For the most part products are disposable, but just for that extra one song that changes your direction in life, the importance of popular music cannot be stressed enough’ – Steven Patrick Morrisey (Goddard, 2004 – p271) Why The Smiths are a culturally significant band. Introduction 80’s Britain can easily be considered one of the most controversial social/political decades of the latter half of the 20th century.
The years leading up to this decade manifested the ‘troubles’ in Ireland, Communist threats from Russia and recession once again taking hold of Britain’s economy; all of which would then be politically capitalized upon by one of Britain’s most controversial political leaders. The late Margret Thatcher. Of course, with the UK’s first female Prime Minister being appointed in 1979, issues relating to gender and sexism played on the minds of many. But with Britain in deep recession, perhaps the biggest controversy was yet to come.
At the dawn of Thatcher’s reign, the dramatic rise in unemployment was met with tax raises and spending cuts and other controversial ideological concepts like ‘the right to buy’ (which, with the subsequent rise in mortgage interest rates, left many of the country’s poorest out of pocket). By ‘81 rioting broke out in London and other cities in the north of England, an apparent backlash to the country’s state of affairs. By ‘83 the rate of unemployment exceeded the 3 million mark, the worst Britain had seen since the 1930’s.
The already dubbed ‘Iron Lady’ and her Conservative Party displayed no signs of backing down on their austerity measures, and the working classes went unheard. Thus, it is perhaps to be expected at a time of such uncertainty that the disenfranchised masses of Britain may be able to seek solace in the popular music of the times? The 70’s, after all, saw Punk strike out against the establishment and give a voice to the people, an expression of youthful anger and rebellion, with the likes of The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Undertones to name but a few.
However, this was seemingly far from being the case; while there were a handful of worthy commentators left in UK music (The Jam/The Specials), real substance seemed to fade from popular culture. Leaving nothing but garish escapism to fill the void. Spandau Ballet, Wham, Culture Club, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Duran Duran were topping the charts in the early 80’s, and it seemed as though Britain were more than satiated with this over-the-top Synth Pop escapism. But ‘82 also saw the formation of what many devoted fans consider to be one of the 80s’ most culturally significant bands; The Smiths.
In this essay I will attempt to uncover the reasoning behind The Smiths’ modest yet significant success amidst the musical dirge of this decade, how they captured the emotions and feelings of Britain without compromising artistic integrity or ‘high brow’ referencing. I will explore the political and social deconstruction achieved through Morrisey’s words: Whether it be the buck against capitalist fueled ‘Thatcherism’, ideas of the self, the still prevalent issues relating to sex and gender as well as the concepts of gender and sexism.
And why this combination of ‘high art’ and commercial popular music is a perfect example of Post-Modernism. I will also explore the music itself, mainly credited to Marr; what about the mixture of sweet and clean melancholy riffs, intensely melodic and driving rhythms proved a potent concoction when combined with Morrisey’s poetry. I will do so by uncovering the nature of postmodernist theory in relation the the work of The Smiths. And explore other culturally significant ideas of the 80’s such as feminism and homosexually. All of which aren’t easily recognizable at a glance, but when deconstructed, I hope will become clear.
Before we look at the work of The Smiths, I feel it’s important to gain background information on the key members, Morrisey and Marr, and how their life before The Smiths shaped them into the artists they are revered as today. Pre Smiths – Marr & Morrissey Morrisey, already a keen consumer of high culture in his teens ‘from Oscar Wilde to pro-feminist rhetoric such as Warren Farrell’s The Liberated Man’ (Goddard, 2004 – p12) gained an uncommon broad and intellectual perspective towards writing and art (more of which will be explored later in the essay).
These muses appear to have kindled his need to scribe his own opinions on culture. Indeed, it is well documented that Morrisey was well versed in penning his feeling towards culture during his youth, with countless writings to the Music press, most notably the NME and Melody Maker; expressing his endorsement but more-often qualms with the acts of the day. The endorsements we’re often aimed towards his beloved New York Dolls and Patti Smith and other musicians that, for Morrissey, provided some aforementioned substance.
