The Smiths: Some bands are bigger than others...

This week academics are in Manchester to debate the finer points of The Smiths. But why is this pop group so acclaimed? Clare Rudebeck finds out from its many devotees
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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Coe, Author

I once said that Morrissey and Marr were better songwriters than Lennon and McCartney. It's one of those things you say in a fit of enthusiasm but actually, I stand by it. People say that Morrissey's lyrics are miserable but what you really have is a deep melancholy shored up with wonderful wit, irony and bloody-mindedness. And the musical backing was always so inventive and complex. I loved those songs in the Eighties and have never stopped listening to them since. It seems entirely right to me that there should be a symposium - although academia needs The Smiths far more than The Smiths need academia.

Mark Simpson, Author of 'Saint Morrissey'

To me, The Smiths mean cheap hair gel, unwashed sheets, damp walls, badly ventilated gas fires and impossible expectations. A beautiful fury with everything, because it isn't you. Rejection. Devotion. Tattooed, be-quiffed, soft-centred lads. Clever, slightly thwarted, determined girls. The understated but ravishing beauty of the English and their language. Being too smart for university. Being too smart for work. The North triumphant, at its moment of Thatcherite dejection. Working-class pride. The joy of misery. The splendidly chaste climax to the great and noble - and now well and truly spannered - tradition of English pop. A serious illness. Morrissey.

Ann Widdecombe, MP

I've heard of Morrissey, but that's about it. I'm delighted that he was keen on gladioli, but I recall nothing about The Smiths. I was working at London University when the band were in their heyday, but I wasn't working with students, I was working with medical staff and equipment. No respectable university would study a pop band; it must be an April Fool.

Colin Murray, Radio 1 DJ

When I was growing up, you were either in The Smiths camp or you weren't and I wasn't. I was in the grunge camp. I never wrote Smiths lyrics on my school bag in Tippex. There was a big musical divide at school. We pinned our lifestyle to our musical tastes. I would describe The Smiths' camp as dull and vegetarian, with big fringes. But they washed a lot more often than us grungers. If they taught Pearl Jam and Soundgarden at university, I would take the course. But I couldn't study The Smiths for more than two days.

Matt Thorne, Novelist

Everybody listens to Morrissey and The Smiths because they want to be a teenager again. When Morrissey came back last year, people wanted him to make them feel young again, but he had become a middle-aged man and so we all were forced to realise that we had grown up as well. Bob Dylan has led the way as far as pop musicians being studied by academics is concerned. I think it's a very interesting field: lyrics as a form haven't been studied enough. But for me, the person most worthy of academic study would be Mark E Smith from The Fall.

Tim Rice-Oxley, Songwriter from Keane

In 1999, Tom and I were living together in Stamford Hill and starting to worry we were going nowhere as a band. Every evening seemed to consist of a drink, a smoke, a PlayStation and a Smiths record. Songs like "Asleep" were the soundtrack to our struggle to work out where we were going. The Smiths gave us a huge injection of inspiration. They completely changed the way we looked at constructing a song. How did they pack so much humour and tragedy into a ridiculously catchy pop song? That was the big thing for us - they were so concise, so unashamedly pop, and yet their songs carried more meaning than anything else we'd heard.

Simon Armitage, Poet

The Smiths mean the Eighties to me. They describe perfectly that atmosphere of being at university - of living in bedsit land. I'm completely impregnated with their songs and lyrics. If I were to present a paper to the symposium at Manchester Metropolitan University, it would be on the song "Reel Around the Fountain". It describes itself as a reel - a jaunty song - but it is actually a dirge. This is what The Smiths are so good at. They deal in self-pity but they make you feel great as well. You can feel sorry for yourself and feel world-famous at the same time. They made the North the greatest place in the world to come from and also made it acceptable to take your shirt off at a disco. And it's not just a nostalgia thing. They still feel like a fresh and vital band to me. They are one of the few bands that remind you that pop music can be an amazing thing.

