The Smiths

Briefing Margaret Thatcher on punk and pop music (1987)

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(picture from Buzzfeed)

In early 1987, as Red Wedge was underway calling for young people to support the Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher conducted an interview with Smash Hits magazine. The interview was published in March 1987 and featured such exchanges about The Smiths and The Housemartins (who had both been vocal in their criticisms of Thatcher):

Tony Hibbert Smash HitsI do not know if you are aware of groups like the Smiths and the Housemartins …

PM: Yes, I know the Housemartins, yes.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: …who are very left-wing groups, not so much in their songs which are about men and women like all pop songs, but in their interviews they are very left-wing and say “We must get Mrs Thatcher out of No 10.”

PM: Do they? I remember when I went down to Limehouse Studios once, there was a pop group who I was told I would not get on with at all well. Well, I was absolutely fascinated because they were rehearsing for television; it is a highly professional business. The cameras have to come in on certain shots, there is a fantastic amount of energy and of course their voices, and I have watched Elton John too who was highly – I am so sad that he is having this difficulty with his throat – highly professional. I think it has become much, much more professional in the technique you use now. You just had echo chambers in our time but now it is much, much more professional. I do not mind. Most young people rebel and then [end p262] gradually they become more realistic and it is very much a part of life rebelling.

When they want to get Mrs Thatcher out of No 10, I have usually not met most of them and it really is lovely to have the chance to talk to them.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: It is nice to be mentioned.

PM: Yes, it is nice they know your name isn’t it?

The rest of the interview is fascinating about Thatcher’s attempts to relate to the young people of the day. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation has just released some of her private papers from 1987, including the briefing notes prepared for this interview. The briefing notes have several gems in them, such as stating that the average Smash Hits reader ‘feels closer to Socialist policies than to your Government’s policies’ and that ‘You may not enjoy the interview’.

However the best part of the document is the brief note that Thatcher got on the history of punk. Here it is:

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In the interview she refers to punks in the following way (obviously having taken in something from her briefing notes):

PM: …So good luck to your pop groups. They do very well for us for export – they do a fantastic job and if some of them want to have yellow hair, pink hair, long hair, short hair, blue jeans, yellow jeans, or these days, my goodness me, there are some smart ones. Marvellous. When I go and look at some of the clothes for young people, gosh, they are pricey but really I think that the sort of informal period has gone, you know, people much more want to live by rules.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: Well, we have got rid of the hippies and the punks.

PM: I know we have got the punks. The punks spend a lot of time and money on their appearance.

Tony Hibbert Smash HitsOh yes, what I am saying is that we have got the hippies and the punks more or less out of the way and they are looking much smarter these days.

PM: Yes, that is right because it is better, because they like it better that way. One young person said to me the other day. “Oh” she said, aged eighteen, “there are not any rules these days, I wish we had more rules” and you know, some of the rules are coming back. Life is much better when you have rules to live by. I mean it is really like playing football isn’t it? If you did not have any rules by which to play you would not be able to play the game; you have got [end p274] to have rules to live by. Everyone knows where they are. Of course you will have the whistle blown sometimes because not everyone lives by them but life is better when you have some rules to live by and you know what the accepted rules are and that is coming back and that is good. The 1970s I think was not a very good time. Everyone tried to flout the rules and now they are saying “Look, you cannot live unless you have some rules to live by”. Freedom requires some set of rules as well to live by, so all right we have freed it up and you have got to have rules to live by to respect other people’s freedom so if we are remembered that way I think we will have done a reasonable job for young people the world over.

The document can be found here.

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June 4, 1976: Sex Pistols play Manchester for the very first time…

In the history of British popular culture, June 4, 1976 is a significant date. The Sex Pistols played at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall to a small room of people. It is one of their first gigs outside London. Like the saying about the first Velvet Underground LP, nearly everyone in the audience that night went on to have a cultural impact on Britain (and beyond). Here is a collection of what several people have written about that gig.

From Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You (London: Channel 4 Books, 2002) pp. 23-24:

4 June, 1976. Lesser Free Trade Hall. People dotted around. Desultory. Strange.

A thin, handsome mekon appeared on the small proscenium stage. ‘Hi, we’re the Buzzcocks but we’re not ready yer, so we’re not playing tonight, but this is the Sex Pistols.’

A band emerged. Who knows what the drummer, bass player and guitarist looked like. The guy who took centre stage took the mike, took your mind. A swagger to make John Wayne look a pussy. A sneer so dismissive of everyone and everything, of God and civilization, in just one pair of twisted lips. And then they started playing…

They stared, open-mouthed, transported to a place where you didn’t need to pogo (it wasn’t invented till three months later). That place was real life; that place was the clearing in the undergrowth where meaning and elucidation live, that place where the music came from and the place it would take you back to.

