Secret Meeting score: 82
by Phil Scarisbrick
When addressing his penmanship, author C.S. Lewis said, “Some people write heavily, some write lightly. I prefer the light approach because I believe there is a great deal of false reverence about. There is too much solemnity and intensity in dealing with sacred matter; too much speaking in holy tones.” During the late 1970s/early 1980s, Manchester spawned two lyricists whose approach to the same matters were at each end of this scale. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis sang with a gothic, mournful potency that made every song an all-encompassing experience. The Smiths’ front man, Morrissey, used his wit and dark humour to craft his words into elegant, and often fun melodies that gave even the hardest subjects a sense of Wildean comedy.
Both writers harnessed their mastery of approaching these subjects to become champions of the outsiders. They were a shining beacon for those who felt no connection with the zeitgeist, and ultimately made music that every subsequent generation of misfits feel inspired by. These words on their own would not have been enough though. They need music that will give them the platform to elevate the souls of those who hear them. Both Curtis and Morrissey were fortunate enough to be backed by visionary guitarists who, in their own rights, were every bit as inspiring.
By the late eighties, Curtis had died, leaving his band to go on to become New Order, and The Smiths had imploded. When Curtis took his own life on 18th May 1980, Joy Division had been about to release their second album, Closer, and embark on their first American tour. The band decided to continue in his stead, with guitarist Bernard Sumner also taking on the vocal duties, and changing their name to New Order. By 1988, they had been incredibly successful, but the rest of the band’s reluctance to embrace Sumner’s desire to add synth programming to their music had led him to start on a solo record. He really didn’t enjoy working alone though, so invited someone else to help him.
A strained relationship between Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr had seen the latter leave The Smiths in 1987. He was briefly a permanent member of The Pretenders, before getting the call from Bernard Sumner to come and work with him on his new project. They had worked together before, with Marr playing guitar on a Quando Quango track that Sumner had produced. Their initial approach was to remain completely anonymous. They would put out white label tracks through Factory Records and stay in the background. It was only after they had worked with Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant on the track, Getting Away With It, that they started to approach the project as something more.
Tennant had heard about the duo’s new music through sleeve designer, Mark Farrow, who’d been working for both the Pets and Factory. The burgeoning project piqued his interest enough to approach them about collaborating. Released two years before the album, Getting Away With It was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The lyrics were written by Sumner and Tennant to satirise the public stereotyping of Marr’s former bandmate, Morrissey, as being morose and masochistic, with lines such as “I hate that mirror, it makes me feel so worthless” and “I gave up falling in love a long, long time ago”. Roland synths lay the bed rock for Marr’s funk-laden guitar (including an oh so rare Marr solo), as Sumner works through the verses before Tennant’s voice intertwines on the refrains, and elevates the chorus into the perfect pop dynamic.
After the single’s success, the duo decamped to Marr’s home studio in Manchester to spend the majority of 1990 writing the full LP. Some songs predated these sessions, with Gangster surviving from Sumner’s now aborted solo record, and The Patience of a Saint being recorded with Tennant and PSB band-mate, Chris Lowe. They road tested a majority of the record while supporting Depeche Mode in the USA, which must be the first time a band’s debut album has been played to stadium audiences before it has even been completed.
Released through Factory Records in May 1991, the self-titled album was the perfect distillation of its composers’ talents. The record was born out of Manchester, which was not only the home of the Industrial Revolution, but also the scene of an abundance of scientific achievement, from the splitting of the atom, to the invention of computing. This record manifested these two great ideals – the old crashing into the new – with Sumner’s futuristic synthesised sounds melding to the blood, sweat and tears of Marr’s guitar work. Idiot Country introduces the audience to the new sound, with Marr’s huge sounding wah-wah guitar battling Sumner’s processed rhythm and semi-rapped vocal. Tighten Up has an endlessly hooky synth intro before the most ‘Smiths’ sounding guitar part on the album kicks in under a vocal melody that wouldn’t be too alien to Morrissey fans also.
Another single, Get The Message, is a serious album highlight. Despite being the most synth-light moment on the album, the flourishes that the electronics do add are endlessly catchy and led to a second top ten single for the band. Some Distant Memory again displays the duo’s ability to cram as much melody as they can muster into one four minute chunk.
Final track, Feel Every Beat, fuses rock music with the acid house that was dominating the rave scene that the Factory-owned Hacienda night club had been at the centre of. Initially composed for a Johnny Marr solo record, the music inspired Sumner to write lyrics lamenting the criminalisation on rave culture in the UK. It culminates the record with melodies that could only have been composed in Manchester. The verses slip along with gentle nods to the New York hip-hop scene of the eighties, which itself had started to embrace the rave culture. The chorus is pure Mancunian joy and sunshine.
It is sometimes hard to imagine how an album like this could endure. Its sound is so ‘of the time’ that one would imagine that in 2019, it would feel dated and a relic of a bygone time. Surprisingly though, that is largely untrue. Sure there are some moments that fall into that category, but for the most part it is a magnificent beast that sees the convergence of two of Manchester’s most beloved sons manifest into everything that that collaboration promises to be. Even now, every listen sees you notice something that may have passed you by before. The intricate layering of sound in the search for pop perfection is masterful, and creates something that is every bit an essential album.