Furore over 'Handsome Devil' lyrics
Following allegations made by overweight Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens (described by Private Eye as the "Lothario of the dancant") that 'Handsome Devil' was a song explicitly about child-molesting, Mancunian four-piece The Smiths were reportedly under scrutiny by the BBC. However, the claim, reported in The Sun by Nick Ferrari, turns out to be totally unfounded. Asked to comment, Scott Piering at Rough Trade said that he viewed the allegations "seriously": "Morrissey made it clear that none of the songs were about child-molesting, and Ferrari accepted this, and then he went and wrote it anyway." Added Morrissey, "this piece makes me out to be a proud child-molester and I don't even like children. 'Handsome Devil' is entirely directed towards adults"...
New Musical Express, September 10, 1983
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SMITHS HIT BACK AFTER 'CHILD-MOLESTING' SLUR
MANCHESTER band the Smiths have this week hit back furiously at press reports linking their music to paedophilia, claiming that a recent BBC session had been censored as a result.
Their lawyers have been in contact with the newspapers involved and are threatening legal action if apologies and retractions are not provided. The controversy centres on a song called "Handsome Devil".
Smiths singer Morrissey said this week: "I can't understand why anybody should write such a thing about us. We must stress that "Handsome Devil" is aimed entirely towards adults and has nothing to do with children, and certainly nothing to do with child molesting. It's an adult understanding of quite intimate matters."
"On our David Jensen session, one song, "Reel Around The Fountain", was chopped simply because the word "child" was mentioned and they were frightened people might put the wrong interpretation on it. But at the end of the day, the BBC turned out to be allies."
At the group's record company, Rough Trade, a spokesman said: "We're horrified by the whole thing. There's no truth in any of the allegations about the songs."
The band's lawyers commented: "The allegations are absolutely and wholly denied by the band."
Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.
This article was originally published in the September 24, 1983 issue of New Musical Express.
Handsome Devils or Fallen Angels? Mancunian flower arrangers, The Smiths, stalk down the truth and nip the rumours in the bud.
Salty words: DAVID DORRELL. Crisp prints: KEVIN CUMMINS
It's no exaggeration to say that it came as a shock, a numbing body-slam to the nervous system.
But then what would you feel if you opened a daily newspaper and discovered you had been all but directly accused of molesting children?
The Smiths know: they feel reviled... and confused.
Only a few days before, they had finished a session for The David Jensen Show. Their first single "Hand In Glove" had achieved positive press criticism, and they'd hoped that their follow-up, "Reel Around The Fountain," would build on that success. Everything was great.
Morrissey was singing in excelsis, Johnny Marr's guitars and harmonica were precisely etching the very face of the session, and Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke had lifted the rhythm of their drums and bass until it hammered at the ceiling and crashed to the floor. On a temporal stage The Smiths know it's Heaven when they're up there.
And they smile with devilish intent.
And as for notoriety... well, is thrashing a bouquet of golden daffodils onstage anything more than poetic license? Or is the sensitive profile of a naked man on a single sleeve aspiring to subversion?
But two weeks ago, The Sun ran a news story by their showbiz correspondent, Nick Ferari, which alleged that BBC Radio chiefs were to hold an emergency meeting to decide whether a "song about molesting" should be broadcast on The David Jensen Show.
According to the garbled and inaccurate article the track in question was entitled "Handsome Devil" - and it contained "clear references to picking up kids for sexual kicks". When questioned by The Sun about his "controversial lyrics" Morrissey is reported as saying "I don't feel immoral singing about molesting children."
What man would sign his own death warrant thus? That "Handsome Devil" had not been recorded for the session did not affect the paper's verdict on the band; nor did any of the other flagrant fabrications (including the interview). What did matter was the crash of breaking glass as a thousand lonely housewives dropped their milk-bottles...
Following the spot-the-pervert accusations in The Sun, Sounds ran a damning indictment of the band in their gossip column Jaws - penned by none other than Garry Bushell, a fervent enemy of the Mancunian quartet.
Bushell has been blamed by The Smiths' record company, Rough Trade, for giving The Sun its derogatory and misleading information in the first place. Bushell, when asked, denied such claims and in turn accused his arch rival Dave McCullough - who is an ardent fan of The Smiths - of mis-interpreting the band's lyrics in a feature that he wrote: thus instigating the whole story.
