About Plundering Desire
Plundering Desire is a vast online collection of pop writing on the British band The Smiths.
A devoted teenage Smiths fan, I tracked the group's progress in the music press with relish, cutting out and keeping every single article, interview, review, news item and photograph that I could lay my hands on. The best are collected here, alongside other items recently unearthed in musty secondhand book stores or on internet collectibles sites.
Spanning the period 1983-1987, from their inception to their bitter break-up, Plundering Desire covers practically all stages of the Smiths' brief but spectacular career, presenting a chronological, colourful, and (sometimes) contentious look at one of British pop's most unique, well-loved, and enduringly popular bands.
The first piece of rock journalism I read on The Smiths, 'Fanfare for the Common Man', appeared in the New Zealand music paper Rip It Up, the source of some of the material here. The bulk of articles and reviews is taken from British pop and rock publications New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds, Time Out, Record Mirror, Jamming! and The Face. Items which originally appeared in the American rock magazines Rolling Stone and Creem have also been included. Items from the decidedly teen-oriented publications No. 1 and Smash Hits serve to highlight the Smiths' considerable crossover appeal to a larger, pop audience than was usual for an indie band at the time.
Additional reading in the form of supplemental material and transcripts of various audio and video interviews can be accessed through the menu. Various memorabilia, such as album and single covers, photos, ads, promotional posters and lyric sheets, has also been included.
Links to the Plundering Desire scan archive THE SMITHS IN PRINT appear regularly throughout the site. Click on a link to see an item in its original form or to read related items not found at Plundering Desire.
To copy a Plundering Desire page link, right click on the menu box and open page in a new window.
There's no best way to approach this website. But since the material is presented in chronological order starting at the beginning and reading through to the end ought to produce the best insights. Or the reader may choose to jump in and out as they see fit. Go directly to reviews of your favourite Smiths LP to compare and contrast opinions - and decide if you agree, or disagree, with the criticisms. Or read the interviews first, and gorge on the wit and wisdom dripping from the silver tongue of Morrissey. But however you wish to approach the site, repeat visits to Plundering Desire should help to shape a cumulative picture of the Smiths' changing critical and commercial fortunes and promote a deeper understanding of this most unusual and enigmatic of pop groups - The Smiths.
It was at the Hacienda that we, the public, goose-pimpled to the spectacle of Morrissey mercilessly flailing a bunch of daffodils against the matt black stage."
This sentence is taken from the Smiths' very first interview in New Musical Express, 'Crisp Songs And Salted Lyrics', and refers to their debut performance at Manchester's Hacienda nightclub, on February 4, 1983. This image of The Smiths onstage, vividly captured in the pages of the pop press, ought to be recognizable to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the group. But Morrissey's efforts to brighten up the venue - with daffodils, not gladiola - had yet to define them. What we find here is a group breaking with the traditions of Manchester's recent musical heritage to forge their own identity and sense of style. The interview itself is rather brief. Yet what shines through is a conviction and self-confidence which helped establish The Smiths as one of the 1980's most successful independent acts.
The music press adored The Smiths. At a time which saw the return of progressive rock and heavy metal to widespread popularity, Johnny Marr's restrained style of playing made the guitar cool again. Morrissey's literate and beguiling lyrics, which offered a startlingly fresh take on pop's classic themes, added layers of mystery and humour to Marr's evocative and energised guitar work, and cast him as rock's most original and unlikely frontman. For a jaded pop press, the mix was irresistable.
Morrissey and Marr possessed a keen sense of pop history, and they never shied from acknowledging their inspirations. But the state of contemporary British pop disheartened them and it became their mission to reinvigorate popular music with an openness and optimism which, they believed, had been missing since punk's earliest days. While groups like Buzzcocks and Magazine were important early influences, most notably on Morrissey's lyrics, The Smiths largely distanced themselves from the music of punk. Yet Morrissey and Marr appeared on the music scene fired by an idealism borne out of that era - a connection made abundantly clear when they signed with London independent label Rough Trade, in April 1983. The plangent chime of Marr's Bryds-tinged guitar combined with Morrissey's sensitive and introspective lyrics certainly didn't sound like punk: well, not usually. But Morrissey and Marr proposed a radical agenda all their own, and Smithsongs became a call for a new passion and emotional honesty in popular music.
