The Band With The Thorn In Its Side

The Face, April 1987

The past two years have seen panic in The Smiths camp, with take-over bids and narcotic problems competing with international success. NICK KENT assesses the progress of "the only significant British rock band of the Eighties". Splendid isolationists or drama queens?

NOVEMBER 13, 1986: a year and a half after my excommunication from the precincts of Smithdom, the phone rings. Pat Bellis, the Smiths' press officer, informs me that the anti-apartheid benefit scheduled for the Royal Albert Hall three days hence headlining The Smiths has had to be postponed. Johnny Marr has been involved in a car crash , and although no injuries have been sustained, he's been suffering "on-off" bouts of extreme physical weakness. He refuses to see a doctor and at first is all for 'playing the trouper'. But Marr's shake-up meant that the gig - The Smiths fourth London show within three weeks - was off.

Marr however, was not sufficiently shaken to nix a possible interview.

"Johnny really wants to talk to you. He feels he has a lot to say and wants to do a serious in-depth interview dealing with The Smiths' current position as well as certain endeavours he's been involved in. In fact, he'd really like to hear from you. Could you phone him?"

Marr's Manchester phone number is proferred. Whilst writing it down I notice that this latest set of digits is the eighth I've had cause to pencil in my address book. Ten twists of the dial later, the familiar ritual ensues.

"Is Johnny in?"

"Uh, no," a male voice uncertainly replies, "Who's calling?"

Giving my name provides the necessary 'open sesame'. Johnny Marr, in whom the ringing sound of a telephone seems to instill near fear, suddenly materialises. He wants to "come clean" and "set a lot of things straight".

SINCE THE PUBLICATION of my previous article (Face 61 ), one which caused all manner of mayhem within The Smiths' rarified air vents, the group "have really grown up", been through "incredible scenes" on American tours (the latter causing Marr to spiral downwards into "potential alcoholism"). They'd endured "every sort of pressure" imaginable facing anyone motioning upstream through the dark heat of the mercenary music business.

An exact month prior to this conversation, news of the Smiths jettisoning the 'indie' network to sign with EMI had been broadcast through the music press. Marr, the Smiths most vociferously enamoured of this "merging of two great British institutions", wanted to itemize the reasons for the switch, as well as venting his spleen over the tactics Rough Trade's Geoff Travis had, so Marr claimed, been instigating, aimed specifically at the guitarist's mental and physical stability.

Then there was the matter of Andy: Andy Rourke, the Smiths' bassist, had 'left' the band in April of 1986 according to a brusque communique. No reason was given, nor was much notice taken of the departure at the time. Craig Gannon, a former guitar player for Aztec Camera and The Bluebells, had been drafted in, presumably as Rourke's replacement although some pondered the fact that Gannon was a rhythm guitarist and not a bass player.

Approximately four weeks later, The Smiths appeared on The Tube performing a couple of songs from "The Queen Is Dead" with Rourke, just as mysteriously returned to the fold, and Gannon also on board playing second guitar.

THE TIME BETWEEN June when "The Queen Is Dead" was released to general acclaim, and November was choc-a-bloc with activity. A flurry of live dates principally around Manchester preceded a US tour which further proved that the group's colloquial obsessiveness was appealing more to those young Americans either sequestered on college campuses (college radio was/is ardently pro-Smiths) or else falling into the Yuppie stereotype.

Meanwhile "Panic" - a song conceived on April 26 as news of the Chernobyl catastrophe was relayed to The Smiths by a Radio One disc jockey, who followed it with a spin of Wham's "I'm Your Man" - was released in late July. It's a moot point whether the instigators of a pop single, the key refrain of which exhorted allcomers to "hang the dee-jay", thus debuting the concept of 'rock terrorism', truly believed that the song would receive airplay. In fact, the group were in the US when the single was released.

Yet, "Panic", their first Top Ten single in over two years, finally restated The Smiths' pre-eminence as the one white Eighties British pop/rock group to have hit a vein addressing the dreams, drives and desires of an audience otherwise hopelessly fragmented, and made to feel fickle or alienated by the competition, be it major label designer careerists or indie freakshows.

