Johnny Marr

THE SMITHS IN CORK, 1984

 

It was shortly after midnight, early on Wednesday morning, July 29th, 1987, and it was Mark Cagney, host of ‘The Night Train’ on RTÉ Radio 2FM who, as serenely as ever, broke the news.

Home alone, and with the rest of my family off on holidays, I’d been in the habit of keeping the radio on longer and louder than usual ;- long enough, as it happened, to hear Cagney tell the nation’s more urbane taxi drivers, shift workers and anoraks that Johnny Marr had left The Smiths. And he more or less left it at that, light on detail, didn’t cite his sources and segued as seamlessly as he always did into his next track, which was more than likely a moderately left field, highly styled album cut, to which he was forever drawn. And, if I slept at all that night, I slept with my mouth open and my jaw hanging.

Cagney had one up on us. He’d either heard soundings of or had sight of that week’s issue of the London-based music magazine, New Musical Express, in which one of its senior writers, Danny Kelly, citing reliable sources in Manchester, revealed that Morrissey, The Smiths’ singer and Marr, the group’s guitarist and co-writer, had fallen out and hadn’t spoken in months. But while it was a terrific flyer, the story was vague enough on the future of the band and Kelly later admitted he may have ‘augmented’ his story with lines pulled from the back of his own head. The gut of the scoop was clear, though :- on the cusp of the release of their fifth album, all was not well with The Smiths. And this time it was serious.

Although the influential British music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – all regularly hit the streets around central London by lunchtime on Tuesdays, it was usually Thursday morning or later before those titles were available on the shelves in Easons, on Patrick Street in Cork, where I routinely picked up mine. And so I had an anxious wait before I finally got my hands on NME’s speculative exclusive, headlined ‘Smiths to split’.

History – and Johnny Rogan, the band’s forensic biographer – now tells us that, although The Smiths weren’t formally taken off of life-support by Morrissey until mid-September, 1987, Marr confirmed directly to Kelly within days of his initial splash that yes, he’d left the group he founded in Manchester barely five years previously. And so, in its issue dated August 8th, 1987, Kelly had his second back-to-back Smiths scoop, this time flush with quotes from inside the band.

For six weeks that summer, my first as a university student, would-be music writer, part-time laundry worker and full-time dreamer, there was really only one story. One which, under sustained scrutiny, was scarcely believable in the first instance and which was always likely to end badly ;- few groups have, I think, fallen asunder as carelessly and as needlessly as The Smiths, undone in the end by the lack of clear decision-making and delegation that had, since the group’s inception, characterised much of its off-stage activity.

I’ve written at length about The Smiths over the years, with varying degrees of success but with no little confidence, simply because they were the first band I so obsessively lived through and the first band I ever felt like I had shares in. I certainly spent enough on them and, because I’d invested so heavily in them in other respects as well, I  tended to defer to Max Boyce’s stock punchline when it came to analysing them :- I know because I was there.

And I certainly was there, if not at the very start, then certainly close enough to it, having had my head turned as soon as I heard The Smiths on both Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on RTÉ Radio 2, John Peel’s BBC equivalent and, bizarrely, having caught sight of them on late night television performing ‘This Charming Man’ on a one-off European music initiative featuring emerging music from across the continent. Captured alongside a feeble, long-lost British outfit, The Immaculate Fools, and a number of freakish cross-continental acts trying, as can often be the case, just a tad too hard, The Smiths stood out as a distinctive star turn simply because, in the abject normality that defined every single aspect of them, they were clearly anything but normal.

I was there too in the old Savoy on Patrick Street when The Smiths played in Cork twice, on May 20th and November 18th, 1984 and when, within actual touching distance of them, they sealed the deal, almost face-to-face, as the most important and influential band of my generation.

Both of those shows took place as I was gearing up to leave secondary school and, with half an eye and two working ears on what was around the corner, fancied myself as a veteran of the local music circuit, having already been to all of one indoor live show and a couple of random outdoor events. But although I’d been squirreling and collecting for a number of years, back-filling the gaps in my developing ELO library, acquiring and swapping new material as regularly as I could and rowing in squarely behind Sindikat, a band from our school who’d done the unthinkable and formed under our noses, The Smiths were the first group whose releases, always flagged well in advance in the music press, I regarded as genuine events and to which I counted down.

And in this respect, the radio was another vital spoke :- Peel, and his long-time producer, John Walters, memorably hosted four separate Smiths radio sessions between 1983 and 1986 and, like Fanning, would play all of the group’s releases well in advance of their availability in the shops. For which you’d have a second or third-hand cassette on eternal stand-by in the old three-in-one in case either of them dropped an unexpected pre-issue, without warning.

 

 

It was Fanning, of course, who alerted us to those first Smiths shows in Ireland – I still consider this sort of carry-on to define the term ‘public service broadcasting’ – when he announced that they were on their way to play dates in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in support of their debut album. And yet for all of the urgency that under-pinned the band’s recorded material, myself and my friend, Philip, didn’t really know what to expect when we fetched up outside The Savoy on a Sunday evening in May, 1984, in our long rain-coats, tickets in hand and mad for road.

