The group was formed in early 1982 by Manchester
(b. Steven Patrick Morrissey May 22, 1959) and Johnny Marr
(b. John Martin Maher, October 31, 1963). The pair began to write songs based around Marr's guitar playing and lyrics by Morrissey, an occasional and none-too-successful music journalist. When they formed the band, Morrissey dropped his first name and Maher changed his surname to Marr to avoid confusion with the Buzzcocks
drummer of the same name.Mike Joyce
was recruited as drummer after a short audition; the sound engineer of the studio where they recorded their first demos, Dale Hibbert, played bass. Hibbert was replaced after two gigs, however, by Andy Rourke
, a friend of Marr's. Signing to Rough Trade Records
, they released their first single "Hand in Glove" on 13 May 1983. The record, like many of their later singles, was championed by DJ John Peel
but failed to chart.
The follow-ups, "This Charming Man" and "What Difference Does It Make", fared better and, aided by much praise from the music press, began to pick up a fanatical following. Morrissey's lyrics, superficially depressing, were often full of mordant humour ("one of the few bands capable of making me laugh out loud", said Peel) and his lovelorn tales of alienation found an audience amongst a disaffected section of youth culture, bored by the ubiquitous synthesizer new romantic bands that dominated the charts.
The debut album
By February 1984 their fanbase was sufficiently large to launch the band's long-awaited, self-titled debut album to No. 2 in the UK chart. Despite its strong chart performance, The Smiths
lacked some of the pop energy of the earlier singles, and suffered from being a little one-paced. Its mood was also unremittingly bleak, exemplified by such track titles as "Still Ill" and "Suffer Little Children"; the latter referring to the Moors Murders that had stunned Manchester in the 1960s.
Also evident was Morrissey's studied references to literature and popular culture icons. His frequent acknowledgement of his many idols (James Dean
and Oscar Wilde
particularly) in interviews, along with some more subtle reference (the song-title "Pretty Girls Make Graves", for example, is taken from Jack Kerouac) encouraged a literary bent amongst fans, who already had a tendency towards bookishness. "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" caused some controversy over its content, supposedly suggestive of pedophilia. In addition, "Suffer Little Children" caused an uproar after a grandfather of one of the children murdered heard it on a pub jukebox. In spite of the uproar, the song is in fact entirely sympathetic to the children's plight and led to Morrissey establishing a friendship with Ann West, the mother of victim Lesley Anne West, who is mentioned by name in the song.
1984 also saw the release of the Smiths' most well-known song (in the U.S.), "How Soon Is Now?" as a B-side to the single "William, it was Really Nothing".
Meat is Murder
With their profile further raised by a hit version of "Hand in Glove" by Sandie Shaw (another Morrissey idol), who was supported by the band, barefoot, on the Top of the Pops show, and a critically feted album of session material (Hatful of Hollow, released in November 1984) the band returned to the studio to record their sophomore effort, Meat Is Murder
. This album was more strident and political than its predecessor, including the vegetarian proselytising of the title track and the light-hearted republicanism of "Nowhere Fast." Musically, the band were more adventurous, with Marr adding rockabilly riffs to "Rusholme Ruffians" and playing funk on "Barbarism Begins at Home."
The Queen is Dead
The album's lone single "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" was an odd choice, as its aloof mood, backwards guitar, and lack of any consistent hook made it their second -and final- failed single, barely cracking the top 50. Meat Is Murder was also the band's only album to reach #1 on the UK charts.
During 1985 and 1986 the band completed exhausting tours of the UK and the US while recording the next studio record, The Queen Is Dead
, released in June 1986. A typical mixture of the mordantly bleak ("Never Had No-one Ever", which seemed to play up to stereotypes of the band), the dryly humorous ("Frankly, Mr Shankly") and a number of songs that synthesised both of these sides ("There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "Cemetry Gates") the record reached No. 2 in the UK chart, and is now generally thought of as their best work. Meanwhile, Rourke was fired from the band in early 1986 due to ongoing problems with heroin. He received notice of his dismissal via a Post-it note stuck to his car windscreen, it read "Andy - you have left The Smiths. Goodbye and good luck, Morrissey."
He was temporarily replaced on bass by Craig Gannon
but reinstated after a fortnight. Gannon was retained and switched to rhythm guitar. This five-piece recorded the singles "Panic" and "Ask" and toured the United Kingdom; after the tour ended in October 1986, Gannon was fired.
