Number 3 in our series of blogs on the best ideas The Smiths had, the ones that changed pop and people’s lives forever. In the first blog, we argued that the band’s best idea of all was breaking up and staying that way. By imploding at the peak of their powers – leaving behind the magnificent “Strangeways, Here We Come” – and never returning to the scene of the crimes, they have secured their legacy and made sure it remains unsullied. Blog 2 celebrated the band’s extraordinary b-sides and the way that these semi-hidden treasures strengthened the bond between band and fan.
For this blog we’re looking at two other big Smiths ideas, each related. The first is Morrissey’s revolutionary, ambiguous approach to sexuality. The second, often overlooked, is his delight in innuendo, a talent presumably honed over years of overdosing on “Carry On” films.
Morrissey’s sexuality was a source of debate and confusion from the very moment the band formed – for the man himself as much as his fans, you suspect. Take a look at this web forum, where you’ll find fans furiously disputing whether the band could be described as heterosexual, asexual or “the gayest band ever” (a claim which would surely aggrieve Pansy Division or Scissor Sisters). In fact, Morrissey’s sexual intentions were so ambiguous that the only tabloid scandal the band endured were foul rumours that they celebrated paedophilia, a radical mis-reading of songs like “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”, “Reel Around The Fountain” and “Suffer Little Children”.
However, there is little doubt that the earliest incarnation of The Smiths – before they were catapulted into mainstream fame – was a distinctly gayer version of the band than the one who later romped on The Tube to “Sheila, Take A Bow”. The evidence ranges from the superficial (the bizarre presence of Morrissey’s flamboyantly gay friend James Maker as a sort of go-go dancer at early gigs, the highly homo-erotic imagery of the first single sleeve and album sleeves, see above) to the substantial (the lyrics).
In their very first single, “Hand In Glove” Morrissey cries “it’s not like any other love!”. While this could be taken as a declaration of sexual difference or simply the way that all couples thinks their love is unique, second single “This Charming Man” was more direct, with its tale of being picked up by the charming man of the title on “a hillside desolate”. Third single “What Difference Does It Make?” even starts out with the declaration “All men have secrets and here is mine so let it be known…” although Morrissey never quite completes the sentence.
And even all of that is coy in comparison to the lascivious “Handsome Devil”. Yes, the “mammary glands” confuse matters (don’t they always?), but it’s difficult to interpret lyrics like “when we’re in your scholarly room who will swallow whom?” or “a boy in the bush is worth two in the hand” without working out that Morrissey’s interest in other men isn’t entirely intellectual.
Some around the band in the early months claim Morrissey intended the band to be “a hardcore gay band” – a sort of Mancunian Frankie Goes To Hollywood, a mind-boggling thought – but that Morrissey was taken by surprise by the sudden fame of The Smiths and the realisation that his sexuality was likely to be subjected to broad scrutiny. Others argue he is bisexual or that he simply didn’t want to exclude anyone from The Smiths’ embrace. No matter what the motive, the result was that the aggressive, up-front sexuality of the earliest songs was soon replaced by a softer and more ambiguous approach. Most later Smiths love songs are genderless: of those that are pronouned, they divide fairly evenly between male and female, between Williams and Sheilas.
This ambiguity was revolutionary in the context of the eighties: while Duran Duran wielded their heterosexuality like a battering ram and Frankie Goes To Hollywood launched a furious gay counter-attack, Morrissey stayed on the sidelines, a sexual Switzerland. Many could, with some justice, argue over whether Morrissey’s disdain for “labels” was helpful to gay teenagers growing up in the horrors of the AIDS era, and his ongoing inability to be frank about his sexual identity has made him look increasingly anachronistic. But one joyous consequence of his fluid sexuality was that no-one nursing an aching heart felt excluded from The Smiths’ embrace.
This ambiguity also leaves it up to the listener what to make of many songs. There are still straight fans who insist that there isn’t anything particularly gay about Morrissey’s worldview, while for many gay people, the “club if you’d like to go” in “How Soon Is Now?” could only possibly be a gay club. Who else has to go to one particular type of club in their search for love, with the possible exception of goths? And although Morrissey himself has said that “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” is a song about The Smiths’ battle with the record industry, gay men can certainly relate to the angry, misunderstood cry of “how can they see the love in our eyes/ And still they don’t believe us?”. As for the references in two of the most gay-drenched songs in The Smiths canon, “Shoplifters Of The World Unite”s “listed crime” and “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”‘s “18 months hard labour” (the archaic penalty for homosexuality) – well, what do you make of them?
Of course, those who don’t believe Morrissey to be primarily gay can find their own evidence, although it’s interesting that the female love interests in Morrissey’s songs seem to either be rough and rapacious (“Pretty Girls Makes Graves”) or in convenient comas. Nor is it for this blog to sort Morrissey’s sex life out, despite the blog’s title: that’s a task we fear might be lifelong. But one other interesting consequence of all of this was Morrissey’s famously proclaimed “celibacy”. Cynical people believed that this was a way of ducking unpleasant sexual questions, but that doesn’t matter: it still became a rather beautiful rallying cry for those who either felt excluded from our culture’s overwhelming obsession with sex or wanted no part of the mucky business.
But if you thought Morrissey was thinking celibate thoughts, “well, that just goes to show how little you know”. Or, rather, listen. Because one of the less discussed yet most blatant aspects of The Smiths is that they are absolutely fucking filthy. As blog reader Stephen Dallas says rather more elegantly, you shouldn’t overlook “the salacious nature of their lyrics”. Underneath the beautiful words and the elegant music, Morrissey is often a distinctly primal beast.
Take “That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More”, this blog’s favourite Smiths song of all. A plaintive, exquisite description of human loneliness couched in heartbreaking terms – “you should know time’s tide will smother you” – it suddenly lurches into ripe innuendo with Morrissey’s lewd cry of “It was dark as I drove the point home!” (and just what was it that suddenly struck him on those cold leather seats?).
Or how about the previously mentioned “Handsome Devil” with its “I know what hands are for, and I’d like to help myself”, or “I Want The One I Can’t Have” with its eyebrow-wagging “and if you ever need self validation, just meet me in the alley by the railway station?” No? Well what about “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” and the grunting “I grabbed you by the guilded beam/ Well that’s what tradition means!” Unsure? Then listen to the whole of “Stretch Out And Wait”, where Morrissey invests his most beautiful words in a frank celebration of sex.
This is all great fun, of course, but it’s also more than that: it is a crucial part of what made The Smiths so multi-dimensional, so rich as a band. Sex in The Smiths acts like a jolt of animal energy, it disrupts the cerebral surface of the band’s songs. “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?” as the singer asks. In many cases sex adds the delicious, delirious humour that always made the band much more life-affirming than the popular, wearisome “wrist-slashing” stereotype. The next blog will probe another aspect thoroughly. “Oooh-uuurgh,”, as Morrissey might say.
Do you have your own favourite Smiths innuendo? Give it to us. Slip us a sly comment.