The Smiths, Benny and me

A review of The Smiths written for fegmaniax:

So then, The Smiths. Or rather, mostly Benny, who is so closely linked to the sound of The Smiths for me that I can’t hear Morrissey without picturing Benny.

I knew Benny from the first day of primary school. Within the year, we knew he was a creative kid. He made weekly comics for all his friends, comics scrawled on offcuts from his dad’s stationery shop. Each comic was different, with different characters and careful story arcs (in my case, mostly fart gags) for each friend. We’d forgive Benny’s at best phonetic spelling, ‘cos we were each of us six at the time.

A few years passed, and Benny and I went to different schools. At age 12, tho’, we ended up in the same secondary school. A bit taller, fractionally better at spelling, he was one of the weird kids of the year. He was one of the first indie kids on my radar, and his frantic indie cool kept him from being picked on.

It was easy to be indie in the UK in the 1980s; you still listened to BBC radio, but you tuned to John Peel at night, just like everyone else. If you wanted to be identified as indie, you talked about what John Peel played. There was only one alternative. We’d only just got a fourth TV channel, and we needed alternatives so badly in the Age of Thatch that we’d even wait eagerly for Richard Whiteley to come on …

So there was Benny on the school bus; the clapped-out, clearly illegal motor coach with the brutish owner-driver Spamheid crashing gears and smoking furiously. Benny would be waving his arms about “Woa-hay … Morrissey … This Charming Man … he’s great, woa-hay”, then fall into the smokers at the back as Spamheid took the roundabout at Pollokshaws too fast.

So dedicated to the Smiths was Benny that he’d bring his albums into school. Not that there was any place to play them, it was just the awe of the medium, and his reverence for the sounds that they represented. 12″ was a lot of real estate in a teen bag, especially on transit.

And those sounds … the album starts with an impossible 80’s drum track, but Reel Around the Fountain is so lush and lengthy you can forgive that. You’ve got to have a tolerance for warble and jangle to even get a handle on this album, but the next two tracks kind of lead you away. “Pretty Girls Make Graves” is a surprisingly sweet fourth, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” does almost nothing, and then there’s the album’s stormer, “This Charming Man”, so short it’s almost over by the time you’ve sat up to take notice. You had to live in the now back then. Blink and you’d miss it.

TCM is the first of a run of four epic tracks, with “Still Ill” being the handbook of eighties indie disaffection, “Hand in Glove” adding the bit of depth to the proceedings (I remember seeing Benny’s notes on the song, and what he thought it all meant. I suspect it’s still classified). And then, “What Difference Does it Make?”, the whirling anthem of the album – where the re-enactment of Morrissey’s stage antics got the only marginally-coordinated Benny pitched into the fag pit again as Spamheid gunned the beat-up Plaxton up the Ayr Road.

Last two tracks? Who cares? If you’re not spent and reclining by the end of WDDIM?, you weren’t listening to the same album.

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