prada , drive a red car and eat pizza or are boring but engaged to a Hollywood star , there’s no passion ,no conviction . Ok it‘s not a hanging offence , but it should be . Not like Mozzer , Irish Blood , English Heart – more like Irish Blood , Rebel Heart ..
Morrissey sold out the Manchester Evening News arena for his first home town gig in thirteen years in less than half an hour, 15000 tickets gone . All ready the ticket touts are asking upwards of £270 per ticket for this concert on May 22nd . It’s crisis time in Manchester because the gig clashes with Manchester United in the FA Cup final in Cardiff . But the buzz about this concert is breath-taking . Recently Manchester has hosted concerts from all of rock music’s royalty , The Rolling Stones , Paul McCartney , Bruce Springsteen yet none has been as keenly anticipated as the Morrissey concert – it’s bigger than the commonwealth games . I spoke to John Knight the manager of The MEN arena , every acquaintance in his life has been begging for Morrissey tickets , he‘s scared to answer his phone .
In America the Smiths are to this generation of teenagers what the Beatles were to previous ones .The Smiths drummer Mike Joyce and bass player Andy Rourke have just finished a sell out thirty date tour in the USA of meet and greets taking in two nights in New York and LA plus Phoenix , Houston , San Francisco and Vancouver. Getting on for a thousand fans a night have mobbed the boys including many of America’s up and coming bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and established super groups like REM. . Before he comes over for his Manchester gig Morrissey will play six sold out consecutive nights at Harlem‘s legendary Appollo Theatre , the start of his world tour . That‘s some come-back.
I first met Smiths guitarist and founder member Johnny Marr when we were both coralled onto an ITV series called Devil’s Advocate in 1981 .There had been a series of inner city riots across the country that summer . So ITV took one hundred unemployed youngsters from inner city ( eighties euphemism for slum) Manchester and put them in a studio with ex World In Action Editor Gus MacDonald to discuss the causes of this unrest amongst the youth. Johnny was a very clued up 17 year old who sported an Ian McCullough Echo and The Bunnymen hairstyle. He was into a lot of the bands I liked and the local music scene so I’d chat to him . He was incredibly determined to make it in a band . As a result of my appearance on the programme I was offered a job presenting my own radio show on BBC Radio Derby . Two years later ITV did a World In Action follow up on the 100 unemployed kids in the series .Almost a quarter of the lads were in prison , two for murder , three for armed robbery , two of the girls were prostitutes and almost two thirds of the girls were single mums. The big successes according to the programme were me working at the BBC in Derby ( the big time ha ha ) and Johnny Marr guitarist with The Smiths , who had just released their first single Hand In Glove .
It was May 1983 , I’d just heard the best new band of the eighties .I spoke to my mates in Manchester – they loved them too . “ Better than New Order and U2 “, said my mate Pete Monaghan . Pete also told me who their lead singer was , “ He’s that weird lad who lives a few doors down from Dave Prince on Kings road backing onto Longford park , you’ve seen him down the Beech club , got a rockabilly quiff , always on the 261 bus going into town with a tweed overcoat and an attache case “.
In November of 1983 the Smiths played a one off concert for BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test at The Assembly Rooms in Derby . Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke were guests on my show . Johnny spent the majority of the interview enthusing about Morrissey . “ You’ll have to meet Morrissey Terry , he’s got this thing , this aura , a connection with people it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen , it‘s sort of spiritual “ . I was impressed that Johnny , who I’d never imagined being in awe of anyone had this wide eyed admiration for his song writing partner . It couldn‘t possibly be that weird lad on the 261 ?.
After the radio show I wandered down to The Assembly rooms. The Smiths were brilliant , Morrissey , the weird lad off the 261 , shuffling across the stage bombarded with daffodils by his worshippers – ; then bang – a direct hit in the eye by a daffodil stalk and he was carried off injured. I’d never seen a pop star floored by a daffodil stalk . I felt uplifted .My first telling off on radio came as result of The Smiths . I received a white label promo of their debut album in January 1984 . That night on my show I calmly announced , “ I’ve just got the debut album from the Smiths – here’s side one“. Twenty two minutes of uninterrupted music and the silence between the grooves, then I said “ That was side one of The Smiths – here’s side two . The bosses didn’t understand!
Far from attracting nerdy students , in Manchester the Smiths following were the same working class kids who went to see Manchester United and Manchester City on a Saturday , drank too much and had fights. But why would a bunch of rough lads from council estates love a band fronted by a painfully shy ,effete, softly spoken ,self confessed asexual vegetarian nugget who threw flowers around and banged on about Oscar Wilde .
