It was shortly after midnight, early on Wednesday morning, July 29th, 1987, and it was Mark Cagney, host of ‘The Night Train’ on RTÉ Radio 2FM who, as serenely as ever, broke the news.
Home alone, and with the rest of my family off on holidays, I’d been in the habit of keeping the radio on longer and louder than usual: long enough, as it happened, to hear Cagney tell the nation’s more urbane taxi drivers, shift workers and anoraks that Johnny Marr had left The Smiths. And he more or less left it at that, light on detail, didn’t cite his sources and segued as seamlessly as he always did into his next track, which was more than likely a moderately left field, highly styled album cut, to which he was forever drawn. And, if I slept at all that night, I slept with my mouth open and my jaw hanging.
Cagney had one up on us. He’d either heard soundings of or had sight of that week’s issue of the London-based music magazine, New Musical Express, in which one of its senior writers, Danny Kelly, citing reliable sources in Manchester, revealed that Morrissey, The Smiths’ singer and Marr, the group’s guitarist and co-writer, had fallen out and hadn’t spoken in months. But while it was a terrific flyer, the story was vague enough on the future of the band and Kelly later admitted he may have ‘augmented’ his story with lines pulled from the back of his own head. The gut of the scoop was clear, though: on the cusp of the release of their fifth album, all was not well with The Smiths. And this time it was serious.
Although the influential British music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – all regularly hit the streets around central London by lunchtime on Tuesdays, it was usually Thursday morning or later before those titles were available on the shelves in Easons, on Patrick Street in Cork, where I routinely picked up mine. And so I had an anxious wait before I finally got my hands on NME’s speculative exclusive, headlined ‘Smiths to split’.
History – and indeed Johnny Rogan, the band’s forensic biographer – now tells us that, although The Smiths weren’t formally taken off of life-support by Morrissey until mid-September, 1987, Marr confirmed directly to Kelly within days of his initial splash that yes, he’d left the group he founded in Manchester barely five years previously. And so, in its issue dated August 8th, 1987, Kelly had his second back-to-back Smiths scoop, this time flush with quotes from inside the band.
For six weeks that summer, my first as a university student, would-be music writer, part-time laundry worker and full-time dreamer, there was really only one story. One which, under sustained scrutiny, was scarcely believable in the first instance and which was always likely to end badly. Few groups of scale have fallen asunder as carelessly and as needlessly as The Smiths, undone in the end by the lack of clear decision-making and delegation that had, since the group’s inception, characterised much of its off-stage activity.
I’ve written at length about The Smiths over the years, with varying degrees of success but with no little confidence, simply because they were the first band I so obsessively lived through and the first band I ever felt like I had shares in. I certainly spent enough on them and, because I’d invested so heavily in them in other respects as well, I tended to defer to Max Boyce’s stock punchline when it came to analysing them: I know because I was there.
And I certainly was there, if not at the very start, then certainly close enough to it, having had my head turned as soon as I heard The Smiths on both Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on RTÉ Radio 2, John Peel’s BBC equivalent and, bizarrely, having caught sight of them on late night television performing ‘This Charming Man’ on a one-off European music initiative featuring emerging music from across the continent. Captured alongside a feeble, long-lost British outfit, The Immaculate Fools, and a number of freakish cross-continental acts trying, as can often be the case, just a tad too hard, The Smiths stood out as a distinctive star turn simply because, in the abject normality that defined every single aspect of them, they were clearly anything but normal.
I was there too in the old Savoy on Patrick Street when The Smiths played in Cork twice, on May 20th and November 18th, 1984 and when, within actual touching distance of them, they sealed the deal, almost face-to-face, as the most important and influential band of my generation.
Both of those shows took place as I was gearing up to leave secondary school and, with half an eye and two working ears on what was around the corner, fancied myself as a veteran of the local music circuit, having already been to all of one indoor live show and a couple of random outdoor one-offs. But although I’d been squirreling and collecting for a number of years, back-filling the gaps in my developing ELO library, acquiring and swapping new material as regularly as I could and rowing in squarely behind Sindikat, a band from our school who’d done the unthinkable and formed under our noses, The Smiths were the first group whose releases, always flagged well in advance in the music press, I regarded as genuine events and to which I counted down.
