Whenever I hear Rusholme Ruffians by The Smiths – which, as we’ll come back to, isn’t as often as you might think these days – I’m always reminded of one incident in particular.
I only have to hear the opening of that perfect, poetic, musically descriptive evocation of all teenage life and experience through the medium of a stroll through the fair via Victoria Wood, Elvis Presley and BBC Records And Tapes’ Sound Effects No. 18 – Holiday, and I’m right back at the evening when the local council sports centre decided to put on a ‘fair’. Well I say ‘fair’. It was really just a blur of cheap and perfunctory ‘attractions’ punctuated by cheap flashing disco lights mounted on poles, a thick cacophony of untangleable conversational noise, and Salt’n’Pepa and S’Express booming out from well-worn speakers; there was no sign of Rusholme Ruffians, obviously, but in fairness they probably did play Ask. The air hung heavy with the smell of charred hotdogs served over metal stands with too much onion regardless of whether you asked for any or not (and which usually ended up discarded and hoovered up by poorly supervised dogs anyway), and there was a buzz of excitement over the fact that ‘Lambo’ from school had been spotted wearing a Grunhalle Lager t-shirt. Sometimes even ‘you had to be there’ doesn’t really seem adequate.
The centrepiece of the whole thrillingly shambolic spectacle was a huge rectangular inflatable somewhere between a bouncy castle with no parapets and a gigantic mattress, upon which it seemed that the entire local population between the ages of eleven and fifteen were currently stationed. Needless to say, the time-honoured ‘bigger boy’ was there too, extravagantly showing off his moves in a manner akin to a Northern Soul fan furiously signposting his zealously safeguarded position at the front edge of the Wigan Casino dancefloor. Ultimately – and inevitably – he collided with another notable show-off, sending his hapless mid-air combatant hurtling towards the ground in a whirling streak of Hi-Tec trainers and cheap knock-off Sergio Tacchini tracksuit pants obtained from ‘the market’. For a second there was a mass Spaghetti Western-style silence as he landed on his arm with a wallop, and a look of panicked apology flickered across the weight-thrower’s face as if he expected it all to suddenly kick off; but the failed aviation pioneer was quickly surrounded by a gaggle of concerned girls who made an enormous fuss and quickly established that no major harm had been done, which only served to cool their ardour a little. At that point, while family and friends continued to fling themselves into the air with abandon, I decided to quietly lug my slightly sore arm off to see whatever was on BBC2 and walked home alone, but my faith in love was still devout.
As you might have deduced from the above anecdote, I was never exactly what you might call a ‘typical’ fan of The Smiths. In some ways, I was never even what you might call the ‘right’ kind of fan of The Smiths; to me, purely by virtue of timing and television exposure there will always be five members of the band, and even when it comes to Rusholme Ruffians, the studio version doesn’t thrill me quite as much as the expertly handled five-man frantic dive into the song and out of (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame on the live album Rank. Even so, Rusholme Ruffians spoke to me and in some ways for me at that age in a way that not very many other songs ever have, and it was far from the only song by The Smiths that did. From the morale-boost of Accept Yourself to the last-ditch morale-salvage of Rubber Ring, from the perfectly phrased “I know you and you cannot sing” in The Queen Is Dead to the exhilarating distillation of the meeting point between excitement and anxiety in London, from Suffer Little Children chillingly expressing the unspoken hold that the Moors Murders carried if you grew up in the North West to the sheer provocative hilarity for the sake of it of Vicar In A Tutu, I could probably go on naming them all day and still find time to shamelessly refer to the handful of occasions when doing a maypole-esque twirly wirly hand-holding dance to the climax of Sheila Take A Bow in an indie club had acted as a prelude to myself and my dance partner firmly establishing that we were indeed a girl and a boy. Though never without the customary “throw your homework onto the fire” flourish, in case you were worrying that this looked dangerously ‘cool’.
The Smiths’ music still sounds amazing, but those lyrics don’t really connect with me in quite the same way any more, and not simply because we all change, grow up and move on. We’re all only too aware of the gladioli-waving elephant in the room, but this is neither the time nor the place to debate the rights and wrongs (Clue: They’re Wrong) of the increasingly desperate try-hard blowhard outbursts of the band’s chief lyrical architect. I’m not in the market for any more Twitter pile-ons over this most tedious and banal of issues, and have genuinely lost a friend over it in the past (no I am not joking), but above all else that isn’t what I want to get weighed down with here. I’m a great believer in separating the art from the artist (at least where it’s possible – if you’re interested there’s a piece on those instances where you just can’t in Can’t Help Thinking About Me), but when an individual is so tirelessly devoted to endlessly wiping their feet on their own legacy sometimes you can’t help but just get fed up with it all, and the sheer number of people who have lost all enthusiasm and energy for weighing their love of the band against their current feelings towards one of their key players is staggering. There was a time when, rightly or wrongly, The Smiths were arguably the second most revered band in musical history after The Beatles; now it feels like they’re becoming as much of a part of the past as cheap disco lights, health and safety-averse hot dogs and indeed dear old ‘Lambo’ and his t-shirt. And this really is incredibly sad. In a way that the narrator of Half A Person could never really understand.
Late in 1992, Brett Anderson of Suede – who, at that point, was still being derided by the terminally inaccurate as a ‘Morrissey copyist’ for the terrible crime of having attracted a bit of attention with some decent records – was asked by NME to give his verdict alongside Toni Halliday from Curve and Jim Bob from Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine on some of the key pop singles of the year. Possibly pointedly, given the paper had only just taken him to task over his dubious flag-waving antics to a massive backlash, one of these was Morrissey’s funny-for-the-first-two-listens You’re The One For Me, Fatty. While Jim Bob and Toni expressed cautious disillusion, Brett gamely spoke up about its shortcomings but countered that he was once responsible for some of the greatest ever records ever made and that’s what we should try to remember. Which perhaps we all should, but it’s becoming more and more difficult.
I’ve no idea what became of the ‘Bigger Boy’ (though I did once metaphorically bump into him on a night out) or all but one of the concerned girls, and suspect that the speakers shorted out with a massive bang and a pathetic wisp of smoke very shortly afterwards. The sports centre is now a private gym, and sometimes I do still have reason to make that same walk with a rarely injured arm, although it now makes me think of She’s So High by Blur. But that’s another story.
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You can find a feature on the difficult choices in separating the art from the artist when it all goes a bit wrong in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
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