But more often than not the then Steven Morrisey would express his criticisms with bands that he felt didn’t cut the proverbial mustard. A favorite being the infamous ‘Ramones are Rubbish’ letter to Melody Maker: The Ramones are the latest bumptious band of degenerate no-talents whose most notable achievement to date is their ability to advance beyond the boundaries of New York City, and purely on the strength of a spate of convincing literature projecting the Ramones as God’s gift to rock music. July 24 1976 – Melody Maker (UK)
It seems even at the tender age of 17 Morrisey was more than willing to be outspoken about his thoughts and feelings towards the music scene. His scathing forthright writing style was in full flow, and not without the poetic flare fans know and love. Interestingly it should be noted that he recently took back these sentiments in a billboard interview (in 2012) stating ‘three days after writing that Ramones piece, I realized that my love for the Ramones would out-live time itself. ’ This rare submission from Steven is not something we would have ften seen in his youth. I think that Morrisey’s reluctance to admit this before then can be put down to the combination of his apparent shy retiring image towards the press and his need to appear resilient in his views. ‘A real person, with views’ (Morrisey, 2004 Jonathan Ross Interview) is often the only reasoning Morrisey will give in correlation to his popularity. Therefore to do so would be detrimental to his persona. It could also be attributed to influence from the ever-present influence of Oscar Wilde ‘No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style’ (Wilde, 1891 – Preface) A quote that is as inflexible as the opinions of young Morrisey; Wilde’s views towards the artist are that ethics of any sort should be disregarded entirely, that to be sympathetic in any way is destructive to the cause of being a true artist. Something I’m sure Morrisey would have taken on board in his youth. The musical writing continued throughout his teens as well as his love for the New York Dolls, with the formation of a UK fan club.
This facilitated his writing of a 24-page booklet on the band. Simon Goddard writes The Dolls book whetted his appetite for an alternate career in music journalism, which had The Smiths never formed, he would certainly have persuade further. (Goddard, 2004 – p12) Goddard’s reckonings may well be correct, and show that, for some, literary work is expression enough. I don’t believe Morrisey would have settled for that. Though his early writing would cultivate and quench Morrisey’s creative flair and necessity to express, his passion towards music could not be satisfied with penmanship alone.
While Morrisey briefly dabbled in musical project The Nosebleeds, writing a few tracks and playing a handful of gigs with the group, fate dictated that this wouldn’t be the outlet that defined the man. And the outfit split shortly after. Johnny Marr was to be the catalyst Morrisey needed to put his words out there for all to hear, luckily for ‘Moz’; Johnny would be the one that came looking for him. Born John Maher, Johnny had already made a name for himself as the virtuoso of his school year at St Augustine’s Grammar.
It was there that Marr would encounter his first musical project The Paris Valentinos. The band formed with notable character and later Smiths bassist Andy Rourke. Rourke and Marr became friends in school over their love of guitar but gracefully bowed out, opting for bass in the band; likely because of Marr’s sheer competence with his instrument ‘I’d show him something and a week later he could play it better than me. That’s how keen he was’ Goddard, 2004 – p15. After leaving school in 1980 Marr continued to peruse music as a living, forming new band White Dice with friend Andy.
But with this outfit failing to attain the success Marr desired, he ultimately left the group to start a new-life away from suburbia, in urban Manchester. While under steady employment at X-Clothes Marr’s insatiable appetite for a music career showed no signs of dampening. Pete Shelly (frontman of the Buzzcocks) recalls an encounter with an enthusiastic Marr He just came up to me one night, I didn’t know who he what, this kid, and said, “If you’re looking for a guitar player, I’m your man”. I think he approached practically every band in Manchester at that time saying exactly the same thing.
They all ignored him. (Goddard, 2004 – p16). But in reality, Marr wanted a vocalist, someone who could leave him to the music and concentrate on the words. Johnny’s uncontainable need to live from music culminated in him ending up on Steven Morrisey’s doorstep in May 1982. After sharing influences on that day Morrissey agreed to begin working with Johnny. Lyrical Deconstruction Hand In Glove The first single released by The Smiths was to be one, perhaps unintentionally fuelled by post-modern ideals, all be it lyrically anyway.
In the words of Strinati, ‘[postmodernism is] concerned with collage, pastiche and quotation, with the mixing of styles which remain musically and historically distinct, with the random and selective pasting together of different musics and styles‘. (Strinati, Dominic 2004). Indeed the first official debuts of Morrisey’s words were to be just that; coining his own poetry with lines lifted from other works. Lets begin at the end, with a gloomy line that is true to Morrisey’s form “I’ll probably never see you again, and I know it”.
