1983: Smith vs Smiths
This alarming man
There’s a good argument that Indie music, as a distinct genre, emerged in October 1983 with the release of two singles by two apparently diametrically (and often vitriolically) opposed bands: ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths, and ‘Lovecats’ by The Cure.
I mean OK, New Order had released ‘Blue Monday’ in March of that year, which was a pivotal moment in its own right; but it was pivotal in the history of electronic dance music, not Indie. ‘Blue Monday’ built on an array of inheritances - early ‘80s electronic music, New York hip-hop, club culture - to make music white people could dance to.
The Smiths and The Cure were doing something quite different. In the case of The Smiths, this meant playing an Afrobeat guitar song in the manner of The Byrds while someone strangled an anxious fop in the foreground. In the case of The Cure - who had been making grave goth music since the late ‘70s - it meant suddenly producing madly poppy A-sides to match their recent run of weirdly hummable B-sides. ‘Lovecats’ is Frankenstein’s Jazz, stitched together by a mad doctor who had only ever read about the genre. It’s Halloween honky-tonk, a skeletal pop version of New Orleans funeral music, played by cartoon cats led by a man with a spider on his head.
Neither record sounded normal, at the time. In the short term, The Smiths had a wider influence. For the rest of the ‘80s the Indie charts became increasingly jangly, until the American post-punks showed up and switched the setting to ‘grunge’.
It was harder to copy whatever the hell it was The Cure were doing. But in the long run their influence has been just as long lasting; through their mid-‘80s run of million-selling weirdo pop singles they established the visual vocabulary of ‘cute Goth’. In 1983 band leader Robert Smith was freshly clean (from booze and drugs), newly keen, and head over heels in love; he exuded energy and joy, which are not qualities usually associated with his tribe. You can track the influence of Smith’s exuberant Goth affect, his Betty Boop t-shirts and polka dots, through Tim Burton movies, Japanese ‘Gothic Lolita’ fashions and emo.
You can get essays like this free to your inbox Saturday morning, not once a month, like the Indie Chart Show, but once a week
The two bands were immediately pitched against each other. Egged on by journalists, the two front-men took to sniping each other in interviews. Morrissey called Robert Smith ‘a whingebag’. Smith observed that ‘Morrissey sings the same song every time he opens his mouth. At least I’ve got two songs: “Love Cats” and “Faith”.’ Like all such pop music feuds this ‘rivalry’ quickly became identity-defining, a way to distinguish yourself from others. You were a Cure fan or a Smiths fan, but you weren’t supposed to be both.
Time to declare an interest. I have a dog in this fight: or rather, a cat. If you can have a lovecat in a fight. As regular readers of The Metropolitan will have probably deduced by now, I was a Cure fan. I spiked my hair up with sugar water, put on lipstick, and bought an undertaker’s coat from Camden Market; the whole bit.
More specifically, I was a Cure fan who absolutely did not get The Smiths. The ‘80s feud was largely drummed up by the music press, and was supercharged by Morrissey’s willingness to piss everyone off. Both participants appear to be embarrassed by it now. But there was a genuine difference between the bands and what they signified, and in my case at least the bad blood has persisted. I still enjoy a little schadenfreude that Morrissey has turned out to be a problematic piece of gammon, while my beloved Bob Smith has remained an apparently decent middle-aged left-of-centrist bloke.
I’m a middle-aged left-of-centrist bloke myself now. I’ve stopped listening exclusively to Pussy Galore, I can admit that ABBA are brilliant and I happily listen to disco, but even after Smiths-fan friends have convinced me that Johnny Marr is a genius (hello, Simon), I still don’t really understand the appeal of The Smiths. They could be funny, and their music could be ecstatic and uplifting, but Morrissey was deploying sarcasm and deprecation in the service of preening self-regard. ‘This Charming Man’ appears to be about a gay encounter set in the same grey, imagined ‘50s that featured on the band’s album covers; it embraces repression, and revels in alienation and misery. ‘Lovecats’, on the other hand, is joyful and convivial. Morrisey is a flippant man who takes himself extremely seriously. Robert Smith takes almost nothing very seriously.
‘Lovecats’ is ‘we’ while ‘This Charming Man’ is ‘I’. ‘I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear’ says the protagonist of ‘This Charming Man’, while Robert Smith urges ‘Into the sea, you and me’. The Smiths is for people who want to sit in their room feeling like misunderstood weirdos; The Cure is for people who want to go out and sit in the cemetery with all the other weirdos, drinking cider and sharing a Silk Cut.
But weirdos are weirdos, under the skin. And at this remove, I suspect most of us have largely forgotten that the bands were ever particularly opposed (certainly Robert Smiths appears to). There is, after all, a fundamental commonality between the bands and their fans. Even while writing this, I played ‘Lovecats’ on Spotify and within a couple of songs it was playing me ‘This Charming Man’, having no doubt switched on the ‘Alternative ‘80s’ algorithm. For many people in ‘83, as the original Blitz Kids began to age out and grow up, both singles were a blessed relief from the all-conquering mainstream. Marketing-dominated commercialisation was just getting going, and even the Indie charts would soon be Rick-rolled by plastic pop technically running on an ‘independent’ label.
Ironically - given how disparagingly both these bands and their fans would talk about ‘branding’ - one of their strongest points of similarity was their strong, clearly articulated images, their logos and their colour palettes and their styles. To mark yourself out as a fan you needed only to wear some NHS specs or smear on some panda eye shadow. In doing so you’d quickly find other fans: your new teenage family.
Smith and Morrissey were both suburban boys, from the outskirts of London and Manchester respectively, and they made music for their fellow suburban weirdos. Some liked The Cure, some liked the Smiths; some of them liked both. Some of them liked The Fall, but we don’t talk about them. We found each other, which is all that matters.
The Cure are still better than The Smiths, though.
The Metropolitan is running Substack’s referral programme: if you invite your friends to read and they sign up, you get a complementary paid subscription
For more early ‘80s Goth, try our piece on Bauhaus, Bela Lugosi and Striplight Goth: