I wrote an essay for Rolling Stone celebrating the 30th anniversary of the demise of The Smiths, explaining why we’re really lucky that they split in 1987
There’s nothing quite like realizing that it’s three entire decades since the most perfectly-beautiful, perfectly-worded, perfectly-pitched and perfectly-quiffed relationship you ever had ended for making you feel dead and buried already.
Yes, this month is the big 30th anniversary for the 1987 breakup of the Smiths – possibly the most fraught, emotional and oft-lamented breakups in musical history. The Smiths generation keeps trying to piece back together its broken home, even as they find themselves closer now to their own retirement home than the 1980s. If only the lead guitarist Johnny Marr and lead singer Morrissey hadn’t fallen out of handsome love with one another. If only they’d had a manager that they – i.e. Morrissey – could work with. If only Moz hadn’t chosen to record that silly Cilla Black track that Marr hated! If only the NME hadn’t run that premature “break-up” story. If only Marr, who was living on cocaine and booze at the time, had got himself a cheese and pickle sandwich from Boots instead of going home in a huff.
And if they’d stayed together – for the sake of the kids – imagine how the Smiths would have gone on to make the world listen! Imagine how they would have silenced with total, global, crushing success all those vulgar people that hated them and laughed at us loser fans back then! Imagine the body of work they would have produced by now! Instead of forcing us to keep going back to those four albums – and buying all those countless compilations, reissues, repackages and retro-vinyl limited release scratch-and-sniff picture discs.
But actually, really, very deep down, among our squidgesiest bits, I think we’re all, even the biggest, die-hardest fans, secretly really quite glad the Smiths broke up. And if you’re not, you probably should be. Their “premature” demise was entirely timely. It saved us from ever having to suffer the unspeakable outrage of a mediocre Smiths album. Something considerably less survivable than end of the band. And it would have come, as surely as bed death follows boredom. That’s what happens when any band, let alone one as passionate and truthful as the Smiths, don’t like each other anymore but “keep the show on the road.”
The expiry of the Smiths after five incandescent years saved them not only from existing in the same timeline as acid house, but also from becoming the very thing they hated and which they rallied the disaffected youth of the “entrepreneurial” Eighties against: just another business. We were spared them ever becoming the Indie Rolling Stones. Or Coldplay with a frontman. Or, that form of musical living death as ghastly as it is commonplace, their own tribute band. Thanks to Cilla Black and that missing cheese sandwich, the Smiths now live on forever in their – and our – pomp: shining, stainless, peerless. No one can touch a hair on their head.
The Smiths, that’s to say the creative, emotional, sexy-but-sexless marriage of Morrissey-Marr, were not simply a band, they were, as the name advertised, a family – the non-nuclear, passionate, alternative family to the thermo-nuclear Price Is Right primetime family sired by the monetarist marriage of Thatcher-Reagan. This was the 1980s, if you’re crumbly enough to remember, that was not just dominant at the time, but compulsory: “There is no alternative” Maggie famously decreed.
So the Smiths were effectively banned from daytime BBC Radio 1 – except as a punchline – and from pretty much all of the non-NME press, and thus from the upper reaches of the singles charts. The highest charting Smiths single ever was a 1992 reissue of “This Charming Man,” five years after they had given up the ghost – it got to Number Eight. The original release in 1983 stalled, criminally, at Number 25 – one of the greatest singles in pop history didn’t even reach the Top Twenty. Even then their hippy record company Rough Trade reportedly struggled to press enough copies of their records, so it’s probably just as well it seemed to have a publicity budget smaller than Phil Collins’ annual spend on combs.
All of which, while a source of great frustration to the band and to Morrissey in particular (and also bitter inspiration: e.g. “Frankly Mr Shankly”), was rather wonderful from the selfish point of view of the fans.
Because it meant that the Smiths remained a well-kept secret, one that belonged entirely to them – and being a Smiths fan in the Eighties was to be part of a very exclusive misfit club. Though in fact this exclusivity just came down to three requirements: Do you have any taste? Do you have a heart? And do you have a sense of humor? “The Smiths are sooooooo depressing!” said every naff twat you knew in the Eighties – which was millions upon millions. But, annoying as it was, every time you heard that lazy dismissal it confirmed something deeply, almost sexually satisfying: that most people simply didn’t deserve to be Smiths fans.
