Ronnie Scott never particularly cared for the music of 1980s post-punk darlings The Smiths when he was growing up in the grunge-filled environment of the 1990s. So nobody was more surprised than he was at his adult transformation into an uncanny look-alike/sound-alike replica, circa 1984, of the band’s iconic lead singer Morrissey.
“I was a guitar player and my friends and I were into Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I actually was not a Smiths fan at all,” said Scott last week from his Brooklyn home, where as Morrissey’s younger twin Ronnissey, he fronts the popular New York-based Smiths tribute band The Sons & The Heirs.
“My older sister was a huge fan, though,” he says. “She was very passionate about Morrissey, and I couldn’t understand it, to me it seemed kind of foreign.”
Only when Scott began to write songs and sing them himself in his early 20s did listeners being commenting at how closely his smooth vocals resembled Morrissey’s.
“I had to give The Smiths another listen, and this time I was amazed,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it had flown under my radar for so long. My eyes were opened to this fantastic music and I finally discovered the magic of The Smiths.”
And there’s no underestimating the magic – or the far-reaching influence – the British band generated during its brief existence between 1982 and 1987. Propelled by the yin-yang collaboration of Johnny Marr and his chiming guitar and Morrissey with his forlorn crooning, The Smiths were the group of the decade for music fans burned out on synthesizers and hair bands.
Morrissey, especially, attracted legions of devotees by embracing selfabsorption and alienation through witty, romantic lyrics, and a foppy, sexually ambiguous stance that never seemed like a stage act. Over 25 years after their acrimonious split, The Smiths are still seen as indie beacons of integrity.
“Morrissey has the whole package.
His appeal is that he can express ideas not only in his lyrics, but in his facial expression, or his dancing” said Scott.
“It’s just his whole persona that articulates things that everybody feels.
The way he can express how people are feeling is just unparalleled, he’s so relatable that way.”
Independent of Scott’s Smiths awakening, a trio of New York musicians led by accomplished guitarist and film and TV composer Ravi Krishnaswami answered an ad placed in the mid-2000s by a vocalist in search of musicians for a Smith tribute band.
It turned out that Krishnaswami and his bassist and drummer, Christian Rourke and Kevin Joyce respectively (stage names in honor of original Smiths rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce), were considerably better than the Morrissey character.
So they placed their own ad to replace him and Scott entered the picture in 2006.
“I went down to the audition feeling confident, knowing I sounded like Morrissey. But I started watching some of the band’s old videos and I realized, ‘Wow, this is going to take a lot more than singing like this person,” said Scott.
“For the first year or so, I spent all my time watching his moves, talking to people who had seen The Smiths, trying to cull every bit of information that I could use in the performance.”
The dedication and perseverance paid off as The Sons & The Heirs visually and musically approximate The Smiths in their prime. Adamantly referring to themselves as a tribute band and not a cover band, The Sons & The Heirs are named after a lyric from the Smiths’ song “How Soon is Now?” (“I am the son, I am the heir, of nothing in particular.”) They use instruments and gear nearly identical to their source, and Scott has Morrissey’s appearance down pat, from his trademark pompadour and open-palm gestures, to his loose, button-down dotted shirts and his stage prop of gladiola flowers, that he throws to the audience.
“The fans are so passionate at shows that if you don’t really try your best to get it just right, they’ll let you know about it,” said Scott.
“It’s scary sometimes at the beginning of a show, because people hold The Smiths and Morrissey in such high esteem. When the band starts to play, you can sense that everyone is standing with pins and needles waiting for the vocals to come in, and then it’s a snap judgment – either they hate it or they love it.
Thankfully, the majority of the time, they love it.”
According to Scott, it’s a very thin line between paying tribute to someone and simply mimicking them, and it’s a distinction that can make or break a tribute act.
“You can’t disrespect something that people love and care about so much,” he said. “I’ve seen other Smiths tribute bands, and they’re a little hokey, over the top, trying to be more dramatic or overly effeminate – they’re acting like Morrissey instead of performing like Morrissey. A lot of fans find that insulting, so you need to go up there and you need to be passionate and truthful. Then the audience will realize that you have something in common – you love the same music and the same band. People get won over by that very quickly.”
Despite the accolades, including a thumbs up from original Smiths bassist Andy Rourke, who joined The Sons & The Heirs onstage for a few songs in New York in 2010, life in a tribute band means putting your own musical aspiration on hold. However, Scott sees the positive side of delving so deeply into a classic rock band’s oeuvre.
“I swore I would never do any kind of tribute or cover band stint in my career. I thought it was a complete sellout as a musician,” he said. “But this is the exception I decided to make, because the music is so good, so intense and it’s really a learning experience playing these songs.
“They’re so unconventionally written, the melodies are so complex and it’s such a stretch from what you consider to be standard pop songs. This experience has without a doubt helped me develop my own musical skills.”
Local Smiths fans will have a chance to see those skills in action when The Sons & The Heirs arrive for a show on June 21 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv. Following the show, DJs will host a dance party featuring more music from The Smiths as well as ’80s accomplices like The Cure and Depeche Mode.
Morrissey has performed to packed Tel Aviv halls twice in recent years, and Scott said that the band decided to perform in Israel after reading several impassioned pleas on their website and Facebook page from fans here.
“The notes we received from Tel Aviv were so passionate that we decided, if we’re going to travel to anyplace outside the US to perform, it’s going to be Israel,” he said. “There seems to be something special going on there.”