But from early – and we were there very, very early – it was clear that The Smiths were much more than a little-known secret shared by a handful of us up on the northside. One of the more interesting aspects of the band’s history was how, throughout its career, it attracted fans from right across the social strata, much of it male-skewing and with a prominent contingent of hard shams in among the more introspective, centrally-cast indie-kids. Among whom was another friend of mine, Marc Buckley, another acolyte who arrived at The Savoy, as did numerous others, clutching a bunch of freshly cut flowers and wearing a considerable quiff.

Philip and myself soon found ourselves chatting to a pair of friendly girls we’d met on the tiled stairs and, for whatever reason, we told them we were supporting The Smiths a little later. And there were, of course, numerous similarities between ourselves and The Frank Chickens, the gobby Japanese lesbians who were actually due to open proceedings.

The Chickens, as with many of Peel’s more random curios over the decades, sounded far better in theory that they did in practice and, with their unsteady backing tracks, loops and high-octane, skittish twin vocals, failed to convince the locals, who’d started to assemble in numbers by the time they’d finished a quite bizarre set. They left the stage to the usual heckles and, responding to a not unreasonable suggestion from half-way back that they were, perhaps, not up to championship standard, replied – ‘We think you’re shit too’ – before beating a hasty retreat under a hail of gob, never to be seen in Cork again. A scene we’d witness again, in the same venue and in much the same circumstances, before the year was out.

But once The Smiths took the stage to the jagged, slash-cut opening bars of ‘Still Ill’, and Morrissey emerged from the shadows, his outsized shirt already opened to the navel, The Frank Chickens had been consigned to the footnotes of what was to become a spectacular history. Over the course of a sharp, frenetic and powerful sixteen song set, The Smiths just burned the house down :- in the long and diverse history of live shows in Cork, it is easily among one of the most lethal.

Because while that show has remained vivid in the memories of most of those who attended it, many of them left there that night intent on starting their own bands immediately afterwards, boldly going for it and  just taking their chances. And those among the audience that were already involved in fledging groups around the city, and there were many, left with plenty of food for thought :- if this was where the bar was now set, then what, really, was the point ?

The set-list for that first Cork show is widely available on all of the usual on-line resources and, of course, Johnny Rogan’s exhaustive ‘The Severed Alliance’ is incomparable in terms of context and background. But although Morrissey so physically dominated that Cork show – and I couldn’t believe how imposing he was, and how he so used his body for emphasis – neither could I get my head around how small and slight Johnny Marr was. And, of course, how his nimble hands made one guitar sound like three.

The songs were already well-known to anyone who’d bought the band’s unconvincing debut album, ‘The Smiths’, and who was familiar with the terrific additional content on their singles. But they also introduced one new number, a protracted, funked-up, bass-prominent beauty called ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, during which Morrissey baited the audience with flowers throughout the long instrumental passages and Andy Rourke stepped into the spotlight to reveal just how important his industry and frame of reference was to the band’s sound. And we were just learning all of the time.

 

 

The Smiths returned to The Savoy six months later, during which time they’d been sucked slowly in from the margins. But although the group would go on to regularly feature at the business end of the album charts, they never really enjoyed the consistent successes they craved with the shorter form, which was one of Morrissey and Marr’s primary ambitions for their group from the get-go.

Even so, the singer had already been rumbled by the tabloids who, picking up on the platinum-plated copy he routinely provided in interviews, had become as regular a freak feature in The Sun as he was on the hit parade, portrayed variously as a dangerous, anti-royal traitor, a sexual deviant and a macabre, terrorist-loving, tree-hugging weirdo. Or, if you like, the Jeremy Corbyn of his time.

The Denis Desmond/MCD-promoted, nine-date, eight-town tour of Ireland during November, 1984, took place less than one month after the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the British Conservative Party was holding its annual conference, and during a particularly dark period in modern Irish history when loyalist and republican terrorism across the island routinely dominated the news agenda. And at a time too when many formidable contemporary bands just simply wouldn’t – or were advised not to – play in the north of Ireland.

With The Smiths on the road in support of their stop-gap, compilation album, ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, Morrissey gave the London press a series of typically headline-grabbing quotes during the media campaign to promote it, one of the most notable of which referred to Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s Prime Minister, and who had survived the Brighton bombing, which killed three people and injured thirty more.

‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing’, Morrissey claimed, ‘is that Thatcher escaped unscathed. I think that, for once, the IRA were accurate in selecting their targets’.

And it was against this backdrop, six weeks after U2 released ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and five months after Bob Dylan’s show at Slane Castle was marred by riots around the County Meath town, that The Smiths returned to Ireland. During which they played shows in Letterkenny, Belfast and Coleraine, as well as the usual stop-offs, fetching up in Cork for the second and last time on Sunday, November 18th, 1984, one week before Midge Ure and Bob Geldof recorded the Band Aid single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and a week after Madonna released her remarkable breakthrough album, ‘Like A Virgin’.

The mood inside The Savoy, second time around, was just as frenzied and excitable as it had been earlier that year, and maybe overly-so. The crowd itself was far bigger, as you’d expect, and the promoters had put an extra 50p on the price of the tickets [from memory, and I stand corrected on this, up from £6 to £6.50]. And, once again, myself and Philip were there, close enough to see the magicians work the stage, far enough away to avoid the on-going bash-ball inside the moshing zone. The support this time was provided by James, yet another fledgling and already highly regarded Manchester band [is there ever any other kind ?], who’d released a fine first record, the ‘Jimone’ EP, on the Factory label and who, during their formative years, enjoyed Morrissey’s very public patronage. For better and, possibly, for worse.

