The indelible mark that Johnny Marr and his songwriting partner Morrissey made with their band The Smiths is one that should never be underestimated. There’s a good case to say that without the band, hundreds if not thousands of our favourite artists since their inception would never have seen the light. The bulk of that weighty mark can largely be traced back to their first moments on a national television institution, as they performed ‘This Charming Man’ on Top of the Pops in 1983.
While the band had already made their TV debut on the Channel 4 music program The Tube, one of the preeminent youth TV shows of all time, performing on Top of the Pops was the proverbial big time. It would be an iconic moment in the band’s history and the development of the genre known as ‘indie’. That said, it would also be a huge moment for youth subculture too.
By the eighties, the show had lost a heavy amount of starch from its collective collar but it had also lost its edge. It was no longer the place to be seen. The Smiths performance, however, would send a ripple through Britain. The band’s frontman, Morrissey, would take to the stage swinging around gladioli flowers with a flourish while Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce stood behind him straight-laced and full of power. Moz may have stolen the show with his onstage antics, but the event would imprint The Smiths into the mind of a generation and change the face of music.
It would be a performance that would change the way people spoke, the books that they read, the artists they listened to, and most certainly which band they now entirely loved. The Smiths would perform ‘This Charming Man’ to a young audience of millions and gather up a huge fandom with every romantic note.
In a 2011 piece that the guitarist Johnny Marr wrote for The Guardian about the experience and the impact it had on music, Marr suggested, “At the time, there’d been this question of whether it was cool to go on Top of the Pops.” The show had started to lose its panache during the punk revolution and the idea of miming a song for the establishment felt a little off-key. “[It was] probably from the Clash refusing to do it. But we were a new generation and it felt like there were new rules,” explained the guitarist.
Somehow The Smiths and their brand new swirling take on post-punk was being given the commercial spotlight by the biggest broadcaster in the country: “Suddenly we found ourselves on it. Previously, we’d been synonymous with the John Peel show, and suddenly that culture was on Top of the Pops – John Peel started to present it, and it was a new phase: post-punk going mainstream.”
We cannot understate the juxtaposition The Smiths posed on a chintzy, glitterball show like TOTP, Marr says, “to be confronted with the kind of language Morrissey used in the song after Paul Young and a Tina Turner video must have been very arresting. Interesting and subversive ideas can get through if you wrap them up in a great pop tune.” And that’s what the band had done, with ‘This Charming Man’ they were feeding the unwitting public a dose of literary libations all mixed in with sweet jangle-pop.
One of the lasting images of The Smiths on TOTP was the sight of lead singer Morrissey swinging around a bunch of flowers on stage while performing in his unique way: “Everyone remembers the flowers Morrissey took on to the show. I’d been very aware of how powerful Top of the Pops could be visually, from my childhood watching T. Rex,” said Marr.
Having first used the spiralling flowers as a way to humanise the stark surroundings of the Hacienda the previous year. Now, Morrissey was using the flowers as a symbolic weapon, brandishing them as his beautiful yet violent protest to mundanity. “We tried to make every TV appearance a spectacle—Morrissey pulling off his shirt and having things written on his chest, the hearing aid. In a band, you can have that visual dialogue with your audience, but you try to stay one step ahead. I tried to evolve into one of the Ronettes.” Marr confirmed that when he saw some of the crowds at their shows slowly adopting his own beehive hairstyle as some of his “proudest moments.”
It was a situation that happened across the country following the band’s appearance on Top of the Pops which many have remarked as being year zero for indie music. While Marr refuses to give in to his ego in that assessment, he does share the changing landscape of the music business following the band’s introduction to the nation.
Marr said, “Staff that had looked like Ladbroke Grove hippies suddenly looked like our mates. Then quiffs started appearing in the high street, and a wave of bands sounded like us. I took that as enormously flattering and incredible, but a couple of years later things turned a little.” The Smiths would soon transcend their own sound. “We were seen as the archetypal indie group, and there was a twee aspect to that music that didn’t represent us,” in Marr’s mind, “People grabbed the shadow and missed the substance.”
Soon the pressure on The Smiths as indie overlords grew too much to bear and the band would leave a nation without their monarchy as quickly as they had taken the throne with Marr and Morrissey parting ways. But for Marr, it was still a magical reign “Indie now is to rock music what rock was to Rock with a capital R when I was in my teens. The term “rock” had to be modernised. I think the Smiths were indie through and through.”
Below, you can watch the moment The Smiths were introduced to the nation through their debut on Top of the Pops with their iconic hit ‘This Charming Man’.