This One Is Different Because It’s Us: The Smiths at 40

On this day in 1984, four Manchester boys put out an album that would change the destiny of rock and pop music forever.

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This One Is Different Because It’s Us: The Smiths at 40

My favorite image of The Smiths isn’t actually of the band itself, but of four German girls on a fairground in the early 1960s—faces stern and hair teased to extraordinary heights—taken by Beatles friend and photographer Jürgen Vollmer and eventually featured in his 1981 book Rock ‘n’ Roll Times: The Style and Spirit of the Early Beatles and Their First Fans.

Skimming through the pages with much more famous pictures of the Hamburg-era Beatles themselves, Smiths singer Morrissey settled on two of Vollmer’s images from the collection for the front and back covers of the band’s 1987 compilation, The World Won’t Listen: a gang of boys all turned to our left on the front, and the girls to mirror them on the back. The most prominent girl in this photo—with arms crossed, a round face and lighter coloring—has one of her friends leaning into her on our left. If you squint, the pair doesn’t look too dissimilar from shots of drummer Mike Joyce with bassist Andy Rourke splashed across the British music weeklies two decades on. To the right of them, a girl with a strong chin appears to be mid-sentence as she surveys the happenings of the fair below. She’s looking in the opposite direction of her slighter black-haired friend, whose lips are pursed in a hardened face, as if she’s seen something coming the other way and is about to alert the group.

It’s fitting, then, that the black-haired girl’s counterpart within the band—guitarist and co-songwriter Johnny Marr—is the only person involved to ask if his musical partner sees their faces in the four anonymous girls too. “I said, ‘Correct me if I’m wrong,’” he recounted to biographer Simon Goddard decades later, “‘but isn’t that supposed to be thingy, thingy, thingy and thingy?’ I think maybe two eyebrows were raised, which probably meant, ‘Affirmative, Johnny.’ Just in case I was carrying a tape recorder.” It’s worth pointing out that when Morrissey was asked to select a cover image for the band’s 2011 Complete box set—a mammoth collection including most of the band’s recorded output between 1983 and 1987, with remastering overseen by Marr—he picked the shot of the girls to encapsulate the band’s body of work, finally giving them the front cover treatment.

“Uncanny” is the word Marr used to describe the image more recently, but that word could pertain to pretty much everything that happens in The Smiths’ story. Built upon the foundation of a songwriting duo christened by fire—when they met in passing at a Patti Smith show, then met properly when Johnny Marr knocked on Morrissey’s door and asked if he wanted to write songs together—followed by their meteoric ascent as indie darlings with mainstream brushes in the UK and college radio cult success in the US before meeting a catastrophic and emotional demise, it’s perfect in both its inherent kismet and tragedy.

For all the mythology surrounding every move these four men made during that five-year span, it’s overshadowed by the sheer quality of the catalog they left behind. “Uncanniness” implies the work of luck or fate, and there was certainly a degree of that at play, but it doesn’t count for the combined obsession of two working class Manchester natives who saw nothing in anything that wasn’t pop music. The right blend of wit and melancholia, filtered through a work ethic that was “obsessive, excessive and poetic,” to use Marr’s words, will probably make uncanny things happen for you.

The more you dig into anecdotes about the band’s time together, the clearer it becomes that these two people needed each other to shine so brightly in the first place—and that only these two people could have accomplished this incredible creative feat. For all the difficult conversations we have to have now in the public discourse about certain inexcusable statements and separating the art from the very outspoken, occasionally right-wing-friendly artist, the Smiths legacy endures for a wide-ranging, still-obsessive fan base. For the most part, my defense for our continued love of the band is that they’ve always been our mirror. Yes, they are these four individuals, but they’re all of us, too.