Autumn also saw the group performing live throughout England buoyed by the twin success of "Panic" and "The Queen Is Dead". The media lavishly recounted how The Smiths were now causing near-riots in certain provincial backwaters whilst yet another single "Ask" bulleted into the charts.

Two and half weeks after the release of "Ask", with the two follow-up singles already written and in the can, Marr's elation was none the less taking a backseat to deep concern. "Andy's problem" had been a matter Marr had privately agonised over almost two years before during a number of conversations/interviews conducted for the previous FACE profile.

The relationship between Marr and Rourke is particularly deep and not a little complex.

Rourke had fallen victim to the lure of heroin as a teenager, well before the advent of The Smiths. Marr had first met Rourke when both were pupils at Withenshaw Comprehensive after the school's headmaster, having deduced the former to be a dabbler in soft drugs, had asked Marr to watch over Rourke. Here was a boy who, at 13, bore disturbing traits of having already bypassed the stage of experimentation.

Musically, the rapport the two have developed over the past ten years makes Rourke indispensible to The Smiths' sound. (The group's initial dynamic was centred around Marr tuning his guitar up a whole tone, from E to F sharp, whilst Rourke stayed in concert tuning, thus framing Morrissey's light tenor between Rourke's bedrock bass lines and Marr's treble range cadences, leaving drummer Mike Joyce to provide a solid uncluttered beat.)

Rourke, solidly built and visually the antithesis of the stereotypical 'druggie', had, during periods of inactivity, fallen foul of the craving for opiates.

Marr had warned and reprimanded him before. Even before The Smiths advent, Marr was concerned that Rourke did not slip back into bad habits. But when he and Morrissey joined ranks after episodes in innumerable ill-starred outfits involving the teenaged guitarist and bass player, Rourke's wayward proclivities had to be banished.

The Smiths image was Morrissey's concept with Marr in eager agreement; for a group to take such a radical stance meant banishing the hedonistic horseplay which had destroyed too many other once-inspired pop/rock enterprises, principally Morrissey's beloved New York Dolls and Marr's beloved Rolling Stones.

The Smiths, with Morrissey as mouthpiece, were asexual, vegetarian, anti-hooligan, literate, thought-provoking, stoically English (specifically Northern) and steadfastly anti-drugs.

This was a crucial aspect of The Smiths' manifesto. Coming at a time when the debauchery of the Seventies had left whole movements, particularly punk, strewn with rock casualties, it was a smart move. Also, for Morrissey at least, it was absolutely genuine. He hadn't even experimented with soft drugs as Marr had, and remained disarmingly naive about even the function of Rizlas.

In many respects, The Smiths' renowned insularity is the result of Morrissey's obsessive quest for his group to function as valorously as his subjective consciousness convinces him to. Thus, simply tampering the singer's recollections of the past with the more objective reminiscences of others (viz THE FACE 61 opus) is tantamount to heresy.

Imagine then, Morrissey's horror at discovering Andy Rourke's potential heroin problem two years into The Smiths' charmed career. One starts to sense the reason for the group's increasing isolation.

Johnny Marr confessed during a mix-down session for "Shakespeare's Sister" (in January 1985 at Virgin's Townhouse Studios), that, "things are bloody horrendous at the minute. Morrissey's just found out about Andy and he's going frantic demanding he leave the group. And I'm in the middle trying to hold everything together."

MARR HAD BEEN getting more and more involved in the production of Smiths' records, using engineer Stephen Street as his right hand man. A week earlier he'd worked up a superb trial mix of "Shakespeare", mentioning that his role as producer helped maintain a lack of discord.

"I can keep an eye on Andy just in case he gets a bit obstreperous."

Equally, he mentioned that Morrissey, the conceptual perfectionist, was almost unique amongst contemporary vocalists in that he spent the absolute minimum of time working on his vocal track. Not once to date, I believe, has he ever opted to "drop in", ie re-record a line or meddle with any part of what is a complete uninterrupted take. On the first Smiths' album his vocals rarely, if ever, went beyond a second or third take.

Back in the studio, the other members of the group had somehow democratically chosen to jointly produce the track. It was a sobering example of the hopeless impracticalities of "group democracy".