Martin Freeman, Actor

They mean a time in the Eighties when I couldn't work out why people liked them so much. I respect them, but I was into the Style Council at the time. I was never much of a student at heart; I was a soul boy, a mod. We haven't got enough sub-cultures any more. When I was 11, the skinheads would fight the punks; the punks would fight the mods. There were still teds around, for Christ's sake. Now everyone wears exactly the same uniform: a hoody, baseball cap and sneakers. Bring back subcultures, bring back a bit of hate and a bit more inter-tribal violence.

Ross Millard, The Futureheads

I got into them late, about four years ago. When I was growing up, they had already disbanded. There's something in the song-writing that's a stroke of genius. Because Morrissey didn't play any instruments, he'd turn up to the rehearsal and all the instrumentation would be complete. Bits that the bands would assume would be chorus, he would turn into the verse and vice versa. We like to work like that as well.

Alexei Sayle, Comedian and author

The Smiths were truly original. I remember seeing Morrissey for the first time on television when "This Charming Man" came out and thinking he was hilarious. At the same time, I was touring the same venues as them, often arriving the night after they'd performed. So I was always rich in gladioli in those days. It's great that they're being studied by academics. "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" is a wonderful piece of poetry. But at the end of the day; they were just a pop band; they weren't an important focus for resistance to Thatcher's government. Let's not go mad here.

Sophie Anderton, Model

The Smiths take me back to when I used to walk up and down Park Street in Bristol as a school girl, wearing black, listening to absolutely miserable music and thinking I was really cool. I had long black hair down to my waist. My mother despaired. I had massive DM boots and black, black eye make-up. I was skinny as a rake in those days and went through a stage of wearing a lot of black Lycra. I used to love The Cure, The Smiths and Siouxsie and The Banshees. At school, you were either into pop or into The Cure and The Smiths. I used to love that glamorous, miserable thing.

Andy Kershaw, DJ

Of any band to emerge in the Eighties, The Smiths were alone in that they appeared to have no antecedents. Like the Gang of Four in the Seventies, they were completely non-derivative. You couldn't listen to The Smiths and say to yourself: I know what these guys have been listening to; I know where this music comes from. They'd come up with a completely new sound; let alone a completely new image. I was a fan, of course I was. They were one of those bands that pulled everyone together. It felt like they were emblematic of resistance in Thatcher's early Eighties Britain. When you got into a big crowd at a Smiths gathering - I remember a huge one in Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank at the time of the miners' strike - you couldn't help thinking, where the hell are these buggers who vote Conservative? I don't know any of them. Even though their songs weren't overtly political, you felt as though you were part of a movement. But I have no desire to analyse their lyrics. Thank God, I will be in Mauritania next week and nowhere near the symposium in Manchester.

Dr Sean Campbell, Lecturer in cultural studies at Anglia Polytechnic University and co-organiser of the symposium on The Smiths

I got into The Smiths in August 1984, when I saw them playing "William, It Was Really Nothing" on Top of the Pops. I was 13. Even today, I often play their songs on my guitar. Like my colleagues who study James Joyce or Shakespeare, I am also a fan of the subject I study. The sound of The Smiths is very much in the air at the moment. If you listen to bands like Franz Ferdinand or Keane, you can hear their influence. The Smiths represented the outsider and offered an alternative voice that countered the crass materialism and right-wing politics of the Thatcher decade. They also conveyed humour, warmth, and intelligence at a time when all those things were unfashionable (at least in pop culture). I think they are the most important British band of the past 20 years. Morrissey called for both the Queen and Margaret Thatcher to be removed. It's difficult to imagine Keane or Coldplay calling for such a thing.

Will Self, Novelist

"Does the mind rule the body or the body rule the mind? I don't know," is what Stephen Patrick Morrissey sang, thus encapsulating over 3,000 years of the Western philosophic tradition in a neat couplet. The Smiths brought to its zenith that tendency in English popular music which was more closely allied to the performative aspects of music hall than the beat-based hit factories of the US scene. Poseur, intellectual, English dilettante, Morrissey went on to have a distinguished solo career, but The Smiths were so very good because they counter-balanced his more pretentious flights of fancy with an almost pure expression of the four-piece rock band.

Michael Winner, Film director

I don't know who they are, dear.