Toss the word “miserable” around to your heart’s desire, but the hyperbole, wit, pettiness, humor, arrogance and heart add up to something much more maligned: melodrama. It’s not quite camp, but more like soap opera—something historically derided and, as such, usually coded as feminine. With a lyricist who viewed himself as a “prophet for the fourth gender”—a concept which we’re still trying to convince people of in 2024—and the intricate folk and proto-punk-inspired playing of a composer obsessed with the Brill Building (a system which largely wrote for young female performers), it’s no wonder the band feels strikingly modern 40+ years later. It’s no wonder that we will probably never get over them.

In September, the excellent podcast Bandsplain produced a colossal, eight-hour deep-dive into the Smiths’ history and posited a theory that the affinity certain groups (especially women and queer people) had with Morrissey lies in his inherent “non-threatening boy” syndrome. It’s true that he was ostensibly attractive but never vulgar or sexually aggressive (Axl Rose is mentioned as the programming he was countering in this theory) while exploring and questioning different facets of nascent desire, also creating a space for young male fans who felt they didn’t fit this role society had prescribed for them. Yet, I would counter that I fell in love with the Smiths’ specific breed of violence—acting in forceful opposition to that which I felt myself having to combat every day. They are threatening, but our shared bloodlust is directed outward at the cruel, oppressive world we find ourselves in.

For all the raucous live footage there is of the Smiths—so much of which I hold dear—my favorite moving image of this band is not actually of the band, but a hallway full of uniformed high school girls. In the middle of Jennifer Reeder’s delightfully strange, often discomfiting 2015 short film Blood Below the Skin, this group of girls hiss at a boy who’s called one of them a bitch. As he retreats in slow motion, they launch into an a cappella arrangement of “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” letting their voices curve around the venom of “Sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking when I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head” like it’s their prayer.

This is what the Smiths are to me: a collection of nothing moments which feel apocalyptic, rendering those exchanges or triumphs or humiliations as monstrous and larger-than-life as they feel in the moment. They are the sound of a demonstrative, dejected working class in a large industrial city in Thatcher’s Britain, unfettered in their noise-making in hopes of attracting a world that won’t listen—not far off from the climate we find ourselves in now. The Smiths themselves were four white men, but musically and culturally, they were the sound of otherness, the sound of swords in hand. They are the brave refusal to lay down and die, even when the people who govern you actively funnel their resources into killing others like you. How can someone only hear misery in that?

This code of ethics was present in the band’s work from the jump. Their self-produced first single “Hand in Glove”—recorded for £250 and presented to the now-venerated label Rough Trade, who released it in May of 1983—is integral to setting the scene for everything that would follow. An us-against-them call to arms set to music, the song first found life as an imagined Nile Rogers and Chic riff before being roughed up with a romantic, Stooges-inspired edge suggested by Angie Brown (Marr’s then-girlfriend and now-wife), who told Marr to “make it sound like Iggy” as she listened to him playing it on the ride to record the riff at Morrissey’s house.

The result is a thunderous, bittersweet testament not only to the impenetrable bond between its two writers, but between the band and those who shared their mark of otherness. “Yes, we may be hidden by rags / But we’ve something they’ll never have” could have been the engraving on the band’s proverbial tombstone and, in a sense, it was: another uncanny, poignant moment arrived in December 1986, when the band’s first single was the last song they ever played live in concert. As Morrissey and Marr spin around each other deliriously, all smiles, their final performing words are, unbeknownst to them at the time, “I’ll probably never see you again.”

Every line and every note of “Hand in Glove” can still be regarded as the Smiths’ manifesto, reflected in that gang of girls looking down on the fairground and every face Morrissey selects for the covers of the band’s original four studio albums, three compilations and 20 singles. They’re each a key piece of their iconography: placing the traditionally glamorous alongside infamous tabloid figures, writers and a number of actors from films of the “kitchen sink” movement of the early 1960s—lauded for their depiction of working class British characters and communities. There’s never been a doubt that Morrissey saw himself in their lineage, pulling beauty out of unglamorous lives and deeming their tragedies and triumphs worthy. Their tragedies and triumphs are the Smiths.

