In the footsteps of Morrissey and Marr – talking The Smiths with Richard Houghton

By day a manager for a regional housing association, Richard Houghton still sees himself as ‘a frustrated journalist/author’, something he first made assured moves towards remedying five years ago, collating fans’ first-hand memories of the Rolling Stones’ live shows for his first published book.

His resultant ‘part-musical memoir, part-social history’ was just the first of many ‘fanthology’ publications, subjects ranging from The Beatles, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd and The Who, while Richard’s also made considerable contributions to recent exhaustive co-written biographies of OMD and The Wedding Present.

Latest addition, The Smiths: The Day I Was There, is another labour of love from this Northamtonshire-born, Manchester-based music fan, celebrating a band who were recording material for barely four years yet packed so much into that period.

“They did. I think that was partly because both Morrissey and Johnny Marr were brimming with musical ideas, and once they came together their creative juices really started to flow. So what they produced in terms of recorded material but also live performances was the result of the two of them having been waiting for the right opportunity.

“And it was that immediate post-punk era, where The Jam had gone and The Clash were fizzling out and teenagers who liked guitar-based music, particularly in Britain, were looking for a new set of heroes.”

In that short spell, The Smiths managed some 200 shows, playing various countries. I’m guessing you had responses from all over for this latest title.

“Yes, there are memories of over 130 of the shows they played, so around two-thirds of all of their gigs. Whilst they did two North American tours, not counting the flying visit they made to New York early on, they didn’t play many European shows and never went to Asia or Down Under.”

You managed to collate more than 400 accounts, unearthing along the way a few seldom seen or in some cases previously unseen photographs and memorabilia. Are there specific stories that jumped out at you of all those submitted?

“What I was most struck by was the extent to which some fans would follow them around the country without tickets and sometimes with no money and no means of getting from A to B. Johnny Marr and Morrissey were both quite generous in terms of offering to put people on guest-lists, and where they couldn’t do that, they’d suggest to fans that they came in to watch the soundcheck and then hide in the toilets!

“There are also several tales of fans climbing in through lavatory windows to gain access to shows or photocopying tickets. This was in the days before bar codes and QR codes and the various security means that venues now have in place to make sure that only bona fide gig-goers can gain access.”

You spoke to a few people who were very close to the subject at one stage or other.

“Yes, a couple of promoters had interesting tales to tell, for example having to provide flowers for Morrissey to throw around on stage as part of the rider. Normally bands ask for food and booze, not flowers ‘with no thorns’!”

Then there was Simon Wolstencroft, the drummer best known for his long stint with The Fall (1986/97) and also worked with Ian Brown (and an early version of The Stone Roses) and Terry Hall’s The Colourfield. He appears quite early in the story.

“Simon drummed on the first rehearsal session that Johnny and Morrissey did together and was Johnny’s first-choice pick to be The Smiths’ drummer. But, in his own words, he ‘didn’t like the cut of Morrissey’s jib’. Simon and Johnny had previously been playing more Earth, Wind & Fire-type material and Simon wasn’t convinced that a shoe-gazing band was what he wanted to be in.

“I was also hoping to talk to both Craig Gannon, who played guitar on the Queen is Dead tour, and the band’s sound-man, Grant Showbiz, both of whom indicated that they were willing to chat, but problems with schedules meant that didn’t happen. But, other than asking the principals themselves to take part, which I didn’t do because I think I knew what the answer was going to be, I’m happy that I managed to capture a wide range of memories from different people.”

Club Scout: Richard Houghton on hallowed ground at the corner of Coronation Street and St Ignatius Walk, Salford

I was 17 when I first got to see The Smiths on the Meat is Murder tour, having picked up on them a lot earlier via John Peel, soon buying all the product I could. I loved Morrissey’s wordplay and enjoyed a few of those early music press interviews, but could never really relate to his more maudlin nature, much preferring Johnny’s songcraft and guitar hooks, and Andy Rourke’s basslines. Did you find fans who contributed fell into different camps on that front?

“That word ‘maudlin’ is a term that many Smiths fans reject. The idea that their music is only for manic depressives really winds them up, and I wonder if that’s because the song ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ is so firmly lodged in the public consciousness. A lot of people said to me that far from making them sad the lyrics of Smiths songs made them laugh.

“I wasn’t a huge fan when they were around. My best mate was though, and every time I went to his house or flat The Smiths were on the turntable. My tastes were more conservative – classic rock like the Stones, The Who and Black Sabbath. Unlike – it seems – everyone else, I wasn’t tuning in to John Peel every night to see what was cool. Probably because I wasn’t cool!

