Okay let’s address the elephant in the room straight away. I don’t want to get into a big thing about the pros and cons of the tribute act or cover band. You are either for them or against them. If you think cover bands are ‘stealing gigs for proper bands’, or ‘ripping off the original artist’, then probably, I don’t know…don’t go to them maybe? Cover bands are often the way musicians learn their way around their instruments and how to play with other musicians while raising their musical chops. I have seen many official bands who only have one original member in tact (From The Jam were brilliant) and the rest are ring ins. That is basically a cover band. Is that any different to a tribute act? But often it is just a way for people to hear music they enjoy live, without waiting years for their favourite band to tour. It also a way of having a ‘live experience’ from a band you will never see live. Abba, The Beatles, and in this case that ‘will never see live’ very much applies to The Smiths. People might say ‘never say never’ but when it comes to the idea that Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke may ever regroup, I believe that ‘never’ is pretty finite.
On the rare occasions we get to see the real Morrissey, he is never going to placate our longing for all those Smiths songs we love so dear. Johnny Marr is far more generous with Smiths content. Melbourne’s Smiths tribute act Plagiarism Begins at Home have played in Adelaide a couple of times and were terrific, and Mexrissey play Smiths and Moz songs sung in Mexican, in a Mariachi style and were incredible at the Adelaide Festival a couple of years ago.
So enter British outfit The Smyths on their first Australian tour. Many of the gigs were sold out in advance (as indeed are most of their upcoming UK dates), which is some indication of the love people have for the work of Moz & Marr. The Smyths have been together since 2003 and tour constantly, which means a couple of things. 1) They are pretty bloody good at this and 2) The have been around three times as long as the actual band were. Rourke and Joyce have seen them play, and Smith producer and co-writer Stephen Street has introduced them on stage.
Tonight they do two sets. Fittingly the first set starts with Hand in Glove (the bands 1983 debut single) and from the the first jangling Johnny Marr-esque riff the hairs on the back on my neck went up. A Smiths audience was never going to come at a Johnny Marr wig (good decision Andy Munro), but lead singer Graham Sampson does have a classic Moz do (short at the back party at the quiff) and wears a cardigan, beads a some national health specs, and often strikes a Morrissey-esque pose or gesture. His voice has that yearning tone that made that song so impactful. I think we are going to be alright in the hands of These Charming Men. William It Was Really Nothing is next up and the large crowd are singing along like a football crowd choir.
The main part of the first set is playing all of the classic 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, so we know what we are in for. A dynamite romp through The Queen is Dead, Frankly, Me Shankly, I Know It’s Over, Never Had No One Ever. Sampson doesn’t try to BE Mozza, but there are certain gestures, moves and turns of phrase, that show he has studied his role model carefully. ‘I would like to invite you to come for a walk with me…to the cemetery’. Cue Cemetery Gates and the killer Side Two of Big Mouth Strikes Again, The Boy With The thorn in His Side, Vicar in a Tutu, There is A Light That Never Goes Out and Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. I could spend the afternoon expounding why these songs are fantastic and how much they impacted me personally and what they meant to a generation of bookish, sensitive, outcasts the world over. But if you were in this audience or indeed if you are reading this, I’m going to assume you know that already. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and Barbarism Begins At Home round out the opening set. All around me people are dancing and singing and I saw more than one moistened eyes on the faces of big tough looking guys swept away by the emotion of hearing this music live.
During the intermission people are trading Smiths and Morrissey stories and talking enthusiastically about The Smyths. The key elements are all there. The jingle jangle guitars, the frantic drums, and Sampson’s channelling of Morrissey, if anything the mix is a bit bass heavy, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. And of course these songs that have meant so much to so many for so long. If you are going to play a couple of hours worth of Smiths songs to people who love The Smiths, you have most of the battle won. People are already on side for an approximation of the real thing. My big take away from tonight’s show is if you go and see The Smyths you get all the good bits of The Smiths without having to deal the REAL Morrissey and the myriad of issues people have with him these days. Moz and I have been falling out for a while now, and I have big problems with his U-Kip politics and anti-immigrant/anti-non white folk statements. Live I have come to resent the pontificating and acting like a deity. The Smyths provide an environment where you can just immerse yourself in the glorious music of The Smiths minus the ever less attractive involvement of the real singer. Make no mistake, The Smyths are closer to the real deal than you will ever get and if you check out the photo gallery you’ll see that from certain angles and if you half close your eyes, you’d believe they were the real thing.
Set two is jam packed with Smiths gold. Headmaster Ritual, Panic, Shoplifters, Sheila Take a Bow, Ask, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. Every new song met with increasing and thunderous applause. One odd thing, in the second set Sampson doesn’t wear the glasses and the whole thing loses a tiny bit of magic. A tiny bit, but a bit. Still Ill, the anthem This Charming Man and possibly my favourite Smiths song ever What Does Difference Does It Make?
All men have secrets and here is mine
So let it be known
For we have been through hell and high tide
I think I can rely on you…
And yet you start to recoil
Heavy words are so lightly thrown
But still I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you
So, what difference does it make?
So, what difference does it make?
It makes none
But now you have gone
And you must be looking very old tonight
For me, that is poetry that will last for eternity. The two song encore was lead by Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want This Time the b-side of William It Was Really Nothing. It’s slow and beautiful and kind of perfect. They end with an extended a fabulous How Soon Is Now? It was a unlikely club hit in 1985, seven minutes of swirling psychedelic tremolo driven and irresistible goodliness. And Morrissey pleading ‘I am human and I need to be loved’. Wonderful.
It was quite a night and given the success of this first trip to Australia I suspect that The Smyths will be regular visitors, so if you didn’t catch them this time I’m sure you’ll get another opportunity to oscillate wildly in the not too distance.
PS : Yes there was waving Gladys.
Live Review by Ian Bell