And in this respect, the radio was another vital spoke: Peel, and his long-time producer, John Walters, memorably hosted four separate Smiths radio sessions between 1983 and 1986 and, like Fanning, would play all of the group’s releases well in advance of their availability in the shops. For which you’d have a second or third-hand cassette on eternal stand-by in the old three-in-one in case either of them dropped an unexpected pre-issue, without warning.
It was Fanning, of course, who alerted us to those first Smiths shows in Ireland – I still consider this sort of carry-on to define the term ‘public service broadcasting’ – when he announced that they were on their way to play dates in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in support of their debut album. And yet for all of the urgency that under-pinned the band’s recorded material, myself and my friend, Philip, didn’t really know what to expect when we fetched up outside The Savoy on a Sunday evening in May, 1984, in our long rain-coats, tickets in hand and mad for road.
But from early – and we were there very, very early – it was clear that The Smiths were much more than a little-known secret shared by a handful of us up on the Northside. One of the more interesting aspects of the band’s history was how, throughout its career, it attracted fans from right across the social strata, much of it male-skewing and with a prominent contingent of hard shams in among the more introspective, centrally-cast indie-kids. Among whom was another friend of mine, Marc Buckley, an acolyte who arrived at The Savoy, as did numerous others, clutching a bunch of freshly cut flowers and wearing a considerable quiff.
Philip and myself soon found ourselves chatting to a pair of friendly girls we’d met on the tiled stairs and, for whatever reason, we told them we were supporting The Smiths a little later. There were, of course, numerous similarities between ourselves and The Frank Chickens, the gobby Japanese lesbians who were actually due to open proceedings.
The Chickens, as with many of Peel’s more random curios over the decades, sounded far better in theory that they did in practice and, with their unsteady backing tracks, loops and high-octane, skittish twin vocals, failed to convince the locals, who’d started to assemble in numbers by the time they’d finished a quite bizarre set. They left the stage to the usual heckles and, responding to a not unreasonable suggestion from half-way back that they were, perhaps, not up to championship standard, replied – ‘We think you’re shit too’ – before beating a hasty retreat under a hail of gob, never to be seen in Cork again. A scene we’d witness again, in the same venue and in much the same circumstances, before the year was out.
Once The Smiths took the stage to the jagged, slash-cut opening bars of ‘Still Ill’, and Morrissey emerged from the shadows, his outsized shirt already opened to the navel, The Frank Chickens had been consigned to the footnotes of what was to become a spectacular history. Over the course of a sharp, frenetic and powerful sixteen song set, The Smiths just burned the house down: in the long and diverse history of live shows in Cork, it is easily among one of the most lethal.
While that show has remained vivid in the memories of most of those who attended it, many of them left there that night intent on starting their own bands immediately afterwards, boldly going for it and just taking their chances. And those among the audience that were already involved in fledging groups around the city, and there were many, left with plenty of food for thought: if this was where the bar was now set, then what, really, was the point ?
The set-list for that first Cork show is widely available on all of the usual on-line resources and, of course, Johnny Rogan’s exhaustive ‘The Severed Alliance’ is incomparable in terms of context and background. But although Morrissey so physically dominated that Cork show – and I couldn’t believe how imposing he was, and how he so used his body for emphasis – neither could I get my head around how small and slight Johnny Marr was. Nor, of course, how his nimble hands made one guitar sound like three.
The songs were already well-known to anyone who’d bought the band’s unconvincing debut album, ‘The Smiths’, and who was familiar with the terrific additional content on their singles. But they also introduced one new number, a protracted, funked-up, bass-prominent beauty called ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, during which Morrissey baited the audience with flowers throughout the long instrumental passages and Andy Rourke stepped into the spotlight to reveal just how important his industry and frame of reference was to the band’s sound. And we were just learning all of the time.
The Smiths returned to The Savoy six months later, during which time they’d been sucked slowly in from the margins. But although the group would go on to regularly feature at the business end of the album charts, they never really enjoyed the consistent successes they craved with the shorter form, which was one of Morrissey and Marr’s primary ambitions for their group from the get-go.
