Classic Artist Profile: The Smiths

by James Sloan
Band Members: Steven Patrick Morrissey (1982-1987), Johnny Maher (1982-1987), Andy Rourke (1982-1987) and Mike Joyce (1982-1987).
Top Tracks: ‘How Soon Is Now?’, ‘Panic’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’.
In the five years during which they were active The Smiths changed the face of independent music. They were (from left to right): Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and Johnny Marr

In the five years during which they were active The Smiths changed the face of independent music. They were (from left to right): Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and Johnny Marr

The Smiths personified the indie guitar group in Thatcherite Britain. Despite rarely breaching the UK Top 10, the Manchester band created a catalogue of catchy three-minute pop songs that often reflected the harsh conditions of the Conservative regime.
The group was built on the solid song-writing partnership of Steven Morrissey and Johnny Maher, two Mancunians of Irish descent who were introduced to each other by mutual friend Stephen Pomfret. Pomfret took Maher to Morrissey’s house and the pair hit it off, forming a musical bond that would remain solid for the next five years.
As they set off in search of fame and fortune, the leaders of the band both altered their names. Johnny Maher changed his surname to the similarly sounding ‘Marr’ to avoid any confusion with the Buzzcocks drummer of the same name. At the same time, Steven Morrissey dropped his first name, adding a tinge more mystery to the lead-singer.
This duo in essence were The Smiths, in both musical and business terms. Bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce were soon recruited, but they received lower wages to that of Marr and Morrissey, who took on a lot of the band’s management and organisation themselves.
Joe Moss, Phil Cowie, Scott Piering, Matthew Sztumpf, Martha Defoe and Ken Friedman all had brief spells carrying out managerial tasks for the group before inevitably falling out with one of the dynamic duo, prompting the search for yet another interim manager. This trait of the band would play a role in their eventual split.
The Smiths’ live debut came at The Ritz in Manchester on 4th October 1982 where they supported salsa/jazz group Blue Rondo A La Turk.
Soon after, they signed to independent record label Rough Trade and released their debut single ‘Hand In Glove’ in May 1983. Their first record failed to chart, but ‘This Charming Man’, which was released six months later reached number 25 in the UK.
Smiths-mania at first seemed stranded on the British Isles. A lack of European touring contributed to this, and it wasn’t until late 1983 that they played in the USA.
Initially fuelled by Morrissey’s fear of flying, several successful American ventures opened the Mancunian group’s eyes to their potential across the pond where they were securing a lot of airtime on college radio and were becoming cult figures. Unfortunately, The Smiths’ disbanding curtailed any more US visits after 1986.
Back home the band were soon to release their self-titled debut album, an LP that surged to number two in the UK charts. Including hits such as ‘Still Ill’, ‘Hand In Glove’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ the success of ‘The Smiths’ made sure that the Manchester lads would be at the forefront of the British music scene for some time to come.
Their second album ‘Meat Is Murder’ (their only UK number one) showed the passionate and protesting nature of Morrissey. The album’s title track launched a stark attack against meat eaters, exaggerating the consumption of flesh as “murder”.
Aside from the powerful lyrics of the track, Marr’s fantastic craft of a guitar is on show here as he slides up and down the strings and creates a very morose sound, and the lead singer obligingly maintains this feeling throughout the song.
It was from Marr’s chord changes and riffs that hits would originate, with Morrissey then adapting his lyrics to the mood and feel of the music. This method would reach the summit of musical brilliance with the band’s next release.
‘The Queen Is Dead’ is arguably their best work, finding its way onto the ‘Top 100 Albums’ lists of many music critics both here and across the Atlantic Ocean. You can easily play the record from start to finish without feeling the need to skip a track.
Classics such as the humorously written ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, the funeral-esque ‘I Know It’s Over’ and the timeless ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ have produced an album that has been played in the bedrooms of many up-and-coming indie groups over the last 25 years.
Their final album ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ is regarded by the autonomous duo as The Smiths’ best LP. Its position at number two in the UK charts also suggests this, but critics weren’t as fond of it in comparison to their earlier work.
Five years of continually composing, performing, producing and running the group finally took its toll on Marr in 1987. The guitarist decided he needed a break, so took some time off in Los Angeles. However, this sabbatical would some transpire into the termination of The Smiths.
Music press speculation about the split grew and grew and a lack of communication between band-mates resulted in Marr’s eventual extinction as a Smith. The lack of a full-time manager resulted in no one being able to mediate proceedings between the two musical prodigies.
Without Marr’s musical guidance, the group limped on, recording two songs (including ‘Bengali in Platforms’) before they realised that their race was run. Morrissey then announced in September 1987 that The Smiths were no more.
Since their break-up, the two protagonists have had varying degrees of success in their subsequent musical quests. The singer has launched a reasonably successful solo career – with hits like ‘Suedehead’ and ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ charting at five and nine respectively, higher than any Smiths singles ever did.
Meanwhile Marr has been a member of groups such as: The Pretenders, The The, Electronic and The Cribs, before recently releasing a solo album entitled ‘The Messenger’.
Marr recently admitted that he still has correspondence with Morrissey through email, but that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that a reunion is imminent. Sadly it seems that this great band will never reform and grace us with their clever lyrics and supreme riffs again.
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