Strangeways, Here We Come
1987 started off well for the band, with the compilation The World Won't Listen (the title being Morrissey's play on his frustration with the band's lack of recognition from mainstream record buyers and radio stations) reaching #2 on the UK charts. In addition the singles "Shoplifters of the World Unite" (Morrissey's favourite Smiths song) and "Sheila Take A Bow" were released early in the year to chart success.
However, personal differences within the band, and the increasingly strained relationship between Morrissey and Marr, saw them on the verge of splitting and by the time that year's Strangeways, Here We Come (named after Strangeways Prison Manchester) was released, the band had ceased to exist. The breakdown in the relationship has been attributed to Morrissey becoming annoyed at Marr's work with other artists, and Marr becoming frustrated by Morrissey's musical inflexibility. Marr in particular hated Morrissey's obsession with covering 1960s pop artists such as Twinkle and Cilla Black. Referring to the songs recorded in the band's last session together, Marr said, "I wrote 'I Keep Mine Hidden,' but 'Work Is A Four Letter Word' I hated. That was the last straw, really. I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs."
Stangeways... also peaked at No. 2 in the UK but was only a minor US hit, although the track "Paint a Vulgar Picture" proved somewhat prophetic in foretelling how the songs would be "reissued and repackaged" in seemingly innumerable compilations. The infamous 30 second video for "Girlfriend In a Coma" garnered video rotation on MTV in America, and was the band's last touch of fame States-wise. The album received a luke-warm reception from critics, but both Morrissey and Marr name it their favourite Smiths album.
Following the group's demise Morrissey immediately began work on a solo effort, collaborating with Strangeways... producer Stephen Street
and fellow Mancunian Vini Reilly
, guitarist for The Durutti Column. The resulting album, Viva Hate (a reference to the end of the Smiths) was released six months later, reaching #1 in the UK charts. Morrissey continues to perform and record as a solo artist, see the article on him for a more in-depth look at his post-Smiths years.
Johnny Marr returned to the music scene with New Order's Bernard Sumner and the supergroup Electronic
in 1989. The single "Getting Away With It" (featuring Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant) reached #12 on the UK charts, and the album that followed, Electronic reached #2 on the UK charts and went on to sell over a million copies worldwide. He went on to do two more albums with Electronic, as well as session work for bands including (but not limited to) The Pet Shop Boys and Black Grape. In 2000, following the demise of Electronic he started another band, Johnny Marr and the Healers
to a moderate degree of success.
Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce have continued working together, with session work for Morrissey (1988-1989) and Sinéad O'Connor. In addition Rourke performs with Badly Drawn Boy and is launching a band with fellow bassists Peter Hook (New Order, Monaco) and Mani (The Stone Roses, Primal Scream) titled "Freebass".
The Smiths were reunited in court in 1996 to settle a royalties claim by Joyce against Morrissey and Marr, who claimed the lion's share of the Smiths earnings from recordings and delegated only 10 percent each to Joyce and Rourke. The court found in favor of Joyce, and ordered that he be paid over £1m in back pay and receive 25% henceforth. Rourke had long since settled for a smaller sum to pay off debts and continues to receive 10%.
Though not an international commercial success at the time (only two singles "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Sheila Take a Bow" made No. 10 in the UK chart, none charted in the US), The Smiths generated a growing cult following throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century. They received increased acknowledgement in the 1990s and the re-released "This Charming Man" reached No. 8. The band released a total of four studio albums and at least as many compilations in less than five years, as well as numerous singles. In 2002, they were voted 'most inspirational band' by NME
A Smiths reunion will almost certainly never happen. Both Johnny Marr and Morrissey have repeatedly said in interviews that there is no way a reformation will ever take place. The chances have been further diminished with the 1996 court case, which has been a sticking point with Morrissey for a number of years, with him frequently mentioning it bitterly in interviews. He even wrote a song about it on his 1997 album, Maladjusted, titled "Sorrow Will Come in the End". Included were the lyrics "Don't close your eyes / Don't EVER close your eyes / A man who slits throats / Has time on his hands / And I'm gonna get you." The song was omitted from the UK version of the album, after Morrissey's record company feared libel