The Smiths were an English rock band formed in Manchester in 1982. The band consisted of vocalist Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. Critics have called them one of the most important bands to emerge from the British independent music scene of the 1980s. In 2002, NME named the Smiths “the artists to have had the most influence on the NME”. In 2003, four of the band’s albums appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
Based on the songwriting partnership of Morrissey and Marr, the group signed to the independent record label Rough Trade Records, on which they released four studio albums. They have also released several compilations and numerous non-album singles. They had several singles reach the top twenty of the UK Singles Chart and all four of their studio albums reached the top five of the UK Albums Chart, including Meat Is Murder which hit number one. They won a significant following and remain cult favourites. The band broke up in 1987 due to internal tensions and have turned down several offers to reunite.
The band’s focus on a guitar, bass, and drum sound and their fusion of 1960s rock and post-punk, were a rejection of the then-popular, synthesiser-based dance-pop. Marr’s guitar work, using a Rickenbacker, had a jangle pop sound reminiscent of Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Morrissey’s complex, literate lyrics combined themes about ordinary people with mordant humour.
On 31 August 1978, a 19-year-old Morrissey was briefly introduced to the 14-year-old Johnny Marr by mutual acquaintances Billy Duffy and Howard Bates at a Patti Smith gig held at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre.
In May 1982 Marr decided that he wanted to establish a new band, and subsequently turned up on the doorstep of Morrissey’s house – 384 Kings Road, Stretford – accompanied by mutual friend Steve Pomfret, to ask Morrissey if he was interested in founding a band with himself and Pomfret. A fan of the New York Dolls, Marr had been impressed that Morrissey had authored a book on the band, and was inspired to turn up on his doorstep following the example of Jerry Leiber, who had formed his working partnership with Mike Stoller after turning up at the latter’s door.
According to Morrissey: “We got on absolutely famously. We were very similar in drive.” Conversing, the two found that they were fans of many of the same bands. The next day, Morrissey phoned Marr to confirm that he would be interested in forming a band with him.
A few days later, Morrissey and Marr held their first rehearsal in Marr’s rented attic room in Bowdon. Morrissey provided the lyrics for “Don’t Blow Your Own Horn”, the first song that they worked on; however, they decided against retaining the song, with Marr commenting that “neither of us liked it very much”. The next song that they worked on was “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, which again was based on lyrics produced by Morrissey. Marr included a tempo which was based on the Patti Smith song “Kimberly”, and they recorded it on Marr’s TEAC three-track cassette recorder. The third track that the duo worked on was “Suffer Little Children”. Alongside these original compositions, Morrissey suggested that the band produce a cover of “I Want a Boy for My Birthday”, a song by the 1960s American girl band the Cookies; although he had never heard of the song before, Marr agreed, enjoying the subversive element of having a male vocalist sing it, and the song was recorded on his TEAC machine.
By the end of the summer of 1982 Morrissey had chosen the band name “the Smiths”, later informing an interviewer that “it was the most ordinary name and I thought it was time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces”. Around the time of the band’s formation, Morrissey decided that he would be publicly known only by his surname, with Marr referring to him as “Mozzer” or “Moz”. In 1983 he forbade those around him from using the name “Steven”, which he despised.
After remaining with the band for several rehearsals, Pomfret departed acrimoniously. He was replaced by the bass player Dale Hibbert, who worked at Manchester’s Decibel Studios, where Marr had met him while recording Freak Party’s demo. It was through Hibbert that the Smiths were able to record their first demo at Decibel, doing so one night in August 1982. Aided by drummer Simon Wolstencroft, whom Marr had worked with in Freak Party, the band recorded both “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “Suffer Little Children”. Wolstencroft was not interested in joining the band, so auditions were held to find a permanent drummer, which resulted in Mike Joyce joining them; he later revealed that he was under the influence of magic mushrooms during his audition performance. Meanwhile, Morrissey took the demo recording to Factory Records, but Factory’s Tony Wilson wasn’t interested.
In October 1982 the Smiths gave their first public performance as a support act for Blue Rondo à la Turk during a student music and fashion show, “An Evening of Pure Pleasure”, at Manchester’s The Ritz venue. During the performance, they played both their own compositions and “I Want a Boy for My Birthday”. Morrissey had organised the gig’s aesthetic; the band came onstage to Klaus Nomi’s version of Henry Purcell’s “The Cold Song” playing through the venue’s sound system before his friend James Maker stepped onstage to introduce the band.
