I'm 'Morrissey' in top tribute to The Smiths and I even squeeze fruit in the supermarket like him

'You can't muck around with The Smiths, it's like a religion."
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The Smiths are a band who are synonymous with Manchester music. For years, they were a driving force in the industry and their songs and legacy live on. Partly, this is through the role of tribute bands, and one in particular has been going strong for more than 20 years. 

The Smyths got together in 2003, and I had a chat with front man Graham Sampson, who takes to the stage as ‘Morrissey’ for the band. He told ManchesterWorld all about how they got started, what it’s like to represent the singer, and how Morrissey’s divisive views once had him approached by national news channels. 

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Graham took me back to the very beginning, and spoke of how The Smyths were born out of the tribute scene. He said: “That was 21 years ago, essentially I’d been in a couple of bands in the 1990s with our bass player Simon. In the 2000s with our original bands we had gotten pretty close, we were in a band called Ted at the time. We had a few salty music reviews, we were 27 at the time and we were described as ‘noticeably ageing’. Music journalism back then was a few people with agendas and a massive audience who could wreck careers. 

“Simon whilst being in that band had also, just for sheer fun, dipped his toe in the tribute market and had a tribute band to the Beautiful South and the Housemartins called The Beautiful Southmartins. He had a lot of fun with this.

“We had all the desire to play on stage, and we loved playing, so when Simon wound down the tribute act a friend suggested a tribute to The Smiths. Simon had been in an original version of this band, The Smyths with a ‘y’, when he was at university in Newcastle. 

“Simon was asked by Chris, who was our ‘fifth Smith’ at the time, if he knew a ‘Morrissey’ and because Simon had known me for 10 years, he’d seen that I could slip into being Morrissey quite easily. So he thought that I could do the singing side of things as I could do the talking. 

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"We had an audition together in June 2003 and it was really good. We got ready with about eight songs and it was good so we decided to do it. We soon had a show planned for nine months in advance at the Half Moon in Putney, and we wanted to be ready. You can’t muck around with The Smiths. It’s like a religion, first and foremost we were big fans so we knew what was demanded of it. 

"We expected the eventual show would have about 50 people and a dog there. It was a 220-capacity sell out, as well as the dog. We never really looked back from here. The interest grew and then we had shows in the Netherlands and the momentum was building. No one was thinking about it being professional, none of us had been paid for gigs before. We were doing it out of passion, we loved gigging. It was a gradual development, we didn’t have an agency, travelling around the country visiting small venues. 

“It was a slow build, with a few big shows with around 400 people. We would do several shows with friends of ours who were in a Joy Division/ New Order tribute band called Re-order in what was a double bill.”

The next big moment for the band was when a major festival came knocking, and this helped to springboard The Smyths to where they are today. 

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Graham said: “It all changed in 2010. We got invited to play the Isle of Wight Festival and whilst there I had a call telling me we’d been asked to play at the Academy venues. We got all that sorted and we would be playing the large city O2 academy venues. It grew from there, we never looked back. 

“We grew in size and by 2016 it became clear that we could turn professional. Glastonbury called after the Isle of Wight Festival, and we’ve played a few Glastonbury Festivals. In 2019 we did our first Australia and New Zealand tour and we’ve just completed our fourth tour with a fifth on the horizon next year. There have been so many seismic moments., and we’ve just had another one.” 

The band has also been given the honour of playing at the reopening of an iconic venue down in London. This comes shortly after their biggest ever gig in the capital. 

Graham said: “Earlier this year we played the O2 Shepherd’s Bush, which was by far our biggest London show. We were booked in June to play the Electric Ballroom in Camden, which would have been our second biggest but we then got the call that Brixton Academy was reopening and they wanted to kick off with tribute bands and we were picked as one of them. We’re playing on the opening night. We’ll be the first band on stage there since its reopening- this made national news. 