As Morrissey says: "It's really their affair and we're just bait."
Since then Rough Trade's solicitor has dispatched letters to both The Sun and Sounds asking for a retraction. If no such retraction and apology appears legal action is likely to be taken.
So there, condensed and shrink-wrapped, you have the none too pleasant tale of how The Smiths, a wan and wonderful phenomena from Manchester, crossed the great divide between independent fame and National infamy. How do they feel?
"Well, we're still in a wild state of shock," an ashen Morrissey replies. "We were completely aghast at The Sun allegations, and even more so by Sounds. We really can't emphasize how much it upset us because obviously it was completely fabricated," he claims. "I did an interview with a person called Nick Ferari - and what developed in print was just a total travesty of the actual interview. It couldn't possibly be more diverse in opinion.
"To me it's about somebody else, they're writing about another group... it's so strange. It's tragically depressing...
"Quite obviously we don't condone child molesting or anything that vaguely resembles it. What more can be said?"
What more indeed? Since the deplorable rape of a six year old Brighton boy, The Sun has picked up a new word for its meagre vocabulary: "paedophilia". And now that word has been used as a wedge to open the door for an onslaught on anything that doesn't fit into its own Moral Bible.
Paranoia or persecution? If this strikes as a symptom of the former, then take heed: it's as likely to be a concrete encroachment from the latter. Nothing, not even Bingo, can boost a reactionary tabloid's sales like a jingoistic war cry or a MacArthurian witch hunt. Are we so pathetic as to believe that Fleet Street's crusaders march out with unsoiled hands?
As guitarist Johnny Marr states: "It seems on the surface of it as the obvious hatchet job against a new, rising band who are getting a certain amount of publicity. But on every level the whole thing's got completely out of hand... and it's affecting us personally now.
"I've got a younger brother who is 11, who on the day it was in The Sun went to school and was hassled by kids, hassled by teachers."
Morrissey continues: "It's really difficult to conceive such... savage critique. Because it's not just 'bad', it's about as bad as you could possibly, humanly get it. And there is so much hatred from Sounds..."
Wasn't it possible that the Sounds piece was a joke?
"Well, they might be 'jokes' but they're really not funny," Morrissey soberly replies.
"I'm sure," says Johnny, "that if the mother of the young lad in Brighton was to read the statement concerning us, or anybody who has strong feelings about the case, then they're not going to see it as a joke.
"I think if there is that ambiguity there, then it was there with that purpose: for whoever wants to believe it. I think there are more people that are gonna take it seriously than do regard it as a joke. It's more than ambiguous."
And The Sun's piece?
Morrissey: "It's quite laughable coming from a newspaper like The Sun - which is so obviously obsessed with every aspect of sex. So it's all really a total travesty of human nature that it's thrown at us, such sensitive and relatively restrained people. I live a life that befits a priest virtually and to be splashed about as a child molester... it's just unutterable."
However fatuous and fantastic The Sun article was, it did succeed in its dirtying The Smiths name (for reasons unknown). It also ensured that the session, which wasn't being "investigated," was censored and that a six minute version of "Reel Around The Fountain" was removed. According to Mike Hawkes, the producer for David Jensen's show, the specially commissioned track was removed purely as a precautionary measure. As for the article itself, all the BBC press office could offer was that veritable cliche, "The Sun got it wrong again".
Unfortunately Morrissey was saddened to hear that Aunty had decided to drop the track because "The record itself is protection because of its innocence.
"Curiously though, at the end of the day, the BBC did pledge their allegiance to us. So I think that's more important than anything else."
And for The Smiths that's probably true. The BBC have not banned their material and plan to play the single when it is released. In fact, their sad treatment at the hands of the Bingo Barons and other writers of prurient pap may well by the foundations for their success.
What obviously attracted the flies to the meat was Morrissey's blunt but beautiful lyrical style. For many of the songs the leit-motif is that of an ageless, genderless love; and an unrequited love at that. Unfortunately the nebulosity of each song's protagonist does inject a certain sense of ambiguity into the storyline. And that was a red flag to The Sun...
Morrissey: "It's completely taken out of context - but it depends on where the individual's mind lies. If you want to read something in particular lyrics you will - whether it's there or not."
What - "A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand, I think I can help you get thru your exams"?