Maker remained onstage during the performance, relating that “I was given a pair of maracas – an optional extra – and carte blanche. There were no instructions – I think it was generally accepted I would improvise… I was there to drink red wine, make extraneous hand gestures and keep well within the tight, chalked circle that Morrissey had drawn around me.” Hibbert however was unhappy with what he perceived as the band’s gay aesthetic; in turn, Morrissey and Marr were unhappy with his bass playing, so he was removed from the band and replaced by Marr’s old school friend Andy Rourke. Hibbert however denies that he had any issue with the band being perceived as a ‘gay’ band, and was unsure as to the reasons why he was asked to leave the band.
In December 1982 the band recorded their second demo, this time at the Drone Studios in Chorlton-cum-Hardy; the tracks recorded were “What Difference Does It Make?”, “Handsome Devil”, and “Miserable Lie”. This was used as their audition tape for the record company EMI, who turned the band down. During the rest of that month, the band continued to practise, this time at the upstairs of the Portland Street Crazy Face Clothing company, a space secured for them by their new manager Joe Moss. By Christmas they had created four new songs: “These Things Take Time”, “What Do You See in Him?”, “Jeane”, and “A Matter of Opinion”, the last of which they would soon scrap. Their next gig was Manchester’s Manhattan in late January 1983, and although Maker would again appear as a go-go dancer, this was the last time that he did so. In early February they performed their third gig, at the city’s Haçienda club.
The band next approached the record company EMI for a contract, but were turned down. Morrissey and Marr subsequently visited London to hand a cassette of their recordings to Geoff Travis of the independent record label Rough Trade Records. Although not signing them to a contract straight away, he agreed to cut their song “Hand in Glove” as a single. Morrissey insisted that the cover image on the single was a homoerotic photograph by Jim French which he had found in Margaret Walters’ The Nude Male.
The single was released in May 1983, and would sell well for the next 18 months although never made it into the UK Top 40. This coincided with the band’s second gig in London, at the University of London Union. Present at the gig was John Walters, the producer of John Peel’s Radio 1 show; interested, he invited the band to record a session for the programme. Peel expressed the view that “I was impressed because unlike most bands… you couldn’t immediately tell what records they’d been listening to. That’s fairly unusual, very rare indeed… It was that aspect of the Smiths that I found most impressive.” Following this radio exposure, the band gained their first interviews, in music magazines NME and Sounds.
The Smiths then agreed to sign a record contract with Rough Trade, with Travis travelling up to Manchester to meet the band at their Crazy Face rehearsal space; there they signed the contract. Only Morrissey and Marr signed it on behalf of the band, and there was no discussion at the time regarding how the band’s earnings would be divided up, something that would lead to the eventual argument over royalties which resulted in the 1996 High Court case. To produce the band’s first album, Travis brought in Troy Tate of the Teardrop Explodes, and under Tate’s supervision the band recorded their first album, provisionally titled The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, at the Elephant Studios in Wapping, East London. Rough Trade were unhappy with the album that the band produced and Troy’s production of it, ordering the band to redo it with a new producer, John Porter.
The band soon generated controversy when Gary Bushell of The Sun tabloid alleged that their B-side “Handsome Devil” was an endorsement of paedophilia. The band denied this, with Morrissey stating that the song “has nothing to do with children, and certainly nothing to do with child molesting”.
The follow-up singles “This Charming Man” and “What Difference Does It Make?” fared better when they reached numbers 25 and 12 respectively on the UK Singles Chart. Aided by praise from the music press and a series of studio sessions for Peel and David Jensen at BBC Radio 1, the Smiths began to acquire a dedicated fan base.
In February 1984, the group released their debut album The Smiths, which reached number two on the UK Albums Chart. Both “Reel Around the Fountain” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” met with controversy, with some tabloid newspapers alleging the songs were suggestive of paedophilia, a claim strongly denied by the group.
In March 1984, they performed on Channel 4 music programme The Tube.
The album was followed the same year by the non-album singles “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “William, It Was Really Nothing”, which featured “How Soon Is Now?” on its B-side. Securing the band’s first top ten placing, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” was also significant for marking the beginning of engineer and producer Stephen Street’s long-term working relationship with the band.
