This is the first in a series of blogs we will be running over the next couple of weeks exploring the extraordinary legacy of The Smiths, 25 years to the day after their swanswong, “Strangeways, Here We Come”, was released. This blog (which also appears in a slightly longer form on the Huffington Post – welcome HuffPo readers!) will be followed by a series on The Smiths’ 10 best ideas, the ones with which they changed music and lives forever. This blog argues that breaking up and refusing to reform was their last and possibly best idea.
“I’ll see you sometime, darling.” With these low-key words, and a last caress of Johnny Marr’s guitar, the final song on The Smiths’ final album ends, dropping the curtain on an extraordinary career. Released 25 years ago today, the last seconds of “Strangeways, Here We Come” are still enough to make us teary over the loss of one of the most distinctive and beautiful bands in all music, so God knows how it felt for The Smiths’ besotted fans when they first heard it.
Of course, we would see Morrissey again – his solo career was triumphantly launched within an almost indecent six months – but it was indeed the last we would hear from The Smiths. This is one major reason why their legend has grown so vast since: while other revered contemporaries have grubbily re-united (hello, Happy Mondays!), or sullenly cashed in (hey, Pixies!), The Smiths – always the stubborn exceptions – have left their legacy untouched.
Pop Lifer is delighted by this. No, we’ll never see the band live, but – having been front row for Morrissey’s increasingly erratic solo career, and seen the embarrassment the reformed Sex Pistols heaped upon themselves, eyes wide with pound signs and shame – this is probably a mercy. Besides, The Smiths’ passion, originality and beauty are still with us every day, in the extraordinary records they left behind.
Take “Strangeways” itself. Popular wisdom has crowned “The Queen Is Dead” as their masterpiece, but “Strangeways” is The Smiths’ most ambitious and exciting record. Musically, the band stepped out of the narrow confines of indie pop, opening with a completely guitar-free song before leaping to sinister psychedelica, glam rock and swirling orchestral epics.
If Johnny Marr was attempting a musical revolution, Morrissey’s idiosyncratic worldview remained unshaken: as he sighs during the heartbreaking coda of “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”, “this story is old, I know, but it goes on”. Yet his romantic desperation has never been as directly expressed as on this song, nor his sexual frustration so lewdly captured as on “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”. Nor was eighties materialism ever skewered more thoroughly than on “Paint A Vulgar Picture”: “Best of! Most of! Satiate the need!”
Far from a muted epilogue, “Strangeways” sounds like The Smiths turned up to eleven: more heartbroken, witty, lascivious and adventurous than ever before. The explicit politics may be largely absent, but this had never been as central to The Smiths as the album titles suggested: Morrissey was always more preoccupied with romantic than political malaise. There are hundreds of reasons why The Smiths are more loved than the heavily politicised The The, for whom Marr famously moonlighted, but one of them is that Morrissey’s lovelorn lyrics were a key which unlocked hearts. Many fans admire the furious title track to “The Queen Is Dead”, but it’s “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” which owns their souls.
In addition to their radiant romanticism, The Smiths won over millions through their ideas, which we’ll explore in depth in future blogs. Like all great bands, The Smiths opened up our understanding of what pop could be.
In doing so they changed music and lives forever. By the time “Strangeways” was released The Smiths had existed for just 5 years, recording four albums and 73 songs. Of these, only 2 or 3 are bad, while most are perilously close to perfect. This unlikeliest of bands had hijacked the UK’s charts and were making bold advances into America. More lastingly, they had conquered millions of hearts.
And by resisting the fat cheques and desperate pleas to re-unite, they have ensured that no matter what ugly things Morrissey says today, no matter what ordinary music Marr may dabble in, The Smiths’ light not only hasn’t gone out, it remains undimmed and unsullied.
NOTE. We were going to write another blog on The Smiths’ legacy today (1st October) but the flood of online rumours that the band are to reform have troubled us so much that we don’t want to write about them just now. Even the idea of a reunion seems to spoil it all. We’ll try and do a follow up in next couple of days, hopefully after Morrissey has threatened to spank all the rumour-mongers with a wet plimsoll (oh, hang on, that was when he was denying that The Smiths had split… which turned out to be true…).
As we hope the above blog makes clear, we would rather not go back to the old house…