The Smiths: a far from common name

As Smithsfest at the ICA this weekend celebrates the impact of seminal band The Smiths, we consider these and other favourite Smiths who have not let a mundane moniker hold them back

It’s the early Seventies, and another wet Wednesday night in the suburbs. Things are miserable out there – the country’s going broke again – but they’re not half as miserable as the millions of tortured teenagers, prone on their beds.

Isn’t life crap and boring? If it wasn’t for our records and our books, those messengers from a world of glamour and rebellion; if it wasn’t for our acoustic guitars and our journals, we’d, we’d… what? Oh, nobody understands us.

Except, that is, Steven Patrick Morrissey of Stretford, Greater Manchester. A few years’ later, with his band The Smiths, he turned that bedroom angst into an art form, and one that is being celebrated this weekend (29 and 30 March) at London’s most important ‘indie’ gallery.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) is holding the two-day Smithsfest, a celebration of the “artistic and cultural impact of The Smiths, one of the most iconic, seminal and controversial bands in the history of pop music”. The programme is as camp, touching and ironic as a bag of sweets with a razor in it.

True, a slight shadow has been cast over the festival by the news that Morrissey, now 53, has abandoned plans for an international tour because his recent health problems have made the premiums on his cancellation insurance too high. But we can be sure he’ll be back.

He has said: “It’s ingrained within me and I know it’s the best time of life when you tour and you make music and sing.” In the meantime, the Smithsfest is the closest to a live experience we’re likely to get.

Highlights include the London premiere of Terry Christian’s solo show Naked Confessions of a Recovering Catholic, and a movie double bill of A Taste of Honey and The Leather Boys, with their star, Rita Tushingham, introducing the films that were such a huge influence on the band.

high50’s own metrosexual expert Mark Simpson, author of Saint Morrissey, will be in discussion, exploring the question Morrissey: saint or sinner? Former NME editor Danny Kelly is hosting a talk on the enduring cultural significance of The Smiths, with a panel of academics and superfans.

The Quiffosexual Cabaret is a performance variety show in which one can get quiffed-up with a Moz Makeover from Open Barbers and Barberette. Then you can have your photo taken in front of the legendary Salford Lads Club; and confront MozTerMind. (Ask him anything about the Smiths or Morrissey and he knows the answer!)

Meanwhile, the Readers’ Wives, Strangeways and Morrissey Smiths Disco will be spinning records throughout the weekend in the bar, which will be showing an exhibition of exclusive pictures by legendary rock photographer Tom Sheehan. What could be more extraordinary?

Or indeed apt? Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary was what lay behind the very naming of The Smiths – choosing the most normal name in Britain, in reaction to the nonsense of synth-pop bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

MMS Logo on white-200x165Mr & Mrs Smith: our favourite travel companions

But there’s more to Smithdom than making music. The name is the very definition of anonymity; the coy code of naughty weekenders and bare-faced adulterers for a century or more. No questions asked, a nod and a wink, an eyebrow raised. Which was how high50’s travel specialist partners Mr & Mrs Smith came by their name, too.

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll know Mr & Mrs Smith from their regular articles and offers. The company was founded by husband-and-wife team James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy – themselves models of propriety – who, being a fair few years younger than Morrissey, may well have lain in their own bedrooms listening to the Manchester miserablist.

But they were growing up in a very different world from him. This was boom-time Britain, and their reading material was more likely a Lonely Planet guide.

By the turn of the century, the Lohans and their contemporaries had inherited an earth that made the Yuppie Eighties seem like a socialist paradise. The turbo-charged lifestyle, still roaring in Notting Hill and Alderley Edge, had begun.

As for a lonely planet, today’s Generation high50 had been there, done that, from Provence to Phuket, New Mexico to Nepal. And yet, the whole world seemed to be turning into an Aman resort.

Where were the hidden jewels, wondered the Lohans, the little-places-that-we-know? In the age of the internet, the new buzzwords were ‘information’ and ‘recommendation’. The big question was ‘Who can we trust?’.

“People Like Us,” decided the Lohans. They related and collated their own experiences with those of their friends. They asked celebrity mates like Stella McCartney for their favourite havens. Then they published them, in the spirit of the endeavour, anonymously.

To date, they have put out nine guides and a TV series. They have offices in London, New York and Melbourne. They have mixed travel-music CDs and designed luggage. And every day, they cut deals with the boutiqu-est of hotels for the well-heeled subscribers of Mr & Mrs Smith.

Sir Paul Smith 2013. Launch of Hello My Name Is. 200x200 Corbis Sir Paul Smith: our knight in stripey armour

Who were and still are, no doubt, wearing the lovely threads and toting the gorgeous accessories made by Sir Paul Smith, OBE, RDI. He’s now 66, with a career that has spanned the past 40 years, and is still producing better and better work. He is an inspiration to our generation.

Let’s not try to encapsulate his design and marketing skills, nor his amazing eye, in a few words. Instead, let’s look at the business record. At 23, he opened his first shop in his home town of Nottingham. Six years later, he was showing in Paris.

And now, in his scores of stores and thousands of concessions, he sells the following 12 collections: Paul Smith, Paul Smith Women, PS by Paul Smith, Paul Smith Jeans, Paul Smith London, R Newbold (Japan only), Paul Smith Accessories, Paul Smith Shoes, Paul Smith Fragrance, Paul Smith Watches, Paul Smith Pens and Paul Smith furniture. Paul Smith rugs, china, spectacles and fragrance are made under licence.

And he has has a delightful YouTube channel showing us Inside Paul’s studio. Phew! It’s like he’s going to keep Smith among the top-ranking British names all on his own if necessary.

Robert, Delia, Maggie, Arthur and Zadie

Not that there should be any necessity while Robert Smith, who like Morrissey is 53, stays on the road. The badly made-up boy from Crawley was founding The Cure when Sir Paul’s models were taking their first steps down the Tuileries catwalk.

And just as the fashion-meister is an example of how one can reach a whole new level in mid-life, so the patron saint of Goths reminds us that we are, in the Talking Heads’ words, “the same as we ever were”.

Between them, these Smiths remind us how uncommon common people can be – and, by extension, how Generation high50 has in its power the capacity to blossom; to lead interesting, involved, creative, special lives that are the same only better. So let’s be ’avin’ yer, as Saint Delia would say.

From Maggie and Arthur in the Saga age-spectrum, to writer Zadie and Time Lord Matt bubbling under, let’s celebrate the potential in the seemingly pedestrian. And above all, in ourselves.

Is your surname Smith? Do you have an extraordinary story to tell? Contact us at [email protected], putting ‘Smith story’ in the subject line, and we’ll put the most interesting on the site