More controversy followed when “Suffer Little Children”, the B-side to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, touched on the theme of the Moors murders. This caused an uproar after the grandfather of one of the murdered children heard the song on a pub jukebox and felt the band was trying to commercialise the murders. After meeting with Morrissey, he accepted that the song was a sincere exploration of the impact of the murders. Morrissey subsequently established a friendship with Ann West, the mother of victim Lesley Ann Downey, who is mentioned by name in the song.
The year ended with the compilation album Hatful of Hollow. This collected singles, B-sides and the versions of songs that had been recorded throughout the previous year for the Peel and Jensen shows.
Early in 1985 the band released their second album, Meat Is Murder. This album was more strident and political than its predecessor, including the pro-vegetarian title track (Morrissey forbade the rest of the group from being photographed eating meat), the light-hearted republicanism of “Nowhere Fast”, and the anti-corporal punishment “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Barbarism Begins at Home”. The band had also grown more diverse musically, with Marr adding rockabilly riffs to “Rusholme Ruffians” and Rourke playing a funk bass solo on “Barbarism Begins at Home”. The album was preceded by the re-release of the B-side “How Soon Is Now?” as a single, and although that song was not on the original LP, it has been added to subsequent releases. Meat Is Murder was the band’s only album (barring compilations) to reach number one in the UK charts. In 2003, the album was ranked number 295 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Morrissey brought a political stance to many of his interviews, courting further controversy. Among his targets were the Thatcher government, the British monarchy, and the famine relief project Band Aid. Morrissey famously quipped of the last, “One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England” (“torture” being a reference to the music that resulted from the project). The subsequent single-only release “Shakespeare’s Sister” reached number 26 on the UK Singles Chart, although the only single taken from the album, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, was less successful, barely making the top 50.
During 1985 the band completed lengthy tours of the UK and the US while recording their next studio record, The Queen Is Dead a meta (“Frankly, Mr. Shankly” and “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side”) , merry (“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, “Vicar in a Tutu”, “Cemetery Gates”), and melancholic album (“I Know It’s Over” and “There Is a Light). The album was released in June 1986, shortly after the single “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. One of the shadow implications of the title The Queen Is Dead, behind the overt anti-royalism, is the conception of Morrissey as the unacknowledged ruler of pop—as a spurned savior who could restore to British music the urgency and relevance it had during punk. On one level, the exhilarating blast of the title track is meant to be taken as the long-awaited sequel to “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols .
The single again featured Marr’s strident acoustic guitar rhythms and lead melody guitar lines with wide leaps.[according to whom?] Marr overdubbed synthesisers on several tracks such as “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”. Upon its release, The Queen Is Dead reached number two in the UK charts; it consisted of a mixture of mordant bleakness (e.g. “Never Had No One Ever”, which seemed to play up to stereotypes of the band),[according to whom?] dry humour (e.g. “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, allegedly a message to Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis disguised as a letter of resignation from a worker to his superior), and synthesis of both, such as in “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “Cemetry Gates”.[original research?]
However, all was not well within the group. A legal dispute with Rough Trade had delayed the album by almost seven months (it had been completed in November 1985), and Marr was beginning to feel the stress of the band’s exhausting touring and recording schedule. He later told NME, “‘Worse for wear’ wasn’t the half of it: I was extremely ill. By the time the tour actually finished it was all getting a little bit … dangerous. I was just drinking more than I could handle.” Meanwhile, Rourke was fired from the band in early 1986 due to his use of heroin. He allegedly received notice of his dismissal via a Post-it Note stuck to the windscreen of his car. It read, “Andy – you have left the Smiths. Goodbye and good luck, Morrissey.” Morrissey himself, however, denies this.
Rourke was replaced on bass by Craig Gannon (formerly a member of Scottish new wave band Aztec Camera), but was then reinstated two weeks later. Gannon stayed in the band, switching to rhythm guitar. This five-piece recorded the singles “Panic” and “Ask” (the latter with Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals) which reached numbers 11 and 14 respectively on the UK Singles Chart, and toured the UK.
