The Smiths Biography

Acclaimed by many as the most important UK band of the 80s, the Smiths were formed in Manchester, England during the spring of 1982. Morrissey (Steven Patrick Morrissey, 22 May 1959, Davyhulme, Manchester, England) and Johnny Marr (b. John Martin Maher, 31 October 1963, Ardwick, Manchester, Lancashire, England) originally combined as a songwriting partnership, and only their names appeared on any contract bearing the title ‘Smiths’. Morrissey had previously played for a couple of months in Ed Banger And The Nosebleeds and also rehearsed and auditioned with a late version of Slaughter And The Dogs. After that, he wrote reviews for Record Mirror and penned a couple of booklets on the New York Dolls and James Dean. Marr, meanwhile, had played in several Wythenshawe groups including the Paris Valentinos, White Dice, Sister Ray and Freaky Party. By the summer of 1982, the duo decided to form a group and recorded demos with drummer Simon Wolstencroft and recording engineer Dale Hibbert. Wolstencroft subsequently declined an offer to join the Smiths and in later years became a member of the Fall. Eventually, Mike Joyce (b. 1 June 1963, Fallowfield, Manchester, England) was recruited as drummer, having previously played with the punk-inspired Hoax and Victim. During their debut gig at the Ritz in Manchester, the line-up was augmented by go-go dancer James Maker, who went on to join Raymonde and later RPLA.

By the end of 1982, the band had appointed a permanent bass player. Andy Rourke (b. 17 January 1963, Manchester, England) was an alumnus of various previous groups with Marr. After being taken under the wing of local entrepreneur Joe Moss, the band strenuously rehearsed and after a series of gigs, signed to Rough Trade Records in the spring of 1983. By that time, they had issued their first single on the label, ‘Hand In Glove’, which failed to reach the Top 50. During the summer of 1983, they became entwined in the first of several tabloid press controversies when it was alleged that their lyrics contained references to child molesting. The eloquent Morrissey, who was already emerging as a media spokesperson of considerable power, sternly refuted the rumours. During the same period, the band commenced work on their debut album with producer Troy Tate, but the sessions were curtailed, and a new set of recordings undertaken with John Porter. In November 1983, they issued their second single, ‘This Charming Man’, a striking pop record that infiltrated the UK Top 30. Following an ill-fated trip to the USA at the end of the year, the quartet began 1984 with a new single, the notably rockier ‘What Difference Does It Make?’, which took them to number 12. The Smiths ably displayed the potential of the band, with Morrissey’s oblique, genderless lyrics coalescing with Marr’s spirited guitar work. The closing track of the album was the haunting ‘Suffer Little Children’, a requiem to the child victims of the 60s Moors Murderers. The song later provoked a short-lived controversy in the tabloid press, which was resolved when the mother of one of the victims came out on Morrissey’s side.

A series of college gigs throughout Britain established the band as a cult favourite, with Morrissey displaying a distinctive image, complete with National Health spectacles, a hearing aid and bunches of gladioli. A collaboration with Sandie Shaw saw ‘Hand In Glove’ transformed into a belated hit, while Morrissey dominated music press interviews. His celibate stance provoked reams of speculation about his sexuality, and his ability to provide good copy on subjects as diverse as animal rights, royalty, Oscar Wilde and 60s films, made him a journalist’s dream interviewee. The singer’s celebrated miserabilism was reinforced by the release of the autobiographical ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, which reached number 19 in the UK. Another Top 20 hit followed with ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. While the Smiths commenced work on their next album, Rough Trade issued the interim Hatful Of Hollow, a bargain-priced set that included various flip-sides and radio sessions. It was a surprisingly effective work which captured their inchoate charm.