Morrissey: "Yes. If you read the rest of the lyrics then it completely complies. And the message of the song is to forget the cultivation of the brain and to concentrate on the cultivation of the body. A boy in the bush... is addressed to a scholar. There's more to life than books you know, but not much more - that is the essence of the song...
"So you can just take it and stick it in an article about child-molesting and it will make absolutely perfect sense. But you can do that with anybody. You can do it with Abba."
To meet Morrissey is to meet somebody of unsettling calm. Broad, square and white, he is imbued with the same sense of enormity that marks the great men of religion. He is - in varying measures - bashful, sarcastic and serene. Thankfully his often caustic wit and his elastic ego are countered by his zealotry and passion. At times he is both Missionary and heathen. And at times he writes the best love songs since The Buzzcocks.
His partner in contempt of crime is Johnny Marr, a nervous, effusive creature who hides behind dark glasses and plays great scores.
"I live a saintly life," Morrissey laughs. "He lives a devilish life. And the combination is wonderful. Perfect."
Of course to hear is to believe. And with their debut Troy Tate-produced LP set for imminent release, more will hear and more will believe.
An American distribution arrangement has been agreed with WEA and their hopeful conquest of the Atlantic shores will come as no surprise. Though, no doubt, the question of their lyrical content will surely be mooted by that country's more puritan forces.
Not that it matters.
Morrissey: "I'm certainly not going to change the way I write because I think it's essential. If I have to be accused of anything, it's because I write strongly and I write very openly from the heart... which is something people aren't really used to. They're used to a very strict, regimented style - and if you are get too personal, and I don't mean offensively personal but just too close then it's what a 'strange' person, let's get him on the guillotine."
Will that hinder your commercial success?
"No," he continues vigorously. "At the end of the day the truth comes through and we shall find the highest success.
"Our egos are not so fragile that we are shattered by anything some mini-streamroller at Sounds could write. We're not that fey - good grief. Neither were we really affected that much by The Sun. It's just the rest of the world you have to worry about - you have to take their feelings into consideration - which is a great burden.
"It really proves that you don't have as much control over your destiny in this business as you think you do. There are people who like you and there are people who hate you. So why should you give the people that hate you precedence? Really we should stamp on it. It's history already."
Throughout, Morrissey speaks of himself and his band in elevated tones almost as if he holds a certain disdain for the soiled and grubby cameo that the rest of us portray as life. He sees the body as the Taoist temple of the mind: he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke and he doesn't swear. Above all, he is celibate and has been for a long time. He sees himself as more than a rival to Cliff Richard.
Yet undeniably his penmanship constantly returns to the throes of Love: in all its tempered glory. And through it comes the weakness and forced purity that underlies the solidity of his work. When he sings his voice is that of an angel in purgatory. And his stigma is the anguish of the damned.
Are you removed from love?
Morrissey: "I'm physically removed, but there are so many aspects of it. Much of what I write about is unrequited.
"I feel that I do have a unique view of it because obviously it dominates every individual's life - which I've observed for quite a time. I feel I have a particular insight, which sounds terribly pompous and terribly ostentatious. It's funny though that most people that get enchained to the idea of 'absolute love' are usually totally irresponsible and self-deprecating individuals."
Isn't that a sterile view of love?
"No. I'm not a bitter and twisted individual with a whip crashing down on lovers in the park!"
All in all it smacks of an almost religious devotion to an ideal; an ideal that is clouded somewhat by its own grandeur but is basically akin to the awe-inspring moments that make the Bunnymen so crystalline in their magnificence.
Yet Ian Mac is firmly rooted in his own background and belief, and therefore bows to the world and possesses humility. Morrissey, on the other hand, is quite content to let his lofty aspirations get the better of him and as such fails to win on a human level. His songs are all from a birds-eye view and until he admits to his own weaknesses the best part of The Smiths' creed will remain frozen and other-worldly.
Is this man, you ask, an egotist?
Morrissey: "It's not really ego. If you have something and you know that you're good why be shy and hide behind the curtains? There's no point..."
What does all of this mean to you?
"It's more essential to me than breathing - it's more natural to me than breathing. I don't know why I'm here, it's like being hurled on an escalator and you go up and you don't have any say in the matter. That's all really...
"The whole thing really is a matter of life and death. And that's how serious we are..."
Aren't you worried that people might not take you seriously?
"Some people won't, some people will and the fact that some people will and do already, means that it's been valuable, it's been worthwhile..."
