What would a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction mean for The Smiths?
Earlier this month, The Smiths’ former members didn’t have much reason to be happy. Guitarist Johnny Marr released his second solo album, Playland—and while he probably likes the music on it, it’s a middling effort that shows a marked lack of spark, soul, and originality. Singer Morrissey, the more famous half of The Smiths’ songwriting core, then made a disheartening statement: His recent string of concert cancellations are at least partly due to undisclosed problems with “cancerous tissues.” Leave it to Morrissey to be poetically abstruse while giving a medical update.
Coincidentally, both instances happened on the same day: October 7. Or was it a coincidence? Over the years, Morrissey has proven himself to be a spiteful fellow. Recently, he was even accused of ordering a bodyguard to assault a man who runs a Morrissey fan site. Did Moz purposefully withhold news of his illness until the day of Marr’s album release, in some kind of peevish attempt to steal his former bandmate’s thunder?
If he did—which, to be honest, is the idlest of speculation—it wouldn’t be all that surprising. Since disbanding acrimoniously in 1987, the Smiths have famously not gotten along. They’ve repeatedly turned down offers for reunions that would have netted them millions. Why? All his vague talk of “been there, done that” aside, Morrissey made it plain in his autobiography from last year: After years of legal wrangling, mostly over money, he and Marr just plain don’t like each other.
Soon, though, The Smiths may have yet another reason to get back together: On October 9, they were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There have been enough debates about the Hall of Fame—is it oblivious? Is it rockist? Does it even matter?—to fill a thousand thinkpieces. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that one fact is inarguable: The annual brouhaha over the Hall of Fame’s lists of nominees and inductees lends the institution a kind of catalytic relevance. Let’s also acknowledge that being inducted means getting invited to the awards ceremony, which in turn means an open offer for inductees to perform.
But should they? Hall of Fame reunions are notoriously hit-or-miss propositions; for every stately, impeccable Talking Heads, there’s a sloppy, bickering, ill-prepared, gratuitously guested Led Zeppelin. In their day, The Smiths were a powerful live band—even if their one official live album, 1988’s Rank, relied on the group’s fleeting second guitarist Craig Gannon to fill out the intricately overdubbed guitars that Marr laid down on classic studio albums like 1985’s Meat Is Murder and 1986’s The Queen Is Dead.
If there’s one thing made clear by Marr’s Playland and Morrissey’s own lackluster 2014 solo album, it’s that the duo can still play and sing. To this day, Morrissey regularly works Smiths songs into his solo sets, and he can still knock them out of the park. Bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce haven’t been as prominently active, but it’s safe to assume that The Smiths’ rhythm section, one of the most supple and inventive of the ’80s, can still bring it.
But The Smiths aren’t simply one of the greatest and most influential bands of their era, innovators both instrumentally and lyrically. Their fans are also, well, fanatical. The cult of Morrissey still inspires tears, demonstrations of tattoos, and wholesale shirt-rending at his shows; a Smiths reunion behind the closed doors of the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony next April might just send the church of The Smiths into a crisis of faith. Unless, of course, an entire reunion tour is concurrently announced, which seems less likely as time goes by—and that’s with the hope that Morrissey’s vague self-diagnosis is more hopeful than he’s hinted. “If I die, then I die,” he said when he announced his illness. Coming from a singer who’s sung about death both cheekily and morbidly, often at the same time, in the past, it’s hard to know for sure.
This is all just more speculation. There’s no guarantee The Smiths will actually be inducted into the Hall of Fame when the winning list is announced in December. After all, they’re up against a solid roster of fellow 2015 nominees: Chic, Green Day, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Kraftwerk, The Marvelettes, Nine Inch Nails, NWA, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Lou Reed, The Spinners, Sting, Stevie Ray Vaughan, War, and Bill Withers. The best case scenario is that they’ll not only be inducted, but that this honor (whether it’s dubious one or not) might catalyze a Smiths-reunion chain reaction. Maybe one Smiths fan in a million has ever had the opportunity to see them—and for a band stereotyped as introspective and mopey, videos from the ’80s prove that they were a generous, electrifying live act.
But then there’s Morrissey, who also said this in his recent statement to the press: “I’m now at an age when I should no longer be making music. […] With luck I will be able to stop singing forever, which would make many people happy!” Morrissey certainly has as many rabid detractors as devoted followers, but one thing is certain now: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and by extension the pop-music canon, has embraced The Smiths. If the band choose not to take full advantage of that, should they be inducted, it would end The Smiths’ legacy with a bang as well as a whimper.