The Smiths burst onto the British music scene in 1983, just a few months after guitarist Johnny Marr approached a bookish recluse named Steven Morrissey with the idea of forming a band. The marriage of Marr’s bright sound and Morrissey’s brooding lyrics proved irresistable to British youth, who sent the group’s debut album, The Smiths, to the number-two position on the charts. With songs about the immorality of beef-eating, the brutality of school headmasters, and the impossibility of finding happiness in love, the group seemed an unlikely candidate for pop stardom, but as Mark Peel noted in Stereo Review: “The Smiths’ songs are never oppressive or despair-inspiring, thanks to Morrissey’s breezy, almost whimsical vocals and Johnny Marr’s cheerful acoustic and ringing electric guitars.… For those who like music that bites back, I can’t think of a more stimulating way to spend an evening than in the company of the Smiths.”
Morrissey’s dark outlook began in his childhood, which he remembered as “totally morbid,” according to People contributor Fred Hauptfuhrer. It was full of “undercurrents of violence and hopelessness among the pupils at school” and “dreadful, incredibly uninteresting episodes with girls.” The divorce of his parents sent him even deeper into his private world of books and music. Oscar Wilde, Susan Brownmiller, and Molly Haskell were favorite authors; his best-loved band was the New York Dolls, five glitter-rockers from Manhattan. “For me, they were the official end of the Sixties,” David Fricke quotes him in Rolling Stone. “They were the first sign that there was change, that someone was going to kick through and get rid of all the nonsense. It gave people hope.” Fricke commented, “With their homely appearance, Marr’s Byrds-abilly jangle and Morrissey’s wistful, introspective lyrics, the Smiths look and sound nothing like the singer’s beloved sex-mad Dolls,” but Morrissey insists that there is a strong spiritual link between the two groups. “Obviously, it’s a different time,” he said, “but it’s the same, in that you can feel the danger.”
For several years after his high school graduation, Morrissey remained holed up in his mother’s house. He drew unemployment, read obsessively, and wrote for his own amusement. He might have continued indefinitely in this pattern, had Johnny Marr not knocked on his door in 1982. Morrissey told Fricke: “[Marr] had heard of me, of this strange literary recluse.…He was curious.” After reading Morrissey’s poetry, Marr’s curiosity turned to eagerness to work with the eccentric writer, who was several years older than himself. By 1982 the duo had joined forces with bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce to form the Smiths. The name was chosen for its earthy, nondescript quality, as a way of lashing out at the empty glitz that the Smiths felt typified most popular groups. Their aim was to produce music that would be “like consciousness-raising sessions,” Morrissey told Fricke. “They’re very depressing. ‘Why should we sit around and talk about our innermost feelings?’ But those little things bring people together. They allow people to open and blossom, to learn things about themselves. That’s what the Smiths aim to achieve.”
The Smiths were able to start spreading their message without the painful dues-paying most bands must endure. After they’d played just seven gigs together, radio producer John Walters arranged for them to record several sessions for the BBC and also won them a contract with the independent Rough Trade Records label. The radio broadcasts built up an enthusiastic following for the band even before their first album, The Smiths, was released. Encyclopedia of Rock authors Phil Hardy and Dave Laing called that recording “a superb piece of work by their producer that showcased the florid blend of Marr’s fluid, intricate guitar work and Morrissey’s plaintive vocal style.” By the time Meat Is Murder was released in 1985, the Smiths had spawned “a new U.K. generation of bands like James, the Woodentops and Easterhouse that play evocative but
Band formed in 1982, in Manchester, England; original members included Steven Patrick Morrissey (born 1959, in Manchester, England), lead vocals; Johnny Marr , guitar; Andy Rourke , bass; and Mike Joyce , drums. Band dissolved in 1987.
distinctively nonphallic rock and roll,” according to Fricke. The album entered the British charts in the number-one slot and went gold within a week. It also captured the attention of U.S. listeners who gave the Smiths an enthusiastic welcome at their first U.S. appearances in April 1985.