The Smiths’ set had changed quite drastically in the interim. And although they were ostensibly promoting ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, the band was also road-testing several of the tracks that would buttress its second studio album, ‘Meat Is Murder’. Taking their opening positions to the foreboding sounds of Prokofiev’s dramatic overture, ‘Romeo And Juliet’, they opened bravely with one of their more introspective cuts, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, which had featured as a quality b-side on their ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single earlier that summer, and into which they quickly segued.

Foremost among the clatter of new material was a frantic take on ‘What She Said’ and, close to the end, a bionic, souped-up ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’, by which time the atmosphere inside the hall had turned sharply. Marr had become the unwitting target of a hail of spit half-way through, an unfortunate knuckle-walker’s pastime that many of us suspected, wrongly, had died after The Sex Pistols signed to a major label.

 

 

And after two audible warnings – at one point he arched his callow body back and looked like he was going to lash out – he eventually walked off just shy of the hour mark, taking the rest of the band with him. The Smiths returned, reluctantly enough it seemed to me, to do a two song encore, finishing on a high with ‘What Difference Does It Make’, but Marr had the last word :- he leaned into a vocal mic on the way off and told the crowd, not incongruously, how he’d ‘come to play and not to be spat at’, before leaving again, this time for good.

As the house lights came up around The Savoy, a section of the crowd, some checking their watches, began to vent, boo-ing initially – more, I suspect, in the direction of those who’d caused the walk-off than at the band itself – and then, once it was obvious that the show was over and that The Smiths weren’t returning, broke into a ridiculous chorus of ‘We want James’.

So while the Cork crowd was given an early flavour of some of the more sinewy cuts from ‘Meat Is Murder’, it also experienced the shortest Smiths set, by at least three songs, of that leg of the tour. But not before Morrissey, as the band set up for its encore, returned to the stage with a small sapling, which he wielded like a bicycle chain during ‘Hand In Glove’, and then deposited with gusto into the audience.

The Smiths certainly knew how to make an exit like they knew how to make an entrance. And they never returned to Cork again.

 

 

 

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HOLY JOE CHESTER

One of the many memorable passages in Johnny Marr’s recent autobiography, ‘Set The Boy Free’, recalls a visit the author made to Matt Johnson’s London flat in 1982, back when he was still in his teens and his band, The Smiths, had recorded what would become it’s first single, ‘Hand In Glove’. Johnson was a couple of years older, just twenty-one, but had already signed a significant deal with a major label and, writing and recording as The The, had released two fine singles. The pair had crossed paths in Manchester the previous year and had formed a fledgling friendship.

 

Johnson’s girlfriend, Fiona, answered the door. ‘She showed me into the flat’, Marr writes, ‘where Matt was crouched on the floor, wearing headphones surrounded by equipment that was strewn all over the carpet. A Casio keyboard and a black Fender Strat and drum machine were all plugged into a little four-track cassette recorder, and there was an electronic autoharp lying around and some microphones, one of which was plugged into an echo pedal. I hadn’t seen anyone working this way before. It struck me as incredibly modern and innovative’.

 

And to an ambitious but wide-eyed young musician taking his cues from a pointedly traditional view of the industry, basic home recording might well have looked peculiar. Because even allowing for the legend of Brian Wilson’s ability to record his own group, The Beach Boys, using sophisticated techniques on unsophisticated machinery as far back as the mid-1960s, self-sufficiency was still largely regarded as a delinquent form. And while Johnny Marr was having his head turned and his eyes opened in Matt Johnson’s flat, Duran Duran were busy pressing the flesh in support of ‘Rio’, the record that, in terms of the hoopla that surrounded it, become yet another by-word for industry excess. Another snapshot from a period during which record companies couldn’t spend quickly or recklessly enough, both inside the studio and outside on the tiles.

 

But while it took many years for the process and the technology to fully develop into the commonplace, the core conceit behind home-recording – doing it, literally, for yourself – was marking another important line in the sand for the music industry. Removing, as it could, many of the impediments – some of them fanciful – that surrounded the recording process and making it far more democratic, in theory at least.

 

Reading those paragraphs in ‘Set The Boy Free’ I thought, rightly or wrongly, of Joe Chester, the Dublin-born musician and songwriter whose most recent album, ‘The Easter Vigil’, has just been released and who, on any given day or project, can work as sustainably or efficiently as the best of them. His five solo albums – and they are, to all intents, entirely solo projects wherein our hero takes on the bulk of the creative lifting – are but one aspect of a wide and varied career spent as a musician, writer, producer and collaborator. Joe has long been as comfortable working alone as he is as part of a broader group ;- I first saw him in action many years back as one of Sunbear, an angular guitar band that regularly lit up many a dank evening in the belly of The Rock Garden in Temple Bar during the early 1990s. Someone who, depending on circumstance and mood, can pare it right back to the muscle too, as is certainly the case on ‘The Easter Vigil’.

Interestingly enough, my own copy arrived in the post after I bought it on-line from a record label based in Dublin 3, never previously regarded as a stronghold within the international music industry. Eight songs long, and softer and more spartan than much of Joe’s previous output, ‘The Easter Vigil’ is simply another chapter in a body of work that’s as impressive as that by any contemporary Irish artist. And the fact that he remains, outside of a small coterie of anoraks, fans and friends, a largely acquired taste, only adds to his lustre, of course.