Each member had his finger on the level adjustment dial pertaining to his particular instrument. The end result - immortalised first on the single and now available on "The World Won't Listen", is an abomination of the song's potential.

Meanwhile, the Smithdom/Rough Trade employees kept collaring members in order to get their signatures on numerous documents - bills, dockets, and pieces of paper with the odd five zero figure on them. At 10 pm one January night Morrissey, whose mood shifts have veered from the appearance of alien-like bemusement to sudden spurts of barely controlled panic, suddenly sags, his body hyperventilating. He bolts from the room like an extreme claustrophobic suddenly freed from the confines of a lift-shaft he's been locked inside for some 48 hours.

A TEMPORARY COUP D'ETAT was settled upon involving Rourke's 'potential' problem. He had to be 'clean' for all work as a member of The Smiths (a rule Marr had insisted on before Morrissey's discovery).

The "Meat Is Murder" tour in the Spring of '85 found Rourke clearly in the grips of sobriety - a shy conscientious figure with clear eyes and a slightly melancholy air.
The day the group performed in Birmingham remains my most poignant recollection of Rourke.

His mother had flown in from Spain where she resides, boasting a perfectly bronzed skin and tan leather trouser suit; she is in the main lounge of the Holiday Inn seated next to Andy and an adolescent youth who is plainly his younger brother.

She is reciting the contents of a feature, reading from a Spanish newspaper in a strident Mancunian voice; "Los Smiths.... now here it is, ah yes, 'basso gee-tarro', that's you Andy!"

Rourke seemed to be sinking further and further into the couch in an attempt to feign invisibility.

Then there was America, their second time there but the first real tour as such. "How Soon Is Now" had done the job of alerting a young Anglophile audience to a group whose every US press clipping initially seemed to view them as some wacky gay-rock crusade until the latter track, bolstered by an unsolicited video for MTV rotation, did the trick. Sire Records excitably mouthed a quote possibly drummed up in Seymour Stein's feverpitch brain: "'How Soon Is Now' is the 'Stairway To Heaven' of the Eighties".

Returning to the homeland, The Smiths put out "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" and did a brief Scottish tour. By November, work on "The Queen Is Dead" was finished but problems were rife. Motivated by lawyer Alexis Grower, The Smiths forced the renegotiation of their Rough Trade contract, causing a six month delay between completion and release. It was during this period that conflicts came to a head.

A battle raged between Rough Trade's Geoff Travis and Morrissey/Marr over the choice of single. "There Is A Light" seemed the obvious choice to Travis and his co-workers but Johnny Marr resolutely demanded "Big Mouth Strikes Again" take precedence. Morrissey vacillated as usual.

The axing of Andy Rourke was arguably a far more urgent issue. Marr and Rourke had participated in a couple of Red Wedge gigs at the outset of '86, performing with Billy Bragg. Morrissey and drummer Mike Joyce finally joined the pair in Newcastle performing a brief set that nonetheless completely upstaged the other acts on the bill. A brief Irish tour followed and this is where the dye was cast.

Rourke's wayward inclinations got the better of him and Marr reluctantly opted to back up Morrissey.

"We told him to sling his hook," Marr stated, "and then, a week later he got himself busted."

Rourke, without a vocation, a firm domestic base and now, facing a possible jail sentence, was re-admitted into The Smiths.

LAST NOVEMBER, MARR'S concern about "setting the record straight" had not a little to do with the fact that, two weeks hence, Rourke was set to stand trial for possession of heroin.

The Boy George drugs scandal was topping the gutter press charts as the hot item with which to tantalize the voyeuristic masses. The Smiths, lead by "Mad Mozzer", the scum press's favourite "eccentric popstar" and Manchester's very own "Wacko Jacko" no less, only infinitely more dangerous and therefore worthy of a good media kicking, had a junkie in their midst whose public fall from grace would make an excellent top-up after O'Dowd's martyrdom.

"They all know," stated Marr referring to the John Blakes and Nick Ferraris - pop's Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. "They'll be there. The main thing though is that Andy is cured. Also," he added, "he wasn't actually in The Smiths when he got busted."