An arrest on drug possession charges almost led to Rourke being replaced by Guy Pratt for the band’s North American tour later that year, until the bassist’s work visa came through just before departure. While the shows were successful, heavy drinking and drug use by crew and band members other than Morrissey took a toll on the group, along with ineffective management and lingering disputes with Rough Trade, whom the band was seriously considering leaving for EMI, and Sire Records, their American label, who Morrissey felt did not do enough to promote the Smiths. After a date in St. Petersburg, Florida, he and Marr cancelled the remaining four shows, including a grand finale at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. After the following UK tour ended in October 1986, Gannon left the band, having played on six studio tracks.
The group’s frustrations with Rough Trade had come to a head. and so they sought a record deal with a major label. Marr told NME in early 1987, “Every single label came to see us. It was small-talk, bribes, the whole number. I really enjoyed it.” The band signed with EMI, which drew criticism from their fanbase and elements of the music press.
In early 1987 the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite” was released and reached number 12 on the UK Singles Chart. It was followed by a second compilation, The World Won’t Listen. The title was Morrissey’s comment on his frustration with the band’s lack of mainstream recognition, although the album reached number two in the charts. This was followed by the single “Sheila Take a Bow”, the band’s second (and last during the band’s lifetime) UK top-10 hit. Another compilation, Louder Than Bombs, was intended for the overseas market and covered much the same material as The World Won’t Listen, with the addition of “Sheila Take a Bow” and material from Hatful of Hollow which was yet to be released in the US.
Despite their continued success, tensions emerged within the band to threaten their split. Johnny Marr was exhausted and took a break from the band in June 1987, which he felt was negatively perceived by his bandmates. In July, Marr left the group because he erroneously thought an NME article entitled “Smiths to Split” was planted by Morrissey. That article, written by Danny Kelly, alleged that Morrissey disliked Marr working with other musicians, and that Marr and Morrissey’s personal relationship had reached breaking point. Marr contacted NME to explain that he had not left the band due to personal tensions but because he wanted wider musical scope.
Former Easterhouse guitarist Ivor Perry was brought in to replace Marr, and the band recorded some material with him which was never completed, including an early version of “Bengali in Platforms”, originally intended as the B-side of “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”. Perry was uncomfortable with the situation, stating “it was like they wanted another Johnny Marr”, and the sessions ended with (according to Perry) “Morrissey running out of the studio”. By the time the group’s fourth album Strangeways, Here We Come was released in September, the band had split.
The breakdown in the relationship has been primarily attributed to Morrissey’s irritation by Marr’s work with other artists and Marr growing frustrated by Morrissey’s musical inflexibility. Marr particularly hated Morrissey’s obsession with covering 1960s pop artists such as Twinkle and Cilla Black. Marr recalled in 1992, “That was the last straw, really. I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.” In a 1989 interview, Morrissey cited the lack of a managerial figure and business problems as reasons for the band’s split.
Strangeways, Here We Come peaked at number two in the UK and was their most successful album in the US, reaching number 55 on the Billboard 200. It received a lukewarm reception from critics, but both Morrissey and Marr name it as their favourite Smiths album. A couple of further singles from Strangeways were released with live, session and demo tracks as B-sides. The following year the live recording Rank, recorded in 1986 with Craig Gannon on rhythm guitar, repeated the UK chart success of previous albums.
The Smiths were the subject of a South Bank Show documentary produced by LWT and broadcast by ITV on 18 October 1987, four months after their break-up and three weeks after the release of Strangeways.
Following the group’s demise, Morrissey began work on a solo recording, collaborating with 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 in March 1988, reaching number one in the UK charts. In the following years, he invited several singers for backing vocals on several songs such as Suggs of Madness on “Picadilly Palare” and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders on “My Love Life”. At the beginning of the nineties, he enjoyed a new popularity in North America, following his first tour as Morrissey. In 1994, he recorded a duet: Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees sang with him on “Interlude” which was released as a one-off single under the banner “Morrissey & Siouxsie”. In 2006, he collaborated with arranger Ennio Morricone for the song “Dear God Please Help Me”. Morrissey continues to perform and record as a solo artist.
Johnny Marr returned to the music scene in 1989 with New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant in the supergroup Electronic. Electronic released three albums over the next decade. Marr was also a member of the The, recording two albums with the group between 1989 and 1993. He has worked as a session musician and writing collaborator with artists including the Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Black Grape, Talking Heads, Crowded House and Beck.
