18 June 2012

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN: The Smiths In Electronic

A brief journey through the 1980s here, bear with me.

The Smiths were likely the best alternative-rock band to come out of the 1980s while on the other side of the spectrum, New Order were the best synthpop band to come out of the '80s.

The magnitude of their musical and cultural influence may have been forgotten by modern bands but the fingerprints of these two Manchester bands are everywhere in music.

The career of The Smiths was painfully short with just four albums between 1984 and 1987. By the time their last album - Strangeways, Here We Come - was released in September of 1987, The Smiths were finished. The drama between Morrissey and Johnny Marr rivaled and echoed the he-said/he-said drama of John Lennon and Paul McCartney in 1970.

From the ashes* of Joy Division emerged New Order and the dawn of innovative sythpop, thundering club beats, combined with simple and heartfelt - if not cryptic - lyrics. After the release of Republic in 1993, New Order also parted ways (for a while) and after a brief reformation New Order split again in the midst of this all-too-often drama between its principle members Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook.

While New Order has had the luxury of reuniting and being flattered with dozens of sounds-like-New-Order sort of bands (and the general upswing of electro-pop in recent years), The Smiths died in 1987 with little chance of Morrissey and Marr reconciling (not even for the reunion-friendly Coachella music festival).

Morrissey embarked on a successful solo career while Marr became an indie-rock Eric Clapton working with Bernard Sumner (more on this later), The Pretenders, The The, Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Oasis, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and releasing his own solo record in 2003.

With Morrissey and Marr keeping busy and staying relevant and successful, there was little motivation for Morrissey and Marr to reunite. (Much to the chagrin of Smiths drummer Mike Joyce and bass player Andy Rourke, I'm sure).

These days a Smith reunion seems near impossible but that hasn't detered the calls for a Smiths reformation. Every once in a while a rumor will spill out, off-hand remarks from Morrissey or Marr throwing the English music press into a frenzy, but nothing has materialized.

So, of course, one tends to speculate: How would The Smiths career have evolved?

The brit-pop revolution of the early- to mid-90s owed a lot to the influence of The Smiths but what would be the sound of The Smiths? What could have been?

The answer is in the Johnny Marr/Bernard Sumner super-group Electronic and their single "Vivid."

| Electronic - "Vivid" |

Twisted Tenderness was released in April 1999 and seems to be the most guitar-oriented album of the three Electronic records. "Vivid" floats in with a dreamy swirl of synths interrupted by a bone-crushing crash of drums and a furious (Smiths-esque?) harmonica solo.

While the unmistakeable vocals of Sumner gives "Vivid" a distinctly New Order-y feel, one can easily imagine another strikingly unique vocalist in this song.

The fact that "Vivid" sounds like a Smiths song isn't surprising, obviously, considering the Marr influence (the two previous Electronic albums definitely had more of the Sumner/New Order fingerprints on it) but it's the slow intro, the structure of the song, the tempo, the melody, the harmonica, the hallmarks of a Smiths song.

While lyrically Sumner isn't (or refuses to be?) as grandiose as Morrissey, the epic scope of this song - while retaining the lyrical themes - could stand to use the lyrical wit and vocal punch of Morrissey.

But such is the classic downfall of a super-group. The elements and the talent are clearly there, the quality in the production is there, but the group lacks that extra something. You ultimately become disappointed at the collection of watered down sounds of the bands the super-group represents.

It's the thin-line between success and mediocrity. It's the "It" factor that is so hard to define.

"Vivid" is a bit of a frustrating song. Standing on its own, the quality of this song is undeniable. But the unfulfilled potential of this song is also undeniable. But, really, it's another example of a collection of watered down sounds.

I don't think that Sumner or Marr started this side project to best the efforts of their respective bands but the Electronic super-group is frustrating because you almost want to hear more New Order or more Smiths.

In the case of "Vivid," this song is a look into what could have been for The Smiths in the '90s.

Now, if only Morrissey wasn't such a prat.

* I grimaced when using this word. I promised myself I wouldn't use 'ashes' when speaking of Joy Division/New Order story, a word that has been overused by any who writes about Joy Division and New Order. But the phoenix-like ascension of New Order after the suicide of their enegmatic and charismatic frontman Ian Curtis really makes a word like 'ashes' fitting.

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