The Smiths Debut Album, 30 Years On: The Sound Of The Paper Round

The 30th anniversary of the release, The Smiths debut remains a raw and powerful album from a band that divided opinions and diverted the straight path of pop.
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The 30th anniversary of the release, The Smiths debut remains a raw and powerful album from a band that divided opinions and diverted the straight path of pop.

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In 1983 I was twelve years old and I had a paper round.  I used to get dressed for school, walk down the ‘mucky way’ to the station paper shop, collect the papers and deliver to the old folks home where I lived with my family, my mum was the warden.  A birthday gift I had been receiving since age eleven was a ‘personal stereo’ with bright orange headphones.  (After one year’s use the ‘R’ headphone would go wonky where it plugged in, so it was time to get a new one for my thirteenth in December).  I’d slot in a tape and get going.  Music woke me up and kept me warm on the most freezing of Airdrie days, and I enjoyed cracking the icy-topped puddles to the beat with my school shoes.

In our house the family of six Hamills were consumed by music.  We bought seven-inch singles every Saturday, listened to the charts, Radio One ruled the airwaves and the chart countdown was a Sunday ritual involving the dishes and some dancing.  We watched Top of The Pops every Thursday.  My dad was into everything from Doctor Hook to Queen to ELO to Bowie; my mum a lover of The Beatles, Elvis, Supremes, Glen Miller, Nico, Dusty and Cilla.  As genres came and went, we were fully briefed from the eclectic mix of 33’s in the cupboard.

I had somehow missed the release of ‘Hand In Glove’ in May.  It was when The Smiths played Top of The Pops during November 1983 I felt the primary impact.

‘This Charming Man’ changed everything. It was fresh and instant amongst Karma Chameleon-Uptown Girl polished pop. A unique and bold misfit, comfortably rubbing shoulders with no one and nothing.  The singer - in specs and a billowing shirt swinging gladioli round his head, next to a guitarist with a Monkees haircut – sang along to some sound I had never heard before.  It was a wild song; it was there, and then it was gone, finishing as quick as it started, and it left my lungs full of air and my brain popping bubbles.

In February of 1984, Rose Ann, my eldest sister by seven years, brought home a tape of The Smiths debut album with her curly handwriting on it, a slightly bubble shaped ‘The Smiths’.  I was delighted, as at the time I had nothing else to do but deliver papers, go to school and listen to music.  I had been waiting for this album, so I took her tape and pressed play while she was out dancing in clubs full of leather skirts and crimped hair.

Every song made its own impression.  The opening slow paced drums of ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ and Morrissey’s voice… it wasn’t one song in particular, it was all of it, the whole album start to finish.  Track after track I played, becoming addicted, learning, but not really understanding the words, words and phrases I had never heard in school - charming and haven and pretty and half right, fond and miserable and illness in the shape of depression, and an education about some poor children who had been killed in the sixties.  This was the album that got me out of bed.  This was my album, my band.

Everybody was talking about  ‘the freak with the flowers’ at school and ‘that-guy-Morrissey’ quickly became the figure at which to dig and poke, and my new lifetime of defence.  We had school discos on a Friday, and on the rare occasion The Smiths was played I copied my idol as best I could with shirts, jeans and glasses.  One time I sneaked a bush to the disco for my jeans back pocket, confusing the school counsellor. I wrote ‘The Smiths’ on everybody’s school bags, lampposts, park benches, covered jotters, fences and the paper bag.

When my parents went to the Workman’s Club on a Saturday night, my close friends and I played ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ over and over, dancing furiously in the living room, tipping the couch, hitch kicking and releasing enough endorphins to light up the street.   On a Sunday morning I was regularly late with the heavier papers so I’d begin my round to side one, slowly building up to ‘Miserable Lie’ for the panic I needed:  ‘I need advice!  I need advice!’ volume up to eight but no higher to avoid crackling.  In ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Morrissey continually gave me reasons to love him, as the bag got lighter: ‘I’m not the man you think I am!’ well, what are you?  I want to know, I need to know who you are Mr. Morrissey.

‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ is the album’s middle break before the craziness, calming everything down momentarily, soothing the listener in pure, sheer beauty, until it breaks again, blasting three tracks in a row – ‘Still Ill’ into ‘Hand In Glove’ into ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ each of which could bring the sun up.  When Morrissey performs ‘Still Ill’ live to this day it releases that same energy across the crowd, every sensible forty-plus transported back in their own time bomb of teenage confusion and Smith-hard rushes.

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As The Smiths’ career progressed into Hatful of Hollow/Meat Is Murder and beyond, I continued to support defend them, without really knowing or being able to articulate their hold over me.  As far as I was concerned, you either got it or you didn’t.  I was boring, and I knew I was boring, droning on and on about this band, cutting bits out, making a scrapbook, taping everything, buying Smash Hits, NME, Sounds and Melody Maker for posters, listening to John Peel, becoming enraged at the Daily Record for mis-quoting Morrissey. I preached about how one day Morrissey’s fresh poetry would be studied in schools.

I continued to play the first album to death, as I delivered the Record, Post and Mail, thinking long and hard about who Morrissey didn’t owe anything to, and who owed him something.  Obsession became a vocation, and the following year I went off with some sixth years to the Barrowlands to see The Smiths in concert, the first of hundreds of concerts I have since attended to try to replicate that impossible high.

The Smiths, Barrowlands, September 25th, 1985. On the shoulders of a very kind stranger. My arms look long because I’m holding a Kodak pocket instamatic with a row of flashes on top. Only two photos came out.

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As time passed, I turned vegetarian, rejected Maggie and the Royals (an easy thing to do in Scotland)  and locked myself away during the sadness of Strangeways.  I retired from the paper round but the impact of the debut never left me.

Playing it now, thirty years on, ‘The Smiths’ remains a raw and powerful album from a band that divided opinions and diverted the straight path of pop.

For me, it delivered the papers.

Happy 30th Birthday ‘The Smiths’.  Thanks Morrissey, Johnny, Andy, Mike and Rose Ann.

Released 20 February 1984

No 2 for 33 weeks

Produced by John Porter (Troy Tate sessions worth a listen for rawer sound)

Album cover Joe Dallesandro from ‘Flesh’.

Track listing: 

Reel Around The Fountain

You’ve got everything now

Miserable Lie

Pretty Girls make Graves

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

This Charming Man (later added as track 6)

Still Ill

Hand In Glove

What Difference Does it Make

I don’t Owe You Anything

Suffer Little Children

Julie Hamill is a Smiths/Morrissey blogger, author of forthcoming book ‘Fifteen Minutes With You’ and can be found at Juliehamill.com and on Twitter @juliehamill