Missing the Point of the Smiths

People who have watched both US and UK TV programmes will know that there’s a fair bit of difference between them. Most obviously, in the fairness of face of the actors (and especially actresses). UK TV tends to be more ordinary, full of people who don’t sideline as models.

There’s a similar effect in UK music. Nothing to do with looks, but rather smoothness. UK bands tend to produce records that are slightly rougher, and rawer, while US bands get their albums polished to within an inch of their lives. This is, of course, an egregious exaggeration, and I probably deserve to be ignored for this unforgivable episode of stereotyping, but you know what I mean.

But I digress. The point of this is that whenever I think about this sort of thing, once I’ve worked my way past Madness, I think about the Smiths. Because ever since they were recommended to me nearly 17 years ago, and I bought their Best Of album, I’ve never quite been able to understand quite what they were on about. If they were a US band, I don’t think they’d ever have made it big. Their melodies are just too monotonous, they don’t seem to have much cohesion, and their lyrics are bordering on the inane (“Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to“). They’re crying out for a bit of polish like the guy in 127 Hours needed a hand getting out of a tight spot.

Ok, I’ll grant you that “Girlfriend in a Coma” is a bit on the catchy side, but is there anything else out there that doesn’t leave you feeling along with “Heaven knows I’m miserable now”? The songs are usually disturbingly morose, with bland tunes and melody lines with two or three notes to them that develop like a stream of consciousness and are nearly impossible to sing along to because they never develop into anything of any structure whatsoever. The one positive thing about their music is that it tends not to stick in the mind, so you’re not subjected to it for any longer than you’re able to keep it playing.

However, I know there must be more to it than this. They’re so highly rated by the average music commentator in this country, and phrases like “one of the most important bands to emerge from the British independent music scene of the 1980s”, or “the one truly vital voice of the ’80s” are common. They split up over 30 years ago, but still get significant airplay. Which just leaves me feeling like the Jazz newbie who doesn’t quite ‘get’ John Coltrane, and if I only listened to them some more, I’d suddenly twig what it is that they’re doing. So every now and then I go through the painful process of subjecting myself to some more of them. “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”. No, please, make it stop. “Driving in your car, and I never never want to go home, because I haven’t got one any more”. I never never want to hear you sing about that again.

I can only think that their impact was in a counter-revolutionary sort of way. As an anti-statement, against the standards and norms and structures of eighties music (whatever those were). A protest, saying “By making the worst possible music we can, and getting it played on radio, we’re showing just how artistically bankrupt the music industry is.” “Hang the blessed DJ, because the music they play constantly says nothing to me about my life.”

Alright, so I’ve put myself out in the open here, so if you’re a fan of the Smiths, please, I’m begging you, educate me as to what it is that is appealing about them.

 

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