The Smiths meant a great deal to me in 1983 for some reason… But what were they on about? What were they telling us thirty years ago?
‘This Charming Man’, their second single, was the first Smiths song I bought… on 7″. The lyrics beautifully describe a homo-erotic encounter during which nothing really happens. Here’s the gist:
My bike’s nackered.
I’m alone on the moors (in the 1950s?)
I’m a virgin.
A bloke in a swanky car has just offered me a lift.
I’m in the car and we’re chatting…
He flatters me!
This experience is so important, I must sing about it…
A cult film springs to mind, which I feel I must quote.*
He says: Return the ring.
Is this marital advice or a sexual pun?
Either way, the bloke seems to know what he’s on about…
That’s it. The rest is left to our imaginations.
*The memorable “pantry boy” line is apparently lifted from the 1972 film adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 homo-erotic play ‘Sleuth’ which I have never seen. Others speculate that it may relate to Henry Green’s ‘Loving’ (1945) or Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’.
According to various accounts, lyricist Morrissey was irritated by 1980s mainstream gay culture, typified by Frankie’s ‘Relax’ (1983/4) which was defiantly direct about gay sex and seemed to banish ambiguity to the dark ages. His response was to harp back nostalgically to an earlier underground gay scene in which ambiguity was de rigueur (pre-1967 when homosexuality was illegal). Apprarently, he was rebelling against gay liberation and the modern pressure to “come out”.
I didn’t understand any of this at the time. For me, This Charming Man’s old-fashioned language, sexual ambiguity and class references seemed to echo the hit TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ which had mesmorised UK audiences during 1981. The song struck me as a more down-to-earth Northern version of this British literary attitude expressed through pop music.
I particularly enjoyed the words ‘punctured’, ‘bicycle’, ‘tantalise’ and ‘handsome’, all pleasingly pronounced in a familiar Manchester-Irish accent.
On some level, I knew that women were excluded from the world evoked by the song’s lyrics. Curiously, my straight male acquaintances were equally accepting and enthusiastic about the song even though it didn’t seem to relate directly to their lives either. They queued up to leap about at Smiths’ concerts waving daffodils and gladioli. It was actually quite weird, now that I think about it. The song didn’t obviously chime with our experiences, ambitions or concerns so why did we take it so much to heart?
The striking record cover looked like a picture of Morrissey himself, only it wasn’t him… it was Jean Marais, Jean Cocteau’s muse, appearing in Cocteau’s 1950 film ‘Orphee’. The image is superficially narcisistic… but it was created by the subject’s older male lover and mentor and so illustrates the narrative of ‘This Charming Man’ in optimistic fashion.
The B-side is also ‘Jeane’, but this time with an E, addressed to a woman: another first person voice-over, this lyric describes a failed co-habiting relationship… also very retro, conjuring up black and white kitchen sink films of the fifties and sixties. The song thumps along dully by comparison with the sparkling A-side… all very appropriate to the songs’ respective messages.
So, to sum up, the message to young men is:
Share a flash car with a strange bloke? Great plan… he can introduce you to a better life.
Share a flat with a woman? Big mistake… you’ll be trapped.
Morrissey seems to be suggesting that young men should consider a path traditionally associated with women (and generally looked down upon since 1970s womens liberation) i.e. upward mobility through a sexual relationship with an older man. It’s weird! Radical and yet deeply conservative at the same time. He’s telling young men: You can be a muse; you don’t have to compete with other men for a romantic conquest; you can be the prize.
And the message to young women? Well, it’s bleak:
Don’t delude yourselves – happy-ever-afters don’t exist. Men are complicated. They have secret lives, hidden agendas and will get on better without you.
And more generally – Let’s pretend we’re living in the ’50s…
And we all thought – What a great idea!
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A couple of weeks later I bought the 12″ and lo and behold, there were 2 extra songs and no remixes… what fantastic value for money!
‘Wonderful Woman’s melody was dreamy – even though the voice groaned and moaned somewhat – and I allowed the lyrics to persuade me that Morrissey could love a woman after all…
I might have been less beguiled if I had correctly heard the line “Let’s go and trip a dwarf”… I thought he was singing “Let’s go on a trip up North.”
The lyrics to ‘Accept Yourself’ are the perfect back bedroom casualty manifesto… pure ‘Catcher In The Rye’ material… I felt so at home…
“I am sick and I am dull and I am plain
How dearly I’d love to get carried away…”
“And every day you must say
Oh, how do I feel about my shoes?”
Of course. Shoes are one of life’s most accurate barometers. I wonder if this man is wearing any…
My ‘Wonderful Woman’ theories were duly dashed by the male nude on the cover of 7″ ‘Hand In GLove’ which I bought some time after its original release. (It was The Smiths’ first single.)
The A-side’s jubilant declaration of love is familiar territory for pop music, although the language transcends the subject matter. “The sun shines out of our behinds” neatly twists a derogatory phrase into a self-confident assertion (and homo-erotic hint) demonstrating Morrissey’s facility to fearlessly squeeze new life out of cliches.
The B-side ‘Handsome Devil’ is like a darker version of ‘This Charming Man’ – especially given the prominence of the word ‘handsome’ – revealing the inner voice of an older not-so-charming man. There has been much discussion about whether the object of lust is male or female, but this seemed irrelevent to me in 1983. I took the song to be a cautionary tale, equally applicable to boys and girls, not an insight into Morrissey’s psyche.
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So the band’s first 7″ single was about infatuated love (A-side) and predatory lust (B-side)… both sets of lyrics were very immediate, urgent and attention-grabbing. The single didn’t sell well.
The second 7″ was about a homosexual relationship beginning (perhaps) (A-side) and a heterosexual relationship ending (B-side). The lyrics were less highly charged than those of the first single… and set a scene in a cinematic way. The single got into the Top 30… I think on account of the A-side’s striking opening guitar riff, and the up-beat guitar melody which runs alongside the voice, balancing Morrissey’s tendency to drone. It was the quality of the music that really mattered, in order for the record to chart, even though our attention was always drawn to the unusual lyrics.
The covers of both records show-cased male beauty.
So what were The Smiths saying to me, a 16/17 year old girl in 1983?
Thanks Morrissey for all that encouraging advice!
Morrissey’s documented support of women’s liberation is not obvious in any of the above although I imagine his knowledge of the debate influenced his ideas a great deal. The Women’s Liberation movement analysed and challenged society’s view of traditional women’s roles; Morrissey was challenging society’s view of traditional male roles, and he borrowed some of their ideas and strategies.
The world of male flirting and innuendo which he often evokes seems to me now like yet another depressing example of women’s exclusion from aspects of life which men consider important. (It also happens to inform much of the secret history of pop music, being a dynamic which has underpinned many star-mentor relationships.)
But at least he was treating us all like grown-ups… using long words, describing nuanced situations and name-dropping literature and film, and we were duly flattered, even though many of the references went over our heads.
This encouragement to embrace literary ideas was very valuable to me… the Manchester culture which I grew up with discouraged and distrusted intellectualism as a general rule. But The Smiths’ message in 1983 was all about promoting a complicated male agenda… women were side-lined within Morrissey’s terms of reference, even though he may not have intended that. The Smiths seemed radical but were actually following in a long tradition, which is so deeply ingrained in this aptly named city’s culture that most of us barely notice it. Morrissey was just being more open about it. Men are objects of beauty and adulation in this place (think football)… women are not… and The Smiths are a fine example of this pattern repeating itself.
I couldn’t unpick all of this thirty years ago… I was just carried along… feeling somewhat excluded for being female, but not really noticing because the nagging sensation was so familiar.