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The Smiths: The Sound of the Paper Round
by Julie Hamill
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 pile of newspapers and deliver them to the old folks’ home where I lived with my family; my mum was the warden. For my eleventh birthday, I had received a personal stereo with bright orange headphones. With the full bag of newspapers slung over my shoulder, 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 loved to crack the icy-topped puddles to the beat with my school shoes. After constant use, the “R” headphone on my personal stereo kept going wonky, so it was time to ask a new one for my thirteenth in December.
In our house—a family of six Hamills—were consumed by music. We bought seven-inch singles every Saturday and listened to the charts. Radio One ruled the airwaves and the chart countdown was a Sunday ritual involving the dishes and some dancing. We would watch Top of The Pops every Thursday night. My dad was into everything from Doctor Hook to Queen to ELO to Bowie; my mum loved The Beatles, Elvis, The Supremes, Glen Miller, Nico, Dusty and Cilla Black. As genres came and went, we were fully briefed by the eclectic mix of 33’s in the cupboard.
I had somehow missed the release of “Hand In Glove” by The Smiths in May, 1983. It was when The Smiths first played Top of The Pops in November 1983 that 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 quickly 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 cassette 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 go to school, deliver papers, and listen to music. I had been waiting for this album, so while Rose Ann was out “clubbin’ it” with all of the leather skirts and crimped hair, I borrowed her tape.
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 half right, fond and miserable and illness in the shape of depression, along with 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 were played I copied my idol as best I could, dancing around in my jeans, loose shirt, and glasses. One time I sneaked part of a bush into 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, the newspaper bag and everything else that didn’t move.
When my parents went to the Workman’s Club on a Saturday night, my friends and I would play “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 paper 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, who are you, then? 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, with every sensible forty-plus fan transported back in their own time bomb of teenage confusion and Smith-hard rushes.
As The Smiths’ career progressed into Hatful of Hollow, Meat Is Murder and beyond, I continued to support and 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 of magazines, making scrapbooks, taping everything, buying Smash Hits, NME, Sounds and Melody Maker for posters, listening to John Peel, becoming enraged at the Daily Record for misquoting Morrissey. I preached about how one day Morrissey’s 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 about who owed him something. Obsession became a vocation, and in 1985 I went off with some sixth formers to the Barrowlands in Glasgow 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 25, 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.
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 that debut album never left me.
Playing it now, “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.
JULIE HAMILL is the author of “15 Minutes With You: Interviews With Smiths/Morrissey Collaborators and Famous Fans,” a compendium of interviews with individuals associated with Steven Patrick Morrissey. She is also founder of “Mozarmy” (@Mozarmy on Twitter) and is host of Europe’s largest Morrissey event, the annual Mozarmy Meet in Manchester, England. Julie is also host of “The Rock n Roll Book Club,” which meets on the first Wednesday of each month at the legendary Dublin Castle in Camden, London. Her novella “Frank”—the first in a trilogy—is due for publication in November 2017 by Saron Publishers.