“But I remember when ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ came out because someone put it on the juke box in my local and loads of my mates started jumping around to it, knocking bar stools over in the process.

“I never got to see them live. I was relying on that best mate to get me a ticket to see them and of course they broke up rather unexpectedly, when he and I both thought there’s be another tour and more opportunities to go and see them.”

Reading all these accounts, what was the performance you wished you’d been there for?

“I’d have loved to have seen what proved to be their last show, at Brixton Academy in December 1986. They’d just toured with Craig Gannon but had gone back to being just the four of them again and apparently there was a real sense of camaraderie amongst the band.

Guild Exit: WriteWyattUK interviewee Marcus Parnell was among Richard Houghton’s contributors for his book

“I think the Queen is Dead tour had been quite challenging – Morrissey had been pulled off the stage in Newport and famously had a coin or a drumstick – no one seems quite sure – thrown at him just one song into their set at the Guild Hall in Preston – so there was a growing undercurrent of violence at their shows as they attracted more of a laddish element. But this was by all accounts quite a joyous show. Sadly, of course, it proved to be their last.”

You also helped put together an official biography of The Wedding Present, 2017’s rather splendid Sometimes These Words Just Don’t Have To Be Said, working alongside David Gedge, another important band in indie circles the world over, with strong links to Manchester, and a group with which we both have a major love. As an adopted Mancunian of sorts, which other acts associated with the city (two cities, if you count Salford separately) resonated with you?

“Well, I live in Chorlton in south Manchester now, which is where the Bee Gees grew up and put on their first public performance, so how does that sound as a nomination? I’ve become a fan of the ‘Manchester is as important as Liverpool’ argument over the years. You’ve got Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, The Hollies, 10cc, Buzzcocks, Joy Division and New Order, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Oasis.”

You say yourself that you live fairly close to Johnny Marr’s Stretford roots. Do you find yourself from time to time seeking out city landmarks with Smiths links?

“I live about 10 minutes from Morrissey’s childhood home, and he was in a Stretford pub just before Christmas that I walked past the day before and the day after. I don’t particularly have to seek the landmarks out. I walk my dog past Southern Cemetery, referenced by the song ‘Cemetry Gates’, every day.”

Some Smiths fans are known to be somewhat obsessive about the band, and in many cases a love for Morrissey too. But in view of his more recent drift towards endorsing dodgy, extreme right-wing political figures and movements, there’s been an increasing sense of discomfort and unease about professing a love for his past endeavours. That must have been an issue for you in putting this book together.

“A couple of people involved in the music business said they didn’t want to contribute stories because they ‘couldn’t separate the man from the music’, but most of the people who contributed memories of seeing The Smiths were quite clear that the Morrissey they knew then and in his immediate post-Smiths solo career wasn’t the Morrissey of today.

“Back then, he wrote from the point of view of the outsider and that’s why people who were unsure about relationships, gender identity, sexuality and their place in the world identified with his lyrics. No one who contributed a story of seeing The Smiths expressed any sympathy for the right-wing views Morrissey now seems to espouse. Rather there was sadness that a child of Irish immigrants should seem to want to stop anyone else from coming to this country to better themselves.”

In a sense, I’m with Billy Bragg on this, and can’t think of the band the same way now.

“I take the Nick Cave approach to this. Once the song is written and released it’s not the artist’s song anymore. It belongs to the fans, each of whom places their own meaning on it. So if a song reminds you of a particular time or place, that’s how you own it. Morrissey becoming a spokesperson for the right doesn’t devalue what ‘This Charming Man’ meant to somebody 35 years ago when they first fell in love, first had their heart broken, or whatever.

“Moz had acquired ‘national treasure’ status despite voicing a liking for the Kray twins and being rude about the Royal Family. But I’m afraid that even national treasures can go too far.”

You’ve seen him live a fair bit live since The Smiths’ days. Can you put your finger on what it is about him that resonates with those diehard fans?

“Yes, I’ve probably seen him a dozen times. Although he doesn’t play a lot of Smiths material, he does trade on that legacy, which is fair enough. And Morrissey still has a commanding stage presence, but I think it’s far to say that the once loyal fanbase of Smiths fans is smaller now than it was. More and more people want to preserve their memories and really don’t like what he’s become.”

Meanwhile, Johnny Marr’s sparkling career continues to go from strength to strength. I take it your love for his work goes way beyond the fact that he’s a fellow Manchester City fan.

