There is a saying, “the difference between being good and great at anything in life is the effort.” I will argue that talent is also a major factor in that process. That said, if you’re a good band, you may be lucky enough to have a song play the radio, and maybe be remembered as a one-hit wonder. If you’re a great band, you might even have an album or several albums that sell well, and have your 15 minutes of fame and your chance in the spotlight. But every now and again, maybe once a generation, you’ll have a band that truly blazes a legacy whose influences are still recognized to this day. Such is the case with The Smiths.
It’s one thing to inspire other bands, but to inspire and create entire genres such as emo, goth, and alternative rock before there was even a name is truly remarkable. A band that can at times be as polarizing as its lead singer, but undeniable in its talent and genius. Often seen as ahead of its time, and therefore only appreciated truly years after their demise. So, just who were they, what happened to them, and why are people still unable to stop talking about them nearly four decades later?
Before taking the mic for The Smiths, and long before launching his often controversial solo career, Steven Patrick Morrissey was born in 1959 in Davyhulme, England. The son of a librarian mother, Morrissey would grow up idolizing Oscar Wilde and James Dean.
Musically he became interested in David Bowie and New York Dolls, which stirred his interest to Dusty Springfield during his adolescence. However, toward the end of the ‘70s, he gravitated toward US punk bands and would see them as they traveled abroad, including the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie, amongst others.
It wasn’t long before he went from fan to performer as 16-year-old Billy Duffy, who would later join The Cult with Ian Astbury, recruited an 18-year-old Morrissey to front his band, The Nosebleeds in 1976. Despite being well-received, the band would only play two gigs before eventually disbanding in 1978.
This short stint, however, would give the young English singer his first taste at fronting a band and writing songs, which would soon spiral into a sonic vision that would last a lifetime.
Born just a few years after Morrissey, and just 30 minutes away in Manchester, Johnny Marr was raised by Irish immigrants in a strict Catholic household. He was a talented football player as a youth and even scouted by recruiters at an early age. His initial dreams of being a professional football player would soon be replaced by visions of rock stardom as Marr reached his teen years, and he taught himself to play guitar by listening to records.
Prior to The Nosebleeds, Billy Duffy was in a high school band that practiced across the street from Marr, who would watch and listen. It was around this time that Marr formed his first band with bassist Andy Rourke at the age of 13. Just a year later, Marr met 19-year-old Morrissey at a Patti Smith concert and the two bonded over their love of poetry, literature, and the glam punk band, New York Dolls.
But it wasn’t until Marr’s prior bands had fizzled out that he approached Morrissey about forming a band together. In 1982, the beginning of what would later become known as The Smiths began taking shape. Morrissey would later say that he had chosen the name for the band because, “It was the most ordinary name and I thought it was time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces.” After a sling of initial bassists that were almost immediately fired, the band recruited Marr’s former bandmate, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce joined on as drummer. This foursome would come to revolutionize the music industry in just five short years.
In 1984, The Smiths released their debut self-titled album. Morrissey displayed a traditional crooner’s voice most envied while often leaving himself completely bare and open with his raw lyrics. Sometimes exposed to a fault, Morrissey was not one to shy away from his emotions or depictions of what was going on his life. Often clever and at points comical, Morrissey’s subject matters ranged from homosexuality to sexual abuse (such as in “Suffer Little Children,” which some critics at the time mistakenly misinterpreted).
Sonically speaking, their music ranges from upbeat pop, such as “You’ve Got Everything Now,” to haunting and morose, such as “I Don’t Owe You Anything.” The album reached as high as number two on the UK charts led by the success of the hit single, “What Difference Does It Make.”
It was also during this period that The Smiths released the legendary “How Soon is Now” as a B-side to the single “William, It Was Really Nothing,” and it has become an iconic song, not just for The Smiths, but for the era. Look at any list of top songs from the 1980s, or even of all time, and you will see “How Soon is Now?”
There was a compilation that the locals, thanks to KROQ FM, gravitated to like flies to light, it was time for “Hatful of Hollow.”
The release blew up and The Smiths became the “It” band in SoCal. Thanks to MTV, they became more than a SoCal phenomenon.
If their debut single was just an introduction to whet the appetites of the masses, it was their follow up, “Meat is Murder,” just a year later that would cement them in rock history. The album’s title, shared by the name of the closing track, already started to establish a theme that would become closely associated with Morrissey, particularly later in his solo career.
The song featured sounds of cows mooing sampled over a haunting guitar intro. “Meat is Murder” was the only Smiths album to reach number one on the UK charts.
THE QUEEN IS DEAD
Released June 16, 1986
Rough Trade Records
Again taking just under a year to release another album, The Smiths followed “Meat is Murder” with 1986’s “The Queen is Dead.” The 10 tracks, led by the breakout singles “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” only continued to show the band’s growth as their popularity skyrocketed throughout the planet, though none more so than in their native country of England.