By 1984, the Smiths found themselves fêted as Britain’s best band by various factions in the music press. The release of the sublime ‘How Soon Is Now?’ justified much of the hyperbole and this was reinforced by the power of their next album, Meat Is Murder. This displayed Morrissey’s increasing tendency towards social commentary, which had been indicated in his controversial comments on Band Aid and the IRA bombings. The album chronicled violence at schools (‘The Headmaster Ritual’), adolescent thuggery (‘Rusholme Ruffians’), child abuse (‘Barbarism Begins At Home’) and animal slaughter (‘Meat Is Murder’). The proselytizing tone was brilliantly complemented by the musicianship of Marr, Rourke and Joyce. Marr’s work on such songs as ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ and ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ effectively propelled him to a position as one of Britain’s most respected rock guitarists. Despite releasing a milestone album, the band’s fortunes in the singles charts were relatively disappointing. ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ received a lukewarm response and stalled at number 26, amid ever-growing rumours that the band was dissatisfied with their record label. Another major UK tour in 1985 coincided with various management upheavals, which dissipated the band’s energies.

A successful trek across the USA was followed by the release of the plaintive summer single ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’, which, despite its commerciality, only reached number 23. A dispute with Rough Trade delayed the release of the next Smiths album, which was preceded by the superb ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’, another example of Marr at his best. During the same period, Rourke was briefly ousted from the band owing to his flirtation with heroin. He was soon reinstated, however, along with a second guitarist, Craig Gannon, who had previously played with Aztec Camera, the Bluebells and Colourfield. In June 1986, The Queen Is Dead (the title taken from a chapter in Hubert Selby Jnr.’s novel Last Exit To Brooklyn) was issued and won immediate critical acclaim for its diversity and unadulterated power. The range of mood and emotion offered on the album was startling to behold, ranging from the epic grandeur of the title track to the overt romanticism of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and the irreverent comedy of ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’ and ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’. A superb display of Morrissey/Marr at their apotheosis, the album was rightly placed alongside Meat Is Murder as one of the finest achievements of the decade.

A debilitating stadium tour of the USA followed and during the band’s absence, they enjoyed a formidable Top 20 hit with the disco-denouncing ‘Panic’. The sentiments of the song, coupled with Morrissey’s negative comments on certain aspects of black music, provoked further adverse comments in the press. That controversy was soon replaced by the news that the Smiths were to record only one more album for Rough Trade, and intended to transfer their operation to the major label EMI Records. Meanwhile, the light pop of ‘Ask’ contrasted with riotous scenes during the band’s 1986 UK tour. At the height of the drama, the band almost suffered a fatality when Johnny Marr was involved in a car crash. While he recuperated, guitarist Craig Gannon was fired, a decision that prompted legal action. The band ended the year with a concert at the Brixton Academy supported by fellow Mancunians the Fall. It was to prove their final UK appearance.

After another hit with ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ they completed what would prove to be their final album. The glam rock-inspired ‘Sheila Take A Bow’ returned the Smiths to the Top 10 and their profile was maintained with the release of another sampler album, The World Won’t Listen. Marr was growing increasingly disenchanted with the band’s musical direction, however, and privately announced that he required a break. With the band’s future still in doubt, press speculation proved so intense that an official announcement of a split occurred in August 1987. Strangeways, Here We Come, an intriguing transitional album, was issued posthumously. The work indicated the different directions towards which the major protagonists were progressing during their final phase.

A prestigious television documentary examining the band’s career followed on The South Bank Show, and a belated live album, Rank, was issued the following year. The junior members Rourke and Joyce initially appeared with Brix Smith’s Adult Net and backed Sinéad O’Connor, before Joyce joined the Buzzcocks. Morrissey pursued a solo career, while Marr moved from the Pretenders to The The and Electronic, as well as appearing on a variety of sessions for artists as diverse as Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Billy Bragg, Kirsty MacColl, the Pet Shop Boys, Stex and Banderas. In 1992, there was renewed interest in the Smiths following the furore surrounding Johnny Rogan’s controversial biography of the band, and Warner Brothers Records’ acquisition of their back catalogue from Rough Trade. In 1996, the long-standing legal action taken by Mike Joyce was resolved with Morrissey and Marr losing their case. Joyce was awarded damages of £1 million, and Morrissey subsequently lost his appeal.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.