Jan 192010

In a recent thread seeking consensus over a single song for a variety of polarizing bands, Townsman Oats dismissed one subthread as follows:

The Smiths are a band that will never, ever get an objective appraisal here, so I don’t even know why we’re talking about them.

Oats – and fellow Townspeople – I am curious to konw what the parameters might be for an objective appraisal of The Smiths. Can you help us identify these parameters so that we might be able to prove our friend Oats wrong? Might this key piece from our archives help us in our preparation for this challenging task? Thank you.


  23 Responses to “Setting the Parameters for an Objective Appraisal of The Smiths”

  1. Oh, I thought you were going to spin a thread out of my comment about Hrrundi and Pink Floyd.

    Anyway, here are some (I hope) helpful steps towards an objective appraisal of The Smiths:

    1) Put aside any personal musical objections, be it Morrissey’s vocal tone, Marr’s digital chorus effect, whatever.

    2) Put aside any personal objections to Morrissey in general. Don’t think about the gladiolas, the hearing aid, the silly dance. Don’t watch any videos on YouTube, or look at too many pictures.

    3) Don’t think too much about their fanbase and high critical standing, but try and view them with some good faith. That is to say, try the view that any band with this amount of devoted fans, five-star ratings and subsequent influence must be doing something right? Follow-up question: What are they doing right?

    4) When criticizing The Smiths, keep the bile to a minimum. I’m sure some here may be tempted to get their E. Pluribus Gergley on during this exercise. Nevertheless, I’d ask that people refrain from a particular RTH bete noire: Spending more time on your savage, withering bon mots about an artist than you ever have actually listening to said artist.

    5) Now, for a specific recommendation: Stick to the early stuff. Anything from 1984, before Meat is Murder, basically. This is perhaps an antithetical suggestion, since the band’s accepted masterpiece is The Queen is Dead from 1986. But I think the early singles — specifically “This Charming Man” and “Hand in Glove” — and the BBC performances found on the Hatful of Hollow album, may be more helpful. The production is bright, clear and clean, and less ’80s than the later stuff, at least by RTH’s standards.

    In closing, I will refer back to my question posed above: What are The Smiths doing right? Here’s one thing: They write catchy songs that are not derivative. (For example, there are no lame Beatles quotes meant to ensnare power-pop losers out of their mothers’ basements.) The Smiths sound like The Smiths.

  2. You’d probably have to start with one of their instrumentals! Seriously, I was trying to think of one of their songs we could all enjoy, but they all have Morrissey on them. I disliked the Smiths at first too, and still feel that their recordings up to “Meat Is Murder” are unlistenable, due to completely out-of-tune vocals.

    As far as the Smiths being loser rock, it’s an odd call. On one hand, it is correct to note the humor in Morrissey’s lyrics and titles, but that doesn’t stop people from taking them seriously. Also, calling it humor gives an “out” – it’s not pretentious, because it’s supposed to be funny, don’t you see?

    Below the surface of Morrissey’s attention hogging, though, is a great deal of inventive guitar playing – more sonically than virtuosically, and a rhythm section that is fluid, tight and manages to stay largely out of the way.

  3. Ha, I love that point #5 was being typed while I was typing my post saying the exact opposite thing!

  4. Mr. Moderator

    This is helpful, Oats:

    What are they doing right?

    I’ll try to work within these parameters and any others that are suggested. I encourage all Townspeople to do likewise.

  5. misterioso

    Excellent suggestion: focus on what they are doing right. And what they are doing right is: nothing.

    Another excellent suggestion: Put aside any personal musical objections. Will do. Among my personal musical objections is: The Smiths. Thus, I put them aside.

    I have enough smart friends with (otherwise) mostly impeccable musical taste who like, if not adore The Smiths to know that this is not something that can be reduced to “They such so much that no person with a functioning brain could like this crap.” I mean, we’re not talking about Styx, here.

    That said, there is at least a chance that a Styx song would make me laugh, even as it sucked, whereas from the Smiths I get nothing, nothing but annoyance.

    In conclusion, who believes an objective appraisal–of the Smiths or anyone else–is possible or even desirable?

  6. Things to keep in mind:

    Every Smiths song does not sound the same. At any one time you might be hearing: 50s rockabilly and Elvis
    60s girl groups, Motown, guitar jangle
    70s rock and punk. Morrissey and Marr are like a musical encyclopedia.

    They take their songwriting, performing, and recording seriously. Their moves were calculated, not accidents. They are a tight band, musically speaking. But they don’t, and perhaps deliberately so, look like a serious band. So too often they get lumped in with more looser, indie-rock bands.

    By the time of Louder than Bombs (the album to start with), Marr was using cranked-up Marshalls and playing heavy guitar riffs–this is when they were called by the British press (and was meant derisively), too “rockist.”