 

Tall, thin and unlikely, he trades in uncomplicated, blue-chip songs that borrow their strokes from the best in show. His first album, ‘A Murder Of Crows’, for instance, features both Gemma Hayes on harmony vocals and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bleed To Love Her’ that, by so doing, pretty fairly reflects the crease into which he pitches. In every conceivable respect, he’s as far from Duran Duran as it’s possible to get.

 

I met Joe once, very briefly, back when I was producing a tidy music television series for tweens called ‘Eye2Eye’ and onto which we’d invited Gemma to play a short live set to an audience of forty twelve year olds and to answer some of their questions. And she was as decent and elegant as usual, unfussily accompanying herself on acoustic guitar while Joe, to her right, camera left, played her reluctant foil, buried deep in the half-light and uneasy anytime he was caught unwittingly in the glare. They populate each other’s work freely but even so, I was still struck by the ease with which they so instinctively sat in concert.

 

 

It’s a rare and remarkable gift, this, and one I’ve been fortunate enough to see close-up over the years in pairs as diverse as Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Conall and John from We Cut Corners and Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott. And that Friday afternoon we spent in Studio Two in Montrose was every bit as visceral as it was heart-lifting :- my abiding hope was that, beyond the smoke and mirrors of television, the performers’ alchemy had rubbed off on some of the kids and that they left the campus more rounded than when they entered.

 

I’d been turned onto ‘A Murder Of Crows’ the previous year by Tom Dunne, the Something Happens singer who, back in the mid-2000s, hosted an excellent early-evening music show on Today FM. And not only was he wearing the record to within an inch of it’s life but he was using the title track – with it’s chintzy keyboard swivel – as a regular ident throughout his programme. My wife and myself had recently become parents for the first time and, on those many evenings spent stuck in the slow torture along The Coast Road in Sandymount and over onto The East Link, Tom’s impeccable play-lists would help me home to Dublin 3 and back to the general gormlessness that tends to be family life for first-timers. And for many months thereafter, I’d drive my daughter to crèche in the mornings to the sweet, sweet sounds of ‘A Murder Of Crows’ ;- it became an unlikely soundtrack and vital mental support to life as a bewildered new parent.

 

I’ve kept a keen eye on Joe’s various activities in the years since. And, as our family increased in size along the way, so too did the ambition and the wonder of his records. And it’s been onwards, upwards and varied ever since ;- in between various stints working as a hired hand with Sinéad O’Connor and The Waterboys, or as a producer du jour for practically every Irish act worth it’s salt, Joe would infrequently fetch up and quietly leave out another essential calling card of his own.

 

And by any stretch, ‘The Tiny Pieces Left Behind’, ‘She Darks Me’ and ‘Hope Against Hope’ represent a formidable decade of work, carefully hand cut, delicately produced albums that wear their influences openly and boast their impacts clearly. Each of them made, for the most part, by one man and his help, working discreetly to small budgets, off-Broadway, cost-effectively and without the fanfare.

 

It’s been five busy, varied years since he last released a long-player and ‘The Easter Vigil’ finds Joe in a reflective and sombre humour ;- in part a concept album of soulful reflection and mature observation that, thematically, is back-dropped by the Easter tenets of sacrifice, re-birth and renewal.

 

To anyone with even the most passing interest in the emotional power of music, religion can often be a bountiful – if unlikely – source. The Easter Vigil itself is one of the staples of the Roman Catholic calendar and, as a drama, is a remarkable affair, big on pomp, staging and imagery. The single most important celebration within the Christian faith, Easter’s third act sees Jesus Christ rise from the dead hours after crucifixion on a cross on Calvary on Good Friday. And as such, it has provided numerous writers and musicians with ample symbolic ammo over the centuries.

 

Even as a non-believer, I’ve long found the use of music during the Easter ceremonies to be particularly impactful and just as interesting as the narrative it supports ;- as with most great films or stage shows, the soundtrack bulwarks the storyline and delivers several key punctuations and sub-texts across a week of ceremonials. As of Holy Thursday night, for instance, all instruments are de-commissioned and put beyond use and all music, until the resurrection during The Easter Vigil on Easter Saturday night, is plain and unaccompanied. Good Friday ceremonies, like The Stations of The Cross, are stark and wistful, powerful performance pieces played out in churches that stay dark and unadorned until faith is restored after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After which, in simple terms, normal service[s] resume.

 

And in several respects, Joe’s album endures a similar catharsis using the same sort of dramatic tension. Only in reverse. From the peppy opener that takes place on ‘Spy Wednesday’ to the magnificent closer, ‘I’m Not A Christian Anymore’, located on Easter Sunday, the record’s central figure concludes a passage from confident believer [‘I know that my Redeemer lives’] through self-doubt, uncertainty and onwards into disbelief. When, over the album’s concluding bars, Joe sings ;- ‘that night in the sleeping house of God, I was a phantom walking in the corridor. I was a Christian then, I’m not a Christian anymore’.