From the outset The Smiths refused to cooperate in the making of promotional videos, insisting instead on the necessity of releasing strong records. Television appearances and music press interviews, then, were to be the main avenues of promotion for Smiths releases. Morrissey, a natural with words and the group's most obvious spokesperson, took on the lion's share of interview duties, and soon emerged as the most articulate, contrary, and witty pop star ever to subject himself to the strange ritual of the interview process. Journalists could rely on Morrissey to give great copy - and they loved him for it - with every new interview eliciting bucket loads of outrageously memorable quotes on a number of distinctly un-rock'n'roll subjects. Critics and fans alike were in thrall, and by early 1984 the Smiths' presence in the music press was impossible to ignore.
Together with massive grass roots support and a handful of well-received Radio 1 sessions, the Smiths' ubiquity in the music papers assisted their debut LP, simply titled 'The Smiths', to enter the UK album charts at Number 2. In the February 11, 1984 issue of Record Mirror Morrissey declared the album to be nothing less than "a complete signal post in the history of popular music". It was this kind of comment which drew accusations of arrogance from sections of the pop press. Yet for all its flaws as a debut, 'The Smiths' was a genuinely revolutionary record which in one brilliant stroke revitalised British guitar music and reshaped the pop lexicon. The album was widely regarded as one of the year's most promising works.
Throughout 1984, The Smiths maintained a ticklish presence in the charts by scoring two Top 20 hits with 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' and 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. But when both songs turned up on the compilation LP 'Hatful Of Hollow' (released in November) alongside radio versions of album tracks and single B-sides, there was speculation about the Smiths' apparent musical stagnation. Moreover, Morrissey's introspection and prevailing sense of self-pity had begun to wear very thin indeed, while overexposure in the pop press and on television threatened to turn his carefully cultivated pop persona into something of an irritation.
Most critics responded to these developments in a fair and constructive manner, balancing the group's shortcomings with a reassessment of their many strengths. Others weren't quite so gracious, and criticisms directed at the band were frequently personal. The ambiguity of Morrissey's lyrics, not to mention the singer's tendency to plagiarise the work of other writers, proved a sticking point for commentators who doubted the singer's essential honesty and sincerity. At the same time, Morrissey's reluctance to talk about aspects of his past led some to wonder if he had something to hide.
Morrissey responded to such accusations in typically sardonic fashion. On the cover of the August 3, 1985 issue of Record Mirror he appeared with the word 'FAKE' neatly stencilled onto the side of his neck. A few months earlier, Smiths fans had been treated to an issue of New Musical Express showing cover star Morrissey kitted out as... Jesus Christ (!): sans beard but crowned with a resplendent halo, blood trailing down to his elbow from a gash in the middle of his left palm. Taken at face value, this outrageous image symbolized the recent deification of Morrissey and The Smiths in the pages of the pop music press. But actually, Morrissey (who was raised Catholic) despised this sort of imagery. The cover was in fact a send up, one that cocked a snoot at critics who couldn't quite convince themselves of the Smiths' essential sincerity or fathom the band's often self-deprecating humour.
Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
Morrissey's playing of the role of martyr was grist to the mill for opponents who insisted on casting him as a self-pitying sap. But Morrissey and the Smiths' victimization at the hands of the pop press was quite real, and since the earliest days they were beset by controversy. In 1983, The Smiths attracted criticism in both the tabloid and the pop press over lyrics to the songs 'Handsome Devil' and 'Reel Around The Fountain', both recorded for broadcast on BBC radio. In the August 25 issue of The Sun, showbiz correspondent Nick Ferrari questioned Morrissey about his 'controversial lyrics'; in response Morrissey was reported as saying: "I don't feel immoral singing about molesting children." When Sounds ran an indictment of the band by reporter Garry Bushell (who disliked the group) in the paper's gossip column Jaws, The Smiths found themselves bearing up under their first serious roasting in the national music press.
When it was established that Morrissey's statements in The Sun had in fact been fabricated, Sounds compensated by running an interview with the band in the November 19, 1983 issue ('Keep Young And Beautiful'). This unseemly episode demonstrated how complicated and tangled the Smiths' relationship with the music press had become so early in their career, especially since that it was in Sounds that some of the best and most appreciative early writing on The Smiths had first appeared, most notably the work of Bill Black and Dave McCullough. Maybe the incident can be put down to a failure of imagination on the part of the writers involved. The Smiths' vision was genuinely new, as well as shockingly original - and clearly it was open to misinterpretation. Unfortunately this was not to be the last time The Smiths were subjected to the fiery accusations of an incensed and irresponsible pop press.