But they knew nothing, these forty-odd strangers, gathered by chance and chat, they just knew their world would never be the same again. A past obliterated and No Future.

From Peter Hook, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012) pp. 35-37:

Reading the small ads in the MEN was how I found that the Pistols were playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 50p a ticket…

So that was it anyway, the group of us who went and saw the Sex Pistols at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A night that turned out to be the most important of my life – or one of them at least – but that started out just like any other…

There to greet us was Malcolm McLaren, dressed head to toe in black leather – leather jacket, leather trousers and leather boots – with a shock of bright-orange hair, a manic grin and the air of a circus ringmaster; though there was hardly anyone else around… Look at the photographs of the gig and you can see that everybody in the audience was dressed the same way, like a Top of the Pops audience. There were no punks yet. So Malcolm – he looked like an alien to us…

The Sex Pistols’ gear was set up and then, without further ceremony, they come on: Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Steve Jones was wearing a boiler suit and the rest of them looked like they’d vandalized an Oxfam shop. Rotten had on this torn-open yellow sweater and he glared out into the audience like he wanted to kill each and every one of us, one at a time, before the band struck up into something that might have been ‘Did You No Wrong’ but you couldn’t tell because it was so loud and distorted…

We just stood there, stock still, watching the Pistols. Absolutely, utterly, gobsmacked.

From Mick Middles & Lindsay Reader, Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis (London: Omnibus Press, 2009) p. 35:

In the summer of 1976, Terry [Mason] convinced Barney [Bernard Sumner] and Hooky [Peter Hook] to go along with him to the Sex Pistols gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.. Although some believe that the importance of the Lesser Free Trade Hall Pistols gigs have been somewhat overstated, they were almost certainly a trigger for the musical ambitions of many in attendance.

Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto famously shelled pout the necessary £32 to hire the hall on FRiday June 4, 1976, and, to more poignant effect, on Tuesday July 20 where they would make their debut appearance as Buzzcocks. The first gig… saw Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, clad in black rubber, accosting pedestrians on Peter Street like some downbeat and desperate spiritual street hawker. Even when he succeeded, many of the wary Pistols gig goers were immediately swamped by the music of the support band, a progressive rock act called Solstice.

From James Nice, Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records (London: Aurum Press, 2010) pp. 8-10:

Situated upstairs from the much larger Free Trade Hall, the venue was small, seated and salubrious, yet sufficiently unorthodox, and city central. The Sex Pistols date was set for 4 June 1976…

Lacking a regular bassist and a drummer, Buzzcocks were unable to perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June, and instead drafted ina local heavy rock group called Solstice to open for the visiting Pistols. Most present number the audience at around forty, although Devoto maintains the figure was closer to 100… Future musicians present in the room included Mark E. Smith (of The Fall), Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (Joy Division) and Steven Morrissey (The Smiths), then a New York Dolls obsessive, who afterwards sent an ambivalent ‘epistle’ to NME describing ‘discordant music’ by ‘bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire.’ Others included Steve Diggle, soon to join Buzzcocks on bass, fanzine editor Paul Morley, photographer Kevin Cummins, Eddie Garrity (better known as Ed Banger) and Alan Hempsall, a progressive rock fan later to form Crispy Ambulance.

From Morrissey, Autobiography (London: Penguin Classics, 2013) p. 115:

Back on Manchester’s inscrutable streets I find a tatty leaflet stuck on a Peter Street lamppost telling me that the Sex Pistols will play the Lesser Free Trade Hall. They are not the saviors of culture, but the destruction of it – which suits me quite perfectly…

Morrissey also wrote a ‘review’ of the gig as a letter to NME (reproduced on the Passions Just Like Mine website):

Review by Steven Morrissey of a Sex Pistols concert: “I pen this epistle after witnessing the infamous Sex Pistols in concert at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire had those few that attended dancing in the aisles despite their discordant music and barely audible lyrics. The Pistols boast having no inspiration from the New York / Manhattan rock scene, yet their set includes, “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, a number believed to be done almost to perfection by the Heartbreakers on any sleazy New York night and the Pistols’ vocalist / exhibitionist Johnny Rotten’s attitude and self-asserted ‘love us or leave us’ approach can be compared to both Iggy Pop and David JoHansen in their heyday. The Sex Pistols are very New York and it’s nice to see that the British have produced a band capable of producing atmosphere created by The New York Dolls and their many imitators, even though it may be too late. I’d love to see the Pistols make it. Maybe they will be able to afford some clothes which don’t look as though they’ve been slept in.”

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Here is Paul Morley’s recollection of the same gig (via The Guardian). The Huffington Post also did a piece on the same gig here.