The writer who penned the original “I’ll probably never see you again” line that spurred Morrissey’s pen into action appears on two Smiths covers, rivaling only Patti Smith in the fight to be the band’s true patron saint. Shelagh Delaney was 19 when she wrote her first play, 1958’s A Taste Of Honey, which was considered somewhat scandalous at the time for its sympathetic depictions of interracial relationships, gay characters and working class Salford—yes, a city in Greater Manchester.

Morrissey’s obsession with Delaney and her contemporaries shines through in more than just the lines he lifted from their work. In their similar us-against-them attitude, they communicated his city back to him in the exact way he heard it: “very Northern, very back-garden, almost gossipy and very entertaining.” Of course, he easily could have been speaking about his own writing there. The initial one-two punch of “Hand in Glove” and the homoerotic, incessant rush of its follow-up, “This Charming Man,” cast The Smiths’ sensibility in iron—as dangerous as they were catchy, intelligent but accessible. In other words, they were everything good pop music should be.

“Everything pop music should be” is also contained in a purple-tinted still of Warhol superstar Joe Dallesando, taken from the 1968 Paul Morrissey film Flesh and used for the cover of The Smiths in 1984. In said frame, the infamous “Little Joe,” playing a New York hustler, is sitting on a bed shirtless while a cropped-out john leans down beside him. Though he is an objectively glamorous-looking actor making a movie with glamorous people in this image, he’s also the guy being profiled in 2024 for Interview about his current gig as a landlord: “See, I was a different type of person, a regular guy, and these people were movie star types, which always bored me. I’ve had an actor here in my building once say to me, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ And I just laughed my ass off because who gives a shit who you are? You’re a tenant.” At the halfway point between Warholian movie sets and “Who gives a shit who you are?”—the perfect blend of high- and low-brow, divining glamor from nothing—there is the Smiths and their eponymous debut album.

When a band as driven by obsession and moving at a rapid-fire pace as this one was is tasked with containing their essence in a 40-minute album, you can imagine roadblocks come aplenty. With an official Rough Trade contract signed following the release of “Hand in Glove,” the Smiths began recording their debut album in London with Troy Tate from the band The Teardrop Explodes producing—only to end up scrapping the material when the band, under massive pressure from the music press hype surrounding them, decided it wasn’t up to par with the power of their live show.

They later re-recorded the whole album with former Roxy Music producer John Porter, who would go on to produce several subsequent singles for the band as well—though they still weren’t entirely satisfied with the results. Supposedly, when Morrissey voiced to Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis that he didn’t think the finished product was good enough, he was reminded of the total sum of recording costs up to that point and reluctantly stood down.

As such, the “best” version of the Smiths’ debut album will probably be found on a playlist of your own making, consisting of a few Tate mixes, a few Porter versions that made the final cut and tracks recorded at the BBC sessions for John Peel’s and David Jensen’s radio shows. The Smiths themselves preferred the more organic, loose sound of the latter session recordings so much that Morrissey put together a tracklist for what would become the 1984 compilation Hatful of Hollow—it’s the collection which serves as many fans’ introduction to the band’s work to this day.

This all feels strange to explain now, as we’re able to hear The Smiths within the context of everything that followed. The songs are such an indelible part of our understanding of the band’s progression and history that it’s almost impossible to understand how the band itself could have viewed the album as a slight disappointment. What we know is this: For the May 1984 single “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” the group was paired with engineer Stephen Street, who would go on to co-produce their three successive studio albums (in part serving as facilitator for Johnny’s interest in studio experimentation) and help them shape themselves into something sharper-sounding, more immediate, worthy of the songs’ quality. Yet, with this collection of tracks the first album brings to the table—filled with dewy-eyed tales of stilted attempts at romance, containing maybe the most “teenage” songwriting Morrissey has ever presented to us—it doesn’t sound totally incorrect when somewhat flattened under the weight of Porter’s production.

