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The Light That Never Goes Out - Remembering the Smiths' Legacy, 25 Years After 'Strangeways'

Posted: 28/09/2012 00:00

"I'll see you sometime, darling." With these low-key words, and a last caress of Johnny Marr's guitar, the final song on The Smiths' final album ends, dropping the curtain on an extraordinary career. Released 25 years ago today, the last seconds of Strangeways, Here We Come are still enough to make me teary over the loss of one of the most distinctive and beautiful bands in all music, so God knows how it felt for besotted fans when they first heard it in 1987.
 
Of course, we would see Morrissey again - his solo career was triumphantly launched within an almost indecent six months - but it was indeed the last we would hear from The Smiths. This is one major reason why their legend has grown so vast. While other revered contemporaries have disastrously re-united (hello, Happy Mondays!), or sullenly cashed in (hey, Pixies!), The Smiths - always the stubborn exceptions - have left their legacy untouched.
 
As a near-lifelong fan, this delights me. No, I'll never see the band perform live, but - having been front row for Morrissey's increasingly erratic solo career, and seen the embarrassment the reformed Sex Pistols heaped upon themselves, eyes wide with pound signs and shame - this is probably a mercy. Besides, The Smiths' passion, originality and beauty are still with us every day, in the extraordinary records they left behind.
 
Take Strangeways itself. Popular wisdom crowns The Queen Is Dead as their masterpiece, but Strangeways is The Smiths' most ambitious and exciting record. Musically, the band stepped out of the narrow confines of indie pop, starting the album with an entirely guitar-free song before leaping to swaggering glam rock, sinister psychedelica and swirling orchestral epics.
 
If Johnny Marr was attempting a musical revolution, Morrissey's idiosyncratic worldview remained unshaken: as he sighs during the heartbreaking coda of Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, "this story is old, I know, but it goes on". Yet his romantic desperation has never been as painfully expressed as on this song, nor his sexual frustration so lewdly captured as on I Started Something I Couldn't Finish. Nor was eighties materialism ever skewered more enjoyably than on Paint A Vulgar Picture: "Best of! Most of! Satiate the need!"
 
Far from a muted epilogue, Strangeways is The Smiths turned up to 11: more heartbroken, witty, lascivious and adventurous than ever before. The explicit politicking may be absent, but this was never as central to The Smiths as the sloganeering album titles suggested: Morrissey was always more preoccupied with romantic than political malaise. There are hundreds of reasons why The Smiths are more loved than the heavily politicised The The (for whom Marr famously moonlighted) but one of them is that Morrissey's lovelorn lyrics were a key which unlocked hearts. Fans admire the furious title track of The Queen Is Dead, but it's "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" which owns their souls.
 
In addition to their radiant romanticism, The Smiths won over millions through their ideas (for more on this, go to our current Smiths-celebrating at Pop Lifer). Like all great bands, The Smiths widened our understanding of what pop could be. Morrissey's bedroom-bound years helped him develop a language which is still unique, stitched together from scraps of poetry, sixties kitchen sink melodrama and the deadpan aphorisms of Northern England.
 
His ambiguous sexuality was also revolutionary: while Duran Duran wielded their heterosexuality like a battering ram and Frankie Goes To Hollywood launched a furious gay counter-attack, Morrissey stayed on the sidelines, a sexual Switzerland. Most Smiths love songs are genderless: of those that are pronouned, they divide fairly evenly between male and female. Arguments still rage over whether Morrissey's disdain for "labels" was helpful to gay teenagers growing up in the awful AIDS era, but his fluid sexuality meant that no-one nursing an aching heart felt excluded from The Smiths' embrace.
 
Another defining Smiths idea was rejection. From the start they scorned the excesses and materialism that would define the eighties. Where many peers were walking blizzards of hairspray, The Smiths were smartly sculpted, Morrissey's quiff almost architectural. While other bands piled mountains of synths and booming percussion onto every available surface, The Smiths usually pared down, letting Morrissey and Marr's astounding songwriting do the peacocking.
 
And - amazingly - it worked. By the time Strangeways was released The Smiths had existed for just five years, recording four albums and 73 songs. Of these, only two or three are bad, while most are perilously close to perfect. This unlikeliest of bands had hijacked the UK's charts and were making bold advances into America. More lastingly, they had conquered millions of hearts. And by resisting the fat cheques and desperate pleas to re-unite, they have ensured that no matter what ugly things Morrissey says today, no matter what ordinary music Marr may dabble in, The Smiths' light not only hasn't gone out, it remains undimmed and unsullied.

 

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