Musician and Poet Matt Abbott profiles Morrissey, the lyricist.
The year is 2012, and The Smiths are just as vital now as they were when ‘Hand In Glove’ was introduced to the world in May 1983. The single was championed by John Peel but largely ignored by the British public, and as a result it failed to chart. But what those four men were creating in Manchester would go on to change the lives of millions. Their influence and importance can never be dismissed and nearly thirty years later, I genuinely believe that we need them more than ever.
I was admittedly a late bloomer when it came to discovering The Smiths. In the early days of Skint & Demoralised my song-writing partner and producer very much mentored me as a new lyricist and bought me a couple of their albums for Christmas 2007. At the time I was just about to turn nineteen and musically I had a fairly limited collection. Aside from the odd “Best Of…” here and there it was mainly stuff that had been released in my teenage years; dominated by the likes of Arctic Monkeys, The Streets, Eminem and The Ordinary Boys. Through the latter obsession I’d discovered The Jam, but other than that I’d failed to delve into the list of singers that are commonly regarded as the all-time great lyricists. So imagine how I felt when I first listened to ‘Hatful of Hollow’ in my bedroom…
Morrissey’s lyrics always have and always will absolutely astound me. For many people his singing voice is unpleasant, uptight and irritating on first listen. I must admit, it took me a few spins to get used to it. Adding to that, on face value a lot of his lyrics are considered to be overly morbid and “depressing”. But all Smiths fans know that when you give them a bit of time and delve beneath the surface, his lyrics possess a wonderful amount of self-deprecating humour and charm. The extent to which he manages to find the balance between being tongue-in-cheek at the same time as being deadly serious is absolutely mind-blowing. For me, this is the true genius of his work; a single line or verse can be interpreted in ten different ways and work on ten different levels, and the wonderful thing is that neither of these will probably correspond with what he originally intended.
Although it’s not technically an album and it wasn’t the first that they released, I’m focusing on ‘Hatful of Hollow’ because it was the first Smiths record that I fell in love with and a few years later it’s still the one that I enjoy listening to the most. I would go as far to say that within those sixteen songs there is a modern-day literary masterpiece as well as a musical one.
In these early Smiths lyrics, Morrissey drew a lot of influence from the British new wave of cinema from the early 1960s; many of which were adaptations of novels written in the late 1950s. These “kitchen sink dramas” such as ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Kind of Loving’, ‘This Sporting Life’ and ‘Room at The Top’ encapsulated the life and strife of young working class people in grim Northern towns with mesmerising poignancy and romance. The themes documented in these films are simply timeless: love, social politics, frustration, insecurity, loneliness and most of all a problem with authority inflicted by the older generation. It is these themes that Morrissey translated into song two decades later, and these themes that caused so many people to become obsessed with The Smiths.
For any young working class person growing up in Britain, they are the issues that dictate your life in the defining years of your late teens and early twenties. They are the issues that form a part of the adult you’ll eventually become, and they are the issues that guide you from the blissfully naïve and unaware existence that comes with childhood into the horrendously complicated and often highly frustrating existence that comes with adulthood. When you’re old enough to gain a grasp on the world and how it works, the responsibility of being an adult is very rarely welcomed with open arms. But for some reason, these tales of the classic “angry young man” such as Arthur Seaton and the petulant but instantly endearing Jo from ‘A Taste of Honey’ almost appear glamorous, and will always present an iconic insight into British working class culture. In the same way, Morrissey’s interpretation on ‘Hatful of Hollow’ will always remain an uplifting and enthralling insight into the grim and far from glossy lives of young people growing-up in grey suburbia.
At no point do these films, nor Morrissey’s lyrics, attempt to glamorise or romanticise such thoughts and feelings. Never do they try and dress them up and pass them off as exciting, or coat-over the deepest and darkest thoughts in order to feign happiness and success. The underlining rule throughout was always honesty. This is one thing that Morrissey would always stress whenever he talked about The Smiths and his lyrics: honesty. It is something that is seldom found in pop music; both back in 1983 (from what I gather) and right now in 2012. Whenever I look at the music that dominates commercial radio and the official charts, all I see is airbrushed and auto-tuned; personalities invented by marketing teams, outrageous outfits designed to allure the media and overall a complete façade of manufactured bile. Call me a culture snob all you want, but these are a series of clones all based around the same theme that are being churned out by major labels on one long money-making conveyor belt, and as long as the cash keeps flowing and the cameras keep flashing, not one person involved could give a flying fuck about honesty.
This was indeed the reason that Morrissey chose to name his band “The Smiths”. It’s an ordinary name for ordinary people, and was intended as a direct contrast to the likes of “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark” and “Spandau Ballet” – in other words, names that he and many others deemed fanciful and pretentious. In wearing his chunky NHS prescription glasses, a hearing aid and token gladioli in his back pocket – along with his trademark quiff, of course – he himself embodied the antithesis of the contemporary pop star. Any stylist that Rough Trade may have foolishly tried to employ at the time would have probably resigned within the first hour. On the set of ‘Top of the Pops’ he would flail his arms around carelessly and mime without microphone to their latest single; awkward viewing for some, but truly heroic for others. For the first time ever, people would see a band on television and instead of seeing the likes of Bowie and Ferry and thinking, “Wow, I wish that was me”, they would see Morrissey and think, “Wow, that is me”. In singing about the issues that he did with such honesty and presenting himself in the way that he did, Morrissey quickly affirmed The Smiths as the band of the people. That may be a tired old cliché by now but with this jangle-tastic four-piece, never a truer word has been said.
I’ll finish by emphasising the power of Morrissey’s lyrics. As I said earlier, they can be interpreted in many different ways and can work on many different levels. But for me, he takes your deepest and darkest thoughts and instead of hiding them away through shame and regret, he champions them for all to see. We’ve all been crippled by insecurity and anxiety at some stage; suffered bouts of self-loathing, inescapable levels of doubt and paranoia, lusted after somebody utterly unattainable and felt so demoralised and low that we’ve lost all sense of optimism and hope. But we seldom talk about these times with our closest friends, let alone parade them in public. So when we hear Morrissey document them in a pop song, it speaks to us on a much more personal level than anybody else ever could. And in sharing a love of The Smiths with millions of other fans, it’s almost allowing us to express ourselves through his voice.
Do a search for footage of any Smiths gig or Morrissey solo gig; within is hardcore fan-base lies are tattooed skinheads who’d normally go a decade without discussing their emotions. And yet here they are, flailing themselves on stage at Morrissey amidst a tender rendition of ‘Heaven Knows…’ or ‘There Is A Light…’ Fighting amongst each other to get a fistful of the sweaty floral shirt that he’s just thrown into the mosh-pit. Coming in from a hard day’s work and listening to ‘I Know It’s Over’ on their own, or bouncing around to ‘This Charming Man’ in an indie bar at night.
Morrissey doesn’t just make it acceptable for ordinary folk to sing about their emotions and their lives; he makes it effortlessly cool. And that’s why he’ll always be a hero.
Here is the video of Skint and Demoralised’s (Matt) latest single ‘All The Rest Is Propoganda’
With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape European Travel brings, The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is available from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.