When Johnny Marr was a kid, he watched Top of the Pops, that then-immovable baramoter of the nation’s music taste, saw T.Rex play Metal Guru, and so filled with energy from the performance, he rode on his bike for miles and miles before realising he was completely lost. 11 years later he was providing a new generation their own moment to lose themselves to.
On the face of it, is surprising that The Smiths first (of 11, and Morrissey would return to the show 11 more times as a solo artist) performance on Top of the Pops is so revered and regarded, in fact on the face of it, it isn’t even a performance at all, the thing is mimed.
Perhaps the reason that it spoke to a generation (everyone from Nicky Wire to Noel Gallagher have cited it) is how joyful it is. Morrissey’s stated intention was to “bring some life to Top of the Pops”, and he certainly does that. Eschewing a microphone as everyone knew they were miming anyway, it a moment of sheer joy, matching the effervescence of the record, with balloons, flowers and and Morrissey having fun with his audience. Indeed if you ever wanted proof that The Smiths were more than the miserablists that they are often written off as, you would only need to show them this video.
It was an important moment for the group too. The performance happened while the song was at Number thirty in the chart (it rose to 25 the following week, and became a top ten single on a later reissue) and was many people’s introduction to Morrissey, transforming the band from John Peel favourites to the biggest indie band in the country overnight.
And what an introduction. The gladioli wielding Morrissey must have looked like he was from a different planet in 1983. Even alternative music had a macho edge post punk, let alone the Thatcherite mainstream. Here was this fey northern boy, who looked like he had just fallen out of a Salvation Army shop with only flowers for weapons. Noel Gallagher would later conclude: “None of my mates liked them — they were more hooligan types. They came into work and said ‘Fuckin’ hell, did you see that poof on “Top of the Pops” with the bush in his back pocket?’ But I thought it was life-changing.”
The song of course helped. One of the most life-affiriming things ever put to wax, Morrissey’s impossibly flowery language (“Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate” in some opening line) artful cribbing from Shelagh Delaney (“I would go out tonight/But I haven’t got a stitch to wear” is reminiscent of a scene in A Taste of Honey) and Anthony Shaffer (“A jumped up pantry boy/who never knew his place” is cribbed wholesale from Sleuth) coupled with the homoerotic kitchen sink plotline (boy’s bicycle breaks down, gets life from charming older gent who tells him how handsome he is) and Marr’s impossible riff just made the whole thing irresistible. No wonder a generation’s counter culture fell in love with them at first sight.