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The Smiths, The Charts, and The Re-Writing of History

May 30, 2013

On May 13th 1983 The Smiths released their debut single Hand in Glove. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the BBC produced a Culture Show special Not Like Any Other Love which explored the band’s impact and the culture they grew out of/reacted against. You can watch it here, if you like:

It’s about average as these things go: presenter Tim Samuels nods while a bunch of talking heads (including the omnipresent Stuart Maconie, obviously) explain how The Smiths were a life-changing band, how they exploded out of nowhere, how rubbish everything was until they arrived, etc, etc. Maconie himself inadvertently tips off the viewer when he says “There’s a lot of romantic guff talked about rock ‘n’ roll, but…” This is the pop-culture documentary equivalent of “I’m not a racist, but…” and whenever you hear it you can be pretty sure of what’s coming next.

Anyway, the program left me entertained but uneasy. Entertained because (for once) I was in on The Smiths from the very start. As an eighteen year-old, I heard the first play of Hand in Glove on the John Peel show, bought it and immediately started boring anyone who’d listen about this great new band I’d discovered. I never wore a hearing aid or had gladioli sticking out of my back pocket, but I think it’s safe to say that I was a fan. So it was nice to wallow in a nostalgic mud bath for half an hour.

But that’s where the uneasiness comes in. The BBC produces these commemorative documentaries on a kind of treadmill and they all start from the same basic assumption: if you’re now in your forties then whatever was going on twenty-five or thirty years ago was Culturally Significant. Five years ago it was Punk. Today it’s The Smiths. In five years’ time it’ll be Johnny Hates Jazz. It’s a sort of temporal cultural relativism where “impact” is defined by the age of the target audience rather than an honest assessment of what actually happened. The end result is a relentless parade of middle-aged fan-boys (and girls) shouting “That was the most important thing EVER!”

And because these programs are made on a Fordian production-line basis, each story has to be molded to fit the same template: things were really dull, X came along, everything changed. So even if the group being profiled actually was culturally significant their history tends to be warped by the demands of a predetermined narrative arc.

And so it was that we had Samuels blithely informing us that in the early 80s the charts were really dire. To prove this, we were “treated” to a brief clip of Bucks Fizz-wannabes, Bardo, performing their 1982 UK Eurovision entry One Step Further (it came 7th in the contest and was only denied a number one chart spot by the combined might of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder – thanks, fellas). Now, there’s no denying that One Step Further was a pretty forgettable piece of nonsense, but it hardly defined the music of its era, and I found myself muttering “Hang on! They’re pretending The Smiths were The Sex Pistols!”

You see, I remember the charts of the early 80s, but I also remember the charts of the mid 70s. And if it’s soul-crushing dreariness you’re after there’s really no contest. To make sure I wasn’t deluding myself, I looked up the Top 40 for May 14 1983 (the day after Hand in Glove “changed everything”). You can see it here: http://www.officialcharts.com/archive-chart/_/1/1983-05-14/. I then compared it with the chart from the same week in 1976 (round about when The Sex Pistols were playing their early gigs). Read it if you dare: http://www.officialcharts.com/archive-chart/_/1/1976-05-08/. Then, in a highly rigorous, scientific experiment, I picked the songs from each chart that wouldn’t make me smash up the radio if they were played today.

The 1983 Top 40 confirmed my recollection that, far from being appalling, the charts of the early 80s were actually relatively decent. 1983 probably wasn’t as strong as 1980 or 1981 had been, but still there were eleven entries that fell into the “bearable” category. They were by Human League, Heaven 17, Tears for Fears, Fun Boy Three, Blancmange, David Bowie, Eurythmics, New Order, Creatures, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley and the Wailers. I was probably being a bit generous with Pink Floyd, but even so that seems a decent haul to me.

Then I turned to the 1976 chart. Hell rose up to greet me. Just reading the song titles made me whimper “Mummy, mummy! Make them stop!” In the end I managed three picks – and one of those was the reissue of Hey Jude which for some reason was hanging around at number 33. The others… No. It was too awful. I don’t want to remember it any more.

I hope I’ve proved my point. The truth is that The Smiths didn’t save pop music from a cesspool of mediocrity. They were an interesting band who secured a small but obsessively loyal following. They never charted higher than 10 (so Bardo have them beat in that regard) but they were undeniably influential. At the time they seemed like a breath of fresh air – stirring things up, just as the New Wave/Post-Punk movement threatened to go stale. But in hindsight it’s probably fairer to say they were the beginning of the end so far as indie music was concerned. After The Smiths it was all sensitive haircuts and twee songs about girlfriend trouble. Until Madchester, that is. Hang on, I’ve got an idea. Does anyone have Stuart Maconie’s phone number?

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From → Music, Pop Music

3 Comments
  1. I agree with all of this, except that I think the chart from 1983 is better than relatively decent. There are some songs there that are actually good (Heaven 17 and New Order, for instance). The documentary is almost unwatchable because of directing cliches, but you’re spot on about the pre-ordained narrative. What would it even mean for The Smiths (or any other group) to change someone’s life? The poet (Simon Armitage?) who says you’re still on your own, but there are lots of other people out there in the same boat has it right, I think. Knowing that is reassuring, maybe, but it doesn’t change much.

    • I should’ve made it clear that “bearable” was the minimum requirement for the songs. Some of the acts mentioned were certainly better than that – although I couldn’t help noticing that the actual songs they were charting with were often not their best. Both Human League and Heaven 17 were in decline by 83 and Fun Boy Three, while enjoyable, were a reminder of how sad it was that The Specials had broken up. Likewise, Creatures were interesting, but they were hardly Siouxsie and the Banshees (who had also more or less shot their bolt). So I would say that although the chart still had much to recommend it, it was showing signs of becoming a bit tired.

      As for groups changing your life, I would nominate two that had a HUGE impact on me during my formative years. The first was Joy Division, who obsessed me from 1980 to around 1983. I was only released from their spell by the second band, The Velvet Underground, thanks to a spur-of-the-moment purchase of White Light/White Heat. It was in large part thanks to those bands that I started to read authors like Burroughs and Kafka. That led to the Existentialist writers and on to philosophy in general.

  2. I’ve been obsessed with bands, but not in such constructive ways. That does sound life-changing.

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