The Smiths: Points of Departure
No band is an island. The best songwriters tend to be sponge-like soaker-uppers of music, film, fine art, literature and other forms of culture, be they popular or obscure, and these influences often find their way into the music, helping listeners branch out and develop new interests. With Points of Departure, we use our favorite groups as springboards for broader cultural investigations and highlight some of the cool things you might get into via your record collection. This week: the Smiths.
The "angry young man" genre that sprung up in the U.K. during the 1960s influenced tons of British musicians in the '70s and '80s, including Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and, especially, Smiths singer Morrissey. More often than not, these movies, TV programs, books and plays -- generally labeled kitchen sink dramas -- centered on working-class young men who spend more time getting hammered in the pub than looking for jobs. Many of the Smiths' album covers and single sleeves feature images based on these works. The early single 'What Difference Does It Make?' includes a photo of actor Terence Stamp from the movie 'The Collector,' and the cover of the 1987 compilation 'Louder Than Bombs' features playwright Shelagh Delaney, who wrote 'A Taste of Honey,' which provided the song 'Reel Around the Fountain' with a couple of lines.
From the very start, Morrissey has given props to the 19th century writer and poet, best known for the comedy of manners 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' In one of his first interviews after the Smiths' debut album was released in 1984, Morrissey claimed that Wilde and James Dean were the only two people who got him through his awkward teenage years. From gladiolas (the flower of choice for both Wilde and Morrissey) to namedropping the author ("Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose because Wilde is on mine," he sings on 'The Queen Is Dead''s 'Cemetry Gates') to sexual coyness (Wilde was gay when it was still a crime; Morrissey has never come out as hetero or homo), Morrissey has done more for Wilde's legacy over the past three decades than every college literary professor on every campus on the planet combined.
Morrissey has never been shy about his love of '70s glam rock. Throughout the Smiths' five-year run and into his solo career, David Bowie, Roxy Music, the New York Dolls and T-Rex have appeared numerous times in interviews and song references. The influence isn't always obvious in the band's songs, which are rooted more in post-punk than glam, but like the kitchen sink dramas that shaped Morrissey's lyrical vision, the glam rockers helped form the Smiths' musical path. Guitarist Johnny Marr even got in on the action with one of the Smith's all-time greatest songs, 'Panic,' which is based on -- some even say stolen from -- T-Rex's 'Metal Guru.'