Cult Heroes No. 40: The Smirks
Blink and you might have missed The Smirks in the late 1970s. But before the Madchester phenomenon gripped the country, this lot were proving that Manchester had a band with bite, humour and tunes. They also led an anti-disco revolt. But they never quite got the chance to shine. So, instead of becoming icons, they’re here, as our latest Cult Heroes. Check out all previous Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
No, This isn’t an Armenian family distantly related to The Smurfs. For a start, none of them are blue, and they also don’t live in a closed community presided over by a barmy old geezer with a beard for brains, where the few women allowed into the community appear to have been created by black magic (talk about a perverted cult!). The Smirks were actually a late 1970s Mancunian band, who had an edgy, melodic approach to their music, allied to a real sense of humour. If you can imagine early Buzzcocks mixed with 10cc then that’ll do for a comparison.
When the powerpop phenomenon exploded onto the world (well, more like shuffled apologetically), people immediately branded The Smirks as being part of this enlightened movement. But, while bands like The Pleasers were desperate to recapture the early days of The Beatles (as if music stopped in 1964), The Smirks were very much part of the modern era.
“We were a new wave band with a sense of humour,” says vocalist/guitarist Simon Milner, who co-founded the band with guitarist/vocalist Neil Fitzpatrick.
“The two of us were busking in Paris and doing quite well. Then Mogs (bassist/vocalist Ian Morris) joined us and we relocated to Manchester, and got in a drummer (Mike Doherty).
“At the time punk was starting to happen. No, we weren’t as angry or as disillusioned with everything in that way, but we were rather anarchic, so that whole movement suited us.”
Things moved very fast for the young band. They played at a showcase gig in Liverpool, where loads of unsigned hopefuls got their chance for 15 minutes of fame.
“The hook was that there would be a lot of record company people coming down to check you out. In the end there weren’t many, but one guy who did come down was Fred Cantrell, who ran the UK office of Beserkley Records. He wanted to sign us straight away, as he liked our energy and enthusiasm.”
In some ways, this was the perfect home for The Smirks. There was something quirky and off the wall about the label. Founded by Matthew Kaufman, they had Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers, Greg Kihn, The Rubinoos and Earthquake (all American, by the way) on their roster – each act different to the others, and all fitting more into a vaudeville approach to new wave than anything sinister or serious. And, given the fact that the Smirks were iconoclasts, they were even prepared to send up their own record company.
Beserkley loved to promote themselves and their releases, under the slogan ‘The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Clothes On’. Typically, The Smirks took up the challenge by claiming that their music was ‘The Mist Fun You Can Have With Your Shoes On’.
“That would have been thought by our manager at the time, Andrew Jaspar. He was such a dynamic person, so much energy and really intense. The problem was that he could rub people up the wrong way if they didn’t understand his enthusiasm. After managing us, he went on to have a successful career in journalism.”
The band’s relationship with Beserkley was over almost as soon as it had begun. They released just two singles for the label – OK UK/Streets and Rosemary/Up Eh Up. Both came out in 1978, and should have been the springboard for a rich vein of success. There’s still a sparkle about both these seven inchers that tells of a band who had that late 70s British feistiness, but also an instinctive appreciation of how to write an instant tune. The only surprise is that neither were hits. And then, as quickly as they arrived on the label, the band were gone. Leaving behind an unreleased album.
“To be honest, I’m not sure what happened,” admits Milner. “In fact, I’m not sure I knew at the time what occurred. I know we weren’t at all happy with Beserkley, but then I found out a lot later that no band is happy with their record company. That almost seems to be the norm in the music business.”
This, though, is what appeared to have gone down – and wrong. Fred Cantrell quit, and the label publicly claimed at the time that they were still keen to retain the services of The Smirks, going so far as to issue the following statement:
‘The Smirks have been informed (of Cantrell’s resignation) and have been given the opportunity to see how they feel about continuing with Beserkley, in view of the close personal relationship with Fred.
‘The inevitable changes in the company will result in an increased emphasis on the original US acts, and in the light of this, The Smirks are free to decide their own future.’
If ever there was an open invitation for a band to jump, then this was it. For a record company to openly tell a band that they no longer really cared about them, but they had the choice to stay is really a prime example of Hobson’s Choice.
At the time The Smirks claimed that they were owed £11,000 for the recording of their debut album, and also for the artwork. To compound the situation, they had £2,500 worth of cheques bounced on them by the label. This was at the end of 1978, when such amounts could buy you a little more than just a milky coffee! Manager Jaspar slammed the label as being “Inefficient, unhelpful and, at times, completely uninterested”. He might have had a point.
So, it was no surprise that the band and label severed all connections, leaving that unreleased album (to which we’ll return shortly). The Smirks, though, battled back by starting their own label called Smirk Songs (allegedly taking inspiration for that from Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label), and got an EP titled American Patriot ready for release to coincide with a UK tour in March 1979. It took them just a week to cut the three songs on this EP at a studio in Rochdale (Cargo).