This line is directly quoted from Shelagh Delaney’s 1959 play A Taste Of Honey, which visibly shows his unusual and broad knowledge of artistic works. A Taste Of Honey would be a feature of many of The Smiths works, but is used pertinently in conjunction with the songs themes. The play itself plays on themes of class and love but also elements of homosexuality, something crucial to the song’s subject. Supported by the line “No, it’s not like any other love. This one is different – because it’s us” the lyrics seem to conjure the idea of an unusual relationship, possibly a homosexual one.
This is again backed up by the line “And if the people stare, then the people stare” possibly suggesting, again, that (during that time) an openly gay couple would turn heads. Why these subtle suggestions of homosexuality we’re of such cultural significance in the 80’s brings us back to Margret Thatcher and the Conservative government. The anti-gay mind-set of the 80’s could be attributed to the AIDS pandemic, which was unfairly attributed to homosexuality. The fear created by the pandemic was directed at homosexuals and throughout the 80’s the teaching of Homosexuality in the UK was being inhibited.
This culminated in Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988; legislation that legally prohibited the teaching of homosexuality in schools. More lyrical thievery can be found in the song also (backing-up the postmodern outlook), in the line “… and everything depends on how near you sleep to me. ” A line ripped from Leonard Cohen’s song Take This Longing, a song that reflects the mood of Hand In Glove agreeably; expressing an inevitably doomed relationship. Interestingly Cohen’s piece ouches more on the aspects of class and wealth in the verse ‘Your body like a searchlight, my poverty revealed, I would like to try your charity, until you cry, “Now you must try my greed. “’ Perhaps a subject close to the working class ideals Morrisey wanted to portray. Again backing up the hypothesis that The Smiths wanted to comment on the plight of the working classes at the time, therefore underpinning their devoted fan-base. Reel Around The Fountain The eponymously titled Smith’s debut LP opens in much the same vein as Hand In Glove set out to.
Again (not so unnoticeably) taking ideas and lines from other works. We see Morrisey unremorsefully steal from Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey once more with the line “I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice. ” With this song, however Morrisey is directly addressing a male character. However this cause plenty of controversy with the context of the opening verse ‘its time the tale were told, of how you took a child, And you made him old’. This, to the British press seemed to be championing ideas of paedophilia, something the band fundamentally deny.
Whether or not it is I feel is unimportant, as the song is not an autobiographical work, Morrisey refers to the suspected character as ‘you’. But none the less it seems to show the fear being cultivated by the British media when it comes to homosexual themes. Another massively important reference is to From Reverence To Rape by M. Haskell, which can be found in the lyric ‘”Take and mount me like a butterfly’. This is our first sign of feminist ideology that can be found in Morrisey’s words. This shows another brilliant juxtaposition of themes within a song, fashioned merely from the use of postmodernist lifting.
In Barthes’ school of thought Barthes suggests that ‘Cultural meanings are not universal, nor are they divorced from the social conditions in which they are to be found. Rather, they present themselves as universal when they are really historically and socially fixed’ (Strinati, Dominic – 2004). Thus explaining that the meanings drawn from the references can be distorted to Morrisey’s means. Likewise T. S. Eliot states ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone’ (Eliot, T. S. – 1919): Explaining to me that ven if the sources Morrisey uses are referring to completely different things, they can still relate to the concepts of the song and the ideas he set out to express. Shakespeare’s Sister Skipping ahead a few years, Shakespeare’s Sister marked another important cultural release for The Smiths. With Thatcher still in power, the ideas of feminism were playing on the minds of the country. The title of this single is culturally significant in relation to these ideas, it is taken from the feminist essay Shakespeare’s Sister by Virginia Woolf.
In the work Woolf Claims that Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, who was ‘the apple of her father’s eye’, upon refusing to marry the man that her Father wished, was ‘severely beaten’ and was ‘begged […] not to shame him in this matter of her marriage’ (Woolf, V. 1929). Although all merely based on speculation, here there is a clear representation of patriarchy, and the way in which it controls women. Woolf’s Miss Shakespeare had all of the genius of William Shakespeare, yet a literal inability for independence simply through her gender.