People might also be interested in this paper written by cultural studies scholar Sean Albeiz on the popular memory of this gig, and my article on how the Manchester music scene (including this gig) has been portrayed in film.

 

The Smiths and the Anti-Apartheid Movement: “You have incredibly good taste”

I’ve been wanting to write something about the new online archive of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and had been looking for some angle as a way in, inspired by Gavin Brown’s brilliant write-up on the archive’s material on the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. And then I found this poster.

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This is the poster for a benefit gig for the AAM held in December 1986 at the Brixton Academy. It may be unremarkable in the history of the AAM, but for Smiths fans, it is easily recognisable as the last ever Smiths live show. On the AAM archive, the poster is briefly described as thus:

Poster advertising a gig featuring The Smiths and The Fall to raise funds for the AAM at the Royal Albert Hall on 14 November 1986. The concert was one of a series organised by Artists Against Apartheid, formed by Jerry Dammers in April 1986. The concert was postponed because Johnny Marr was injured in a car accident and it was rescheduled at a different venue.

The importance of the gig is discussed on the excellent Smiths/Morrissey website Passions Just Like Mine, which describes the gig in much detail:

This concert, put together as a benefit for the Artists Against Apartheid, was originally due to be held at the Royal Albert Hall on 14 November 1986 but it had to be rescheduled following Johnny’s car accident. It turned out to be the last time the Smiths were on stage together, bar a few television appearances. The gig was a much more personal and lively affair than the previous Brixton Academy concert in October when the tensions behind the scenes and the exhaustion of touring could not be hidden. There was a great complicity between the members of the band, nothing hinted that within a year the Smiths would be no more. During “Still Ill”, Johnny moved next to Andy and Morrissey joined them. They could be seen smiling and laughing, as if they were in on some inside joke.

What makes this gig even more special is that it turned out to be the only time songs like “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, the upcoming single “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” and the “London”/”Miserable Lie” medley were ever performed by the Smiths. “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” which hadn’t been played in a long time was also done. Finally, “William, It Was Really Nothing” and the live staple “Hand In Glove” which had been dropped on the recent British leg of the “The Queen Is Dead” tour also returned.

Mike teased the audience with the drum beat to “Panic” then Morrissey said hello before the band launched into “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. The latter song was again extended with a slightly longer intro. The audience was surprised to find that at the end of “London”, soon after the usual live change from “he really goes!” to “my God he goes!”, the band moved from the song’s bridge into the fast-paced outro to “Miserable Lie”. As they switched from the former to the latter, Morrissey wildly whipped the microphone cord in loops. Instead of singing “I’m just a country mile behind the world”, he returned to the early lyric “I’d run a hundred miles away from you”. The medley was extremely well received, the crowd roared in appreciation and Morrissey thanked them by saying “You have incredibly good taste…”

“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” was the only song from “The Queen Is Dead” which had never been played live before. It was therefore performed here for the first and last time ever. Morrissey added an extra verse to it, it went “On the shop floor, there’s a calendar, as obvious as snow, as if we didn’t know”. This new verse and the song’s acoustic adaptation made it one of the highlights of the evening. Morrissey replied to the loud applause that number received by growling loudly “Hello!”. A few songs later, the soon to be released “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” was introduced with the announcement “This is our new single…”

After the latter song Morrissey picked a letter from the floor and placed it on the drum rise. He then picked a flower, crumpled it, threw it away, and placed another one inside his jacket, hugging it next to his heart before sending it back into the crowd. As was tradition at that point in time, he didn’t sing the repeated title chorus at the end of the crowd favourite “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. The singer acknowledged the audience’s unfamiliarity with the following song by following its performance with the introduction “Thank you, that song was called ‘Is It Really So Strange?’.” He reversed two lines at the beginning of it and sang “Oh yes you can me and you can kick me”. A line was wittily inverted in “Cemetry Gates” to “We stonely read the graves”. Morrissey also sang “They were born, they lived, they died” instead of the usual longer line. In “Panic” he highlighted the “hang the DJ” lyric by swinging a noose around.

Returning to the stage for the first of two encores Morrissey told the audience “Thank you, we love you” then launched into a roaring version of “The Queen Is Dead”. He waved a board around during the latter number, but instead of saying THE QUEEN IS DEAD like it did earlier in the year, the board now had the words TWO LIGHT ALES PLEASE on it. The man also made a slight lyric change in that number when he sang “hemmed in like a boar between arches” instead of “stuck like a boar between arches”. At this point fans started to climb on stage. There would be about a dozen of them making it up there throughout the two encores. After this first encore Morrissey threw his shirt into the crowd and the band left the stage again. They soon returned for a final two-song encore. Morrissey roared loudly “MORE!?”, paused a bit, then teasingly added “No?!”. Final song “Hand In Glove” ended with Morrissey wailing in a high pitched voice for about 20 seconds. No one knew this at the time, but with its final line “I’ll probably never see you again”, “Hand In Glove”, the band’s first ever release, couldn’t have been a better way of saying goodbye to their audience.