Do you feel that you have to be a threat to be successful?
"No, not in the least. If the whole threat thing means you have a brain and you use it, then we're a threat. But if it means anything other than that, well, I don't really see how we're dangerous in any way. I don't think we'll disturb anybody - and I don't think it's coy to say that."
In less than a year The Smiths have forged a resilient beauty. Their candour, their confidence, has blossomed into the most melodic of spiritual sounds. There is a rawness in their music that belies their musical age; a fresh, ethereal ability that captures more than just the routine of "making" good songs. In a great Smiths song there is an overview that simply towers above the congregating mortals in the pop forum. And for that I'll say a little prayer.
"The good people laugh/Yes, we may be hidden by rags/But we have something that they'll never have"
- "Hand In Glove".
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Ridiculous & Wonderful
The Smiths/The Go-Betweens
London Venue - September 15, 1983
"Two strangely jarring acts from Rough Trade, one increasingly abstruse, t’other ever more open, engaging.
I have a hard time with the Go-Betweens. They fascinate me because there’s something missing in them and I don’t know what it is. It’s as if they write sweet songs, Postcard ditties, then impale them to the ground with lead stakes. Instead of flowing, the songs writhe under dead beats.
They’ve been compared to the Band, which is valid only insofar as this isn’t rock music. Stray "rock" elements – say, Television, Talking Heads, Alex Chilton – are shrunk into peculiarly prosaic pain, then hardened by stark, brittle guitars which coldly stitch the edge of beats. The new twin guitar play is an important extension, Grant McLennan now spiking the offbeats while Robert Forster strips off flakes of Verlaine, but opening up the sound hasn’t breathed new fire to its lungs.
Partly the problem is their bedsit bookishness, an allusive literary shell from which little seems to protrude. Their "fast ballads" don’t burst through, don’t hit the ear, but seem lost in domestic cubbyholes, stumped pleadings, circuitous poetics. Few Go-Betweens affairs come off with the majestic firmness of As Long As That; the newest songs, like Unkind and Unwise and Newton Told Me, make them more inscrutable than ever.
That said, It Could Be Anyone and A Bad Debt Follows were tremendous as live excursions. Lindy Morrison’s drumming remains great in the way that Levon Helm or Charlie Watts are great; precise, quirky, inventive. But because the Go-Betweens so consciously, so demonstratively decline to pull on the heartstrings and write clear melodies, they leave us with something crabby and colourless, a bleak beauty torn by doubt. Dark lighting and malfunctioning monitors didn’t help.
What the Go-Betweens lack is bounce (a wave, a curl ...), as in the Smiths’ bouncy, Nightingales-ish opening of Handsome Devil. The Smiths are saucy. Morrissey may just be another fruitcake in the tradition of Harley, Cope, Rowland, but Hand in Glove is one of the year’s few masterpieces, a thing of beauty and joy forever. To say that all other Smiths songs are grafted from this splendid stalk only testifies to its perfection.
Jeans hanging off his ass, beads around his neck, Morrissey brandishes his flowers like a new sign of Gabba Gabba Hey. I dunno if the sun shines down from his behind, but he keeps sticking it in the air anyway. He’s compulsively watchable, compulsively listenable too. If first impressions are ones of provincial punk-folk, there’s a wavering sadness in this monkish maverick’s larynx which calls to mind Tim Buckley or the great folk purists. Every song is put to an idealised "you", a genderless receptacle of love. Does the mind rule the body or does the body rule the mind? I dunno. These loose, crisp songs, fired by the alternately churning and sparkling Rickenbacker of Johnny Marr, are injected with the ascetic lust of Genet.
What is refreshing about the Smiths is that they’re not stylised by any period. Their music has a new flow, a real body and life. When It’s Not Time [Miserable Lie?] suddenly accelerates to a frantic canter, you’re swept up by Morrissey’s falsetto and left spellbound. When he sings Reel Around the Fountain, his voice trembles and bleeds. As David Dorrell wrote last week, Morrissey and Marr could just be penning the best love songs since the Buzzcocks.
The Smiths are Rough Trade’s most commercial offering yet, deserving successors to Scritti [Politti] and [Aztec] Camera. By the encore of Accept Yourself, they have two dozen teensies gyrating onstage, swimming in flowers. It’s ridiculous and wonderful. Let Morrissey molest you too.
New Musical Express
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