Originally made for The South Bank Show, this documentary on The Smiths was filmed just days before the band went their separate ways in 1987. It’s a fitting testament to one of the most talented and influential bands of the 1980s. The film contains interviews with Morrissey, Marr, and the other two, as well as assorted fans, John Peel, and rock journalist, Nick Kent, who declared The Smiths were “the first English pop group,” who would be as popular as The Beatles in ten-year’s time. He was right to a point. And even 26-years later, middle-aged fans sigh at the thought of The Smiths.
Johnny Marr is the antithesis of a stereotypical hard rock or heavy metal guitarist. He is associated with unforgettable riffs but not endless guitar solos, whether as a solo artist, band member in The Smiths, The The, or Electronic, or as a session player for The Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Bryan Ferry or Modest Mouse.
Johnny was not camp and didn’t thrash around on stage like an attention whore but he was often quietly the center of attention anyway, regardless of what Morrissey was doing. Not only was he an amazing, awe-inspiring, seemingly effortless player, he always dressed stylishly.
It’s hard to sum up his style without using descriptors like “elegant” and “jangly” and “English.” His playing is similar to The Pretenders’ late, great James Honeyman-Scott’s and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, with maybe some Johnny Thunders thrown in. His eclectic influences include, among others, T. Rex, Motown, Nile Rodgers, Bert Jansch, Rory Gallagher, and The Stooges’ James Williamson. He told Pitchfork:
I was pretty young when I bought my first record — nine, I think. I got “Jeepster” by T.Rex on a 45rpm 7”. It was a cool start and the band were my first love, but the truth is I got it because the label had a great photo of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn on it, so I was snagged by that. I was really into the pop singles of the day, which were all the U.K. glam stuff: Roxy Music, Bowie, the Sweet, everything…
I got into Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges because a friend of mine who was a little older, Billy Duffy, now of the Cult, heard me playing a riff I’d written, and he kept saying that it sounded like James Williamson from the Stooges, who I had never heard. There were quite a few guys in my neighborhood who played guitar and hung out together, sort of competitive, but a very healthy scene. I was one of about five or six teenage boys, and we all had our own thing. One guy was really into Neil Young, another was into Nils Lofgren, another Pete Townshend and [Free’s] Paul Kossoff, and I was into Rory Gallagher, and then I discovered Johnny Thunders in a big way.
Marr used to appear to dislike doing interviews. I remember two dullard American journalists for Creem and Spin who just did not get Morrissey and Marr’s Mancunian sarcasm and humor. Marr would wear cool sunglasses and fabulous threads and let Morrissey do most of the talking, creating an aura of mysteriousness as well as Jimmy Page ever did. But these days, especially promoting his excellent first solo album The Messenger (the one we’ve waited for for a few decades) he is wonderfully open and chatty.
Above, NME’s 2013 Godlike Genius Award winner Johnny Marr recently told NME about the guitar he conned Sire Records’s head honcho Seymour Stein into buying for him in New York—a cherry red Gibson ES-355—and how he wrote The Smiths classics “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Girl Afraid” on it in a single afternoon:
Bonus clip: Johnny Marr makes a cameo appearance on ‘Portlandia’
On February 4th 1983, The Smiths were booked to play the Hacienda in Manchester, England, as support to 52nd Street, a funk band signed to Factory Records. The audience was there to see the headliners, but it was the best band that Tony Wilson never signed who stole the night.
The show was a milestone in The Smiths career, a night when they went from interesting local band, to next-big-thing, and beyond.
As the band took the stage Morrissey greeted the audience by saying “Hello… We are the Smiths. We are not ‘Smiths’, we are the Smiths. ‘These Things Take Time’....” Following the latter set opener he simply said “Oh thank you” then the band launched into “What Difference Does It Make?”. Within a year the song would be released as a single and make it onto the band’s debut album. At this point it was played slower and featured slightly different lyrics. For example instead of “I’m so sick and tired” (album) or “I’m so very tired” (Peel session), Morrissey simply sang “I’m so tired”. Also, Morrissey sang “Oh my sacred Mother in falsetto at the end, instead of the more familiar “Oh my sacred one”.
Next up was “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” and it was introduced by Morrissey with a simple drop of its title. This song also featured different lyrics to the version which would be released on the band’s debut album. The outro of “as long as there’s love / I did my best for her” was absent and a line was then sung as “your mother she need never know”. Right before “Handsome Devil” Morrissey said: “I repeat: the only thing to be in 1983 is handsome… ‘Handsome Devil’.” The next track was probably seeing its live debut and was simply introduced as “Jeane!”. Strangely it would not be performed for long, it was soon to be dropped from the setlist until the Smiths reinstated it when touring the debut album more than a year later.
The performance of “What Do You See In Him?” was a very passionate one. The song would not remain in the Smiths’ set for long. After being dropped for a few months it would re-emerge in June as “Wonderful Woman”, with the same music, but different lyrics. The song that would become the Smiths debut single was then introduced with a slowly articulated “Hand. In. Glove.” It was also performed very passionately, and seems to have woken the audience into paying attention to the yet unknown opening band. The song was well received and this prompted Morrissey to shyly say “Oh you’re very kind… thank you…”
The evening’s final number was then announced twice as “Miserable Lie”. The song’s early lyrics didn’t yet include the line “I know the wind-swept mystical air” while the line “I recognise that mystical air” was sung twice. Instead of “I’m just a country-mile behind the world” Morrissey sang “I’d run a hundred miles away from you”. After the song Morrissey simply said “Bye bye…” twice and the band left the stage while a few new converts cheered and whistled.
A review written by Jim Shelley and published in the NME a month and a half later had only good words for the Smiths, comparing them to Magazine, Josef K and The Fire Engines.
More from The Smiths at the Hacienda, after the jump…
British Prime Minister David Cameron is a Smith’s fanboy, much to the chagrin of Morrissey and Johnny Marr who can’t stand the PM. Morrissey, a vocal animal rights activist, is particularly disturbed by the fact that Cameron wants to “repeal the Hunting Act, which would mean the brutal killing of foxes, hares, deer, badgers, otters – just about anything that moves.”
Today Labour MP challenged Cameron over Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s comments.
Ahead of tomorrow’s controversial vote on raising tuition fees, Cameron was challenged by Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, who mentioned The Smiths in her argument.
“As someone who claims to be an avid fan of The Smiths, the Prime Minister will no doubt be rather upset this week to hear that both Morrissey and Johnny Marr have banned him from liking them,” McCarthy said.
She added: “The Smiths are, of course, the archetypal student band. If he wins tomorrow night’s vote, what songs does he think students will be listening to? ‘Miserable Lie’, ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’ or ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’?”
Cameron’s response included several Smiths song titles, too.
He said: “I expect that if I turned up I probably wouldn’t get ‘This Charming Man’ and if I went with the Foreign Secretary [William Hague] it would probably be ‘William It Was Really Nothing’.”
Matt Johnson, under the moniker of The The, played the Hank Williams of the 1980s. Inspired by a Throbbing Gristle cassette as a teenager, he went on to record some of the most poignant and heartfelt pop music of the decade, helping lay the groundwork for the “alternative” heart-sleeving of the 1990s.
The The’s stuff is, to my mind, just brutally honest and True about the human condition. Johnson’s albums have gotten me through some hard parts of my life… and judging from his Amazon comments, I’m not alone. The Cult of Johnson, while small, is about as rabidly dedicated as you could expect a fan base to be?