The Smiths, to me, is a grope for beauty in a body that doesn’t know how to access it yet. Every song is a portal into the worlds of desire that can live inside another human being, and the hamfisted, thrashing confusion that comes with not even knowing where to begin. It would still be about a year-and-a-half until the release of the song where Morrissey sings, “And when you want to live, how do you start? Where do you go? Who do you need to know?,” but here, he tells us we have no choice but to stumble and start. Later, we can blow the lack of fulfillment we experience up into something as grandiose and poetic as the pop song—a light that never goes out in dark, seemingly endless circumstances.

Shelagh Delaney’s stamp appears immediately on opener “Reel Around the Fountain” (“I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice” is a direct A Taste of Honey rip), adding a degree of wistfulness to a narrative realization that the starry-eyed glow of first infatuation can’t materialize into anything tangible. Most fans point to this as the key Tate version track, as his production strips it of piano and organ and gives each instrument audible room to breathe (though on other tracks, this approach makes them sound like they’re playing underwater). Still, all three major versions carry over the way Marr’s delicate web of sound weaves itself into Andy Rourke’s counterpoint bassline, creating a gorgeous musical cushion for the moment Morrissey’s object of desire jolts us to a halt, unable to bear the heaviness of the longing he might harbor, even as he pushes back at them.

Yet, someone else witnessing—being forced to contend with—your desire is something, which Morrissey understands here. Like unglamorous faces suddenly placed on best selling single sleeves, it elevates its meaning. It’s the act of gorging yourself on the decadence of being wanted after starving for so long, to quiet that constant need to want everything else within you. It almost means more than a straightforward love song, because this failed dalliance serves as the impetus for you to discover your own worth.

Compare that decadence to something like “Still Ill,” which seems to depict the collapse of this same impossible romance that was never founded on anything besides physical want. “And though I ended up with sore lips / It just wasn’t like the old days anymore” alone encapsulates so much of Morrissey’s—and maybe our—struggle to determine the correct course of action when that once abundant desire runs out or can’t be matched by the other person involved. Yearning arpeggios are suddenly clipped, bringing in a dancefloor in hopes of mopping up the overflow of feeling after you’ve stopped abstaining and have finally indulged. Is being “ill” in this context to be unlovable? To be stuck in a body you don’t feel is yours? Being in a body this other person could never love? To be too much and say too much and want too much, and therefore, be left to starve?

The shame manifests itself in the delightful bitchiness of a song like “You’ve Got Everything Now,” with “But I don’t want a lover, I just want to be seen in the back of your car” striking the perfect balance of being laugh-out-loud funny and maybe even mortifying. From the thrashing brattiness of “Miserable Lie” to “Pretty Girls Make Grave”’s grappling with sexuality to the petulant midnight stroll set to dazzling girl group-inspired backing on “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” there is that baseline need to be witnessed, to be seen. In their expression lies the hope that elevating them through song will make them beautiful too. Maybe it just makes them hit even closer to home.

The thing that really makes the whole of The Smiths’ track-listing work comes with the end of each side of the record—and with the first two complete songs Morrissey and Marr ever wrote together, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” and “Suffer Little Children.” Sometimes, you just want to have a fun music fact in your back pocket that will shock new fans of an artist no matter how much time has passed since the artist was active, and the fact that the “Suffer Little Children” was the first sheet of lyrics Morrissey ever handed over to Johnny—during their second meeting—is one of those, in my eyes. Still, for all their evident and purported differences, it says something about an 18-year-old Johnny Marr who, instead of backing off or leaving, picked up his guitar and wrote all of the song’s haunting, emotive music, pretty much in one go. Done and done.