    They probably were too smart and self-conscious for their own good. And they did succumb to their own excesses.

  7. Hank Fan

    Any band that is so polarizing has to be doing a lot right.

    The Smiths’ music is catchy, tight, original, and–I think–funny. The key to their appeal, for me, is the element of good-natured self-satire that exists below the surface of their “serious” lyrics. I can’t help but hear Morrisey subtly poking fun at himself throughout. The effect is heightened by the band’s often perky sound.

    This quality saves them from the fate of U2.

  8. Mr. Moderator

    OK, so I’ll begin by setting aside my subjective reactions to their music. Some of you who date back to our listserv roots may recall an extensive effort I made at revisiting this band’s music as well as the solo music produced by Morrissey. To my great surprise I much preferred solo Mozzer (sorry) because it sounded more like “real music,” as I think one of the Slash Magazine (and soon-to-be Records) founders said in regard to the music of X compared with The Germs in that surprisingly watchable (and telling) Darby Crash biopic from a year or two ago.

    From what I gather, yes, the band has a fairly unique sound. Morrissey’s concept, shall we say, of melody and phrasing are original and bold. I think he gets away with it by having lyrics and an image that straddle the serious and the self-deprecating in a way that spoke to a lot of younger people coming out of the Glory Days of Rock (ie, the ’70s).

    Much like early REM, The Smiths boldly carved out a spot for themselves in the rock pantheon as the kind of kids who got their asses kicked on a regular basis growing up yet who were going to rub their outsider status in our faces…politely. I can imagine the power this must have represented for these people and for kids like this to this day.

    I’m joking a bit regarding the ass-kicking angle, but Morrissey flirts with or overtly courts a lot of sensitive, “alternative” lifestyles that balance out the other end of the spectrum held down by the likes of Bon Scott: vegetarianism, homosexuality, rigorous hair care… What may separate them from Tom Robinson Band, straight-edge hardcore bands from DC, and any other “alternative lifestyle” band I can think of before them is that their music speaks directly to their definite and suggested values. I guess there’s something to be said for that.

    Eventually I have to come back to the music, and I can’t buy Dr. John’s “musical encyclopedia” thing when there are so many other bands that would better meet that description. I’ll try to revisit the early singles that Oats notes, but they always sound “underdone” to me. I don’t really care that Morrissey may be “out of key” on a song, because that’s a stuffed-shirt point of view I’m really not that qualified to take, but rhythm is essential to my enjoyment of music, and although the drummer in The Smiths was pretty good and Johnny Marr is good at a style I don’t usually appreciate (ie, jangly guitar), I don’t get any rhythmic push out of Morrissey’s vocals on his Smiths work. He sounds like he cut his vocals without hearing a playback of the music. I don’t care if it’s “origiinal” or “bold” or representative of his multitude of “ambiguities.” It prevents me from tuning into whatever he’s trying to convey.

    I’m not going to try to kid you, Oats or any other rock ‘n roll fan: I have a few set standards for what constitutes rock ‘n roll, and a lot of them are probably rooted in the music’s male-dominated, rhythmic origins. I have had to work hard over the years to see a place for extremely “feminine” artists (eg, Joni Mitchell, who was helped in my eyes, I’m sad to say, by learning that Led Zeppeling tried to incorporate her style in some of their acoustic songs) within the gates of rock. The Smiths, for me, represent the “wussy” faction at the gates of rock, and not to suggest that I’m the world’s most physical guy, but their wholly “wussy” approach to rock ‘n roll, thanks to Morrissey’s vocals, lyrics, and ridiculously long song titles, is really hard for me to relate to. I know this may come off like I’ve got a problem with Morrissey the Person’s sexuality or veganism or whatever, but trust me – it’s the band’s efforts at “wussifying” rock ‘n roll, as I see it, that really troubles me. I think it’s great that anyone in that band is into whatever he’s into and wants to carve out a niche for his point of view in rock ‘n roll. I truly can appreciate the band’s pioneering role in pushing the rock world to embrace a wider audience that’s had to reside on the fringes of rock ‘n roll. In a musical sense, though, I guess I don’t want The Smiths living in my neighborhood.

    I’m not proud of this, but if we’re really expected to attempt an objective appraisal of The Smiths, I think we need to lay our cards on the table.

  9. Mr. Moderator

    By asking that we “lay our cards on the table,” Oats, and by finding it impossible to put aside my subjective response to their music, I guess I’m asking what’s left to appraise objectively without sounding like we’re saying the stuff we say to our friends after we see their band play live and don’t want to offend them with our true feelings about their musical mediocrity: “You guys sounded tight!…I could hear everything!”

    You know what I mean?

