|The historical line-up of The Smiths: Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and Johnny Marr|
It's an evening of sudden tropical humidity in a roman Semptember.
Testaccio is merged into a surreal silence, the quiet before the storm of Saturday night.
There is no better place to talk about The Smiths.
Everything looks like a set for a movie written by Morrissey: the location of the meeting, the Big Bang club, is located with solomonic equidistance between the Protestant Cemetery (resting place of the songwriter's favorite poets) which inspired the first collection of Pasolini's italian poems and, in fact, where the final end of Accattone was shot.
It is as though, we are walking inside the first two verses of the song that Moz has dedicated to Rome.
On the occasion of The Smiths Celebration Night, we meet Mike Joyce, former drummer of the legendary band.
Now, the whole world knows the terms of the dispute between the two protagonists of this article's first lines (for the few ignorant ones HERE).
We shall mention, only for his typical poisonous brilliance , Morrisey's reported joke, which stands as an epitaph to any hope of future reunion: "I would rather eat my own testicles than reform The Smiths, and that’s saying something for a vegetarian.".
What a delightful sensation it is to walk around your childhood area next to a musician whose art you listen to every day!
Joyce is now a gentleman of exquisite manners, disarming availability, and he speaks with no grudge but with great respect of his former companions.
He has no more the cheeky look of Pasolini's Ragazzi di Vita ( just to stay on topic) that emerged in the famous historical images of the group.
But, when he recounts, with the elegance of his mancunian accent, episodes and emotions that he lived thirty years ago in the band destined to become a legend, the spark of enthusiasm still shines in his punk rocker's eyes.
First, I would like to stress how cool and meaningful it is to meet you here, a few hundred metres from the Cemetry Gates beyond which John Keats rests in peace, next to Shelley ...
Really? I never knew that ... well, i think I've read your quote (laughter) ... I have been on Oscar Wilde's grave, but not on Keats one, so since it's around the corner i hope i'll have a chance to visit...
To mention other famous lines, "I am the son and heir, of nothing in particular", do you think you can identify the "sons and heirs" of The Smiths in any of the bands that came after?
Undoubtedly, I think there is a lot of groups that were influenced by The Smiths, I do not think it is appropriate to mention them by name, because some of them took a little bit too much from The Smiths ... but many groups have indicated us among their fundamental influences, especially many Manchester bands, Oasis, for example...
But even a big mainstream band like U2 ...
In fact, an influence that runs through the whole spectrum ... I think because what we were doing was very honest, really. Very simple and very honest: bass, drums, guitar and vocals. Basic simple line-up. And the music we played was unique. We did not follow anyone else. Of course, we had our influences, each of us, Morrissey had his, Johnny had his, his Andy and I mine, and they were all different. But we didn't try to "sound like" anybody. We played spontaneously, and however the sound would come, would come. When we recorded Hand in Glove, which as you know ...
It was the first single, of course ...And it was an incredible experience, with a unique sound, immediately recognizable. I can see why many groups who listened to The Smiths have taken something and have been obviously influenced by us.
What is for you the peculiar feature that gives this uniqueness to the sound of The Smiths?
Basically,it is beacause it didn't sound like anything else. I think that's its uniqueness. Some of the songs sounded pretty punk, others even as a sort of old vaudeville Frankly, Mr.Shankly, some rockabilly, some big ballads, some just instrumental songs, we covered all kinds, even funk as in the case of Barbarism Begins at Home, we covered everything...the influences were different, but we have created "our" sound.
Who were your influences?
For me it was the Buzzcoks! For them i started to play drums, after seeing them live ...
You played with them, after The Smiths...
I did played with them, it is true, I would say I was lucky enough to be able to play with them. When their historical drummer stopped playing with them they asked me to replace him ... I was really shocked! The biggest event in my musical career, after The Smiths ... I followed them around like a fan, and i finally got a chance to play with them!
A dream come true!
Really, it was my dream. They have been my main influence.
Coming back on the peculiarity of your sound identity, it is evident that there has been an important evolution, albeit only a few years, as attested by The Queen is Dead. From the early songs such as Hand in Glove, This Charming Man, What She Said, These things takes time, What Difference does it make? and many others, who had an almost punk structure, with a riff, two verses and a chorus, you've come to tracks like How Soon is Now? or Shoplifters of the World United, which are much more elaborated and sophisticated from that point of view, not only for the arrangements, but also for the structure ...
How did this change happened?
The first album was written on the guitar. Also other studio albums, for example, the album Meat is Murder is basically structured on the guitar. But after that, Johnny had much more time to explore the possibilities of arrangements with keyboards and strings, not only with guitar, bass and drums. He began to experiment. At that time there was an instrument called Emulator, it was very expensive to get a string section in. We could not afford it. Hence, Johnny began playing the different parts of Emulator, and played the strings part. This shows the genius of the man. It was our Brian Jones. Any instrument he met along the way, he played fantastically. The sound did progress to a slightly different atmosphere from the first album. I think the turning point was the meeting with the producer John Porter, who had a great musical feeling with Johnny Marr. In a sense, he opened the door of possibilities for Johnny, he found a musical partner to be able to explore all these possibilities.
Apart from the well-known controversy Morrissey / Robert Smith, was there any band that you esteemed or somehow felt close to, similar to your musical research?
Not really. We were very "insular". The Smiths was our own gang. We kept ourselves to ourselves, and we recorded in private. We did not really hang around with, for instance, the many other bands of the time, we always met among ourselves, this was quite prevalent from the beginning to the end of the band.
Did you realize that you were making history?
