Monday, May 13, 2013

30 Years of the Smiths

"Hand in Glove", the first single by the Smiths came out 30 years ago today. I know this because I was at Stockport Plaza where Stockport Film Festival put on a great afternoon event. A showing of "A Taste of Honey" was preceded by a discussion with the music critics Mick Middles and Len Brown about their memories of the Smiths.

For those who don't know the connection its an interesting one. For Shelagh Delaney, the young Salford woman who wrote "A Taste of Honey" in 1958 was an inspiration for Stephen Morrissey. The line "I dreamt about you last night" from "Reel Around the Fountain" comes from the film, and the song "This night has opened my eyes" was a retelling of the story. Delaney was also one of the Smiths' many "cover stars."

Its 30 years since "Hand in Glove", yet that was released only 23 years after the film of "A Taste of Honey." Yet I think its fair to say we're more in the world of Morrissey and the Smiths, than the early 80s were in the world portrayed by Delaney. Though the demographic at Stockport today was around my age or older, there were quite a few younger people as well - and one old gentleman who was clutching a photograph of himself, as he was one of the urchines featured in the film. "They picked me because I was scruffy, whilst all the rest of my classmates were too tidy," he said, remembering.

And here's the connection, I think. For The Smiths, though instantly popular, spoke clearly and loudly to anyone who was an outsider - and that was the message of "A Taste of Honey." The articulate Delaney thought she could do better in depicting real life than the Terence Rattigan play she'd seen. In an age of "angry young men" and "kitchen sink dramas" "A Taste of Honey" still stands out as radical. Her heroine, Jo, is no victim, even though her life is grim. There's a hope and a tolerance here that speaks of a community spirit that was difficult but genuine.

As well as the film, we had a short video montage of "Hand in Glove", an interview with Morrissey from the 90s where he endearingly talks about his love for singers such as Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black. "Cilla Black broke up the Smiths," he said, half-jokingly, referring to their final recording, a cover of her "Work is a four letter word." Also, a short film, called "Unloveable", where an American Smiths fan comes to Manchester to see Salfords Lads' Club, the Kings Road, Southern Cemetery and the Moors, and is taken for a ride (literally and figuratively) by a Morrisseyesque stranger. Best of all, and coming before "A Taste of Honey," a short film about Delaney's Salford, which was filmed by Ken Russell for "Monitor" in the early 1960s. Delaney is a delight in this - and the pictures of a poor but thriving Salford, are contrasted with the bleak new housing estates that people were being relocated to. There's so much of post-war social history in this documentary fragment and "A Taste of Honey" itself; something that flows into the work of The Smiths.

But its also much more than "social history." Like so many great artists Morrissey made us see the mundane in different ways. The stealings from Oscar Wilde or Delaney; the references to the Moors murderers; the tongue-in-cheek but seriously meant ethical politics of "Meat is Murder" or "The Queen is Dead" speak of an outsider viewpoint that wasn't about "coming out" or being part of a "cult" but about allowing and enabling individuals to be outsiders. Jo and her mother in "A Taste of Honey", her black sailor lover, Jimmy, and her gay friend Geoff, are equally outsiders - and the connections become clearer.

I was also interested in how we choose to remember our social and cultural histories. A reminder that the Smiths were a "student band" even if Morrissey and Marr were never at university, that was their natural constituency - so a particular type of outsider. No wonder Tony Wilson never signed them - he preferred the boys in the gang mentality of the Happy Mondays. Yet, the Smiths, at least before the legal fallouts, were a tight-knit group. Only afterwards did we realise the band had internal troubles or that their lack of a manager led to them absorbing all the pressures of their success. Middles and Grant made the point that the Smiths were very different than the music around them at the time - and that's key I think. Also, the sixties wasn't really a touchpoint in the early 80s: the punks had dismissed the Beatles and the Stones; whilst the new music was all electronic instruments and production. A jangly guitar band that echoed the Byrds or the Hollies was not what the music industry was looking for; so of course they were immediately what it needed.

In many ways the politics of their songs was a personal one - so though Morrissey was a great lyricist, you could be a young David Cameron and think this is for you; at least if you didn't look too deeply. I remember that the NME and others tried to instigate a new movement of so-called "handsome bands" of which the Smiths were at the Vanguard. With the notable exception of James, all the bands that Morrissey favoured, came to very little. His own tastes were too esoteric, too uniquely his. And through this personal mythos he created something that had not a little success.

The world we see in that Salford film or in a "A Taste of Honey" would have been pretty recognisable to someone in the days between the wars, or even earlier; yet that world - of full employment, working class culture, ships on the Manchester ship canal - had changed massively by the eighties, not always for the better. This is pre-Beatles Britain, a time, in some ways, of innocence.  Its fascinating that a great British film like this, filmed in part in Stockport, can draw a big audience over 50 years after it was filmed, at least partly because of a young man from Stretford who made it part of his legend 30 years ago.Its important that he could find inspiration, not just from the otherworldy New York Dolls, but from something that spoke to him from his own background. I guess that's what we found in the Smiths as well; a poetry of the mundane.

Both Delaney and Morrissey seem to be outsiders who succeeded because their vision wasn't exclusive: but was actually as relevant or more relevant than the so-called mainstream of the day. Delaney's a world away from Rattigan's drawing room dramas; whilst the world according to Morrissey seems to have a relevance that few of us will find in Duran Duran's hedonistic "Rio" for instance.

If the theatre workshops of the late 50s gave Delaney her chance; it was the DIY culture of punk that opened Morrissey's eyes. Where the outsider connects with the hidden stories of others, there is always the possibility of a change in the culture, more a shudder, perhaps than a seismic quake, but significant nevertheless.

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