Even so, the singer had already been rumbled by the tabloids who, picking up on the platinum-plated copy he routinely provided in interviews, had become as regular a freak feature in The Sun as he was on the hit parade, portrayed variously as a dangerous, anti-royal traitor, a sexual deviant and a macabre, terrorist-loving, tree-hugging weirdo. Or, if you like, the Jeremy Corbyn of his time.
The Denis Desmond/MCD-promoted, nine-date, eight-town tour of Ireland during November, 1984, took place less than one month after the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the British Conservative Party was holding its annual conference, and during a particularly dark period in modern Irish history when loyalist and republican terrorism across the island routinely dominated the news agenda. And at a time when many formidable contemporary bands just simply wouldn’t – or were advised not to – play in the north of Ireland.
With The Smiths on the road in support of their stop-gap, compilation album, ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, Morrissey gave the London press a series of typically headline-grabbing quotes during the media campaign to promote it, one of the most notable of which referred to Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s Prime Minister, and who had survived the Brighton bombing, which killed three people and injured thirty more.
‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing’, Morrissey claimed, ‘is that Thatcher escaped unscathed. I think that, for once, the IRA were accurate in selecting their targets’.
And it was against this backdrop, six weeks after U2 released ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and five months after Bob Dylan’s show at Slane Castle was marred by riots around the County Meath town, that The Smiths returned to Ireland. During which they played shows in Letterkenny, Belfast and Coleraine, as well as the usual stop-offs, fetching up in Cork for the second and last time on Sunday, November 18th, 1984, one week before Midge Ure and Bob Geldof recorded the Band Aid single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and a week after Madonna released her remarkable breakthrough album, ‘Like A Virgin’.
The mood inside The Savoy, second time around, was just as frenzied and excitable as it had been earlier that year, and maybe overly-so. The crowd itself was far bigger, as you’d expect, and the promoters had put an extra 50p on the price of the tickets [from memory, and I stand corrected on this, up from £6 to £6.50]. And, once again, myself and Philip were there, close enough to see the magicians work the stage, far enough away to avoid the on-going bash-ball inside the moshing zone. The support this time was provided by James, yet another fledgling and already highly regarded Manchester band [is there ever any other kind ?], who’d released a fine first record, the ‘Jimone’ EP, on the Factory label and who, during their formative years, enjoyed Morrissey’s very public patronage. For better and, possibly, for worse.
The Smiths’ set had changed quite drastically in the interim. And although they were ostensibly promoting ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, the band was also road-testing several of the tracks that would buttress its second studio album, ‘Meat Is Murder’. Taking their opening positions to the foreboding sounds of Prokofiev’s dramatic overture, ‘Romeo And Juliet’, they opened bravely with one of their more introspective cuts, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, which had featured as a quality b-side on their ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single earlier that summer, and into which they quickly segued.
Foremost among the clatter of new material was a frantic take on ‘What She Said’ and, close to the end, a bionic, souped-up ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’, by which time the atmosphere inside the hall had turned sharply. Marr had become the unwitting target of a hail of spit half-way through, an unfortunate knuckle-walker’s pastime that many of us suspected, wrongly, had died after The Sex Pistols signed to a major label.
And after two audible warnings – at one point he arched his callow body back and looked like he was going to lash out – he eventually walked off just shy of the hour mark, taking the rest of the band with him. The Smiths returned, reluctantly enough it seemed to me, to do a two song encore, finishing on a high with ‘What Difference Does It Make’, but Marr had the last word: he leaned into a vocal mic on the way off and told the crowd, not incongruously, how he’d ‘come to play and not to be spat at’, before leaving again, this time for good.
As the house lights came up around The Savoy, a section of the crowd, some checking their watches, began to vent, boo-ing initially – more, I suspect, in the direction of those who’d caused the walk-off than at the band itself – and then, once it was obvious that the show was over and that The Smiths weren’t returning, broke into a ridiculous chorus of ‘We want James’.
So while the Cork crowd was given an early flavour of some of the more sinewy cuts from ‘Meat Is Murder’, it also experienced the shortest Smiths set, by at least three songs, of that leg of the tour. But not before Morrissey, as the band set up for its encore, returned to the stage with a small sapling, which he wielded like a bicycle chain during ‘Hand In Glove’, and then deposited with gusto into the audience.
The Smiths certainly knew how to make an exit like they knew how to make an entrance. They never returned to Cork again.