the smiths better than the beatles? by david daley (for salon)
Their VERY FIRST live gig at The Hacienda, Manchester, UK 07-06-1983
No band captured the tormented teen soul like the Smiths. The author of a new 700-page bio explains why they matter
By David Daley
They lasted just five years. They made just four proper albums. They’ve been ignored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The American pop charts wanted nothing to do with them.
But the legacy and legend of the Smiths only grows. As teenagers in Manchester, England, few would have predicted Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr would become the next great British songwriting teams, and one of the very best of all time. Morrissey was most comfortable in his childhood bedroom, firing off biting missives to music magazines; awkward and sexually ambiguous, he seemed neither frontman nor poster boy. Yet one day in 1982, Marr knocked on his door, on a hunch that this 23-year-old misfit might become this charming man.
The partnership that ensued led to arguably the most important music of the decade, and some would say even longer. It’s a nearly note-perfect catalog that endures because it sounds like no other, and speaks directly to the vulnerable, romantic heart of all ages. Marr’s as an inventive a guitarist of his generation, whether providing the jangle and bounce to “This Charming Man” or “Hand in Glove,” the siren squall to “How Soon Is Now?” and “The Queen Is Dead,” the cinematic scope of “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” or the delicate solo to “Shoplifters of the World Unite.” And Morrissey’s lyrics followed in the tradition of Oscar Wilde and Philip Larkin — lovelorn, yes, but funny, literate, smart, alive.
The terrific British music writer Tony Fletcher has just published the definitive biography of the group, “A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths,” taking almost 700 pages to tell the story of just 70 songs and this essential slice of the 1980s.
“Those my own age, most of us parents now, some even with angst-riden teenagers of our own, mostly greeted a mention of the Smiths as if I was speaking of a former lover,” he writes. “And it’s true: the Smiths helped many an American youth of the 1980s through the growing pains of high school and college in lieu of (and occasionally, for those lucky couples who bonded over the band, in the company of) a boyfriend or girlfriend. Crucially they continue to do so.”
Over tea at the W hotel in New York this week, Fletcher discussed where Morrissey and Marr stand, why the partnership splintered, what a fifth album might have sounded like, and crucially, whether the millions of dollars they’re offered every year for a reunion tour will ever be accepted.
Let me start with the big legacy question. Morrissey and Marr: Should there be any doubt that this is as significant a songwriting team in rock history? Where do you place them in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll songwriting greats? Is it right after Lennon and McCartney?
I place them right up there. There is a big caveat — the Smiths did not have the success, during the time they were together, as Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney. They didn’t have that in the time they were together. What they did do is turn out 70 songs in just over four years. Seventy songs is a phenomenal outpouring — and I’ve been criticized for daring to suggest that just one of them might not be up to par. The amazing thing about the Smiths in general is it doesn’t get old. It just seems almost like the longer the time goes on, somehow the fresher the Smiths sound.
So I think when you look commercially, you can’t say Morrissey and Marr were on the level then of Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards.
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