Personally, I did not realize it would become so massive. But as far as i was concerned, we made history when we recorded Hand in Glove. Because we had never heard anything like it before, nor since, and it did sound quite incredible. I was really amazed how incredibly sounding it was. Obviously, when success came so quickly, i was hoping for that success, and it did happen very quickly. What surprises me is the longevity! Here we are, thirty years later still talking about The Smiths.
In fact, rather than on immediate success, i was wondering if you realized that you would become so influential for the bands to come?
Absolutely. It doesn't sound dated.Think of a song like This Charming Man, published at that time ... in those days for a so-called indie band (because we were such, the term was created to define the band on a indipendent label, it did not identify a sound, that came later), for a band to be on a small label to reach such a mass appeal over the period, well, I think it is...I do not say shocking, but ... incredibly fulfilling.
Now i think we can say we are on the level of bands like Roxy Music or David Bowie, who are successful after 30-40 years, as the Stones ... well, thirty years have passed and we are still talking about The Smiths now!
Changing the subject, it is well reknown that you have become vegetarian after recording Meat is Murder.It's true.
Can you talk about that experience?
It happened when we recorded the song. We were in the studio, and we had some dinner. Immediately after recording the song, and of course we had discussed with Morrissey about him being a vegetarian. Personally, I am also an animal lover. I realized that, in fact, the killing is probably the best thing that can happen to the animal. The way the animals are treated, in a cage, shows an immense level of hypocrisy by the people who take care of horses, dogs and cats, but when it comes to a cow or a lamb or a goat or a boar, they can murder them with no moral issues. And treat them in a way that is really disgusting. We talked a lot and i realized that i was ignorant about my diet, I didn't think about how the animals were killed or tortured. For me it was just food on a plate, I had never thought about how animals are treated with such horrible torture methods. The point is that animals can not protest or fight. I wondered how people could do this to such beatiful creatures, things they would never do to a dog or a cat. Instead, why should it be ok do it to the animals we eat? So that day i went home and told my wife: "Well, I think I will become a vegetarian, Morrissey has got very strong arguments." Since then I am a vegetarian, my three children are, my oldest daughter, now twenty-six, is a vegetarian since birth, and me I feel morally much stronger than before.
Surely it is a strong stance against the industry.
Exactly. In our small way, we do what we can do. I remember my daughter as a child, eight years old, when we went to dinner at someone's house and they served pork, she was shocked. She wondered why the meat was on the table . She said, we eat on the table, it should not be there, it should not even be in the room where you eat! I found it very interesting, she was so young and already she clearly understood it. Obviously, other people at the table didn't understand, in the same measure as I myself I never raised the issue before. I am very pleased with my choice of becoming a vegetarian and to have passed this decision to my children.
So, for this I am grateful to Morrissey ( his pleasant smile is a lesson in diplomacy).
During the recording of the song, were you aware that you were delivering an international anthem for future generations of vegetarians?
No, not at the time. I knew I would have an effect, or at least I hoped so. I realized, especially after the first live performances, that was extraordinarily powerful. Such a powerful song to be played live. Once again, we are talking about a song of thirty years ago and i am very happy to talk about his current value still nowadays. Played live was really powerful, the whole stage was lit in red, the effect was really touching, incredibly powerful and moving. And it is also a great way to approach the subject.
I recently wrote an article on Morrissey's lyrics of The Smiths era, and I emphasised the perfect construction of the dialectical argumentation. In addition, the melody is really moving. Even if am not a vegetarian, every time I listen to it, i too become more sensitive and I reflect deeply about it..Sure. That was the idea.
Can you try to describe the creative process of The Smiths?
Well, it's hard to say that ... mainly, Johnny was coming with a new riff, Andy and I were listening to him, we were playing along, working out some parts, writing down some notes, and when we finished we use to give it all to Morrissey, who then wrote the text, and then ... we record!
The impression that I got, while documenting, is that Morrissey often improvised the melody and the text on the musical base you previously performed. Is that correct?
Sometimes, especially at the beginning ...
Hand in Glove if I'm not mistaken was written in this way..
Yes. Later on, we didn't get him to sing until the record was finished. We were in the studio and the record just finished, he wrote some words and he came and sang the song for the first time.
But the melody was already defined?
The succession of chords, the melody of the guitar, not the vocal melody. He came and sang, so we listened for the first time the finished song. And it was a wonderful experience.
One last question: can you tell us a few episodes of those unforgettable years?
I have so many ... they are long stories, I do not want to bore you ...
Bore?! I can not wait!
Then, I remember the first time we played in America, in front of a large audience, I think 10-15 thousand people. We went up on stage for the encore, but I wanted to quickly run to the bathroom because I'd been drinking a lot during the concert! Then I ran backstage, and I realized that there were 15 thousand people singing: "The Smiths - The Smiths - The Smiths" and I thought, "Wow, this is my band! The band where I play". If I was in the audience, it would be already an extraordinary feeling ... but I was the drummer of the band! That time was really an unforgettable experience.
I also remember when we played in New York, Mick Jagger came to see The Smiths. He sat on the side of the stage. And Johnny Marr came over to me while we were playing and I said, "Have a look over there ...", I turned and I saw Mick Jagger dancing unleashed, just ... Mick Jagger's style!
He danced to the music of The Smiths. It was really amazing, because at that time he was not dancing on the Johnny's guitar or on Morrissey's words, but on my drums, my rhythm.
And that time really made me feel great.
As many fans say, quoting a famous line, and i agree:
The love for The Smiths "is not like any other love."