“Johnny’s live set would be a lot weaker without the Smiths songs – hearing 4,000 people singing along to a Smiths classic at the Albert Hall in Manchester in September was quite something. What he is doing is giving fans an opportunity to hear those songs with the proper arrangements. But of course, he’s cursed by the fact that the work for which he is most famous and with which he’ll always be associated is what he did with Morrissey. It’s like Paul Simon. He may hate the fact but he was half of Simon and Garfunkel and in the great public consciousness ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ will always eclipse ‘You Can Call Me Al’.”

Word Smith: The boy with the book in his hand. Manchester-based Richard Houghton with his latest publication.

Do you think the other members of what was seen as the classic Smiths line-up – Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce – were badly treated by the Morrissey-Marr power base?

“The fall out from the court case is well documented (wherein a judge decided royalties should be split four ways and not 80% between Morrissey and Marr, with the other 20% going to Joyce and Rourke), and I think the band as a whole were badly served. They should have got proper management instead of muddling through, not sorting out contracts, and so on.

“I thought Johnny’s autobiography, Set The Boy Free, was actually a bit disingenuous in that respect and I still don’t understand why he didn’t put his foot down with Morrissey and insist on installing a manager who could deal with the day to day hassles. But a fan in the book claims that Johnny wanted to leave the band after the first album so perhaps things were in a state of virtual collapse from the beginning. Maybe there was no ‘Morrissey-Marr power base’ because the tension between those two, as well as creating great songs, meant that the band were dysfunctional on a human level. Who knows?”

I saw a recent tweet from Johnny that suggested without doubt there would be no second coming of the band. Do you think that position would ever change?

“Quite a few people I spoke to for the book had held out hope that Morrissey and Marr might do something together without Joyce or Rourke, but I think events over the last year or so, with Morrissey’s increasingly politically provocative statements, have ruled that out. Johnny doesn’t need the money, or the hassle.

“Lots of people who contributed memories said they hoped a full-blown Smiths reunion wouldn’t happen. But they also said that if it did, they’d definitely find a way of getting themselves a ticket.”

In a sense, you had to be around at the time, during that era, to understand the impact The Smiths had, weighing it all up against the political climate and so on. Is that how you see it?

“Yes, I think that’s true. Thatcher was Prime Minister, the miners’ strike was on, and there were benefit gigs for political causes that The Smiths contributed to. But of course, they were quite apolitical too and certainly not as obviously aligned as, say, Billy Bragg or Paul Weller.”

Hollow Inside: Richard’s favourite Smiths’ LP, from 1984

The Smiths created a major legacy, not least in indie circles. And three and half decades on, they seem to be as influential as ever. Did you find in putting this book together fans who love them despite not even being around to see live music in the ’80s?

“Not really, because I was seeking out people who had seen them live. But I did have a few people who said they wanted to contribute memories of seeing Morrissey live, either because they missed out on seeing The Smiths or because they’d followed the individual band members’ solo careers. So I included a few of those, including some stories about Moz cancelling gigs, which of course he is almost as infamous for as he is for his dodgy political views.”

I’ll put you on the spot now. If you had to decide on one Smiths album, a favourite album track, and maybe five singles, what would you go for?

“Well, Hatful of Hollow, which mostly collects the Peel sessions together, would be the album.”

Agreed. That’s this scribe’s favourite Smiths LP too, although The Queen is Dead will not be far behind for me.

“Then ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ would be the album track, and the singles … I guess ‘Hand in Glove’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, ‘Panic’ and ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’. Johnny knew how to write a good pop tune.”

He certainly did. Meanwhile, you now have a number of books to your name. What are you working on at present, and what’s the first to come our way in 2020?

“My next project is Queen – The Day I Was There. And unlike The Smiths, I did actually see Queen, four times in total. In fact, they played Lancashire several times between 1973 and 1975 before they became a global phenomenon on the back of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, with three appearances in Preston alone, two in Lancaster, and one in Blackburn. If anyone saw any of those shows, and anywhere else for that matter, I’d love to hear about them. Not as cool as The Smiths, but then I never pretended to be cool!”

Ask Me: Richard Houghton on camera for Granada TV at Salford Lads’ Club, denying all knowledge of previously breaking into the palace with a sponge and a rusty hammer and lifting lead off the roof of the Holy Name Church

If you saw any Queen shows and would like to contribute to Richard’s next publication, contact him via iwasatthatgig@gmail.com. You can also check out his Facebook page and head to his website.

Regular readers will know there have been previous WriteWyattUK feature/interviews with Richard Houghton, and you can check out via the followin glinks my chats with the man himself about his Rolling Stones book in 2015, The Beatles in 2016, and The Who in 2017.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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