  10. There are moments I can dig in The Smiths music, like that swooping “wah wah” electric sound (what IS that?) in that song where the lyrics are “I’m human and I need to be loved/just like anyone else does,” although the lyric is cringe-worthy for me. Sorry for not knowing the title of it, which indicates my level of knowledge here.

    Mod, I think, is getting towards some of the right issues. The Smiths aren’t just a band, they also represent a cultural revolution (I mean this absolutely seriously) of who rock music is for. It’s not unintentional: their music constitutes a critique of much of the masculinist, macho, rockist wing of rock mythology. The point is not simply that they don’t share The Mod’s values; it’s that they’re actively opposed to them, and in that sense, with all due respect, Mod, the issue may be that the Smiths don’t want you in THEIR neighborhood.

    I think we sell The Smiths short if we don’t acknowledge how significant a revolution in rock culture their work caused. They weren’t the only band to be part of it, but their name is synonymous with it.

    I can respect the importance of that change: it really is a blow for freedom for some people. At the same time, I can respect it mainly as music that really wasn’t made with my own musical taste in mind. Not all music has to be for me, obviously enough, but that fact doesn’t mean that The Smiths really wow me. Of course, they were never trying to.

  11. Ironically enough, I followed all of the 5 directions by Oats even before I knew I was following them. About 10 years ago, a former friend got me into the Smiths. I first heard Louder Than Bombs, which has been recommended by others, and fell in love with it. It has a variety of song styles on it which should appeal to every taste.

    Maybe the stipulation to objectively listening to the Smiths and liking the Smiths is that you probably can’t like every song, but you should be able to like some of them and could openly admit that a few are really good and catchy.

    I know little of their background or their in-fighting and I don’t really give a damn. They are no worse off fighting then the Beatles or the Everlys or the Gallaghers or the Stones or who-ever.

    Also, a good tip is to look past some of the lyrics which are oh-so miserable in many cases and just enjoy the music.

    I think some of us try to overstate the importance of the music or look too critically at it. The Smiths might not be for everyone’s taste, but they are certainly not drivel or crap. I wouldn’t exhalt them with the Beatles, but I wouldn’t reduce them to KC & the Sunshine Band status.

  12. Mr. Moderator

    Right on, Mwall. Thanks for helping to clarify what I was working toward. I agree with what you’ve added, and you’re probably right: they DON’T want me in their neighborhood, which explains some of my feelings of being shut out from what they offer.

    mickavory, I don’t mind a few of the KC & the Sunshine Band songs. I don’t see why they should be dragged into this:)

  13. I hear you, Mr. Mod. Thanks for giving The Smiths as fair a play as possible, seriously. If anything, I just want us to move on from the “How could anyone like this band” type of grandstanding.

    When I first heard The Smiths, Morrissey’s melodies took some getting used to. But I did. So I don’t know what to tell you. Sometimes you just have to listen to something a few times till you get it, or learn to like it, even. Nowadays, the melody to something like “The Boy with a Thorn in His Side” sounds totally natural. Not everything can be a gut reaction. (Not that I’m suggesting you spend the next few months listening only to Louder Than Bombs.)

    Nevertheless, I think you and mwall are overstating The Smiths’ outsider status in the rock world a bit. We’re not talking about Einsturzende Neubauten, for God’s sake. They did not come to destroy rock ‘n’ roll, just to expand its reach and maybe reject some tired hairy-balls archetypes. And sure, they sound “wussy” compared to The Clash or Led Zeppelin. But compared to, oh, XTC? A tougher call, I say.

    Don’t get too caught up in the cult of Morrissey. He was never really a personal role model for me, nor did I ever really feel like his lyrics spoke to me. I just like this band. I say they have songs that objectively rock: “The Queen is Dead,” “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “Shakespeare’s Sister.” By rock, I mean “uptempo, driving numbers with a definitive point of view.”

    Oh, Mwall, that song you like is “How Soon Is Now,” generally the only Smiths song you hear on U.S. radio. I don’t really care for it, myself.

  14. The Smiths aren’t a musical encyclopedia, that would be Jellyfish.

    *ducking and running*

  15. Oates, I hear you; there are some songs by the Smiths that definitely rock. To your list, I would add: “Shoplifters of the World Unite.”

  16. BigSteve

    To state the obvious, a truly objective appraisal is not possible.

    I admit Morrissey’s voice takes some getting used to, but it’s the sound of the band that drew me in. Whatever loser/outsider/miserabilist/unmasculine tendencies there might be in the lyrics, I don’t hear them in the music at all. Take the song What Difference Does It Make? from the first album. Or This Charming Man. The rhythm section is is tight and forceful, and I don’t see any way you could call the sound of the band ‘feminine,’ even if we don’t have good working definition of what that might mean musically.

    I just think it’s impossible for listeners to get past Morrissey. He’s a huge psychic presence, and his voice is always up in the mix. Even without the ick factor, that voice is going to be a roadblock for many people.

