Andy Hughes, Creem, July 1987
When you come to interview a man who personifies the term
"English" in the way that (Stephen) [sic] Morrissey of the Smiths does,
it's no surprise that tea is served early in the proceedings.
"You do take milk, I presume?" inquires Morrissey ("No one has called me
Stephen for a very long time."). "And if you do take sugar, I'm
afraid you'll have to leave the room." Couldn't I sneak a couple of hits
while you avert your eyes, I wonder.
"I spend most of my life averting my eyes," intones Morrissey, solemnly,
as the twinkle in his own negates the seriousness of the moment. It's a
sort of test. I think I passed.
It's this kind of quirky, off-beat Englishness that Morrissey brings to
life in the Smiths that has made them a massive world-wide success, with
hit singles in every country except the U.S.A. Why don't the Smiths have
hit singles in America? Because their record company doesn't release
their singles in America. But, hopefully, all that is about to
Some time ago, American music lovers switched on to Morrissey's unique
diary style, which he uses to chronicle the angst of every world citizen.
But it's only recently that Sire, The Smiths' American record label, has
tuned into the potential mega-units the band can sell in that country -
based on the Rough Trade singles from Britain that move so well in U.S.
import stores. Sire has released the double album
Bombs in an effort to seep up these consistently healthy import sales.
Meanwhile, the Smiths are in a British studio where their next vinyl opus
is taking shape. For this release, they're leaving Rough Trade for
Britain's EMI... and the considerable benefits of major label attention,
not the least of which is an advance of between two and six million
dollars, depending on which story you believe.
The debate concerning the ethics of big record labels swallowing the
offspring of the independent labels in the U.K. is far too involved (to
say nothing of being utterly pointless) to sidetrack Morrissey as we sip
our tea in the elegantly appointed lounge of the studio where the Smiths
are recording. Still, with a major label behind them in Britain and the
band hopefully about to become an American hit singles band,
Morrissey appears to have watched the dictation of what President Reagan
would call "market forces" with some amusement.
"There is a great bulk of unreleased Smith material which has been
consistently rejected by our record company in America," he says.
"They've released the studio albums, but not the
Hatful Of Hollow
collection. I think if they had released singles simultaneously in
America and the UK, the picture could have been a lot rosier."
That may be, but even as an "import" attraction, the Smiths' picture is
far from fuzzy in America. And Morrissey knows this well.
"It never ceases to amaze me how Smiths fans in America feverishly collect
everything they can get their hands on. They have to wait. They have to
queue up. They have to sell their mothers - but they do it."
You'd think that such rabid American fandom would have meant American
release from single one onwards.
"This keeps me awake every night of the week," Morrissey reckons with that
earnest expression that once again makes me wonder just how seriously he
means it. "The records were sold by Rough Trade in America. Sire didn't
organize distribution. They probably didn't even know it was going on.
They do now, though. Hence, the release of
Doesn't that make you angry?
"Not angry, no. I think the record company was short-sighted. The Smiths
could have had a hit single in the U.S. by now. I find it very hard to
believe that they continually checked the material, and said, 'No, that's
not right.' It's hard to believe that
How Soon Is Now ? was not
a hit. I thought that was the one - and there have been others.
I think the record company's atitude was The Smiths are a cast-iron
immovable albums band, and that's how they'll stay, and that's
how they'll grow. I think that's a shame. I like singles. We've had hit
singles in every country in the world, except the U.S., where we have a
massive following. It's confusing."
True, it is confusing. In certain areas, the Smiths are a huge
concert attraction, often outselling acts with major action in the
American charts. Would Morrissey care to name a few names here?
"Well, I can, but I don't want to sound bitter or twisted. An example
might be A-ha, whom I happen to like a great deal. On the last tour, we
were doing two shows, as they were cancelling their one show because they
couldn't fill the auditorium. And yet a look at the charts showed them
with a single at number two and an album at number nine."
So it would seem that all that's missing for The Smiths in America are a
few hit singles, such as a few of the cuts that can be pulled off
Louder Than Bombs.
Surely, that must be the idea?
"In a sane world, yes. But I wouldn't like to speak for record
companies." That is Morrissey's closing remark on the subject,
delivered, as usual, with a solemn tone and twinkling eye.
Like the person in one of his best songs, Morrissey is a veritable
"charming man," a refreshing discovery after the misconceptions delivered
by certain music writers who've crossed his path. It's not that he's
difficult, simply that Morrissey doesn't enjoy people who aren't genuinely
interested in The Smiths and their music. Inquiring, as one journalist
did, why he chose to use a picture of Elvis Costello (rather than
Presley) on a record sleeve, or wondering what happened to the flowers he
used to distribute at early gigs, are guaranteed to turn him from a warm
and articulate conversationalist into a frosty mannequin incapable of
saying anything but "Ummm," "Aaaaah" and "Maybe." The Smiths are quite
fortunate in having him as spokesman, while tuneSmith Johnny Marr - who,
as we speak, is busy recording a new song in the depths of the building -
is equally able to turn out a witty phrase and a thoughtful observation.
But a media man, Morrissey is not.
"And happy to not be so!" he affirms with a laugh. "I was starting to
become one around 1984 when I would do anything to gain some
ground for The Smiths. I did hundreds of interviews then, but I soon
decided that wasn't the way I wanted to live my life."
Adjustments followed. Morrissey now carefully chooses his interviews.
And the visual side of The Smiths is an area he is happy to ignore.
Indeed, he takes pains to ensure that it exists as little as possible.