 

But it had all been so different back at the beginning, seven songs earlier. ‘Spy Wednesday’ has an innocent Waterboys feel – appropriately enough, it could sit easily on ‘A Pagan Place’ – that springs to its capstone off of a saxophone solo by Anthony Thistlethwaite. Another packing considerable Waterboys history, Steve Wickham, lends the violin and viola parts while cellist Vyvienne Long decorates the room with deeper tones throughout. Elsewhere, ‘Dark Mornings’ – a first-class graduate from the Matthew Sweet/Ryan Adams/Lindsey Buckingham finishing school – is still the closest concession to the all-out, Cars-inspired finish that’s distinguished much of Joe’s previous work. And after that it’s just the magic of the soft hush ;- and it’s beautiful. Because for all of it’s allegory and bespoke references [‘the feast of Corpus Christi’, ‘Swastika Laundry’ and ‘the valley of tears’], Joe still finds the real wonder in the smaller, far less abstract moments.

 

The first single, ‘Juliette Walking In The Rain’ is about exactly that, a chance encounter with the French actress Juliette Binoche as she makes her way across Meeting House Square in Central Dublin. While for all the swagger on ‘Dark Mornings’, the song ultimately – and maybe invariably? – finds itself dissecting matters of the heart as Joe points out that he’s ‘just looking out the window, waiting for you to wake up’.

 

And that’s where his gift lies. The devil may indeed always lurk amidst the detail but it takes the confidence of a master to allow the magic flourish deep inside the quiet.

 

CODA :- ‘The Easter Vigil’ is available in decent shops and on-line via Bohemia Records.

http://www.bohemiarecords.ie/#/joe-chester/

 

Joe is playing a handful of live dates in Ireland in support of ‘The Easter Vigil’. Róisín Dubh in Galway on April 23rd, The Unitarian Church in Dublin on April 28th, The Spirit Store in Dundalk on May 4th and Crane Lane in Cork on May 27th. So do yourself a favour.

 

 

 

 

MORRISSEY AND MARR AND ROGAN

 

 

 

 

Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Severed Alliance’ was the first in-depth biography of The Smiths and, consequently, generated much reaction, not least of all from Morrissey, its loudest central character. Published in May, 1992, five years after the band split on the eve of the release of its fifth studio album, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, the book was launched during a peculiar period in the singer’s solo career. With Johnny Marr long gone free-lance, most visibly alongside Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant as part of Electronic, Morrissey had released his third – and, at that stage, easily his best – solo album, ‘Your Arsenal’ and had finally started to make commercial inroads into the American market. A market where, for multiple reasons, The Smiths had failed to generate traction. But in early August, 1992, he was forced off-stage at London’s Finsbury Park during a factious live show while supporting Madness and, not for the first time, faced suggestions that he was toying, deliberately or otherwise, with dangerous, racially-loaded themes and images.

 

Ten days after that show, the front of the New Musical Express carried a spectacular shot of Morrissey taken at Finsbury Park, in a gold lamé shirt, draped in a Union Jack and in front of a huge black and white backdrop featuring a striking image of two female skinheads ;- ‘Morrissey – Flying the flag or flirting with disaster?’, the supporting text asked while, inside, the magazine rolled out several of its brightest and best writers and went in hard and high. At the core of the argument – a recurring one ever since Morrissey claimed that ‘reggae is vile’ during an interview in 1985 – was one of the songs on ‘Your Arsenal’. ‘The National Front Disco’ tells of a young man, David, who fore-goes his friends in favour of more extreme right-wing company :- ‘Where is our boy? We’re lost our boy’, Morrissey sings. But it was the line ‘England for the English’ that provided the song with its most questionable edge, in much the same way as one of his earlier solo songs, ‘Bengali In Platforms’, had done years previously with the line ‘life is hard enough when you belong here’. The singer refused to speak to the N.M.E. for the guts of a decade thereafter and, in his own book, ‘Autobiography’, published in 2013, makes the not unreasonable claim that he had been deliberately targeted by the magazine which, at the time, had come under new editorial management. And he goes on to robustly defend himself too, something he chose not to do at the time.

 

 

And so it was against this curtain and to this soundtrack that ‘The Severed Alliance’ was published. The Smiths had enjoyed an almost exclusively positive relationship with the music press during the band’s momentous five year history and often the raw devotion of some of the writers at the inkies mirrored that of the group’s support base, much of which was slavish. The band, only ever together for five years, was prolific, prodigious and panned gold at a furious rare. In support of its releases, off-stage and on, Morrissey gave sensational copy and, as a cover star, had become an enormous draw ;- the music magazines couldn’t get enough of The Smiths and even the most passive press releases from the group’s publicists were given serious news currency. And yet, even by 1987, little of substance was known of them – and of Morrissey, especially – outside of the carefully tailored narrative that had been spun out since the band first blazed into public view. Indeed one of the more interesting aspects of the story of The Smiths – and it is, even now, an incredible story – is how the band so carefully controlled its own story, especially when, in almost every other respect, they were clearly unmanageable. I can’t recall another group from 1980 onwards about whom so much was written but of whom so little of real substance was ever given away. Most music fans – and many more non-music fans, it seemed – had an opinion on The Smiths supported, one way or another, with either leggy clichés or the party line, and no more than that.

