This charming man

It is 20 years since The Smiths' first hit transformed the British music scene. Jason Cowley on pop'

To understand the impact Morrissey and his band The Smiths had on British popular culture when they first emerged in the autumn of 1983, one must first recall the atmosphere and mood in the country during that particular year. Margaret Thatcher, strengthened by victory in the Falklands war, had confidently defeated a weakened and fractious Labour Party in the summer general election; the energy of punk and new wave had long since dissipated; the pop charts were dominated by the pompous extravagance of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Culture Club; American influences were becoming omnipresent; and Kelvin MacKenzie's relentlessly vulgar Sun newspaper was a mirror in which the nation saw reflected its own base aspirations. In other words, Britain had not yet fully remade itself as a vibrant, cosmopolitan entity; it was still suspended uneasily somewhere between the hegemony of the postwar consensus politics that had led to the stasis and disenchantment of the mid-to-late-1970s, and the worst excesses of the Thatcherite counter-revolution. It was a bad time for all but the most triumphalist of the new right.

What was so intriguing about Morrissey, who is now 44, was his absolute rejection of the modern impulse for change. He was, unusually for a young aspirant rock star, a deeply reactionary figure, who, during the lonely years of his adolescence on a Manchester council estate, had created his own idiosyncratically nostalgic world-view. He was, emphatically, a Little Englander. His heroes were neglected actors like Charles Hawtrey (of the Carry On films), writers such as Thomas Hardy, or semi-forgotten former icons like the young Diana Dors, Viv Nicholson, Billy Fury or Sandie Shaw (all of whom he used as cover stars on his record sleeves).

Morrissey was interested in the lives of little people, those excluded from the affluence and bombast of the new Britain, and in literate eccentrics like Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote. He dressed, against the then trend for opulent display, with dishevelled flamboyance - he wore flowing shirts and old jeans - and he turned national health spectacles and hearing aids into fashion accessories. His hair, cut short at the back and sides, was worn in an extravagant quiff, like the French actor Jean Marais in Cocteau's Orpheus. His sexuality was ambivalent, he was whimsical, and his extraordinarily fluent conversation had a camp burnish.

The words he used in his songs - handsome, miserable, gruesome, charming, blessed - were unusual for the medium. To listen to his best songs today - "This Charming Man", "There is a Light That Never Goes Out", "How Soon Is Now?" - is to recall exactly how you felt and what you were doing when you first heard them. That power to prompt instant recollection is the undeniable attraction of even the most banal pop music.

Growing up in and around Manchester during the 1970s must have been a miserable and alienating experience. Bernard Sumner, the frontman of the band New Order, has since spoken of the boredom, of how everything in and around the city centre seemed to be in decay or actually falling down, how there was nowhere for ambitious young people from traditional working-class families to go and nothing for them to do, and how it seemed to be raining all the time. The Manchester sound of the late 1970s, as exemplified by Joy Division and early New Order, was suitably cold and austere. It was music for mourning, perfect for a decaying post-industrial urban landscape.

Yet Morrissey made of this same northern landscape a magical poetry. Through his simple, melodic songs, he achieved a peculiar alchemy in which the unkempt houses and darkened streets of the Whalley Range estate of his childhood were transfigured, becoming in the process places of romance and possibility. The recurring motifs in his songs were bus stops, darkened underpasses, double-decker buses, cemeteries and factory gates. The mood of his songs was one of persistent longing. The word "love" - certainly love fulfilled - seldom appeared in his lexicon.

Morrissey's songs are really about the impossibility of ever finding true intimacy with another person. In this, they reflect his own life. He told Lynn Barber, when she interviewed him last year, that he had never been at all interested in physical relationships. "There are some people on the planet who aren't obsessed with sex. I'm one of them. I wasn't interested in sex when I was 17, I wasn't interested when I was 27, I wasn't interested when I was 37, and I'm even less interested now . . . It's a great privilege to live alone."

It would be a shame if all this made Morrissey appear unusually gloomy, because he is, after all, a very witty writer. His songs, particularly in the last phase of The Smiths and throughout his faltering solo career, have been consistently amusing. The titles alone - "Girlfriend in a Coma", "Rusholme Ruffians", "Vicar in a Tutu", "Bengali in Platforms", "National Front Disco" - are delightfully odd. And it is hard to think of a funnier line than this, from the song "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now": "What she asked of me at the end of the day/Caligula would have blushed."

The Smiths were, from the beginning, a classic four-piece: singer, drums, bass and guitar. They were a product of the independent label Rough Trade and they had a robust political independence. Morrissey's songwriting partner, Johnny Marr, was a musician of range and flexibility. His guitar could at one moment sound soft and jangly and at the next as hard and jagged as anything by Keith Richards. Morrissey's deep, mournful voice, though often repetitive, was an excellent complement to Marr's guitar.

The Smiths, as is the way of these things, split up acrimoniously in 1987, having had 14 hit singles. Five years later, bass player Mike Joyce successfully sued Morrissey for more than £1m in unpaid back earnings. When Lynn Barber met Morrissey on tour last year in America, he was still complaining about the injustice of the court's decision. Nor had he any intention of returning to the England he had once elegised with such perspicacity. Perhaps he is still hurt by the accusations of racism that were levelled against him by the NME and others after he began, during live performances, to wrap himself in the Union Jack and to embrace in his songs and public statements a darker, more defensive English nationalism.

In truth, there is nothing sinister about his songs, even the most wryly provocative such as "National Front Disco" or "Bengali in Platforms". Indeed, the notion of a National Front disco is itself inherently comic: at such an event you would surely encounter the kind of dysfunctional comic grotesque to whom Morrissey has always been attracted.

Today Morrissey lives alone off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He has no record contract, but he still tours and remains wealthy from his Smiths' royalties. He claims not to have spoken to Johnny Marr for more than a decade.

Pop music - no matter how original or sophisticated - is essentially an expression of late adolescence or early adulthood. Morrissey embodied, more than any other pop artist of his era, the frustrated yearning and idealism of that often difficult period of transition from youthful rebellion to resigned maturity. His romantic provincialism was, at the time, a splendid antidote to the empty consumerism of the mid-1980s. He was an inspiration for every awkward, fretful youth who had ever spent too long alone in a darkened bedroom. His was a voice of charm and sanity in a crazy time. There has been no one quite like him, before or since.

Morrissey's Under the Influence, a compilation of his record collection, is released by DMC this month