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How The Smiths’ Debut London Gig Set Them Up For Stardom
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In Depth

How The Smiths’ Debut London Gig Set Them Up For Stardom

The Smiths’ first ever London concert paved the way for greater things, including their history-making deal with Rough Trade Records.

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For most bands on an upward trajectory, their debut London gig is an important milestone, but in The Smiths’ case, it proved momentous. Staged at The Rock Garden, in Covent Garden, on 23 March 1983, the Manchester quartet’s first ever show in the Big Smoke was only their fifth proper live performance, yet it significantly advanced their career.

The backstory: A hip name to drop

Even at this early stage, The Smiths were a hip name to drop. By this point, the group had existed for barely five months, yet they’d scooped a feature in i-D magazine and a positive review in prestigious Manchester publication City Life. They’d also come to the attention of Rough Trade Records after guitarist Johnny Marr and bassist Andy Rourke journeyed to London to press a demo tape of what would become their debut single, Hand In Glove, into the hands of the label’s boss, Geoff Travis.

Listen to the best of The Smiths here.

In fact, on the very same day The Smiths took to the stage at the Rock Garden, NME ran a rave review of the band’s recent show supporting Factory Records dance-pop act 52nd Street at The Haçienda, in Manchester. The review’s writer, Jim Shelley, observed that frontman Morrissey “thought The Haçienda was too grey and had the place filled with flowers, beginning a recognisable tradition”, but also declared, “It was already clear that they were destined to become a great band.”

The venue: A popular haunt for the industry’s movers and shakers

With the buzz building, The Rock Garden was the ideal choice for The Smiths’ first London gig. A basement venue situated at 6-9 The Piazza, in Covent Garden (now below the Apple HQ in central London), the club had already hosted significant early soirees from singular bands such as U2 and Talking Heads, and – along with the likes of The Marquee and The Venue, in Victoria – it was a popular haunt for the industry’s movers and shakers in the early 80s.

The show: “Morrissey was fully-formed… it was great”

On the night The Smiths performed, The Rock Garden was hardly heaving with punters, though the audience was swelled by a small contingent from Manchester. Some of the locals in attendance, however, went on to play crucial roles in the band’s immediate future – not least Mike Hinc, from Rough Trade’s spin-off booking agency, All Trade, who was searching for Rough Trade’s answer to Echo And The Bunnymen – what he later described as “a credible live act that could tour without that much support from a record company”. Hinc had also heard the Hand In Glove tape, and he played it to some more industry insiders, including such diverse figures as Sisters Of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame. “And they both liked it,” Hinc recalled in Tony Fletcher’s A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga Of The Smiths.

For their debut London gig The Smiths were supported by a local band called Two Chances. When it came to performing their headlining set, Morrissey and co ran through a well-executed show, including early highlights such as Hand In Glove, Handsome Devil and Accept Yourself. The group were generally received with enthusiasm, not least from the group of Rough Trade staffers who had come down to satisfy their curiosity about the band. Mike Hinc was suitably impressed and would later vividly recall Geoff Travis’ reaction: “I could see from the smirk on Geoff’s face that they blew him away. He was like the cat that got the cream.”

In Rob Young’s book Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited, Travis confirmed Hinc’s memory: “I see Morrissey onstage as pretty much a revelation at the Rock Garden. Because he was fully-formed. Dancing about, it was great.”

The aftermath: “The Smiths became our first long-term signing”

Travis’ feelings were reciprocated by the majority of the Rough Trade staff, and their collective goodwill was enough to take things to the next level for The Smiths. Indeed, The Smiths’ debut London gig helped to set a chain of events in motion.

For starters, All Trade booked further London gigs for the band, and when The Smiths played the University Of London Union, on 6 May, Rough Trade’s in-house plugger Scott Piering brought BBC producer and talent scout John Walters along with him. Convinced he’d just witnessed a very important band in action, Walters duly invited The Smiths to cut their first session for BBC Radio 1’s John Peel show, booking them for a slot to be held just two weeks later, on 18 May.

If all that – and the 13 May release of Hand In Glove – wasn’t enough, the Rock Garden gig also convinced Geoff Travis that he needed to put his relationship with the group on a much firmer footing. The Rough Trade boss duly returned to The Smiths’ manager, Joe Moss, with a renewed proposition: he wanted to sign the band to a long-term contract, marking the first time Rough Trade had offered such a deal to any of their acts.

“They were our first long-term signing, our first serious commitment to making a commercial project work,” Travis recalled in Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited. “We were going to commit all our resources to The Smiths, and we wanted to have some kind of security. We didn’t often think like that; we would still make stupid one-off deals all the time. But it just seemed obvious that this was a pretty special thing.”

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