Photographs are carefully worked out, and off-the-cuff snap situations are
out of the question. Morrissey is not a man to be caught unaware. This
also insures that The Smiths delete that most major of all '80's rock 'n'
roll promotional devices: that is, the Smiths won't (gasp!) make
"I don't even use the word 'video,'" he confirms with an expression that
makes me wonder if he's found a cigarette butt in the bottom of his tea
cup. "Sometimes it will slip out, but I prefer to say 'film' or
'promotional device.' Anything we've done has been under extreme
pressure from Rough Trade when they've been desperate to hand
something to Germany or Holland. I liked the film for
that was made by Derek Jarman. It had a nice intensity about it. But the
others... I wake up in the middle of the night biting my pillow in
frustration at their very existence."
Can this be? A band on the threshold of major media coverage in America -
the mighty promotional machine poised and ready for action - and this
Smiths fella's trying to say they won't be doing any videos? He must be
kidding. People expect videos in 1987!
"Well, they shouldn't," is Morrissey's disarmingly simple solution to an
MTV programmer's worst nightmare.
"It's obvious that video is never going to work for The Smiths. I totally
and utterly despise video, more now than I ever did. It's totally vacuous
and uninteresting. I love music. We all do, and we listen to it
constantly. But whenever I see a group I like in a film, I always end up
thinking, 'Such a shame, they look so silly...'"
Actually, Morrissey has a point. I saw the vid... uh, promotional item
for an early Smiths' release, and he's quite right. It'll never work for
But are they worried? Of course not. We're talking about a band that
made huge inroads into the American national consciousness without radio
play - a feat which made a lack of MTV coverage seem like an oil leak in
J.R. Ewing's Cadillac. Morrissey pours more tea, settles back, and
"We did have the support of the college radio stations for a while, but
I've never, ever heard the Smiths on a network station - and I've
been to America many, many times. I have heard our records on
daytime television soap operas during two separate occasions. Maybe
that is more important (in America). I don't know. As a result,
we were very surprised at the live reaction we got the first time we
toured the States in 1985. We were amazed at the size of the venues we
could play. And when we came back in 1986, we were doing two nights in
some venues that we considered very large, 10 to 15 thousand
By British standards, that is large. In the U.K., a top chart
act will be delighted to fill an average concert venue that holds
two-and-a-half thousand people. Mega-stars will sigh with relief if
"Sold Out" signs adorn a 12,000 seat hall. This makes The Smiths very big
cheese, indeed, a fact that is studiously ignored by the British music
press who prefer to debate the ethics of leaving a street-credible
independent label for the evil capitalist advances of a major deal.
Meanwhile, The Smiths repeat their success formula from the UK, across
the pond in the States: heavy on the worthwhile, limited radio exposure;
laid-back on the heavyweight press analysis. Oh, yeah, and a live
reaction that knocks spots off of most minstrels tapping out a tune these
"The atmosphere has been frighteningly hysterical sometimes," Morrissey
ruefully recalls. "There have been riots. I've been dragged into
orchestra pits and the stage set has been destroyed. And that was on our
first American tour! I think it's just people having a good time, and
they've never intended any serious harm. We've broken through in America
with records and radio sessions the same way we did in England. People
hear our music before they read any blurb in the music press, so it's just
people reacting to our records. It's obvious that The Smiths could never
be promoted in that typical slaggy way."
Riots? Morrissey being manhandled by rabid Smithies? As someone who saw
them on their first British tour, watching Morrissey handout flowers from
a three-foot high stage to rows of static, open-mouthed believers, I can
only wonder and shift my imagination into overdrive.
Of course, that was then, but this is now. There have been riots in
England, too. One tabloid scandal sheet wanted to underline the faint but
persistent buzz of scandal that follows Morrissey's more pugnant views by
insisting that the crowd who yanked him offstage at one concert were
outraged supporters of the Royal Family who found themselves unable to
cope with the presence of a man who'd have the audacity to name an LP
The Queen Is Dead. Morrissey
lends no credence to that sort of
hysterical crap by discussing it at length, but it must point to the
possibility that, somewhere along the way, the Moral Majority and PMRC
will probably be sticking their septic noses into a Smiths' lyric sheet.
Morrissey isn't worried.
"It could get me into trouble. No doubt there is someone out there
waiting for The Smiths to blow into their town. I've never been
aware that any of my lyrics are controversial. But in the morbidly barren
world of pop music, they tend to stick out, so journalists get excited and
want to turn what is essentially a statement into a campaign. A
journalist's life must be so mundane - think about the people you have to
interview - so when I come along with something mildly pointed, it becomes
a movement. Which it was never meant to be, and, in fact, never was."
Thought for the day: what will those same journalists make of an album
Louder Than Bombs ?
Or even The Smiths' next studio
LP, which I'm reliably informed will be called
Strangeways, Here We
Come ? Well, be the first on your block with at least part of the
scam. When the local stiffneck starts foaming at the mouth over yet
another subversive pop act, you can coolly clue in that honcho that
"Strangeways" is the name of a large prison in the Smiths' hometown of
Manchester, England. Any other interpretation is left up to the
individual. That should give you a good 10 points on the
underdog-music-genius justification scale. But if the gates of commercial
success really open the way I believe they will, you won't need to stick
out your neck at all. The Smiths will be a household name, no matter
what they call the next record.
Of course, it's just my neck that's being stuck out here. I ask Morrissey
to join me on a projected ego trip, fueled by the satisfaction of major
talent realized at long last. He simply smiles and is called away to add
some vocals to a new track. Somewhere down the hall, The Smiths' genius
rolls on and on.
I'm left to smile and collect the tea cups of this charming