The Smiths in 1985
Continuing my irregular series of articles on band names illustrating artfully selected words, we now come to The Smiths. I knew there was a lot going on with this name, so I read Johnny Rogan’s massive Smith’s biography The Severed Alliance. And after reading all those hundreds of pages, I came to the conclusion that the two words The Smiths used to identify themselves might qualify as their definitive achievement. This comment is not as flippant as it might seem. During his 1970s schooldays at a tough Manchester secondary modern, future lyricist and lead singer, Steven Morrissey retreated to his bedroom, taking refuge in the music of Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black, Marc Bolan, and the New York Dolls. With vague creative ambitions of his own, young Morrissey would enjoy making up clever book titles and chapter headings for novels that never happened. Morrissey seemed better at the flash of insight rather than the long slog of consolidation.
Once he left school our unlikely hero joined forces with guitarist Johnny Marr, and against all odds became a singer songwriter himself. At this point, Morrissey came up with his best title ever – The Smiths. The name implies so many things. First, there is that sense of a back to basics approach, as a reaction to glam rock, or pompous concept album rock. Yet this is not back to basics in the sense of a Punk band thrashing around on instruments they learnt to play last week. Instead, there is a suggestion of artisanship. A smith labours in a sweltering smithy, making horseshoes and ironwork. This is a person who upholds traditional values of hard work and honest service.
At the same time, there are darker undertones to explore. Originally, the band considered the name Smiths’ Family. The word family implies togetherness. Think of The Partridge Family – sunny and happy on a bus with David Cassidy, his mom and cute siblings. The Smiths, or The Partridges, divested of the word family, conjures more of a vision of one of those clans who fight amongst themselves, using any energy left over to terrorise their local area. The Smiths had much of the anti social behaviour order about them. Their shows were famously rowdy, with Morrissey welcoming a good stage invasion. He could also be relied upon to provide controversial quotes, supporting the violence of the IRA, or the extreme fringe of the animal rights movement.
The name is also strangely reflective of the times the band lived through. The 1980s was a divided decade. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would often refer to her personal values resulting from a Methodist upbringing in a greengrocer’s shop in Grantham – solid virtues of hard work, thrift, and respect for the rule of law. Yet she was also profoundly confrontational, having no time for consensus, compromise or the status quo.
Margaret Thatcher’s hope was that the 1980s would turn Britain into a kind of vastly successful greengrocer’s shop, or smithy. But there were so many contradictions – the talk of thrift, honesty, hard work, set against the flashy lifestyle and murky ethics of the money-driven society the Thatcher government helped encourage. There was also that conflict between harking back to supposed traditional values of application, self reliance and the rule of law, whilst also rejecting equally traditional values of respect for compromise and consensus. Amidst the resulting confusion it is perhaps not surprising that the 1980s were violent years defined by miners’ strikes and city centre riots. The 80s yearned for lost values, even in wanting to tear them apart. By some miracle, all of these conflicting forces were held together, for a few years at least, in The Smiths.