“Bigmouth Strikes Again” details a partner apologizing to their lover for the ignorant things they have said. Now, while this may be a common theme in relationships, apologizing for those dumb things you say in anger, Morrissey apologizes for saying that he’d “like to smash every tooth in your head” or they should be “bludgeoned in their bed.”
Even a love song such as “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” where Morrissey professes his love to another, he does so by imagining being killed beside them in a car wreck, while declaring, “to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” Only someone like Moz could turn a car wreck into a bittersweet love song. The album would turn out to be one of their biggest successes, reaching number two in the UK.
Their fourth and final album, “Strangeways, Here We Come,” would be released the following year. Their final effort reached gold status in both the US and the UK. The album kept with the tradition of having released all four of their albums in four consecutive years.
Perhaps the stress of putting out such classic albums in a short fashion helped cause the inevitable breakup that was soon to come. Tensions had begun to arise in the band and in 1987, Marr took a break citing exhaustion. Only further straining relations in the band, music magazine NME released an article entitled “Smiths to Split.” Believing (erroneously so) that Morrissey himself had contributed to the article, Marr decided to quit the band. Trying to salvage what was left of the band, The Smiths recruited guitarist Ivor Perry to replace Marr, however, this new arrangement would be short-lived as the remaining members ultimately decided to disband. By the time “Strangeways” was released to the world, The Smiths were no more.
1987 did bring us another compilation album that everyone just loved, “Louder Than Bombs!” Sleeper hits that got renewed life and hit the right chords with the faithful include “The Boy with The Thorn in his Side,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” “Hand in Glove” and “Is It Really So Strange.” This song was huge in the local club scene and created a new fan base for the band.
Unfortunately, as is the case in many bands whose end comes rather volatilely, it wasn’t long before infighting turned into legal battles and arguments over royalties.
Morrissey and Marr as the lead songwriters for the band each took a 40% share of the Smiths royalties, leaving 10% each to their remaining two bandmates.
As such, in 1989 Joyce and Rourke filed suit against Morrissey and Marr arguing that they were equal partners in the band and thus deserving of an equal 25% share of album and live performance royalties. Rourke was in serious debt at the time and settled almost immediately for £83,000 and 10% of future royalties in exchange for renouncing all further claims. Joyce, on the other hand, continued with legal proceedings and a judge ruled in his favor awarding him £1 million in back-royalties and an equal 25% of all future royalties.
I understand completely Joyce and Rourke’s point of view and don’t blame them for wanting to seek compensation for their work in the band. I don’t necessarily condemn them for filing the lawsuit so long ago, however, I think this ultimately sealed the fate of The Smiths and along with a slew of other reasons, ensured that a reunion would never be possible. When discussing dream reunions, The Smiths are usually near the top of the list along with squabbling fellow UK band, Oasis. However, much like the Gallagher brothers, there appears to still be bruised egos and animosity amongst the four Smiths members.
Until then, Morrissey and Marr continue to have successful solo careers.
While preparing for his first solo tour in 1991, Morrissey announced he would be playing the Great Western Forum (now the Kia Forum) and proceeded to sell out the venue in just 15 minutes, quicker than Michael Jackson or Madonna had done. Part of the allure is to hear Smiths songs; however, Morrissey has established his own solo career releasing over a dozen albums in the past three and a half decades. Moz, who is often referred to as the Pope of Mope, hit it big with “Every Day is Like Sunday,” “Suedehead,” “Hairdresser on Fire,” “Disappointed,” “Tomorrow,” “Last of the Famous International Playboys,” “Sing Your Life,” “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get,” “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me,” as well as his legendary cover of the Jam’s, “That’s Entertainment.”
He is currently on tour, having just headlined the highly successful Cruel World Festival in Los Angeles, with plans to release a new album later this year.
One of the alleged complaints that Morrissey had is that he resented Marr contributing to and collaborating with other musicians.
In addition to Marr’s solo career, he has continued to do just that, playing on albums over the years for The The, Modest Mouse, and Electronic.
Like Morrissey, Marr continues to play all over the world, often playing festivals, including Coachella in 2013.
So what is the legacy of the Smith’s? That a very broad question, it depends on who you speak with. Some love the hard core punk songs like “London”…
While others like the larger-than-life vision that comes through songs like “Panic,” “Ask,” “Sheila Take a Bow,” “This Charming Man,” “Cemetery Gates,” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”
Even nearly 40 years later there is still a lot of interest in The Smiths as their legacy and legend continues to live on as second and third generations begin discovering their music.
It really says something that a Smiths tribute band like the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, featuring Vandals bassist Joe Escalanate, can sell out most venues they play. Clearly the demand and fan base is still alive and well, of which many would pay top dollar to see a Smiths reunion. Though lucrative, it still seems highly unlikely.
For Morrissey and Marr, these charming men will continue to entertain us through their music, but their legacy as The Smiths will live on forever. So what difference did they make? For their countless fans, they live though their sonic spectrum and they have achieved music immortality. More importantly, they will always be part of the lives of their fans. That is the highest achievement any band can ever ascend to.