In Morrissey they had an articulate, witty , vengeful, direct rejection of the stereotyped view of the working classes . He was a council house kid, who lived a100 yards away from a public library , his mum was a librarian and recommended he read Oscar Wilde . In interviews Morrissey talked about Wilde and Yeats , enthused over his favourite films , Saturday Night Sunday Morning , A Taste Of Honey , A Kind Of Loving , Alfie , Billy Liar . A whole generation of lads watched read and learned , listened for references in his lyrics . Down the pub the conversation was United , City , girls and , “ It‘s got to be about Billy Liar , how could you stay with a fat girl , and William in the title as well – dead easy “ . Morrissey was in fact an eleven plus failure who attended a rather rough Catholic secondary modern in Stretford . St Mary’s was all corporal punishment , school football and fights with Stanley knives in Longford Park with kids from Greatstone Road School . Morrissey survived this school because friends of his like Mike Foley , Mike Nolan and Patrick Quinn were quite tough and good footballers . After school Morrissey wanted to be a music journalist but was never in with that privileged clique of middle class Cheshire boys with degrees at the hub of Manchester’s music scene . They viewed him as the outsider with his face permanently pressed up against the glass. It was this rejection that came out in his songs . The Smiths evoked the era of the baby boomers brought up at a time when the shining sun of consumerism was permanently eclipsed by the bitter moon of necessity , where not only was the grass greener on the other side , but it got greener every day .
I grew up in the same neighbourhood as Morrissey . It was an area with a huge Irish community . Our parents came from poor Irish stock, afflicted with the strange fatality of being Irish , Irish and poor , Irish and emigrated , Irish and dead . They bore this inheritance with stoic resignation , never getting too sentimental about a country who’s government wanted it’s poor people to emigrate . An old Irish toast often heard at weddings went ‘ Slainte go saol agat, paiste gac blian agat , agus bas in Eireann’ . ‘Health and life to you , a child every year to you and death in Ireland ‘, meaning I hope life‘s not so bad that you‘ll have to emigrate . Being Irish wasn’t cool , so we thought of ourselves as English , yet we never quite fitted in . Too rebellious , stubborn, generally prone to that turbulent sentimentality of the Celt .In our narrow world we had Catholicism then school then building site/civil service clerk . For some there were a series of courtships down the local Irish clubs where Morrissey‘s sister Jackie was a regular. English Martyrs , St Brendan’s , St Kentigerns, the Holy Name . Everybody minded your business , in the rows of terraced houses in which we lived condemnation lingered in whispers and privacy was unheard of . So we hid our deepest thoughts from the world and pretended to one another we were perfect . It was a life to escape from not to embrace , yet to escape from it seemed like a denial of it’s worth and ours . Catholic guilt that you could never live up to the ideals of perfection your faith espoused led to an inner rebellion , forced you to think deeply .It wasn’t a good grounding for hedonists . The Smiths members all shared this background and it gave them a power and vision few other bands possess. I doubt we‘ll ever see their like again.
Even so The Smiths could easily re-form . Standing in the way is a court case over unpaid royalties . The original deal for the Smiths was the money should be split 40% each for Marr and Morrissey as songwriters and 10% each for the bass player Andy Rourke and Drummer Mike Joyce . Just before the Smiths split Andy Rourke suffered with heroin addiction , he took a one off payment of £86,000 in lieu of all future Smiths royalties .Mike Joyce however went all out to claim his ten percent . Johnny paid up , Morrissey fought a court battle and lost , with between £800,000 and a million being awarded to Mike Joyce . Morrissey wouldn’t pay and jetted off back to the United States . Mike then had a notice of seizure put on Morrissey’s assets this side of The Atlantic including the house he’d bought for his mum in Hale .One come back tour by the Smiths and the cash would pour in . It all depends on Johnny Marr , he was always the driving force . He is back on talking terms with Morrissey and has visited him in the States several times. In the case of Mike Joyce and Andy , whenever I’ve heard them speaking about Morrissey or Johnny Marr , it’s been with a reverence reminiscent of a young Johnny Marr telling me about Morrissey . What’s plain is that this is a group of musicians who still have a lot in common ,including stalkers , so there must be some hope of a reunion . Until then we have to be satisfied that Morrissey is back among us still attracting the brickbats , but why?
What’s he done to offend his detractors; advocated assassination for Maggie Thatcher , said meat is murder , gone to a rough catholic secondary modern and decided to talk a bit posh , annoyed the intellectuals , the rock purists , celebrated working class life , made us proud to be who we are , , broken every taboo , Moors murderers , under age sex , flirted with the little England of the right , every subject was sacred , and then live when he sang the line from ‘Its Over’ , “I’ve seen this happen in other peoples lives and now it’s happening in mine “ I felt my tears that night . John Lennon in his song Working class hero sang “ They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool “ , he didn’t know it , but he was singing about Morrissey . So he throws tantrums , he’s a bit vain and changes his mind and the Old Trafford lad in him likes to wind people up and stir things up a bit for fun ; aren’t we all really a mass of contradictions . He’s not a stereotype , he’s a genuine working class hero , he’s one of Manchester’s finest ever products and if at times he may seem like he’s acting a bit of a prat remember to love the art not the artist and that once upon a time some of us loved both .
As the most requested Smiths song of all time states , ‘ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out ‘.