Morrissey and Marr each took 40% of the Smiths’ recording and performance royalties, allowing 10 percent each to Joyce and Rourke. As Joyce’s barrister would later argue in court, the bassist and drummer were treated as “mere session musicians, as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower”. In March 1989, Joyce and Rourke started legal proceedings against their former bandmates, arguing that they were equal partners in the Smiths and each entitled to a 25 percent share of the band’s profits on all activities other than songwriting and publishing. Rourke, who was in debt, settled almost immediately for a lump sum of £83,000 and 10 percent of royalties, renouncing all further claims.
Since the band split, its members have sanctioned the release of a live album (Rank, 1988), four greatest-hits collections (Best … I, 1992; … Best II, 1992; Singles, 1995; and The Sound of The Smiths, 2008), one miscellaneous compilation (Stop Me, 1988), and two box-sets (The Smiths Singles Box, 2008; and Complete, 2011). There has also been an unsanctioned greatest-hits collection (The Very Best of The Smiths, 2001). This is in addition to the compilations released during the band’s lifetime (Hatful of Hollow, 1984; The World Won’t Listen, 1987; and Louder Than Bombs, 1987).
As critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine has pointed out, “Several months after releasing their first album, the Smiths issued the singles and rarities collection Hatful of Hollow, establishing a tradition of repackaging their material as many times and as quickly as possible.” Erlewine elsewhere observes that, “the anti-record company “Paint a Vulgar Picture” – on Strangeways, Here We Come – “has grown increasingly ironic in the wake of the Smiths’ and Morrissey’s love of repackaging the same material in new compilations.”
The group’s cover artwork had a distinctive visual style and often featured images of film and pop stars, usually in duotone. Design was by Morrissey and Rough Trade art coordinator Jo Slee. The covers of singles rarely featured any text other than the band name, and the band itself did not appear on the cover of any UK release. (Morrissey did, however, appear on an alternative cover for “What Difference Does It Make?”, mimicking the pose of the original subject, British actor Terence Stamp, after the latter objected to his picture being used.) The choice of cover subjects reflected Morrissey’s interest in cult film stars (Stamp, Alain Delon, Jean Marais, Warhol protégé Joe Dallesandro, James Dean); figures from sixties British popular culture (Viv Nicholson, Pat Phoenix, Yootha Joyce, Shelagh Delaney); and anonymous images from old films and magazines.
The Smiths dressed mainly in ordinary clothes – jeans and plain shirts – in keeping with the back-to-basics, guitar-and-drums style of the music. This contrasted with the exotic high-fashion image cultivated by New Romantic pop groups such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran and highlighted in magazines such as The Face and i-D. In 1986, when the Smiths performed on the British music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, Morrissey wore a fake hearing-aid to support a hearing-impaired fan who was ashamed of using one, and also frequently wore thick-rimmed National Health Service-style glasses.
As frontman of the Smiths, Morrissey subverted many of the norms that were associated with pop and rock music. The band’s aesthetic simplicity was a reaction to the excess personified by the New Romantics, and while Morrissey adopted an androgynous appearance like the New Romantics or earlier glam rockers, his was far more subtle and understated. According to one commentator, “he was bookish; he wore NHS spectacles and a hearing aid on stage; he was celibate. Worst of all, he was sincere”, with his music being “so intoxicatingly melancholic, so dangerously thoughtful, so seductively funny that it lured its listeners… into a relationship with him and his music instead of the world.” In an academic paper on the band, Julian Stringer characterised the Smiths as “one of Britain’s most overtly political groups”, while in his study of their work, Andrew Warns termed them “this most anti-capitalist of bands”.
- Morrissey – lead vocals (1982–1987)
- Johnny Marr – guitars, piano, harmonica, keyboards (1982–1987)
- Andy Rourke – bass guitar (1982–1986, 1986–1987)
- Mike Joyce – drums (1982–1987)
- Steven Pomfret – rhythm guitar (1982)
- Dale Hibbert – bass guitar (1982)
- Craig Gannon – bass guitar (1986), rhythm guitar (1986)
- Ivor Perry – guitar (1987)
- The Smiths (1984)
- Meat Is Murder (1985)
- The Queen Is Dead (1986)
- Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)