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  • Tony Harris

KEEPING UP WITH... THE SMITHS


I came across a great book the other day, which was actually published a few years ago, called "A Scene In Between" which is a great compendium by Sam Knee which looks at the fashions around indie music from the mid 80s. For the non-UK readers this "scene" is really bookended by Punk & New Wave at the start of the decade and the move towards Baggy and Grunge at the end.


It covered a whole multitude of artists with its own charts, labels and even stores. A broad church would be represented of, to be fair, mainly guitar bands from the length and breadth of the UK. Goths, post-punks, dark synths and shoe gazers all got a look in with subject matter that purported to be more literary, more arty or just more noisy, but curated mainly by Godfather of the unsigned, John Peel.


And at the centre of it all were the most beloved by all the audiences, Manchester's finest, The Smiths. They were a band of enormous contrasts - melancholic lyrics with joyful guitar jangles and poetic irony backed by rock shapes. Contemporary and retrospective.


The Smiths came from some other place and seemed like nothing you had ever heard before. Of course, what made them even better was that though they were popular not everybody understood their wit or their style which just made the affection for them greater if you were a fan. They were especially important as they represented the acceptable mainstream face of chart-bound indie, which only really The Cure could compete with at the time (and they weren't really that Indie by then).


In 1987, after a meal in Geal's, a popular fish and chip shop in Notting Hill the suddenly fractious band chose to split up, leaving only their final album "Strangeways Here We Come" to placate their devotees. The "scene" mourned and though still unbelieving that there would be no more from them, tried desperately to fill the hole they had left. Replacing the irreplaceable.


The first contenders to take over were the often under-estimated Housemartins. They were Northern - famously calling themselves the fourth best band in Hull - and on an independent label, Go Records. They also were far more politically strident - which Paul Heaton continues to be to this day - though this fact was often disguised by some beautiful bouncing pop tunes. The gloriously effervescent "Happy Hour" was actually a sharp indictment on casual sexism.

That's right, Phill Jupitus, Fatboy Slim and some early Aardman animation.


Sadly, after their second album "The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death" (please reissue it) they too decided to split up. So would dark darlings, Echo And The Bunnymen.


Next up, The Primitives.


They had been seen as natural Smiths successors, after Morrissey was photographed wearing one of their T-shirts and this anointment seemed to prove successful for them initially as "Crash" became a big Top 10 hit. However, their career never really kicked on as their label seemed to point them more towards becoming another Transvision Vamp.



That had happened quite extraordinarily around the same time when the marvellously shambolic girl group We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It, became the unrecognisable Fuzzbox and seemed to deny all their indie roots.


Of course, Indie Kids, like everyone else grow up and the more underground sounds seemed to gravitate to more dance acid-fuelled sounds and so emerged Madchester in the UK. But the emotional tug of the Smiths for many still needed fulfilling desperately and those C86 cassettes would not compile themselves.


Which probably explains the emergence and comparative success - rather out of the blue - for "Reading Writing And Arithmetic" by The Sundays, which managed to delight critics and sold over half a million copies worldwide - top 20 in the UK.


To be fair, if you were looking for an indie band from central casting, The Sundays would be perfect. The main drivers Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin were university literature students for goodness sake.


As if to compound the stereotype, they had met at Bristol University, formed a band with no real musical background and then after graduation started making demos while claiming unemployment benefit. They eventually signed with Rough Trade (The Smiths' label of course) choosing them over other indie stalwarts, 4AD, on the basis that the company office was nearer.


The release of their first single "Can't Be Sure" was greeted with great excitement after buzz had begun to develop around the band and the single lived up to all indie expectations borrowing heavily from fellow indie darlings The Sugarcubes. It was acclaimed as one of the singles of 1989 by the music press.



Yet having only formed comparatively recently, they lacked material to follow up quickly and spent the best part of a year writing and recording the album. Still when "Reading, Writing And Arithmetic" was released it still managed to make the Top 5 which was quite a feat for a band with no previous pedigree. But as the "scene" still yearned for something introspective and emotionally charged, so they came up trumps.


And the album delivered in spades because it truly seemed to borrow from every shade of Indie there was. From the Cocteau Twins-like opening yelp on "Skin And Bone" with its attendant Breeders guitar squall to an almost Happy Mondays bounce on "A Certain Someone". Then of course, there's "Hideous Towns" with a subject matter and delivery part Betjeman and of course part Mozza, all with a rhythm track pinched from The Cure.


Of course, this ignores the record's masterpiece, the more familiar "Here's Where The Story Ends" with its pitch perfect jangling guitars aligned with a far more sunny vocal delivery. It is really just a magnificent pop song that would grace any songbook but seems far more from an earlier incarnation of indie, that of Scotland's Postcard Records.



So whilst this album can be dissected as borrowing from styles all over, it does create something original. It manages to be personal and intimate whilst opening out its soundscape into a broader shape - especially on tracks like "You're Not The Only One I Know".


Sadly, the bankruptcy of Rough Trade and the procrastination in producing a follow-up rather marked the beginning of the end for The Sundays after only one album though two more did follow into the mid 90s to decreasingly warm receptions, which after the adulation that greeted the first seemed a shame.


In truth, "Reading, Writing And Arithmetic" proved to be the "Scene In Between"s last stand as Indie Kids hung up their raincoats and chained up their bikes. The sound of The Sundays spawned several millions of sales for The Cranberries and you can continue to hear there influence today in everyone from Ellie Goulding to Tori Amos.


So where did The Smiths fans all go?


We're led to believe that they went on to Manchester's next big thing The Stone Roses but really their appeal was far more hedonistic and extrovert. Grunge captured some of the mood but lacked the "scene's" delicacy. I would hazard that many shifted their devotion to the equally idiosyncratic Michael Stipe and REM - the perennial Indie stalking horses of the 80s who signed for a major eventually and managed to capture the emotional obliqueness of their Salford forebears with its own brooding yet cascading atmosphere, complete with enigmatic frontman.


If you're reading this and want to check out whether I've called this indie melange right then click HERE. And if you are reading this then the title is Reading - the town - Writing and Arithmetic. Very arch...


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