A few weeks ago, I received a review copy of ‘Boy, Interrupted’ by Dale Hibbert, a former member of The Smiths.
Manchester born and bred, Hibbert paints a fascinating picture of the music scene back in the late 1970’s, faithfully describing the way in which musicians connected, created bands and, as easily, how those bands fractured. He charts the rise of Joy Division and the Buzzcocks as well as many others in a Who’s Who of rising musicians at the time. Of interest to fans, I’m certain, but does the memoir hold wider appeal for curious readers?
Hibbert’s mother died when he was only eight days old. This tragic fact is revealed in the first pack-a-punch line. As one might expect, his sense of abandonment and strong feelings of being an outsider dogged his life. Compounded by his father’s less than hands-on approach to his only son – Hibbert spent much of his formative years living with his grandmother – those feelings were exacerbated and turned him into a loner with few friends. It’s exactly from these experiences that the seeds of his undoubted creativity were sown. All fair and good, yet Hibbert’s attitude to the main players in his life, especially his wives, makes for less than comfortable reading. He appears to hold a conviction that he has been done down and the tone is dangerously close to straying into self-pity. Don’t get me wrong, Hibbert, also diagnosed later with Asperger’s syndrome and diabetes, has had his fair share of serious problems with which to grapple. It’s fair to say that he was handed a duff hand of cards from the outset, but one might be fooled into believing that the memoir is more ‘misery’ than ‘music scene.’ And that’s a pity because, as soon as Hibbert talks about his bent for music, his passion for bass and melody, and the essential dynamics necessary to create a successful band, the narrative takes off. This is what kept me flicking those pages.
Everyone of Hibbert’s generation, it seems, was either in a band or on the cusp of joining one. He reveals how the Manchester Musicians Collective came into being and how even the most unrehearsed groups were warmly received – a far cry from today’s gladiatorial approach.
The core of his story is devoted to his time with The Smiths, and his introduction via Johnny Marr to one Steven Patrick Morrissey, the enigmatic front man of The Smiths, later known solely by his surname. Hibbert paints a genuinely interesting picture of himself and Morrissey as two young men deeply suspicious of each other. Hibbert’s scything opinion and keen nose for sniffing out pretentiousness doesn’t spare the man who later became so successful, yet Hibbert is also incredibly fair-minded. He observes the perfect alchemy that existed between Marr and Morrissey. He praises their talent as songwriters and it comes across as absolutely genuine and without a shred of envy.
Hibbert’s own expertise lay in his very singular skill as a studio engineer. In this regard, the confines of the studio were a perfect match for his ‘loner’ nature. Other writers might be tempted to become overly technical when describing how sound is laid down, but Hibbert avoids this, illustrating the process with verve. Quick to spot that the Smiths didn’t fit into a particular genre, he was keen to capitalise on and turn their uniqueness to advantage.
Unsurprisingly, given the speed with which band members split up and moved around, Hibbert’s inclusion in the group was always going to have a ‘sell by’ date. He alludes to the fact that, with the stratospheric success of The Smiths, all kinds of third parties popped out of the woodwork. After a key gig at The Ritz where they played support group to Blue Rondo a la Turk. Marr, Hibbert’s friend, delivered the bad news in little over ninety seconds. In contrast to how Hibbert reacted to more personal partings, Hibbert’s response was stoic and dignified. Worse was to follow when, during a holiday shortly afterwards, he was replaced in his role as studio engineer. This opened up a whole new chapter for him personally and professionally and which, sadly, didn’t involve music for a considerable time. It’s an honest account, for sure, yet it would have benefited further if the emotional volume could have been turned down just a little.
‘Boy, Interrupted’ is published by Pomona.