All this was about to change in 1987. The Smiths had a brand new non-hippy record label, EMI, with plenty of printing presses and even cash to splash on publicity. The monster that is the American market was beginning to stir and had fixed its rapacious eye upon them. They were poised to finally reap the rewards of all their hard and tender work: the misfit Mancunians were about to become masters of the universe. And probably end up playing stadiums full of those people who used to tell you: “The Smiths are sooooooo depressing.”
Many of those people now pretend they were fans anyway, since the Smiths, a band at gentle but total war with the Eighties, has ended up defining that decade, artistically, aesthetically, and even politically (now that neoliberalism is no longer topping the charts). Everyone wants a piece of them – precisely because thanks to the “untimely” split The Smiths never were bought and sold to everyone.
And because they never reformed, despite the perennial feverish speculation – Smiths reformations have become the latter-day Elvis sightings. As Morrissey himself put it back in 2006, mercilessly squashing yet another reunion/resurrection rumor: “We are not friends, we don’t see each other. Why on earth would we be on a stage together?” Of course, the answer is money – great steaming ever-increasing wodges of the stuff – but that really wouldn’t be the Smiths, who were never about the moolah. Only the Sex Pistols could (just about) get away with calling their (1996) reunion: “The Filthy Lucre Tour.” The closest the Smiths seem to have come to reforming was in 2008 when Marr and Morrissey almost rekindled their friendship – before Morrissey lapsed into Morrisseyean silence again.
Besides, since the termination of his union with Marr, Morrissey has had a long and (mostly) successful solo career doing pretty much precisely what he wants – which is partly why the Smiths reforming without him is so inconceivable. Morrissey was the face, the voice, the poet, the ideologist, the polemicist, the art director, the photo researcher, the archivist, the skinny vegan sex symbol, the stand-up comedian, the ego, the invalid and the big fat mouth of the Smiths that a generation of “losers” fell hopelessly-hopefully in love with. And it is probably Steven Patrick Morrissey’s own needy, emotional attachment to the Smiths as the band that saved him from being a fanboy forever smothered in a box bedroom in Stretford that has – so far – saved it from the ritual cannibalism of a reunion.
The breakup of the Smiths was pre-ordained anyway. It was foretold in their very first and perfectly-formed single, conceived between their second and third gigs and released in May 1983 – the startlingly original yet bafflingly timeless “Hand in Glove,” a three minute, derriere-scorching epic which peaked at Number 124 (I told you the 1980s were swinish). It announces the snug union of Morrissey-Marr as a kind of updated Jo-Geoff odd/queer alliance (from Morrissey’s uber-text, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey), and the Smiths as their alternative family looking to adopt a generation. It also urgently evangelizes the Smiths’ ironic but entirely sincere credo:
“The sun shines out of our behinds
No, it’s not like any other love
this one is different – because it’s us.”
Here, in the first single, is a declaration of war on the shoulder-padded sensibility of the Eighties: “Yes, we may be hidden by rags/But we have something they’ll never have” promising to “fight to the last breath.” But for all the bravado and insolent optimism, Morrissey imploring his new-found “charmer” to stay on his arm and find the “good life out there, somewhere,” the song ends on a melancholic and, as it turns out, accurately prophetic note:
“But I know my luck too well
And I’ll probably never see you again.”
There’s something in the third repeat of that last line and it’s drawn-out delivery that is wistful and pensive – “I’ll prob-ly ne-ver see you-ou a-gain” – but deliciously so.
The prospect of losing what has been gained just after gaining it is what is already preoccupying Morrissey. But then, the masochistic logic of pop music decrees that the whole point of possessing someone is so that you can lose them – so that you can possess them forever, nostalgically. By the end of “Hand in Glove,” the very first Smiths single is already nostalgic about the end of the Smiths.
At its happy-sad heart, the magic of great pop music is this bitter-sweet-sweeter blend of hope and despair, possession and loss: The sweetness of happiness and the even sweeter sadness that lies behind happiness and the prospect of losing it. The Smiths, of course, had this magic in spades and were a beautifully-doomed band for a beautiful, doomed generation.
Their demise was always part of the deal.