views updated


Smiths, The, British pop band that brought guitars back to the U.K. charts in the 1980s. membership: Morrissey (real name, Steven Patrick Morrissey), voc. (b. Manchester England, May 22, 1959); Johnny Marr (real name, John Maher), gtr. (b. Manchester, England, Oct. 31, 1963); Mike Joyce, drm. (b. Manchester, England, June 1, 1963); Andy Rourke, bs. (b. Manchester, England, 1963); Craig Gannon, gtr. (b. July 3, 1966).

Enormously literate and cranky, the Smiths flew in the face of the electropop music that dominated the English charts in the mid-1980s. With the sometimes slashing, sometimes shimmering guitars of Johnny Marr and the Ian-Curtis-in-training vocals of Morrissey, they toned down the punk ethic while making guitars cool again. They set the pace for bands like James and Oasis that followed in their considerable wake.

Steven Morrissey, whose parents worked in a hospital and library, displayed a gift for literary allusion and a sardonic streak as wide as the English Channel even before forming a rock band. An occasional critic for England’s Record Mirror, he also wrote small books on James Dean and The New York Dolls. He was president of the Dolls U.K. fan club. Johnny Marr invited him to write lyrics to his music. They decided their songs were far too singular for anyone but themselves to perform. The duo called themselves the Smiths, in reaction to the pretentious names of groups like Dpche Mode. From the get-go, the ascetic Morrissey—who claimed to be a celibate by choice—juxtaposed radically with the rock star posturing of Marr. It’s one of the things that made the group interesting.

Bringing on Marr’s old bandmate Andy Rourke to play bass and drummer Mike Joyce, they cut the single “Hand in Glove” for Rough Trade. It became an underground hit. Even before they were able to release another record, the group became embroiled in their first of many controversies. The British tabloids asserted that their song “Reel Around the Fountain” was about child molesting. Morrissey eloquently refuted the charge, establishing himself as the group’s spokesperson.

The press did them no harm when they put out their next single, “This Charming Man.” With its chiming guitar and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, the song charted in the U.K. at #25. It was followed by “What Difference Does It Make,” which rose to #12. However, these chart numbers were not as indicative of the impact the band was making on the English audiences as their eponymous 1984 debut album, which peaked at #2. A remake of “Hand in Glove,” recorded with 1960s Mersey-beat star Sandy Shaw, rose into the British Top 40. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” zoomed into the Top Ten, amidst another bout of controversy regarding the single’s B-side, a song about a serial child killer. Again Morrissey proved an eminently quotable spokesperson.

In 1985 the group released a set of non-LP B-sides, singles, and radio sessions called Hatful of Hollow that rose to the U.K. Top Ten. They followed this with Meat Is Murder. At this point, vegetarian Morrissey forbid the rest of the band to be photographed eating meat. As Morrissey became more austere, Marr became more dissolute.

Rebounding from their sophomore slump, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead revived the band. It debuted in the U.K. at #2 propelled by some of the group’s best material, such as “Big Mouth Strikes Again” and “The Boy with the Thorn in his Side.” They briefly added former Aztec Camera guitarist Craig Gannon to the lineup, and almost as quickly fired him when Marr put the band on hiatus while recovering from a car crash. This prompted the first of the group’s personnel-inspired lawsuits.

In early 1987 the group went into the studio and recorded Strangeways Here We Come, but the experience proved too draining for Marr, who left the group that summer. Morrissey thought about keeping the Smiths together, but ultimately decided to disband the group and go solo. Both Joyce and Rourke joined another Smith, former Fall singer Brix, in her band Adult Net, then worked with Sinead O’Conner. They both played a show in 1989 with Morrissey. Rourke ultimately retired from music, while Joyce became a member of the Buzzcocks. In the mid-1990s, both Rourke and Joyce sued Marr and Morrissey for back royalties; Rourke settled the case, but Joyce went to trial and won.

Not anxious to be “in charge” of anything, Marr became guitarist for the Pretenders for a while. During the 1990s, he moved on to session work, and formed the sporadic super-group Electric with New Order’s Bernard Sumner. In the summer of 2000, he finally put his own name on a project with the release of Johnny Marr and the Healers.

In 1988 Morrissey launched his solo career with the musical help of the Smith’s producer Steven Street and Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly. While the album Viva Hate was not as strong as The Queen Is Dead, it had several bright moments like “Everyday Is like Sunday” and the brilliant “Suedehead.” However, 1991’s Kill Uncle was a weak follow-up. Later that year, Morrissey began working with a local glam-rockabilly outfit, the Memphis Sinners, and former Polecat’s guitarist Boz Boorer. Boor-er’s old band had once had a hit with a rockabilly version of T-Rex’s “Jeepster.” They backed Morrissey on his first major post-Smiths tour. Their mixture of roots rock and glam informed Morrissey’s next album, 1992’s Your Arsenal, produced by former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson. The album earned Morrissey his first ever Top 40 solo record, hitting #21 on the U.S. charts.

The next two years were rough ones for the singer. Both Ronson and video director Tim Broad stopped working with him. Morrissey was also widely criticized in the press for supposed right-wing leanings. A scurrilous biography also appeared, and he was mired in lawsuits with ex-Smiths members. Nonetheless, in 1994 Morrissey released his most successful album, Vauxhall and I. The album finally established Morrissey as something greater than a cult artist. The almost folk-rock “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” became a regular on MTV in the U.S. The album rose to #18 in the U.S. and topped the U.K. charts.

After severing relations with his management, booking agent, and record company, Morrissey came back with the loud, noisy Southpaw Grammar in 1995. It garnered critical praise, but didn’t sell well. 1997’s Maladjusted didn’t fare much better, and Morrissey was forced to leave a track about the Joyce case off the album to avoid libel problems. But he did tour to much acclaim in 1999, even playing some Smiths songs.


the smiths: The Smiths (1984); Hatful of Hollow (1985); Meat Is Murder (1985); The Queen Is Dead (1986); Strangeways Here We Come (1987); Rank (live; 1988). morrissey:Viva Hate (1988); Kill Uncle (1991); Your Arsenal (1992); Beethoven Was Deaf (live; 1993); Vauxhall and I (1994); Southpaw Grammar (1995); Maladjusted (1997).

—Hank Bordowitz