The text is a strong and resonant feminist critique of society’s attitude towards women, particularly as artists. I consider the referencing to this text to be a powerful reflection of the times, while Thatcher had gained the most powerfull political position in government, oppression of women in the 80’s still ran prevalent, and does today. The song also references Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept in the lines “… our bones groaned like old trees” and “rocks below could promise certain death. “. The work is a novel of prose poetry which I consider to contain within it ideas of feminism.
It is based on the author’s affair with poet George Baker, with whom she bore four children; in the novel this is reduced to one, a possible display of shame brought about by anti feminist attitudes of the time. Nevertheless it shows Morrisey yet again using his postmodern mindset to reference multiple works from multiple media and times to reiterate the ideas he wants to express. Postmodernism in Marr’s music While lyrics have a lot to do with the cultural potency of The Smiths works, It is important not to forget the music too.
Johnny Marr’s musical scorings hold plenty of relevance to the postmodern theories I have explored previously. Particularly when juxtaposed against Morrisey’s poetry. Let’s look again at Shakespeare’s Sister. The track’s underlying musical theme is inspired by the classic R&B riff from The Rolling Stones’ 19th Nervous Breakdown (‘It’s also in Bo Diddely’s ‘Diddely Daddy’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. ’ Says Marr ‘I was obsessed with it’) (Goddard, 2004 – p142) With Marr openly siting these sources as the influence for Morrisey’s musical backing, we see real postmodernism in play.
One key feature of postmodernism is ‘the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture’ (Jameson, F. 1988) And we can see this in the juxtaposition of Marr’s R&B pop influences and Morrisey’s ‘high culture’ referencing. Strengthening the argument towards postmodernist theory. Take another piece of music from The Smiths back-catalogue, again let’s look at Hand In Glove. Firstly the song opens with the Marr playing harmonica over the initial riff, accenting the relative major, of this minor key song.
Goddard claims that the harmonica represents the northern working class ideals the band initially set out to champion. This shows that The Smiths were keen to reflect the plight of the worker in the 80’s; let us not forget the economic climate at the start of this decade and the unemployment therein. Again what I take from this is the (granted possibly unintentional) juxtaposition of the working class sounds, juxtaposed against the glistening clean tones of Marr’s guitar, and again juxtaposed against the previously discussed high culture thievery credited to Morrisey.
There is really no correlation between the songs lyrical nature and the initial overdubbed harmonica line; the ideas stand alone within the piece. But together they reinforce the cultural and ideological weight of the song. Conclusions. And so during one of the most controversial political decades of the late 20th century, It is relatively easy to see why the modest success that The Smiths gained during their five years as a band is so culturally significant.
It could even be said that their prevalent postmodern sound can be directly correlated to the rife capitalism that was promoted by Thatcher; Jameson Argues that the emergence of postmodernism correlates with ‘post-industrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism ’An argument that suggests that the lines that are blurred between high culture and popular culture relate to necessity of ‘false needs’ in a capitalist society.
Also this case can be argued further when reading more on the theory; the idea that due to mass production and consumption, ‘cultural products […] could not be authentic and genuine works of art. Equally, they could not be ‘folk’ culture because they no longer came from the ‘people’, and therefore could not reflect or satisfy their experiences and interests. ’ (Strinati, Dominic. (2004-02-26)). But while these ideas might be found in other pop acts of the 80’s, I feel The Smiths used these ideas to strike out against capitalism.
Also with Morrisey’s ambiguous, and not-so ambiguous, play on the controversial idea of homosexuality during the AIDS fear and the decade of Section 28, shows social awareness and a refusal to dumb down his art. His reluctance to give a definitive opinion on the matter only plays up to the fear of the time, and has the ability to shine a light on the homophobic mindset of many, then and today. And finally, the aspects of feminism found in the words of The Smiths prove to me that they are indeed a cultural force to be reckoned with.
To quote such feminist works within his gender twisting prose shows that, when deconstructed, Morrisey’s verse hold a lot more meaning than meets the eye. Indeed to many it may appear (to the lesser trained ear) to be nothing more than poetic self-loathing; but that is why ultimately The Smiths I consider it postmodern genius. I feel that if your opinion of The Smiths is that it IS nothing more than poetic self-loathing then that’s how Morrisey would like it to stay. After Oscar Wilde did say ‘All art is quite useless’ Bibliography BRET, D. 2004.
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