In rock ‘n’ roll’s tireless meta-narrative, the Smiths are often portrayed as a grounding, purgative, politicized response to the excesses and implied privilege of synth/pop and the new romantic scene: your cure for Spandau Ballet like the Clash unto Foreigner. This positioning of Morrissey and Marr underscores one of the subtler ironies of the US/UK rock ‘n’ roll exchange: In Britpop, even artists purported to be antidotes and correctives to pretense and empty style come off, to American ears and eyes, as more than a little stylized and pretentious themselves. Now, see, the Ramones – there’s a corrective to pretense, style and every other wrinkle of art and sophistication. If you really want corrected, try the Ramones. They’ll correct anything you got.
To be fair, the Smiths’ short, brilliant burst of a career transpired in the mid-to-late ‘80s, a period in which all rock music – literally all of it – was victimized by some unfortunate currents in audio engineering and production. This was the dawn of digital. Many people were still recording to tape, but digital processors and effects were rampant, and the converters sucked. The mature platform of analog had given us the sonic wonderland of the ‘70s, but of course, new must be better. It’s counterintuitive but true: New technologies often don’t answer to existing needs; needs are created to justify and speed the adoption of new technologies. And in periods of paradigm transition like the ‘80s, the tech geeks and nerds enjoy a brief, baleful interval of undue aesthetic say.
So from the gated snare reverb that stamps the opening drumbeat of “Reel around the Fountain” (on 1984’s eponymous debut) to the cavernous final strains of “I Won’t Share You” from 1987’s finale, Strangeways, Here We Come, the formidable musical and cultural achievement that we call the Smiths passes by in this historical envelope of shallow, harsh digital reverbs, overcompressed, undynamic drums and a stereo chorus so ubiquitous that we used to just think that was what “natural” guitars sounded like (all the way through Nevermind, in case you hadn’t noticed).
And since the Smiths’ breakup was so uncompromisingly final (gotta love them for that, like Jim Brown’s retirement), we never got to hear them through a different period filter. The au naturel indie trend of the aughts would have flattered them, I think. But the Smiths are forever enshrined in the ghastly sonic seat of 1985, even as the dour craft and imagination of their songwriting and the sheer orchestral brilliance of their guitarist deserved more and better.
I theorize with more trepidation than usual here, because my new friend Tony Fletcher, the British-born Phoenicia-area music writer, literally wrote the book on the Smiths (and on REM and on Keith Moon), and there’s a better-than-average chance that I’ve gotten everything wrong. On Friday, February 1, Fletcher will read from his just-published A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths, and I will collect my deserved comeuppance.
This will happen at one of the area’s more exciting new venues, Two Boots Pizza (yes, upscale pizzeria and hipster music and event venue in one – believe it). Tony will not be alone. Notable songwriter and music critic Robert Burke Warren (the adult persona of kindie megastar Uncle Rock) will be on hand, perhaps to interpret the Smiths, as will deejay and Mercury Rev member Grasshopper.
Author Tony Fletcher with Robert Burke Warren & Grasshopper, Friday, February 1, 7 p.m., Two Boots Pizza, 4604 Route 9G, Red Hook; (845) 758-0010, www.twoboots.com/tw2008/bard.