Graham Sampson is 'Morrissey' in The Smyths Graham Sampson is 'Morrissey' in The Smyths
Graham Sampson is 'Morrissey' in The Smyths
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“Despite how big this has gotten, we’ve never lost sight of what it was when it started. We've also not forgotten why we do it. It’s a passion project, the money followed the passion. When we started, tribute bands were seen as something hilarious with old men wearing wigs and things like that."

The physical look alike aspect of The Smyths made Graham change his appearance. This came after regular calls from audience members. 

On this, he said: “For the first few years of playing, I didn’t dye my hair. We didn’t want to go down that road. But after a few too many nights of people saying ‘Morrissey doesn't have blonde hair’, I remember one night in Bolton a woman berating me for this, I dyed my hair and gave in. 

“When we started our aim wasn’t to sound like The Smiths playing on a TV show in 1982, when we formed The Smiths would have been formed 20 years ago so we wanted to show what they might sound like now. They would be huge. We didn’t want to recreate the sound, we wanted to be ‘what if The Smiths had never split up’? That’s where we are right now- 40 years on. 

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“A third and sometimes a half of our audiences are under 20. It’s like they are coming to see The Smiths as old men, we’re in our 50s now. There can be a bit of that projection, some generations never got to see The Smiths and we have people come and thank us and say that we are the closest they would get to seeing them.” 

The band are not directly from Manchester, with Graham and other members being from London and others from Newcastle and Sunderland. Yet there is a Manchester theme to Graham's backstory, and one he is proud of. 

“To qualify the Manchester backstory, my grandfather who tragically died one week before the end of the First World War, before he joined 'the great adventure' he was a Mancunian singer and actor. When I step on stage in Manchester and sing with a Manchester voice, I’m doing what he did. I have lineage, my grandmother was born in Manchester and I have lots of family there. They have the brilliant northern name The Shufflebottoms. I have strong Mancunian roots.”

 Graham got more personal and talked in detail of what it is like to be Morrissey on stage and singing songs the frontman wrote. 

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“It’s a very odd thing. I’ve been doing it for a long time and it's been a natural thing. I think I have a unique experience on this. I don’t feel like I need to play it as a role. Due to my age, I was a first generation Smiths fan, I recorded TV performances on a VHS, as a teenager affected by pop idols.

The Smyths on stage The Smyths on stage
The Smyths on stage

“I responded to Morrissey because I saw something in him that I saw in me, or I was influenced by him and I have personality traits that he had. If you catch me in the supermarket squeezing fruit, I squeeze it the way Morrissey would. It’s very natural. I take this on to stage with me, I don’t need to worry about taking studied moves on with me. It’s a natural performance. We’re not textbook- we’re very authentic. When I extend my jaw on stage people say ‘he’s extending his jaw like Morrissey,’ and it's lucky as I was born with it.”

Some members of The Smiths know of The Smyths, with praise coming in from them regularly. 

“We had a lot of contact with Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke when he was alive. They saw us play a few times, and a couple of times they were booked with us to do a DJ set. We turned around at Brixton and saw them standing right next to us. They were always great supporters of the band. 

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“Stephen Street, the legendary producer for The Smiths, has become a very good friend of mine. He’s played with us before and he has vouched for us on stage before. Johnny (Marr) has spoken about us on the radio, which is great. We have proximity to the real band, which is crazy really. “

It’s no secret that Morrissey at one time was regularly in the headlines for controversial views and statements. Graham said that when this used to happen, he would often get contacted for comment for news sites, but he generally has the view that it's not something they could or should have a say on. 

“The other guys haven't really had any trouble. I’m the one the news channels come to and ask ‘Morrissey has said this, would you care to comment?’ and I thank them for coming to me but say no, I wouldn’t. That’s how we handle it. There will be some people who feel we need to come out one way or another, and this is where politics comes into it. 

“This is how I’ve discovered that sometimes in life, saying nothing is best. You can’t be hung for the things you didn’t say. We just don’t comment and people can think of what they will. Some out there will look at us and say ‘you owe him a living, you should be defending him,’ we just can’t get involved, it’s not our argument. We’re keeping the music of The Smiths alive, that’s our part of the bargain, to give people the chance to see the music up close.”