Saturday, May 18, 2013

THE SMITHS, Brixton Academy, London
Melody Maker, December 6th 1986

by Simon Reynolds

Perhaps this Anti-Apartheid benefit will finally knock on the bonce the interminable “is Morrissey a racist?” debate*. Not that it isn’t pertinent to talk about the gulf, the antipathy even, between indiepop and black pop. But the irony is that it’s precisely the indie fans most estranged from black culture
who are most likely to be anti-racist and politically committed. This was an anti-apartheid concert with a near-total absence of black faces in the audience.

But then The Smiths are one of the great white rock bands (they have a surprisingly manly audience, laddish even). Smiths music is about as albino as you can get this side of the Fall--an amalgam of rockabilly, “Jeepster”-ish chords and folk-rock, low on sensuality, high on yearning. R&B is a remote, fourth-hand trace.

Morrissey is still a darling, still flaunting those nipples, although the indecency has, inevitably, become ritual. But there seems to be less camp to The Smiths now, more powerchords. The new songs don’t frolic or frisk, they stomp. The next single, “Shoplifters Of the World Unite”, is positively grungy, a Hello B-Side, and the closest their music has yet come to possessing a groin.

The second guitarist having absconded, Marr was unable to show off. Instead we were treated to a brilliant clarity of sound. The Smiths sounded robust. And Morrissey was very… guttural, delivering particular lyrics with a comical growl. With his growing sense of himself as Statesman has come something bordering on aggression. “The Queen Is Dead”, that sublime Stooges wah-wah blitz,
could properly climax in the smashing of guitars.

And there’s “Panic”, that (in every sense) hysterical fantasy of revenge, Morrissey swirls a noose from his hip, as if to say: suck on this, soulboy--the music press masses remain, obstinately, a ROCK community, with a defiantly old fashioned investment in Meaning.

And the meaning trembling beneath the skin of Smiths songs is--“please save your life/because you’ve only got one”. The Smiths speak to those who want something more from life, but know, secretly, that they will never get it.

The band are at once deeply traditional (a four man guitar band!) and supremely radical, making one final renovation of the rock rebellion, but only by turning the myth inside out, replacing aggression with fragility, lust with purity. But the motor of this rock is still narcissism--narcissism wounded, introverted, then exploded into epic gestures of martyrdom.

Perhaps for things to really change we’d have to allow a woman to be an equivalent seer figure. For now, The Smiths are still the greatest rock group on the planet.

* the great "are the Smiths racist debate?" of 1986 was spurred by certain aspersions made by the NME soulboy contingent vis-a-viz the Smiths and indiepop culture for its non-engagement with black music, also similar comments made by Green Gartside who described "indie" as racist, but above all by Morrissey's remarks in interview conducted by Frank Owen in Melody Maker, September 27th 1986. The relevant portion is below, Morrissey's words in quotation marks:


... The detestation that your average indie fan feels for black music can be gauged by the countless letters they write to the music press whenever a black act is featured on the front page. It's a bit like the late Sixties all over again with a burgeoning Head culture insisting that theirs' is the "real" radical music, an intelligent and subversive music that provides an alternative to the crude showbiz values of black pop. Morrissey has further widened this divide with the recent single, Panic - where "Metal Guru" meets the most explicit denunciation yet of black pop. "Hang the DJ" urges Morrissey. So is the music of The Smiths and their ilk racist, as Green claims?

"Reggae, for example, is to me the most racist music in the entire world. It's an absolute total glorification of black supremacy... There is a line when defence of one's race becomes an attack on another race and, because of black history and oppression, we realise quite clearly that there has to be a very strong defence. But I think it becomes very extreme sometimes.

"But, ultimately, I don't have very cast iron opinions on black music other than black modern music which I detest. I detest Stevie Wonder. I think Diana Ross is awful. I hate all those records in the Top 40 - Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston. I think they're vile in the extreme. In essence this music doesn't say anything whatsoever."

But it does, it does. What it says can't necessarily be verbalised easily. It doesn't seek to change the world like rock music by speaking grand truths about politics, sex and the human condition. It works at a much more subtle level - at the level of the body and the shared abandon of the dancefloor. It won't change the world, but it's been said it may well change the way you walk through the world.

"I don't think there's any time anymore to be subtle about anything, you have to get straight to the point. Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black. I think something political has occurred among Michael Hurl and his friends and there has been a hefty pushing of all these black artists and all this discofied nonsense into the Top 40. I think, as a result, that very aware younger groups that speak for now are being gagged."

You seem to be saying that you believe that there is some sort of black pop conspiracy being organised to keep white indie groups down.

"Yes, I really do."

Morrissey goes on: "The charts have been constructed quite clearly as an absolute form of escapism rather than anything anyone can gain any knowledge by. I find that very disheartening because it wasn't always that way. Isn't it curious that practically none of these records reflect life as we live it? Isn't it curious that 93 and a half percent of these records relect life as it isn't lived? That foxes me!

"If you compare the exposure that records by the likes of Janet Jackson and the stream of other anonymous Jacksons get to the level of daily airplay that The Smiths receive - The Smiths have had at least 10 consecutive chart hits and we still can't get on Radio 1's A list. Is that not a conspiracy? The last LP ended up at number two and we were still told by radio that nobody wanted to listen to The Smiths in the daytime. Is that not a conspiracy? I do get the scent of a conspiracy.

"And, anyway, the entire syndrome has one tune and surely that's enough to condemn the entire thing."

People say that about The Smiths. And it seems to me that you're foregrounding something that isn't necessarily relevant to a lot of black music, especially hip-hop. It's like me saying that I don't like The Smiths because they don't use a beatbox.

"The lack of melody is not the only reason that I find it entirely unlistenable. The lyrical content is merely lists."

Do you dislike the macho masculinity of many of the records?

"No. I don't find it very masculine."

Well, a lot of it is about...

"What? Chicks?" he sniggers.

No. One upmanship. Having the best, the biggest.

"Mmmmm. It's just not the world I live in and, similarly, I'm sure they wouldn't care that much for The Smiths. I don't want to feel in the dock because there are some things I dislike. Having said that, my favourite record of all time is "Third Finger, Left Hand" by Martha and the Vandellas which can lift me from the most doom-laden depression."

Why is it that people like yourself can eulogise Sixties black pop and yet be so antagonistic towards present-day black pop? Nostalgia?

"No. It was made in the Sixties but I don't listen to the record now and say, 'Well, I must remember this is a Sixties record and it's 1986 now so let's put it all into perspective.' It has as much value now as ever. We shouldn't really talk in terms of decades."

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