 

morrisseypointticket

 

And I, like many of my peers, was one of those. I was a devoted Smiths fan, the band who, to all intents, changed the way I listened to music forever. In fact, for years, they were more than just a band ;- its glib to say so now but there was a time too when The Smiths were a genuine lifestyle choice and, for five glorious years, I obsessed over them. I’ve regularly trotted out the line that they were, for the post-punk generation, what The Beatles or The Clash must have been to those who went immediately before us ;- incendiary, liberating, vital, all-consuming. And I saw that manifest directly in the cross-demographic nature of their audiences :- around Cork, The Smiths’ appeal transcended the usual parameters of class, gender and creed and their two live shows in The Savoy on Patrick Street attracted punters of all hues and from all arts and parts. Which is why I found ‘The Severed Alliance’ so absolutely compelling. Here, for the first time, I thought, was a profile of one of my favourite groups that went in where few had dared, finally putting real body on what had, in the ten years since ‘Hand In Glove’, been a finely-curated skeleton. The book clearly and comprehensively confirmed what many of us had long suspected, and which I’d heard around the gossipy fringes of the London set at the time :- that Morrissey was an obsessive and abrasive character who, often giddied by money, had still to get over the wonder of himself.

 

The book is especially strong on the personal and social backgrounds of the primary cast of Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce, the almost fairytale aspect of much of the group’s early career and is particularly effective when dealing with the band’s demise in 1987. The popular narrative at the time of the split was that, in the familiar traditions of popular music, the group simply fell asunder as its constituent parts grew apart. And there is no doubt that, on one level, this was indeed the case. But, using a wide breath of core interviewees – Morrissey was the only one of The Smiths who declined the offer to take part – and three years of forensic research, Rogan gets deeply in under the bonnet. And in doing so, got spectacularly on Morrissey’s wick.

 

It is to Rogan’s credit that he fairly wires into much of the mythology – plenty of it created by Morrissey and Marr – that surrounded the band, concluding that, far from being the last great gang in popular music, four like-minds shaking the world in unison, there was a point where The Smiths were really just another business construct too. And as was revealed subsequently through the British courts, the rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce were, essentially, no more than salaried session players. In delivering his verdict in a High Court case brought by Joyce against Morrissey and Marr in 1996, Judge John Weeks tellingly described Morrissey as ‘devious, truculent and unreliable’. Which more or less tallies with Johnny Rogan’s summary in ‘The Severed Alliance’.

 

And yet for all Morrissey’s disdain – he dismissed the book before and after its publication, despite claiming to not have read it and launched a coquette-ish personal assault on Rogan – its long struck me that, had the book been released nine months earlier, much of the fall-out from Finsbury Park would have been, if not wholly averted, at least diluted. Given how meticulously Rogan delves into Morrissey’s own background, it would at least have provided far more of a substantive context to much of the singer’s social and cultural peccadilloes.

 

morrisseystadiumticket

 

Like all four members of The Smiths, Johnny Rogan is an English-born child of Irish emigrant parents who, from where I stood, sounded like a pretty compelling character in his own right. I liked the cut of his jib and his approach to his work ;- ‘The Severed Alliance’ was his tenth book and, backed by a store of knowledge and a wide breath of reference, he was never going to be unduly intimidated by Morrissey or blinded by the sparkle of the tidy one-liner. Unlike, it has to be said, many of those who’d encountered him over the years and rarely went too far beneath the surface, myself included. And I alluded to that in my Melody Maker review of the book, which originally appeared in the edition dated May 9th, 1992 and which we’ve re-produced below.

 

The following year, I brought Johnny Rogan to Cork and interviewed him at length for the ‘No Disco’ television series. He gave us formidable copy and, once we’d stopped recording and put the camera gear aside, I walked him across The South Mall and took him for a long lunch in The Long Valley, a regular ‘No Disco’ perk that reflected the extent of the programme’s entertainment budget. Over door-step sandwiches and mugs of coffee, he held court for ages and went into fine detail on some of the key, and most contentious, passages in ‘The Severed Alliance’ and, for good measure, told a host of anecdotes he couldn’t, for various reasons, include in the book. But we spoke too about a couple of his other favourite bands – and subjects of some of his other books – notably The Byrds and The Kinks. And, at one stage, I think he even removed his shades.

 

MORRISSEY AND MARR – THE SEVERED ALLIANCE

[Omnibus Press]

 

Morrissey doesn’t like ‘The Severed Alliance’ much. He has wished motorway death on its author, Johnny Rogan and would, apparently, rather lose the use of his limbs than pick it up and flick through it. All of which adds some kind of strange allure to this, Johnny Rogan’s tenth book, one born of frustration, fascination and a belief that : ‘The Smiths were the most important group of the Eighties. Rogan originally slated 15 months for this book. And now, three years later, it’s here.

 

‘The Severed Alliance’ is a wonderful love story. About two young men desperately in love with records and pop music and fame and style and themselves. Two young men who just knew that they were going to do something. Along the way, starry-eyed bit-players like Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke pop in, a bus-full of managers say hello and we get to meet the ‘belligerent ghouls’ who ran Morrissey’s schools. We meet lots of women in Morrissey’s life [Linder, his mother, his aunts, Jo Slee, Gail Colson, Caryn Gough and Sandie Shaw], and there are some great photographs. This is very ‘warts-and-all’. And why not?

 

Rogan turns over lots of stones. He digs deep, reads Morrissey’s juvenilia and he dares to question the man’s motives, sources and opinions. But it is Johnny Marr that provides the central slab here. For almost the first time ever, here he is talking about The Smiths songs, about guitar lines and recording. Here he is, the pragmatic street-wise, cocky kid with a guitar, a pop-zelig who always knew where to draw the lines and who always played to his strength. The kid with the quiff who rescued Morrissey, handed him a vat of fame and some of the best songs ever and who, ultimately, created both the band and the singer as focal point and mouthpiece.