The interview was planned initially for "after the trial". Two weeks later, I ring Marr's phone number. Keith Richards' opening chords to "Gimme Shelter" chime forth over the lines from Manchester to London, then a 'beep' before any message. After no response, I try again. Keith Richards guitar again substitutes for Marr's presence. The third time I ring, the line is dead. Johnny Marr has changed his phone number once more.

IT IS NOW early March 1987 and Smithdom has not only survived the slings and arrows of outrageous scandalmongery but appears now to have achieved its key objective.

For four years The Smiths have brazenly considered themselves to be the only 'significant' rock band of the Eighties and in that time, all competition has been vanquished, more or less, with The Durans, Spandaus, Frankies, and Style Councils in decline, and 'alternative' outfits floundering.

Whilst 1985 saw the group struggling - commercially speaking - with their singles barely scraping into the Top 30, 1986 saw them grasp a new large audience.

These new recruits may have allied themselves to Smithdom's cause because their former faves, Echo & The Bunnymen for instance, haven't delivered. More crucially, the 'hard rock' vein that Johnny Marr had been mining as a side-step away from the more evocatively 'pastoral' approach of early Smiths product, had won over innumerable converts from the masses too young to have been directly involved in punk's golden age but who longed for the rebellious spirit they read about.

With "The Queen Is Dead", "Panic" and "Shoplifters Of The World Unite", The Smiths offer the disaffected a radical alternative to 'designer pop' without Morrissey's 'maudlin' introspection to taint matters.

Strategically, it is a brilliant move: Morrissey's British Pop legacy wedded to Marr's savvy regarding guitar-fixated rock bears offspring - a new single every three months, an album a year.

Yet still there are disturbing undercurrents.

The Smiths Northern roots have caused a mistrust of the very context they function within, a mistrust that would seem healthy yet has caused the group to alienate many of their ardent supporters.

Geoff Travis has already attacked The Smiths in print for their Rough Trade desertion, accusing them of "excessive greed". Sour grapes perhaps, and Rough Trade do possess the rights to the next studio album (recording commences in March for release in September) as well as a live album from the September 1986 Kilburn gig. (EMI offered Rough Trade a cash sum for the aforementioned studio album "an amount that would exceed monies Rough Trade could possibly hope to recover from the record's release".)

Of more personal concern, Pat Bellis, the group's press officer and a key figure in guarding the group's somewhat precious predilictions, has handed in her notice. Her decision follows an 'altercation' with Ken Friedman, an American in his late twenties previously known as UB40's manager and, since January, the Smiths' as well.

Friedman isn't the first person to attempt managing the band; Joe Moss, Matthew Schtupf, Scott Piering and the late Ruth Polsky have taken on the onerous task, trying to focus and articulate the often skittish and contrary desires of Messrs Morrissey and Marr.

Friedman clearly means business and has moved his base from the West Coast over to London in order to see it through.

The Smiths, previously leery of touring abroad (Europe has scarcely been touched, due apparently to 'death threats' poised at Morrissey) want to expand their market accordingly and Johnny Marr, particularly enamoured by Friedman's managerial chutzpah, is calling the shots more and more.

TO MARR, THE crusade is simple. The Smiths, the great white hope of the Eighties, deserve to be more than a cottage industry. To be as massive as possible is the name of the game, and the game-plan for this year begins over in America with a double album, "Louder Than Bombs", a compilation of "The World Won't Listen", "Hatful Of Hollow" and the next single "Sheila Take A Bow/Is It Really So Strange" and "Sweet And Tender Hooligan".

Whether Morrissey agrees in practice remains a contentious point. 'Smithdom' in many respects is his version of Ambrosia, the fantasy land Billy Liar inhabited. It has given him a place to live out his adolescence, given him the fame he so craved yet which hasn't made him contented. Faced by the pressure of success, he has often buckled and vacillated endlessly in matters of life as it is lived.

"Tried living in the real world instead of a shell/But I was bored before I even began."

Living in splendid isolation is one thing; until the splendour is exhausted.

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only. Photos by Lawrence Watson. Reproduced without permission.

See the original article here

SEE ALSO: Nick Kent's Isolation

Photo of The Smiths by Peter Anderson. Reproduced without permission.