“They were produced by Mike Howlett, who was well-known at the time as the bassist with Gong. Now, one thing we didn’t like about the album we’d done for Beserkley was that the production. But Mike was great to work with, he got our sound together and got us to do it all live.. He turned up our amps to 11.
“The problem with the album was that it was done too quickly, and to be honest we didn’t have enough songs ready. At the time we were doing live sets of about 20 minutes, so we needed time to get more material prepared. That’s not something Beserkly gave us.”
Despite good reviews for American Patriot, the band were to release only one more single - To You/New Music – before splitting up.
“We literally disappeared. Just ran out of steam, I suppose. In all, it was an 18-month rollercoaster ride and while it lasted we had a fabulous time. But then it was all over.”
Well, not quite. Because in 2005 Sanctuary Records tracked down the unreleased album, and decided to revamp and remaster it ready for release – finally! – under the title of Smirkology.
“There was a small team of dedicated people there, who took the time and effort to get hold of the master tapes and bring it all up to date. I don’t think there was much commercial value in putting it out, but they were all so keen that it was a pleasure working with them.
“The idea was that they’d have two CDs. One with the singles, and the other with the original album and rare stuff. They got it sounding great as well. In fact, we also realized one thing about our first single (OK UK). It was produced by Kenny Laguna (who’d go on to have huge success with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts as producer/manager), and once we’d finished recording he’d added in all these bells and glockenspiels. When all of us heard what he’d done we hated it so much that we insisted they all be removed. We thought he’d done that, but when that song was remastered for the planned album release, we found out that Kenny had just buried these deeper in the mix and not removed them at all! The remastering process brought them back to the surface!”
Sadly, all that hard work was to come to nothing. When Sanctuary was acquired by Universal Records, the project was scrapped – and so The Smirks’ mythic album remains unavailable. With little prospect of coming out in the near future. Unless someone reading this has the enterprise and contacts to make it happen?
So is that the end of The Smirks story? Not quite, because we must mention one of the daftest and most surreal campaigns ever to involve a band: Smirks Against Travolta!
“It was just something we did, because so many live venues were being turned into discos at the end of the 1970s (John Travolta was closely allied to the disco movement through the film Saturday Night Fever). Of course, later on we realized that disco was great . So we were forced to just go along and enjoy the fantastic music.
“But there was a serious side to it all. The worry was that we’d lose a lot of good venues for rock bands, and that it would have a knock-on effect for the future of live music. That was typical of the band: to make a serious point through humour.”
When John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John came to London in 1978 for the premier of the movie Grease, Milner was arrested on a charge of obstruction. He appeared at Bow Street magistrates’ court, when the arresting officer failed to show up. But he still had to pay costs of about £100, despite no prosecution evidence being offered. Milner was even refused legal aid (to which he was entitled) on the grounds that the case was too trivial.
The case came back to haunt him, though, in September this year when he was stopped by an Armed Response Unit vehicle while driving in Manchester during the Labour Party Conference.
“They started to ask me all sorts of questions, and one of these was whether I’d ever been arrested. At first I told them that I hadn’t, because I’d genuinely forgotten about the case. But then I remembered and told them. When they found out what I’d been arrested for, they couldn’t believe it. Well, it does sound so daft. Before they’d heard about Smirks Against Travolta their attitude was really stern, but that kinda broke the ice.”
Screaming Lord Sutch could have learnt something about madcap politics from The Smirks!
These days, Milner is part of the Oscar Bernhardt Ensemble, playing 1930s/40s swing and Latin music. He and Doherty played on the demo version of the Jilted John single, which would become a huge hit in 78. He was also in Distant Cousins, with Morris and Fitzpatrick. They did two albums, but are bizarrely only remembered now because vocalist Doreen Edwards went on to sing the theme song for…Count Duckula. Somehow that seems such a Smirks thing to do!
There you have it. A brief outline of the crazy and mixed-up history of a band who deserved so much more than they were ever allowed to achieve. If you want to put it all into perspective, they could easily have turned into the British answer to Jellyfish. Yep, they were that good.
Don’t believe me? OK (UK) , go to http://www.thesmirks.com/. Not only will you find so much more in depth info on the band and their antics, but also links to listen to, and download, every single they released. Plus some of the tracks which should have been on the aborted album.
After all, why laugh when you can Smirk?
Tags: 10cc, Beatles, Buzzcocks, Cult Heroes, Distant Cousins, Doreen Edwards, Earthquake, Gong, Greg Kihn, Ian Morris, Jellyfish, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, John Travolta, Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers, Kenny Laguna, Mike Doherty, Mike Howlett, Neil Fitzpatrick, Olivia Newton-John, Screaming Lord Sutch, Simon Milner, The Pleasers, The Rubinoos, The Smirks, The Smurfs