Music History

The Smiths' Louder Than Bombs turns 25 years old today

Tony Wilson (the Andy Warhol of Manchester, England) once made the hackneyed statement "Morrissey is a woman trapped in a man's body," to which the dandified frontman of the Smiths eventually replied, "Tony Wilson is a man trapped in a pig's body." The two were friends and icons of the Manchester music scene, a city that had given us some of the best English bands between 1977 and 1995 (the Buzzcocks, Joy Division/New Order, the Fall, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Oasis, the Verve), not least of all, the Smiths.

Many would go on to consider the Smiths the most quintessentially English band of the decade -- particularly their androgynous, uni-monikered frontman, with his Oscar Wildian embracement of art-for-arts-sake glamour, incessantly carrying around bouquets of gladiolis, wearing hearing aids for no reason and scribbling the word "BAD" across his neck in magic marker.

Steven Patrick Morrisey, the son of a librarian, had the ability to manipulate words to sound downright smutty, while still, on the surface, remaining PG-rated ("why pamper life's complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat"). Wearing ladies shirts tucked around a skinny frame, he exuded not a biological, surface sexuality like most pop stars, but with an under-the-floorboards, neurotic arousal: A very repressed English aesthetic. But it could also be argued that Morrissey was an American trapped in an Englishman's body.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of The Smith's Louder Than Bombs, the U.S. compilation that bridged the gap between the band's UK success and the messianic rise to fame of their frontman in the States. Having been deprived The Smiths' previous compilation, 1984s Hatful of Hollow, with Louder Than Bombs U.S. record buyers got a taste of Smiths classics like "Panic" and "William It Was Really Nothing," along with loveable B-sides like "Asleep," "Half A Person" and "Stretch Out And Wait."

The Smiths would split up four months after the release of Bombs. Morrissey had been throwing jealous tantrums over songwriting partner Johnny Marr's distracting side projects; and Marr was increasingly frustrated with Morrissey's constant need to cover songs by '60s pop divas (an excellent version Twinkle's "Golden Lights" can be heard on Louder Than Bombs). Traces of Morrissey's plans to relocate to the U.S. had been evident even before the split -- the title of Bombs being taken from an Elizabeth Smart poem about Grand Central Station -- and had been for some time.

There was his love of the New York Dolls, his obsession with the Moore child-murders (what country has glamorized serial killers more than the States?) and, most of all, his deep, abiding, trans-mortal relationship with the bi-sexual, pompadour sporting James Dean. In his passionately written biography, Saint Morrissey, author Mark Simpson argues "Morrissey may have wanted Oscar Wilde's mind, but he wanted James Dean's body."

Morrissey's fixation on a Hollywood icon that died four years before the singer was even born speaks most of all to his American DNA. If Dean had gone on to create forty more films and lived to be an old man, it's unlikely that he would have become the posthumous icon that -- arguably -- created the blueprint for the damaged American heartthrob (Elvis, Morrison, Cobain). The world wouldn't have become obsessed with him.

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Or at least Morrissey wouldn't have. It's the mystery, the unavailability, that is the juice of any U.S. phenomenon -- and that is what Americans responded to in the A-sexual, gender swinging Morrissey.

Two months after the Smiths breakup, their final album, Strangeways Here We Come, became their biggest selling album in the U.S., and six months after that Morrissey's solo Viva Hate (an obvious reference to his dearly departed former band) was a bigger smash in America than the Smiths could have dreamed, with the video for "Suedehead" receiving exceptional airplay on MTV.

Morrissey would eventually move to Los Angeles, developing an unexpected following with the macho, working class Latino boys of East L.A., who would host annual conventions in his honor (for more on this see the documentary Is It Really So Strange? and Chuck Klosterman's excellent essay "Viva Morrissey!")

The groundwork for this West Coast Mozzery was laid when The Smiths decided to release Louder Than Bombs in the U.S. The compilation is loaded with themes that speak to an American audience, even more than the sexually repressed British. In the working class environs of '80s Manchester, employment proved your worth, but in "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," Morrissey bemoans "I was looking for a job, and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now," a sentiment often mirrored in the beloved American author, Charles Bukowski.

America's narcissism is embodied in "William It Was Really Nothing" ("I don't dream about anyone except myself") or in "Hand In Glove" ("the sun shines out of our behinds"), which also encapsulates the unattainability at the heart of the American dream ("the good life is out there somewhere"). Morrissey often laments his homeland's sober practicality, preferring a romantic, more dramatic lens to view the world through. And what nation is more impractical and romantic than the U.S.A.?

Here, we have a quixotic view of crime and criminals (Billy the Kid, James Dean), as does the songs of Louder Than Bombs, such as "Sweet and Tender Hooligan" and "Shoplifters of the World Unite". Some may point to Morrissey's later work, such as You Are the Quarry's "America Is Not the World," where the Mozzer croons "America, your head's too big/ Because America, your belly's too big." But honestly, what is more American than hating America? Any argument to the contrary needs simply reference the success of Michael Moore.

Yes, Louder Than Bombs is full of the paradoxical self-loathing/self-aggrandizing sentiments that make up Morrissey. He is vain, depressed, romantic and full of complaints: And that is why America loves him. He is just like us.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse

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