  17. Mr. Moderator

    To be clear, in my personal tale, I wasn’t suggesting that The Smiths came off as “feminine,” to me. I think Morrissey, Robert Smith of The Cure, and a number of other singers from that time took rock into areas that added a clear, “third dimension” to sexuality in rock that earlier rock artists from Ray Davies through David Bowie only touched on. I was still getting my head around the “second dimension” of femininity in rock ‘n roll when these amacho (if I may coin a phrase) guys who weren’t even backed up by “butch” backing musicians like The Spiders From Mars hit the scene. Later, I don’t care how many stacks of Marshalls Johnny Marr may have played on certains Smiths records, Morrissey always sounded to me like was thumbing his nose at my own vestiges of machismo in rock. You know I’m not some disciple of the Bon Scott school, but I found Morrissey’s voice as “anti-rock,” whatever that might mean under close examination, as I found Joni Mitchell’s the first 10 years I tried to listen to her music. I’ve since come around to like my share of Joni Mitchell and even The Cure, so there’s hope I’ll eventually hear The Smiths as “real music.” These days I think I’m still most troubled by Morrissey’s lack of rhythm in those Smiths songs. On the solo albums I’ve heard it feels like he’s locking into something.

  18. I love Johnny Marr’s guitar work . . . and it took me a long time to warm up to the Smiths, but eventually I did.

    As I recall from my mid-80s college days, there was a lot of Smiths hype, but in my crowd, they were not nearly as popular at the Replacements, Husker Du, and REM.

    We put “The Smiths” on and thought — what’s the big deal with this? Nobody said — hey, I really like this! — let’s get in heavy rotation. Did we give it a fair shake, probably not.

    So, I think some of the negative Smith’s reaction is not only to the music itself, but to rock critics beating the drums that the first Smiths album was one of the best of the year, the decade, and later, of all time.

    I admit I didn’t get it then — and a lot people still don’t

  19. Mod, and others, who have a Smiths hang-up, how do you feel about pre-Document-era REM? Answering this question honestly might help resolve your issues.

  20. Mr. Moderator

    Good question, Dr. John. I lost any real interest in REM once I sat down with Murmur. I liked “One Million” (was that the title” and “Gardening at Night” from that first EP. “Radio Free Europe” is undeniably great. Murmur could have been entitled Murky. I liked bits and pieces of songs, but songs didn’t hold together or appeal to me. Feel free to educate me on how the murkiness is the point:) I might as well have been listening to prog-rock in my teens, when any time I’d get into a section of a song the band would quickly shift gears and once more do something that I didn’t like.

    The next two albums have a song or two that I like, but even their most tolerable early hits, like that one in which Stipe keeps moaning “I’m sorry,” grate on me long before their 3:30 fadeout. Young Michael Stipe always sounds like Neil Diamond to me, and I can only take so much Neil Diamond. So no, I don’t share the love for pre-Document-era REM.

  21. BigSteve

    The recent remastering of Murmur revealed it to be not so murky after all. The lyrics are still mumbly, but you can hear every mumble clearly.

  22. I somehow wound up with a copy of that early Smiths collection, Hatful of Hollow, so I put it on last night to give it one of my infrequent listens. I can see what folks like about Marr, but he’s a little stiff to me. The lack of feel in the whole band coupled with Morissey’s singing, makes it hard for me to even get to the songs underneath. I do hear the overstated bathos that, admittedly, is played for laughs, but I can’t appreciate it because the whole sonic package is too off putting. My favorite song is definitely “How Soon is Now”, because the Morissey’s unrhythmic croon/whine works well with the sludgy underpinning.

    Bobby Bare Jr. covered “What Difference Would it Make on his first album and I love it, so yeah, in this case the problem seems to be the singer (and the band) not the song.

  23. Mr. Moderator

    I just revisited a few earlier (I believe) songs. There’s one called “What Difference Does It Make” that, if it had more drive and the M80-up-his-ass delivery of Feargal Sharkey, could be good Undertones song from my beloved Positive Touch. Same goes for that “Hand in Glove” song that Oats recommended, which actually sounds a little more like a track from The Undertones’ failed attempt at jumping on the hair gel bandwagon, The Sin of Pride.

    I’m thinking that the big difference between late-era Undertones and The Smiths, beside the fact that I love one band and its singer and do not love the other, is that The Smiths painted in broad strokes. Once they establish a groove and Morrissey finds his place to croon they don’t leave that spot for the duration of the song. I believe, if done well, as I can accept The Smiths did, that helps a broader audience tune into the vibe. For me it gets monotonous. Do Smiths’ songs ever climax? Is that “the whole point,” as I can imagine a Smiths fan telling me?

    Thanks for encouraging us to think about this stuff in a civil way, Oats. Really.

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