 

The story of The Smiths is a charming one, filled up with naivety, downright stupidity, lots of laughs, loads of contradictions and some frightfully important pop music. Sometimes it’s cold, often pitifully sad, but always pinned through with an air of utter romance. The Smiths were Morrissey and Marr. Even at the very end, amid confusion and despair and bitterness and the court-room, there is an on-going respect. The Smiths, strangely, remain guarded and gang-ish, still very respectful of what they had and what they did and who they were.

 

‘The Severed Alliance’ paints a wonderful picture of all that and it’s a bloody marvellous book. There is, of course, more to life than books like this, you know. But this week, at least, well …. Not much more.

THE SMITHS. AND MY MOTHER.

 

I was born, luckily, to a mother who adored music. I remember many occasions during my childhood when she’d power up her old record player – and it was very definitely her record player – and stack it with a variety of old 7 inch singles and all manner of albums. It was my mother who bought me my first record – E.L.O.’s ‘Shine A Little Love’ – and it was her devotion to daytime music radio [she was the housewife in ‘housewife’s choice’] that re-inforced the message and exposed me to all kinds of wonderful. I had no idea at the time, of course, but the rose was being sown ;- in my mother’s world, and later in my own, those who didn’t have music in them just weren’t worth the effort. They were queerhawks, so you went there lightly.

 

She introduced me, one way or another, to The Beach Boys, Marianne Faithful and The Beatles. She was appalled then, as she is now, by the more lurid aspects of rock and roll and was especially suspicious of David Bowie, outwardly at least. ‘That fella doesn’t know if he’s a man or a woman’, she’d regularly say, more to get a rise out of my father than anything else, I imagine. But she ran an honest and good home and, over the years, heartily welcomed many a passing musician who dossed down for the night. ‘How’s the boy from Into Paradise ?’, she still asks. ‘Is he still doing the music ?’.

 

I started secondary school in 1980 and, like my friends, was happy in the haze of the chart hits of the day. I was keeping a close eye on E.L.O, who were still regulars on the hit-parade and who I had now adopted, carefully collecting their new releases while dipping into the bargain bins in search of their older material. At home, various compilation albums – often advertised on television and usually released on either the K-Tel, Telstar and Warwick labels – also helped to broaden my knowledge and expand my breath of reference. And it was here that I first got my ears around the likes of The Sweet, Mud and Gilbert O’Sullivan, all of whom I still love.

 

But it was all a bit different with The Smiths. From the off I felt I was operating a bit more illicitly and under my own steam ;- not like any other love, this one was different. I saw them for the first time on a European-wide music show, late one weekend night on RTÉ, alongside another British group called Immaculate Fools, featured as part of a broader event showcasing emerging bands from countries throughout the continent. The short video clip captured the group performing their new single in a shed filled draped with flowers ;- I noted the name in my head and, on a Saturday morning some weeks afterwards, located a copy of ‘This Charming Man’ upstairs in Eason’s on Patrick Street in Cork.

 

 

The Smiths are still one of my favourite bands ever – as are E.L.O. – and, like everyone else who fell under their spell, changed forever the way I listened to music and what I expected from it. I’ve written about them extensively over the years because a] everybody else has and b] there was always so much to write about ;- to music writers, oiks and pseuds everywhere, they were a gift that just kept on giving. We’ll post some of those longer pieces here over time, but in the meantime …

 

In November, 1996, the French music and culture magazine, Les Inrockuptibles , issued a one-off album, ‘The Smiths Is Dead’, to mark the tenth anniversary of the release of The Smiths’ third studio album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’ [which was actually unleashed in June, 1986]. The magazine asked ten of it’s favourite bands du jour to cover a track each from the acclaimed album ;- and so The Frank And Walters did ‘Cemetry Gates’,  The Trash Can Sinatras took on ‘I Know It’s Over’, The Divine Comedy performed ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, The Boo Radleys did the title track and so on and so forth. It sounded excellent in theory but, in reality, was far from it ;- some bands should just stay uncovered.

 

 

I used the opportunity of the Les Inrockuptibles release to write an easy Sunday Tribune column on October 20th, 1996. As well as re-cycling some of my own well-worn observations on the band , I asked four people – some I knew well, some not at all – to throw a light on the band by selecting their own favourite Smiths song. I didn’t ask one woman for an input, and it never once struck me that this was odd. One of the most common misconceptions about The Smiths was that their audiences were exclusively male, and from across a very broad class spectrum. And besides, I spent much of the 1990s boring other men to tears with intense theory about Morrissey, Marr and ‘the split’, most of which I’d lifted from a long-lunch I’d had with Johnny Rogan, author of ‘The Severed Alliance’ in The Long Valley bar in Cork in 1994.

 

That Sunday Tribune column, which ran under the headline ‘The Smiths : forging an identity’, most of which we’ve re-produced in full below, was merely an extension of some of those boys-club conversations. And I’m still not sure if this was a good or a bad thing.

 

Originally published in Sunday Tribune October 20th 1996

Ask Me. Ask Me. Ask Me. And Me. 

 

There was a time and a place when everyone had an opinion on The Smiths. To many of us they were the defining popular cultural force of our – or indeed any other – generation. To others they were maudlin and self-important which, of course, suited our notions anyway and served only to make us respect them even more. And right now, ten years after the release of arguably the last decade’s most important and pivotal album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, they are once again very much at one’s elbow.