Newsweek contributor Jim Miller credited the band with forging “one of the most striking neoclassical approaches in contemporary rock. Synthesizers are strictly taboo. . . . Marr uses a 12-string Rickenbacker— the folk-rock instrument made famous by the Byrds— to fashion intricate arabesques of sound with a faintly Moorish aura. The exotic effect is amplified by Morrissey, who looks like a bookish version of James Dean. Onstage he affects the manner of a pallid, swooning manchild and often makes his voice sound like an oriental flute navigating a non-Western scale.… His lyrics are laced with images of loneliness, abandonment and sexual langor. But the music, powered by Marr’s guitar, has a sharp edge.” Frank Rose offered additional praise in The Nation: “The sound of the Smiths is a difficult but strangely compelling amalgam of American blues and British folk set to a spinning beat.…[Johnny Marr’s] off-center compositions serve as a perfect vehicle for Morrissey’s ethereal quaverings. Morrissey doesn’t sing with the tune, he sings all around it, and the resulting tension is as hypnotic as it is disorienting.…His voice and Marr’s guitar are capable of being simultaneously forthright and tremulous in a way that captures the essence of vulnerability.”
While the Smiths’ musical talent was for the most part unquestioned, it was occasionally overshadowed by Morrissey’s persona. Convinced of the social relevance of rock music and outspoken in his belief, he supplied journalists with a steady stream of controversial quotes. He told Hauptfuhrer that “many people underestimate [rock] as a force; this is dramatically wrong.… It is the last refuge for young people; no other platform has so much exposure.” He was quick to criticize those whom he considered less than serious about the social power of their music, observing: “Duran Duran and Wham! are planets from what I feel…Michael Jackson has outlived his usefulness.… Prince and Madonna are of no earthly value whatsoever.” The music press also speculated at length about Morrissey’s sexual orientation, with many writers assuming he was gay because of the lack of specific male-female references in his lyrics. Morrissey brushed such questions aside, saying that he was celibate and had no sexual viewpoint at all. He deliberately wrote ambiguous lyrics, he told Fricke, because “when people and things are entirely revealed in an obvious way,… it freezes the imagination of the observer. There is nothing to probe for, nothing to dwell on or try to unravel. With the Smiths, nothing is ever open and shut.”
The Smiths are generally considered to have been at their peak when they recorded The Queen Is Dead. By the time Strangeways, Here We Come was released, the group had broken up. Marr had decided to work as sideman for various rock superstars; Morrissey, after some consideration, elected to disband the Smiths and embark on a solo career. Stereo Review was highly critical of Strangeways. Its reviewer praised Marr’s contribution to the album, but declared that Morrissey had “gone off the deep end” and created “a vicious, raging, stream of consciousness tirade” with little to redeem it. “This guy is just plain nuts.… I imagine Marr spinning out these wonderful guitar arpeggios and twisting, odd chord progressions—and all the time nervously watching out of the corner of his eye, hoping that the Smiths’ tormented singer doesn’t come at him with an axe.”
Simon Reynolds was kinder to the group’s final effort in his New Statesman review of Strangeways, calling it “a fascinating mess.” He also speculated on the defunct group’s contribution to popular music: “Morrissey’s own idea of why the Smiths were important is rather traditional—he talks of the Smiths as a solitary bastion of Meaning and Human Depth in an age of processed, vapid, dehumanised, plastic pop. In fact, it’s more complex and interesting than this.… Morrissey glamorises failure. And rather than matching our misery to his in a simple process of identification, we’re seduced into aspiring to the same heroic pitch of maladjustment and exile.… Smiths music is perfectly poised between the vague dream of something more and the sinking realisation that the dream will always remain out of reach.”
The Smiths, Rough Trade, 1984.
Hatful of Hollow, Rough Trade, 1984.
Meat Is Murder, Sire, 1985.
The Queen Is Dead, Sire, 1986.
Louder Than Bombs, Sire, 1987.
Strangeways, Here We Come, Sire, 1988.
”Rank,” Sire, 1988.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, McDonald, 1987.
Mademoiselle, July 1984.
Nation, August 3-10, 1985.
New Statesman, September 18, 1987.
People, June 24, 1985.
Rolling Stone, October 9, 1986; December 15, 1988.
Stereo Review, July 1985; October 1986; January 1988.