This Charming Man: It Is 20 Years since the Smiths' First Hit Transformed the British Music Scene. Jason Cowley on Pop's Antidote to Early Thatcherism

By Cowley, Jason | New Statesman (1996), June 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

This Charming Man: It Is 20 Years since the Smiths' First Hit Transformed the British Music Scene. Jason Cowley on Pop's Antidote to Early Thatcherism


Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)


To understand the impact Morrissey and his band The Smiths had on British popular culture when they first emerged in the autumn of 1983, one must first recall the atmosphere and mood in the country during that particular year. Margaret Thatcher, strengthened by victory in the Falklands war, had confidently defeated a weakened and fractious Labour Party in the summer general election; the energy of punk and new wave had long since dissipated; the pop charts were dominated by the pompous extravagance of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Culture Club; American influences were becoming omnipresent; and Kelvin MacKenzie's relentlessly vulgar Sun newspaper was a mirror in which the nation saw reflected its own base aspirations. In other words, Britain had not yet fully remade itself as a vibrant, cosmopolitan entity; it was still suspended uneasily somewhere between the hegemony of the postwar consensus politics that had led to the stasis and disenchantment of the mid-to-late-1970s, and the worst excesses of the That cherite counter-revolution. It was a bad time for all but the most triumphalist of the new right.

What was so intriguing about Morrissey, who is now 44, was his absolute rejection of the modern impulse for change. He was, unusually for a young aspirant rock star, a deeply reactionary figure, who, during the lonely years of his adolescence on a Manchester council estate, had created his own idiosyncratically nostalgic world-view. He was, emphatically, a Little Englander. His heroes were neglected actors like Charles Hawtrey (of the Carry On films), writers such as Thomas Hardy, or semi-forgotten former icons like the young Diana Dors, Viv Nicholson, Billy Fury or Sandie Shaw (all of whom he used as cover stars on his record sleeves).

Morrissey was interested in the lives of little people, those excluded from the affluence and bombast of the new Britain, and in literate eccentrics like Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote. He dressed, against the then trend for opulent display, with dishevelled flamboyance -- he wore flowing shirts and old jeans -- and he turned national health spectacles and hearing aids into fashion accessories. His hair, cut short at the back and sides, was worn in an extravagant quiff, like the French actor Jean Marais in Cocteau's Orpheus. His sexuality was ambivalent, he was whimsical, and his extraordinarily fluent conversation had a camp burnish.

The words he used in his songs -- handsome, miserable, gruesome, charming, blessed -- were unusual for the medium. To listen to his best songs today -- "This Charming Man", "There is a Light That Never Goes Out", "How Soon Is Now?" -- is to recall exactly how you felt and what you were doing when you first heard them. That power to prompt instant recollection is the undeniable attraction of even the most banal pop music.

Growing up in and around Manchester during the 1970s must have been a miserable and alienating experience. Bernard Sumner, the frontman of the band New Order, has since spoken of the boredom, of how everything in and around the city centre seemed to be in decay or actually falling down, how there was nowhere for ambitious young people from traditional-working-class families to go and nothing for them to do, and how it seemed to be raining all the time. The Manchester sound of the late 1970s, as exemplified by Joy Division and early New Order, was suitably cold and austere. It was music for mourning, perfect for a decaying post-industrial urban landscape.

YetMorrissey made of this same northern landscape a magical poetry. Through his simple, melodic songs, he achieved a peculiar alchemy in which the unkempt houses and darkened streets of the Whalley Range estate of his childhood were transfigured, becoming in the process places of romance and possibility. The recurring motifs in his songs were bus stops, darkened underpasses, double-decker buses, cemeteries and factory gates.

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