May 4, 2022

You, me, everyone loved The Smiths. Yet love them as much as we did, The Smiths were still one of those bands where you know that after rehearsals or shows, none of its members ever went out for beers. They ended up playing together as a band because the want-ad gods of 40 years ago cobbled them together semi-randomly. I doubt that these days they communicate from one decade to the next. How odd, to have had that performing intensity for several years and then nothing.

People try to interpret their breakup as some dramatic conflict, but it was maybe more like the moment in your own life, when you realise that your family members are just random human beings trapped in a house together, and the sooner you’re out of it, the better.

*

Johnny Marr is a genius, and so is Morrissey. There had to be a moment somewhere in the initial sequencing of The Smiths’s DNA when one band member said to the others about Morrissey, “But mate, he’s like so incredibly, you know, um, how shall I phrase this, different. What are we supposed to do with him?” And then the other two probably shrugged and then decided to just run with it.

No offence to the other two, but, having been pulled from the want ads, they probably were a little bit replaceable/generic. And it must have been very rankling, indeed, for Morrissey and Marr to have to pony up £1 million to pay off the drummer who retroactively sued for back-royalties when he found out he was only getting 10% of the profits. Morrissey and Marr got 40% each. In his autobiography, Morrissey spends an astonishing amount of time describing that lawsuit and his incremental realisation that he was likely going to lose. That had to hurt on a few levels. Decades later, nobody even knows the drummer’s name or cares.

*

What I like about The Smiths is that they mixed corny with cool. Contrast How Soon is Now with Frankly Mr. Shankly. They were all over the map, but then so were The Beatles, and even The Smiths’s crap B-sides were better than most bands’ singles.

*

The Smiths to me represented a kind of revenge of the suburbs, where the children raised in Milton Keynes and Pasadena got back at society for coddling them, like in J.G. Ballard’s Running Wild. There was this moment in the late Seventies and early Eighties when a hundred million young people worldwide collectively decided to leave home — no, flee home as quickly as they could. The hippies were dead to them. Punk was a dead end. New Wave meant an actual new wave of being that was a rejection of the state and false utopian thinking.

There is a toughness to people who came of age in that era, a wariness of all systems that organically flowed from being a certain age and watching all forms of order implode or decay while “the answer”, the peace and love of the hippies, was utterly useless. “Hang the DJ” was like a battle cry when the Lord of the Flies children decide to kill Piggy.

*

The thing with Morrissey is the nagging feeling you get when you think back to how he was right about so many things back in the past, things like vegetarianism and veganism, as well as his proto-woke sense of underdoggism. I draw the line at saying prophetic, but he was definitely ahead of his time.

Morrissey expressed his essential Morrisseyness inside of what was still a music world filled with rock normative prejudices. His utter alienness was his protective coating. People were so busy trying to understand what was actually going on inside his head that they didn’t think to simply punch him. But it seems as though, as the years rolled on, people took less and less time to think about what he was doing, and the urge to punch him became almost instantaneous.

The Simpsons did an episode about The Smiths (“The Snuffs”) which was astonishingly cruel to Morrissey. It really went way too far: shame on them. Sure, Morrissey’s a dick, but he’s always on brand when he’s a dick, and that prickliness is why we love him.

But then there’s his racism which is at such odds with his peace love and understanding persona, yet people tend to cut him some slack and chalk it up to the same gene that makes our parents crank up the racism in their late fifties. That’s right: Morrissey is old, which means you’re old, too. So, in a weird way, Morrissey (I hate it when people call him Moz) is cancel-proof. Like Donald Trump, he inhabits his own universe, and he genuinely doesn’t care.

Credit: Doug Coupland

*

Can you even imagine what a flaming radioactive mess a Smiths reunion tour might be like? It’s like contemplating the square root of negative one, or dark matter. There’s just no point.

*

I did my only interviewer gig ever with Morrissey in Rome in 2006. I’d been heavily using the sleep drug zopiclone for the first time ever in the days leading up to the interview. Meanwhile, the record company had been so paranoid about interviewers bootlegging an advance of Morrissey’s new songs that they only sent me CDs that were so heavily watermarked that they wouldn’t play in any device in the US or Canada. When I got to Rome, the company let me listen to the new album on some weird sound system that was like something out of the former DDR. And then, six hours early, they rang my room to say that Morrissey was bored and wanted to do his interview right then.

As he walked into the hotel’s basement bar where the interview took place, my zopiclone massively kicked in and I remember seeing Morrissey’s head balloon in size like a Christmas parade balloon in New York. Then I blacked out and suddenly it was another six hours later, and I was on the phone with my agent in New York, when I snapped out of the zopiclone blackout and said: WTF just happened? There’s no real moral here. But if they’d just given me the fucking album a week earlier, I could have written something a bit better about the whole cosmic clusterfuck of an experience in Rome.

Which is all to say that nobody ever compares Morrissey’s solo albums to The Smiths’ albums. But the solo albums are really, really good, and Morrissey doesn’t get enough credit for that. Viva Hate (1988) was astonishing, and Kill Uncle (1991) was excellent. With Your Arsenal (1992) his bus started to veer towards some nearby cliff, but then a few albums later, Ringleaders of the Tormentors (2006), the album I was in Rome for, showed great song writing and performing talent once more. Solo Morrissey is a boutique listening experience, albeit one that will endure.

In my mind The Smiths were 75% Morrissey, 24% Johnny Marr and 1% the others. I hear Johnny Marr has done great stuff since the band split. I assume it’s excellent and wish him well. But the sum of the band’s isolated solo efforts isn’t greater than their whole. So many of us miss The Smiths and we always will. Missing The Smiths is like missing that Christmas dinner where everyone screamed at each other and behaved appallingly and damaged crockery and said untakebackable things, and yet ever since all other Christmas dinners seem listless and fake and dull. What a shame, and so needless, to miss them while they’re still here. It’s like they ghosted all of us when they ghosted each other.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.