 

That both the band and the record have endured for so long is a tribute to their own stubborn vision and to the intensity of blind faith they culled from a heretofore beaten and tired generation. Peddling a blatant gang mentality, they played on their own terms and quit while they were ahead by laps.

 

In hindsight The Smiths were the academic soundtrack of our adolescence, a conversation piece and a salvation of sorts. In Morrissey’s words and all through Johnny Marr’s masterful songs, we saw a world of underdogs and inadequates, the clinical antidote to New Romance, beach-pop and synthetics. They dealt in smug, knowing one-liners and, naturally, we believed their every word.

 

The Queen Is Dead’ made itself known to us some ten years ago, quite possibly the last record we have ever awaited so eagerly. But by this time we had already swapped-off that part of our vinyl stack which pre-dated ‘Hand In Glove’. The first ever line to their first ever single went :- ‘Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds’, the gorgeously arrogant intent that was to become par for The Smiths. And that was our first taste of ‘real’ or ‘proper’ music.

 

My friend Dónal Dineen, a television person and writer, spent his adolescence on a farm in Rathmore, County Kerry, taking his social cues – like far too many of us – from late-night radio and bad weekend television. ‘My favourite Smiths song’,  he admits, ‘is ‘This Charming Man’ because sometimes the best songs have the best opening lines, and this one opens spectacularly. I first heard this song, which opens ‘Punctured bicycle on a hillside, desolate. Will nature make a man of me yet ?’ having cycled to a youth club teenage disco in Killarney. Suddenly, the whole world made sense’.

 

But The Smiths made their own rules, pushing their boat out far beyond the beyond. By the time of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ they were articulating, through popular music, with guitars and with words, everything we’d long suspected but could never actually admit. Nick Kelly, boy-wonder rock-kid at The Times, remembers the record like it was yesterday. ‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, he pops, ‘because in it’s time it gave a certain hope to all of those pale boys at teenage discos that couldn’t quite muster the courage to either dance or flirt. It should be made required listening for all teenage boys going to their first school disco’.

 

In many respects of course, The Smiths were grossly out of time and out of kilter and yet they were very quickly essential, if only because they stimulated our every sense. Marr’s songs, even ten years on, stand any time-test, a truly spectacular and prolific canon that, with it’s sheer scope and ambition, dominates an entire musical era like a blanket on a cage. Morrissey’s words, meanwhile, have long-since become biblical and Eddie Bannon, this town’s funniest new comedian, remembers them fondly.

 

‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘Panic’’, he says. ‘The one where the chorus goes ‘hang the D.J., hang the D.J.’. Its basically a memory-linked thing – although having said that, I just also despise disc jockeys. But I can remember seeing them on television, on The Old Grey Whistle Test, I think, and just being completely entranced’.

 

But by now of course, just before and certainly during ‘The Queen Is Dead’, Morrissey had assumed legendary status. Not only were his band on a very definite roll but they had long-since become a large-scale mainstream alternative, albeit one that very truly irritated our parents, sisters and, it appeared, the tabloids. This, in our book, was well cool. Morrissey gave spectacularly good copy to anyone willing to listen, and the further he pushed, then the quicker he became a celebrated cause. And we, blindly and bizarrely, just loved him.

 

Gerard Crowley is a free-lance cartoonist. ‘My favourite Smiths song, for several reasons, is ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’’, he says. ‘Not only does it have a gorgeous sleeve [later banned] but the song is suitably downbeat. Up-tempo songs generally make me depressed, and this is truly beautiful. Johnny Marr’s mandolin wouldn’t be out of place on the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ soundtrack. It’s that good’.

 

All of which leads – in a circular and misty-eyed way, I know – to this. At the end of this month, the French rock music monthly magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, celebrates one of popular music’s most important anniversaries with a tribute album of odds and ends ;- ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as played and shaped by a quirky bin of fans and opportunists. And while most tribute records largely say nothing to anyone about either self or life – often no more than record-label hi-jacks and credibility cash-ins – it’s pretty cool to at least see something from our own petty histories come back and shame us and enthral us in equal measures and in all of the best possible ways. It’s weird, I know, but they really probably were our very own Beatles. That, at least, is my excuse. 

 

THE ESSENTIAL SMITHS :- MY SUGGESTED 20 GOLDEN LIGHTS

 

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album [1986]

Accept Yourself’ From ‘This Charming Man’, 12-inch single [1983]

Rubber Ring’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’, 12-inch single, [1985]

This Charming Man’ Single [1983]

Sheila, Take A Bow’ Single [1987]

The Headmaster Ritual’ From ‘Meat is Murder’ album [1985]

This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ From ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ album [1984]

William, It Was Really Nothing’ Single [1984]

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What  I Want’ From ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single, [1984]

I Won’t Share You’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]

Cemetery Gates’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Well, I Wonder’ From ‘Meat Is Murder’ album, [1985]

Is It Really So Strange ?’ From ‘Sheila, Take A Bow’ single [1987]

Hand in Glove’ Single [1983]

I Know It’s Over’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Asleep’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ single [1985]

Death Of A Disco Dancer’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album [1987]

Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ Single [1987]

Reel Around The Fountain’ From ‘The Smiths’ album, [1984]

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]