If “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” is one-half macabre lullaby, one-half riff on “Kimberly” by the band’s beloved Patti Smith, “Suffer Little Children” is a mourning song, a curse set to music. Written as a tribute to the victims of the Moor Murders—the highly publicized sexual assault and killing of five Manchester children which took place when Morrissey was between the ages of four and six—the horror of the song’s subject matter stands in stark contrast to the relatively frivolous diatribes of the other album tracks.

Yet, they still work in conversation with each other: Not only does it put a pin his conflicting feelings about his hometown—a place he loves and loathes and maps out in scenes of ecstasy and humiliation throughout the album’s runtime—but it begs for answers in place of those who aren’t here to receive them. These children didn’t get to grow old enough to love or loathe Manchester. They don’t get to ask questions about the nature of their own furious desire or realize their own worth through their interaction with the world around them. As they aren’t even afforded the opportunity to wish they could leave their city, Morrissey walks as a ghost through his own pop eulogy, knowing they will never get to be too much and say too much and want too much the way he will. And what is he supposed to do with that? What should we do once the record ends and we’re left with the harrowing acknowledgment of young life lost? Well, maybe we go and try to live.

My actual favorite pictures of the Smiths—where every member of the band is present, if we’re going to make that a requirement—are from May 1983, taken at the then-abandoned Manchester Central railway station by photographer Paul Slattery. This shoot produces images which are some of the most famous of the band to this day. I own a shirt with a particularly famous image of Morrissey and Marr from that moment—with the former in a blue jacket and smiling at the camera with a bouquet of flowers pressed against him, the latter in profile, wearing a crisp white shirt, leather blazer and sunglasses with his arms wrapped around his partner, his chin resting on his shoulder. In every image, the band members hang off each other’s shoulders, often breaking out into exuberant grins that seem to melt the iron of the desolate industrial space around them. The joy that they have finally found three other people who understand puts a glow around them. It is the notion that no, it’s not like any other love—this one is different because it’s us, translated only through the operatic grandeur a pop song affords.

Exactly 40 years later to the month, following the devastating news that Andy Rourke had passed away following a battle with pancreatic cancer, Johnny Marr’s daughter shared a recent video of the pair of old friends and bandmates being gifted knitted dolls of their younger selves. I had to put my phone down for a bit upon realizing that their dolls are in the outfits from this shoot—watching as Johnny points out Andy’s sheepskin coat, the moccasins on his own doll’s feet. It’s the magic of anyone remembering a minor detail of an incredible day with their friends. It’s more than just finding other people who will take your obsession seriously—it’s alchemy.

That alchemy is Johnny Marr speaking to documentary cameras, long before he will have to distance himself from someone he once loved dearly, saying, “He was different with me than he was with everybody else. I couldn’t have given my music to anybody else who appreciated it more, because he just fell in love with it, and that went on all the way through the band. In many ways, he was my biggest fan, really.”

That alchemy is a performance that takes place a month after the Slattery photoshoot, in June 1983 at Brixton Ace—only the band’s 11th show ever. It’s footage which seems to have been taken by a friend of the band, focusing in on a slightly reticent Morrissey—still several months away from the theatrics of ripping off his shirt, howling into the mic and dancing with reckless abandon alongside his bandmates—and zooming in as he sings the last chorus of “Reel Around the Fountain.” There is a half-second after he sings the final “People see no worth in you / I do” lines that you swear you can see him swallow a smile.

That smile knows nothing of court cases or alleged primadonna behavior or controversial statements or dramatic breakups, only of once being deemed unacceptable and now being able to say the thing out loud and make it real—to render it operatic by singing it into a microphone and hearing people understand. That smile knows about leaving your childhood bedroom and deciding—as a very different Steven Patrick Morrissey will write years later in his autobiography—“It was probably nothing, but it felt like the world.” And that’s the sound of swords in hand. He is one man, but he’s all of us, too.

Read our 2023 profile on Johnny Marr here.

Elise Soutar is a New York-born-and-based music and culture writer.

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