Ordinary name, but the Smiths were far from ordinary
(No. 26 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
The Smiths are thought to be one of the greatest bands ever to emerge from the United Kingdom. When one takes into account the great bands to come out of the UK in the last 50 years, that’s saying something.
And while it’s only opinion, it is the opinion of many, and their success in their homeland certainly backs up even the most flattering viewpoints. It also backs up The Smiths right to be included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Given their name by lead singer Morrissey because it was the most normal name he could come up with and he felt it was time for the normal people to raise their voices, The Smiths also included guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. Today, there’s no love lost between the always outspoken, ever-controversial and anything but normal Morrissey and his ex-band mates, the vocalist declaring, “If they’d had another singer they’d never have got further than Salford shopping centre.”
And that bluntness, a trademark of Morrissey, may be just what keeps The Smiths from gaining entrance into the Rock Hall. One such target of his wrath has been Elton John, accused by Morrissey of being more interested in being a star than in his music.
I’ve always been a fan of Elton John and even before him, Leon Russell, and I believe Russell deserves his spot in the Rock Hall of Fame. But what John said while inducting Russell at this year‘s ceremony really brought to light what people have been complaining about for years – that it seems the main criteria for induction is who your friends are.
John, who recorded and toured with Russell recently, recalled, “I said to him, ‘There’s one thing I want for you. I want people to acknowledge you for what you’ve done, to remember you for what you’ve written and what you’ve played on and for you to be proud again of what you’ve done — and I want you to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“And here we are a year later and he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
If a few good words from certain someones can get you in, stands to reason a few bad words can keep you out. Who’s going to champion Morrissey and the Smiths? Probably not Sir Elton. Or some others who have been Morrissey targets over the years.
But there’s no denying the impact of the Smiths on the United Kingdom music scene.
Although they recorded just four studio albums and each charted in various countries, including the United States, success worldwide was nothing compared to their grip on the UK, where their results were phenomenal. The initial release, “The Smiths,” reached No. 2 while its follow-up, “Meat Is Murder,” a reference to Morrissey’s vegetarianism, topped the charts. The next two, “The Queen Is Dead” and “Strangeways, Here We Come,” each climbed to No. 2. Other chart-busters were some best of compilations that were still charting as recently as late 2008 and some live efforts.
There were no hit singles in the states, but in their homeland the band notched 13 beginning with “This Charming Man” in November 1983 until “Girlfriend in a Coma” in August 1987, a month after Marr had left the group, effectively ending its existence.
Contrary to appearances, Morrissey is far from washed up
Simon Goddard, in a 2007 article in the British publication Q, opined, “… the one truly vital voice of the ’80s, The Smiths were the most influential British guitar group of the decade. As the first indie outsiders to achieve mainstream success on their own terms , they elevated rock’s standard four-piece formula to new heights of magic and poetry.”
Now anyone who has followed this blog knows I detest the use of the term “influence.” As I’ve said before, everyone is influenced by everything they encounter, be it good or bad. But, to me, Goddard makes a crucial point by adding that the Smiths were successful. And the facts back him up. Logic dictates that the more listeners you reach, the more influence you will have – one way or the other.
For another testimonial (Brit spellings intact), I’ll quote Uncut magazine’s Simon Reynolds, who gushed, “Once upon a time, a band from the North came with a sound so fresh and vigorous it took the nation by storm. The sound was rock, but crucially it was pop, too: concise, punchy, melodic, shiny without being “plastic”. The singer was a true original, delivering a blend of sensitivity and strength, defiance and tenderness, via a regionally inflected voice. The young man’s lips spilled forth words that were realistic without being dour, full of sly humour and beautifully observed detail. Most recognised their debut album as a landmark, an instant classic.”
Wow!! But I could give you page after page of the same. I like critics about as much as I like the term “influence,” but on The Smiths and Morrissey, in particular, there seems to be an agreement that this band was something very special.
However, besides Morrissey’s sharp tongue, there is another problem for their gaining acceptance into the Rock Hall – and it could be a major stumbling block. The general axiom, fair or not, is that if you want to truly “make it,” you have to make it in the United States, and the Smiths struggled stateside largely because they failed to tour in the US. However, word of mouth spread their reputation and, eventually, they developed a more-than-respectable following. By the time Morrissey was into his solo career, he sold out the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles faster than even the Beatles, according to allmusicguide.com.
The lead singer was always the group’s focal point, his quirky lyrics often as frank and contentious as his interviews. They also were sprinkled with a dry, acerbic wit. Though many lamented the demise of the Smiths, Morrissey went on to even greater success as a solo artist, the single “Suedehead” climbing to No. 5 in the UK just six months after Marr split. His next three singles also entered the top 10 and his debut solo album, “Viva Hate,” topped the charts.
All told, Morrissey has had 15 albums chart in the UK, 11 reaching the top 10, the most recent, “Years of Refusal,” peaking at No. 3 in 2009. During the same stretch, he has posted an incredible 33 hit singles, 10 reaching the top 10. In the states, Morrissey has had more success as a solo artist than as a member of the Smiths, charting eight albums.
He also has stated, “I feel as if I’ve worked very hard since the demise of The Smiths and the others haven’t, so why hand them attention that they haven’t earned? We are not friends, we don’t see each other. Why on earth would we be on a stage together?”
Maybe just to accept their warranted induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.