Tickets were £8, £7, £6 and £5.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can now watch the whole show online:

The performance of ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’ (at 14.00) was eventually released on the ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ CD single in 1992.

So there you go, a great overlap of musical and political history!

Greatest tweet about this blog so far…

 

In other news, I spent the morning looking for the archival records of a piece of legislation brought in by the Steele Hall government in 1969 in the South Australian Records Office. Those records are difficult to navigate. Anyone with South Australian legal history expertise out there willing to help me locate stuff?

Two new Smiths tumblrs

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It’s Saturday night, so I thought I’d quickly mention two Smiths-related tumblr blogs that I’ve just come across.

Firstly, the This Charming Charlie tumblr has been all over the internet in the last week, with a witty combination of Peanuts comic panels and Smiths lyrics.

Secondly, the Home is Where the Art Is tumblr takes stills from the films that inspired the lyrics of The Smiths or have ended up on the band’s record sleeves. There are a few that have had me stumped – I can’t pick the link to the film The Family Way. 

So there you go. Visit them now.

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‘We Cannot Cling to the Old Dreams Anymore’: Some Brief Thoughts on The Smiths, Nostalgia and Imagery

The cover for 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now'

The cover for ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’

I have been reading the Uncut Smiths special issue today and was reminded of some ideas that I’d had about writing an article on The Smiths and history. A few years ago, this article by Andrew Warnes argued that the record sleeve imagery of The Smiths was essentially a ‘whitewash’ of the black Atlantic sources of the group’s music. Warnes reads the imagery of The Smiths – essentially all black and white photographs of various British kitchen sink dramas and soaps or Hollywood figures from the 1950s-60s – as celebrations of a bygone era, where British and American culture was homogenous, conservative and ‘white’. Many have made similar arguments, that The Smiths (and Morrissey in particular) were nostalgic and wrapped up in the past.

But I think there might be something more subversive going on with the record imagery of The Smiths, especially when contrasted with some of the lyrics written by Morrissey. I believe that the images of The Smiths can be read as a knowing acknowledgement of an idealised past that never existed and that could be seen in stark contrast with the upheaval of the 1980s under Thatcher (and Reagan). The imagery of Coronation Street, 1960s ‘realist’ cinema and A Taste of Honey, for example, are all mythical representations of post-war Britain and can be seen as a sly reference to the nostalgia felt in Thatcherite Britain to go back to a ‘simpler time’. The use of old Hollywood stars could be interpreted in a similar way – stars in the 1950s-60s were ‘untouchable’ and ‘unreal’ and existed in a world where the troubles of the real world (the anti-communism of the Cold War, the growing civil rights movement, increasing youthful dissent, the rampant racism and sexism that existed in American society) did not. In the 1980s, this world was celebrated by the neo-liberals and social conservatives, but for many others, this was an unreal and undesirable turn to the past. The imagery of The Smiths and the packaging of the band’s records, I think, worked in standing out as  something odd within the music world of the 1980s. It would have been interesting to see a Smiths album, with its black and white photo of the recent past (of Viv Nicholson, Shelagh Delaney or Elvis Presley to name a few), amongst the futuristic imagery of bands such as New Order, Depeche Mode or Heaven 17. In this context, the imagery of The Smiths’ records highlights the absurdity of nostalgia in 1980s Britain.

This is further highlighted when contrasting the imagery of The Smiths with the lyrics. There are several moments where Morrissey’s lyrics address this idea that ‘dear ol’ Blighty’ was a myth and that there is no use in romantically looking back. For example, the lyrics of songs like ‘Still Ill’, ‘The Queen is Dead’ (with its interlude of ‘Take Me Back to Dear Ol’ Blighty’) and ‘Nowhere Fast’, highlight that Britain (or more specifically England) was going through immense changes in the 1980s and that this often left people alienated. With this alienation, there is a desire to look back to times gone by as an antidote to the pressures and disappointments of the present, but Morrissey declares in ‘Still Ill’, ‘we cannot cling to the old dreams anymore’ and ‘it just wasn’t like those old days anymore’.

At this stage, I don’t know if there’s more to this argument. I really need to read the two edited collections that have been written on The Smiths and Morrissey in the last few years (here and here). But it’s something I like to imagine doing one day…

Thoughts anyone?

The cover of 'Louder than Bombs'

The cover of ‘Louder than Bombs’