To mark the publication of Morrissey’s Autobiography, I wanted to go back to the Smiths and look at them from a shoegazing angle. The Smiths meant so much to me at some point, that until today, when I hear the first notes of their albums Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead, I’m immediately transported to those moments of anticipation and excitement when I first heard them (on officially released cassettes!). To someone growing up in Israel in the 1980s, the Smiths brought a refreshing gust of bookishness, brooding and queerness. But they were also to become an influence on shoegaze music, and in some ways actually prefigured it.
To begin with, the combination of the four band members’ influences sounded like the perfect recipe for a shoegaze song: Sixties British pop, The Byrds and Neil Young, Undertones and New York Dolls style noise-pop-punk, and the dark racket of Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground. And hovering above it all was producer Phil Spector’s idea of the Wall of Sound: “I like the idea of records, even those with plenty of space, that sound ‘symphonic’,” Johnny Marr said. “I like the idea of all the players merging into one atmosphere.”
This approach began to take shape on the band’s first album, The Smiths, whose drizzly drones were lit up by cascades of sparkling notes from Marr’s guitar. The band’s first single, ‘Hand in Glove’, which catapulted them into indie consciousness, was an irresistible mix of rolling melody and viscous, distorted, stop-start noise. “I went from these clipped kind of funky chords to this big open thing”, Marr explained. ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’, the first 8-track demo Morrissey and Marr recorded together, similarly repeated a single figure, on and on and on, achieving the hypnotic repetition later perfected by My Bloody Valentine on their album Loveless. The songs on The Smiths have a similar sense of being locked in their own groove, curling in, yet somehow driving forcefully forward, with a thrilling, raw unruliness. Only they’re extremely light on effect pedals and studio tricks; instead they create that sense of reverberating buzz from the composition and the way of playing, as is sometimes done in contemporary classical music. Arpeggio strumming produces “overtones” and “feedback” and “tape echo” long tail organic unpredictability, a 12-string acoustic track creates a sea of sound, a bass line or drum roll or tambourine track sweeps the song in patterns of undulating swells.
The second album, Meat Is Murder, took this tendency even further. ‘The Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ introduced a new element of reverb-drenched atmospherics. ‘Nowhere Fast’ and ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’ added layers of guitars to create a richly textured, almost tactile wall of sound. The effect-heavy ‘How Soon Is Now’, perhaps their best known tune and the favourite Smiths song of non-Smiths-fans, is probably their most obviously shoegazey track, though it’s not really that representative. More typical is a song like ‘Rusholme Ruffians’, with its minimalist cyclical repetition: “It didn’t need to go anywhere else,” Marr explained. “Sometimes it’s cooler to just let it go, let it fly. It’s just the same cycle. The same point being made round and round and round. I wanted it to be insistent.” If MBV’s records sometimes sound like they are being played off slightly warped vinyl, then the Smiths’ ones sometimes sound like they are being played under a stuck needle.
The eponymous first song on the next album, The Queen Is Dead, immediately took the Smiths’ music to another level of shoegazinness. Even the video for it was full of foggy edginess, overdrive and disorientation. With all the reverb, doubling-up, overdubs and lush arrangements of strings, keyboards and backing vocals, you could really lose yourself in the album’s ambient cloud.
In some ways Morrissey as a frontman was the opposite of a shoegaze vocalist, by the very fact of being a proper ‘frontman’. But he had that “You should never go to them. Let them come to you” shoegazing attitude. And notwithstanding his extravagant personality, like the best shoegaze music, the Smiths’ music had something self-questioning, self-eroding about it; it was often spacious, but it was never BIG.