If they don't believe me now, will they ever believe me?
The Smiths' second studio album, 'Meat Is Murder', saw the group turning away from the loveless introspection of previous releases and towards a more radical, political world view - as signposted by Morrissey in his infamous statements on the Brighton bombings in the November 3, 1984 issue of Melody Maker. This tougher approach was also evident in the album's production which was notably more punchy than on the occasionally lacklustre debut. The LP was an immediate critical and commercial smash, entering the UK charts at Number 1.
The across-the-board success of 'Meat Is Murder' saw The Smiths following through on their promise to subvert the landscape of mainstream pop while confirming their early commercial potential; and soon, they were on the road in support of the LP playing to a swelling rank of fans. However, the euphoria of the 'Meat Is Murder' tour was quickly undercut when the next single, 'Shakespeare's Sister', failed to breach the UK Top 20. Some commentators wondered if the song's weak production and poor mix was to blame. But lack of daytime radio play and record company indifference were the more likely reasons - a situation mirrored in the US where The Smiths were signed to Sire - leading Morrissey and Marr to consider a change of label. The lovely, wounded 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' may have been recorded with an eye to more radio play but the release saw many critics wondering if the fire had gone out of the Smiths' sound and vision.
'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' was only a minor hit and the follow-up, 'Bigmouth Strikes Again', was yet another flop. Fortunately, this lack of traction in the singles chart couldn't stop the group's third studio LP, 'The Queen Is Dead', from hitting Number 2 in the national album charts nor from enjoying strong reviews in the music press. Recorded in late 1985, 'The Queen Is Dead' was testament to the Smiths' brisk musical development after 'Meat Is Murder'. Johnny Marr's fierce sonic assault on the title track underscored the era-defining quality of the album, while Morrissey's biting, self-satirising lyrics, encompassing both British cultural heritage and current political concerns, consolidated his position as pop's most celebrated and irreverent wordsmith. 'The Queen Is Dead' remains the cornerstone of the Smiths' considerable reputation.
Fame, fame, fatal fame/It can play hideous tricks on the brain
The incendiary single 'Panic', released as The Smiths toured 'The Queen Is Dead' in America, was further evidence of the band's revived clout as pop insurgents, and landed them back inside the UK Top 20 for the first time in 18 months. 'Panic' was the first in a run of hit singles for the group which included such ground-breaking and provocative releases as 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite' and 'Girlfriend In A Coma'.
The success of 'Panic' re-affirmed the Smiths' mastery of the pop single format. But the release was to prove significant in another, less edifying way. To the band's chagrin, in some sections of the music press it was suggested that the line 'burn down the disco/hang the blessed DJ' was an attack on black music and musicians. (The song was in fact an assault on Britain's conservative daytime radio culture, and, more pointedly, Radio One DJ Steven Wright.) Morrissey responded to the allegations in an interview with Frank Owen in Melody Maker; however, his derogatory comments on modern black dance music only added to the furore. Reader's letters to Melody Maker's Backlash column revealed the nature of the outrage: fans were hurt, shocked and disillusioned by Morrissey's outburst.
Did Morrissey really believe in a black pop music conspiracy? (His comments were surprising to say the least. In the past he had expressed a deep affection for Motown and the black girl groups of the 1960s.) Morrissey always did enjoy a good wind-up. Were his statements in the Maker simply meant to raise the hackles of those who would sully the good name of The Smiths? In any case, given the specious nature of the racism accusations, Morrissey’s extraordinary comments seem a product of the moment: a rash and misguided response to the clamouring of a persistently sceptical - and occasionally hysterical - pop press.
It's time the tale were told...
The final Smiths studio album, the posthumous 'Strangeways, Here We Come', saw the group expand on their signature sound even as the Morrissey/Marr songwriting partnership was beginning to fracture. It's an interesting exercise to imagine how The Smiths might have fared on EMI. At the time, Morrissey and Marr's decision to sign with the label was greeted with brickbats and cries of 'SELL OUT' from critics and fans. But it's doubtful whether their sense of purpose and outrage would have dulled with the move to a major. In a 1987 issue of Melody Maker, Morrissey promises to "ruffle a lot of feathers and kick a lot of bottoms". Vociferous to the end The Smiths were one of the 1980's most uncompromising, original, and genuinely subversive, bands. They've earned their place in the pantheon of British pop.
