Richard John Davis
‘I need advice! I need advice!’ goes The Smiths’ ‘Miserable Lie’. In life, though, the band’s frontman largely ignored it and, it would seem, was quite right to do so.
Everyone’s reading it. Of course they are. The Smiths have come to be the lynchpin of indie culture; the definitive foundation from which all echo-images emit. And Morrissey’s Autobiography tells their story, amongst other things. But it wasn’t always this way. The Smiths were not always held in such high regard, even by their own people – the industry professionals who should have had their backs.
According to Morrissey’s account, even Geoff Travis, Head of Rough Trade, The Smiths’ label, was so baffled by their success that he failed to promote them properly, didn’t understand what they were about, and more or less held them back with legal writs and other hurdles.
He wasn’t the only music industry player so perplexed by The Smiths that his behaviour became irrational (in fact, as is shown in the book, he’d only become a “player” because of the band’s unforeseen success). At one point, during an American tour, the band was told, “We have no idea how you’re selling so many tickets!” Again, by one of their own people. This attitude prevails, amongst booking agents, management and label: the band’s US label had failed to promote their tour. Unabashed, they filled venues anyway.
The media, too, were equally mystified. The Sun referred to the band as “Dismiss”. Rolling Stone, according to Morrissey, repeatedly declined to review or feature the band, despite their unheralded achievements. Morrissey goes on to say that the magazine has kept this line for “thirty years, yet they will applaud any sub-Smiths progeny who taps on their bunker”. When rumours abound that the third studio album (not counting the brilliant compilation Hatful of Hollow) The Queen is Dead is about to enter the charts at No. 1, no celebratory party is planned. Instead, Travis offers Morrissey a bag of biscuits. When ITV’s The South Bank Show focuses on The Smiths, Travis states that he is glad no one asked him for a quote, because “I wouldn’t be able to think of anything good to say”.
Morrissey pours scorn on such hostility and ineptitude. The catalogue of guidance was endless: you can’t call the album The Queen is Dead, you can’t have a song about vegetarianism (also the second album title, Meat is Murder), and – incredibly – Morrissey should be replaced with a more accessible frontman. At one point, he declares to a gig audience, “I’d like to thank those who made all of this possible… The Smiths.”
The Smiths did not fit the industry paradigm. They did not meet the expectations of industry gurus who, having subjected the band to a torrent of “advice” (promptly ignored, of course, by Morrissey and songwriting partner Johnny Marr), could not understand their continued success despite it. Their brand of “anti-glamour” was unprecedented, and therefore viewed harshly.
I write about lots of things, but did a brief stint as a music writer. I grew to hate anything to do with the industry. PR, labels, gig bookers and so forth were all nightmarish to me, by the time I was done with it all (with some, but very few, exceptions). I was also forced, on many an occasion, to tolerate the drivel spouted by industry know-it-alls. They never tired of their own high-minded advice, often given to bands and artist on the rise, or those who would never rise for one reason or another. Bands should, for instance, always be pretty, skinny and fashionably well-dressed. To ignore this is to guarantee a lack of success of any sort (don’t mention Pixies). In order to secure teenage adulation, a band or artist must also be inordinately young (don’t mention Franz Ferdinand). Industry bigwigs prefer a sort of Cowellisation effect, whereby all creative endeavour is homogenised. I only ever gave one piece of advice to anyone, whenever anyone was foolhardy enough to look my way: ignore all the advice you’re given.
The truth is, as screenwriter William Goldman famously said of the film industry, “Nobody knows anything.” Some of these rules will work, undoubtedly (or perhaps more accurately, artists’ talent will see them through anyway), but there are always the exceptions, the film-maker, or writer, or band that succeeds regardless of them.
The French new wave directors of the fifties and sixties began, mostly, as critics. They became increasingly sickened by the formulaic fodder produced by the French film industry, which had to adhere to a “quality formula” to attract state funding. So they began making their own films, ignoring all the conventions hitherto dominating French cinema. Francois Truffaut referred to these doctrines as “myths and legends”, echoing Roland Barthes’ “mythologies”. French media, predictably, was horrified. The films were seen as unprofessional, shocking or, worse, inept. Nowadays, of course, Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (Breathless) and Tuffaut’s own The 400 Blows are seen as masterpieces of the Nouvelle Vague inspiring the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Lars Von Trier.
Modernist writers like James Joyce and TS Eliot took literary conventions and threw them out, like dull bathwater, not once pausing tremulously to wonder if any baby had inadvertently departed with it. They introduced interior monologues, dispatched with notions such as maintaining unity of tone and even genre (chapters of Ulysses may read like excerpts from a play, or a newspaper article). Some of their antics may seem old hat nowadays; but in the 1920s, they were dangerously new.
The best art is created by those passionate innovators who ignoring, or ignorant of, existing convention just go ahead and create anyway. And Morrissey, as ever, did it his way.