On Friday 6th May, 1983, my Goth-mate Jimmy dragged me along to see the Sisters of Mercy at the University of London Student’s Union. We were students at the time, so only needed to show our SU cards to get in. I know the date because I have the ticket glued in my scrap book. What we didn’t know, as we huddled in the small studio-sized room, was that a relatively new band from Manchester was being showcased – The Smiths. They had replaced Babaluna on the bill – why and how, I don’t know (Rough Trade getting them some capital exposure, perhaps?).
Most of the leather-wearing Goths sloped off to the bar as the weedy Mancunians set up their gear and were given a lukewarm, almost apologetic, introduction to the indifferent crowd. Jim and I were pleasantly surprised, as we both had copies of their early singles – Hand in Glove and its brilliant B-side, Still Ill, This Charming Man, What Difference does it Make? We stood at the front of the low stage, knee high, right in front of Morrissey’s swivelling hips and the jingly-jangly Johnny Marr. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce looked fresh-faced and keen, in a time before stardom and their descent into drugs hell.
The Smiths ripped out their early set with joyful verve, delivered in a loose and slightly un-together cacophony of the first album material to barely fifty people. Reel Around the Fountain lingered, hauntingly in my young mind, Mozza’s compelling imagery striking home. We loved it, and it cemented our status as Smiths fans. The meat was not yet murdered and Strangeways had not been visited, but we had seen enough emerging talent by then that we knew. These boys were special.
Oh, and the pre-Mission Sisters were rocking and sleek, with Eldridge gripping the mic with hand in leather glove. The room filled and we grooved and gyrated to their compulsive rock set, including early hits, Alice, the Body Electric and covers of Gimme Shelter, and yes, the Dolly classic, Jolene. Great gig, all things considered, and not bad for two quid.
Fast-forward 33 years, to Thursday 8th December 2016, and I found myself at the Half Moon pub in Putney, South London, where tribute band The Smyths performed to an enthusiastic room full of Smiths fans, ranging in age from teenagers to us fifty-somethings who were around when Morissey was first warbling.
As I sipped my pint of flat lager I reflected that it was a happy meeting of creative talent when gawky teenage poet Stephen Morrisey met shy tunesmith Johnny Marr at Salford’s Boy’s Club in the early 80s. The unremitting bleakness of Manchester’s gray post-industrial decay, high youth unemployment and the pressure to find a job, the heart-rending crimes of the Moors Murderers, all formed a backdrop against which Morrissey’s urban poetry found a new outlet as song lyrics. Some themes keep recurring to give an oddly current feel to some of the songs.
That night I finally understood the difference between imitation and veneration. That ‘tribute’ is indeed a sign of respect for something that deserves to live on. Here was a band performing the works of the Smiths in a reverential manner, technically accurate right down to mannerisms and nuances, fronted by a singer so alarmingly similar in both voice and looks to a young Morrissey that you had to blink and rub your eyes.
But he isn’t Morrissey, he’s Graham Sampson, a talented singer in his own right, sporting quiff, flowery shirt and charity shop necklace, giving the fans his interpretation and paying homage in this brilliant set of songs. I reeled around the fountain once more and sang along with the other 300 revellers at this pulsating sell-out gig, re-living and celebrating the eternal charm of these songs, now passing to a new generation of fans.
We sang along to lyrics that refuse to be forgotten:
It’s time the tale was told, of how you took a man and you made him old…
Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, will nature make a man of me yet?
Park the car by the side of the road; don’t you know, time’s tide will smother you.
I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving, England is mine, and it owes me a living.
Shoplifters of the World unite and take over! Panic on the streets of London!
Because the music that they constantly play means nothing to me about my life – hang the DJ!
So what difference does it make? I’m so sick and tired and I’m feeling very sick and ill today.
…and don’t go home tonight, go out and find the one that you love and who loves you…
The Smyth’s take a bow.
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