Plundering Desire tells the story of The Smiths as seen in the pages of the weekly pop music press. There's a vividness and immediacy to this material that goes beyond simple nostalgia, just as the music of The Smiths has meaning for new generations of fans. It is my greatest hope that Plundering Desire captures a taste of the excitement surrounding this remarkable, inspirational band while they were still with us - these charming men, Vivid And In Their Prime!
31 January, 2008
Notes on Content and Referencing
In putting together this website the best possible effort was made to reference all articles, reviews and photographs. When I originally cut out and collected these items, I never imagined I would one day attempt to compile them in any way. No conscious effort was made to record the date items appeared in their respective publications, nor the names of writers. (News items were usually not credited to a particular writer; parody pieces were written anonymously.) In a lot of cases, more by accident than design, this information has survived. In other instances the information is incomplete or is simply not available. In the case of live reviews, where the original publication date is not known I was at the very least able to source the date of the concert itself and record it alongside the review. With respect to articles and single and album reviews, where the original date of publication is known it is included as a reference even though the name of the writer/reviewer is not known. (In this case I write 'Unknown author' or 'Reviewer unknown'.) In all other instances the date of publication was arrived at as the result of an educated guess based on available release date information for singles and albums or contemporaneous articles or reviews. Consequently these are somewhat vague, referring to the month and year of publication only. In the case of some of the material taken from Australasian publications (Australian Smash Hits and the New Zealand music paper Rip It Up) dates are even more vague still as it was typical for singles and albums to be released several months after the UK release. (Complicating the matter somewhat, some Smiths singles were only available in Australasia as imports.) In these instances, where even the month was difficult to ascertain, I cite time of year (eg, early 1985) only.
1983:'Hand In Glove', unknown model photographed by Jim French, taken from Margaret Walters' book 'The Male Nude'; 'This Charming Man', Jean Marais, from the Cocteau film 'Orphee' (1949); 1984: 'What Difference Does It Make?', Terence Stamp, outtake from the film 'The Collector' (1965); 'The Smiths' LP, Joe Dallesandro in the film 'Flesh', directed by Paul Morrissey; 'Hand In Glove' (with Sandie Shaw), Rita Tushingham in the film 'A Taste of Honey' (1961); 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now', Viv Nicholson, from her book 'Spend, Spend, Spend; 'William, It Was Really Nothing', anonymous model from a US advertisement for A/D/S loudspeakers; 'Hatful Of Hollow' LP, unknown Cocteau model, from a French magazine, 1966; 1985:'How Soon Is Now', Sean Barrett in the film 'Dunkirk' (1958); 'Meat Is Murder' LP, a still taken from Emile de Antonio's film 'In the Year of the Pig' (1969); 'Shakespeare's Sister', Pat Phoenix, from her personal collection; 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore', unknown Italian child actor, taken from 'Film and Filmmaking' magazine; 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side', Truman Capote, photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1949; 1986: 'Bigmouth Strikes Again', James Dean, photographed by Nelva Jean Thomas in 1948; 'The Queen Is Dead' LP, Alain Delon in the film 'I'Insoumis' (1964); 'Panic', Richard Bradford, in the 1967 ATV series 'Man in a Suitcase'; 'Ask', Yootha Joyce, on the set of the 1965 film 'Catch Us If You Can'; 1987: 'Shoplifters of the World Unite', Elvis Presley, photographed by James R. Reid; 'The World Won't Listen' LP, from the book 'Rock and Roll Times' by Jurgen Vollmer; 'Sheila Take a Bow', Candy Darling, from the film 'Women In Revolt' (1971); 'Louder Than Bombs' LP, Shelagh Delaney, the 'Saturday Evening Post'; 'Girlfriend in a Coma, Shelagh Delaney; 'Strangeways, Here We Come' LP, Richard Davalos, on location during the filming of Elia Kazan's 'East of Eden'; 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish', Avril Angers in the film 'The Family Way' (1966); 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me', Billy Fury; 1988: 'Rank' LP (Live), Alexandra Bastedo, taken from the book 'Birds of Britain', photographed by John d' Green.
Group photo by Joelle Depont. Reproduced WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.
All material included at Plundering Desire has been reproduced without permission
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