Many of us who grew up loving the Smiths have rather shelved that affection in recent years. Many of us, being lily-livered liberals, have rather taken against Morrissey’s politics and his public support for the far-right For Britain party. Even those inclined to agree with him might have tired of his unrelenting self-pity and his inability to say anything nice about anyone, ever. Yes, we’ve still got lovely Johnny Marr playing the songs in his solo shows, but with the greatest goodwill in the world — and Marr gets granted the greatest goodwill in the world by being such an obviously decent fella — he’s no one’s idea of a great singer. If only there were some way those songs could be performed by someone who can really sing, backed by a band who can really play them.
Which is how we ended up with ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ hitmaker Rick Astley — a Smiths fan in his teens — fronting the hugely successful young indie band Blossoms for two shows at which they performed nothing but the songs of the Smiths: a terrible joke gone wonderfully right. In a year like this has been, it doesn’t take a lot to make a show seem special — What? Modern Romance will be performing ‘Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey’ on amplified combs and spoons? Count me in! — but this was an evening of quite astonishing joy: wholly uncynical on the part of both performers and audience. I saw the actual Smiths a couple of times as a teenager, and this was more fun than I ever had watching them.
Astley pitched things exactly right: he was gently self-deprecating; he allowed himself the occasional florid gesture in performance, but he spoke of having wanted to sing these songs since his teens, and he delivered them perfectly — making all those unexpected leaps into falsetto that Morrissey used to, and allowing his rich, warm voice to wrap itself around those gloriously unrock lyrics: ‘I dreamt about you last night/And I fell out of bed twice/ You can pin and mount me/ Like a butterfly’.