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The Smiths were not the most commercially successful British band to emerge in the 1980s, but they were arguably the most influential. The Wikipedia article below covers their career, and the legendary tensions within the group.
|The Smiths were a British rock group active
from 1982 to 1987. The group was based on the songwriting
partnership of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, and were signed
to the independent record label Rough Trade Records. The
group sold many albums in the UK (although only two
singles made the UK top ten), and as they were one of the
most successful alternative rock bands to emerge from the
British indie scene in the 1980s, they have had a major
influence on subsequent "indie" music,
including the Britpop movement and bands such as The
Stone Roses, Gene, Radiohead, Blur, Suede, Oasis, The
Libertines, Doves and many more. At the time, the group
was notable in particular for two things: Morrissey's
witty, controversial and unusual lyrics, and Marr's
music, which helped return guitar-based music to
popularity after it fell out of favour in the UK charts.
The group released a total of four studio albums and
several compilations in less than five years, as well as
Although not commercially successful outside the UK while they were still together, the Smiths won a growing following both at home and overseas in the closing years of the twentieth century.
The group was formed in early 1982 by two Manchester residents. Morrissey (Steven Patrick Morrissey, though he does not use his forenames) was an unemployed writer who had formed the UK New York Dolls fan club. Johnny Marr (originally John Maher, he changed his name to avoid confusion with the Buzzcocks drummer) was already a very skillful guitarist with a talent for songwriting, and he provided the music for Morrissey's lyrics throughout the group's career. Mike Joyce was recruited as drummer after a short audition. Dale Hibbert initially played bass, and provided demo recording facilities at the studio where he worked as a sound engineer. However, after two gigs, Marr's friend Andy Rourke replaced Hibbert. Marr and Rourke had previously worked together in The Paris Valentinos along with Kevin Kennedy, who later became a household name in Britain as Curly Watts in Coronation Street.
The origin of the band's name is unknown - they stated that it was a reaction against names they considered fancy and pompous such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Depeche Mode. The name may also be a homage to Patti Smith, one of Morrissey's idols, or Myra Hindley's brother-in-law David Smith, who informed on the Moors Murderers. Another theory to the origin of the band's name suggests that it was an ironic joke to give the band a quintessentially English name "The Smiths" when all of the band members were of Irish descent - Morrissey, Marr (Maher), Rourke and Joyce. Somewhat contrarily, in a 1984 interview Morrissey stated "I decided (to call ourselves "The Smiths") because it was the most ordinary name, and I think it's time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces."
Signing to indie label Rough Trade Records, they
released their first single "Hand in Glove" on
13 May 1983. The record, like all of their later singles,
was championed by DJ John Peel, but failed to chart. The
follow-ups "This Charming Man" and "What
Difference Does It Make?" fared better, and aided by
much praise from the music press and a series of studio
sessions for Peel and David Jensen at BBC Radio 1, The
Smiths began to acquire a dedicated following (and in the
case of Morrissey it continues to be a cult following).
Morrissey's lyrics, superficially depressing, were often
full of mordant humour ("one of the few bands
capable of making me laugh out loud", said Peel) and
his lovelorn tales of alienation found an audience
amongst a disaffected section of youth culture, bored by
the ubiquitous synthesizer bands that dominated the
charts. Morrissey wrote about ordinary things, social
statements of life, and everything from despair,
rejection, and death, to vegetarianism and the English
By February 1984 their fanbase was sufficiently large to launch the band's long-awaited, self-titled debut album to No. 2 in the UK chart. Despite its strong chart performance, The Smiths lacked some of the pop energy of the earlier singles, and suffered from being a little one-paced. Its mood was also unremittingly bleak, exemplified by such track titles as "Still Ill" and "Suffer Little Children"; the latter referring to the Moors Murders that had stunned not just Manchester but the whole of Britain in the 1960s.
Also evident were Morrissey's studied references to literature and popular culture icons. His frequent acknowledgement of his many idols (Alain Delon, James Dean and Oscar Wilde particularly) in interviews, along with some more subtle reference (the song-title "Pretty Girls Make Graves", for example, is taken from Jack Kerouac) encouraged a literary bent amongst fans, who already had a tendency towards bookishness. Both "Reel Around the Fountain" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" met with controversy, supposedly being suggestive of pedophilia. In addition, "Suffer Little Children" caused an uproar after a grandfather of one of the children murdered heard it on a pub jukebox. In spite of the uproar, the song is in fact entirely sympathetic to the children's plight and led to Morrissey establishing a friendship with Ann West, the mother of victim Lesley Ann Downey, who is mentioned by name in the song.
Shortly after the release of the album, Morrissey idol Sandie Shaw recorded "Hand in Glove" and another couple of Morrissey/Marr songs, backed by Marr, Rourke and Joyce. The hit single resulted in the band performing barefoot on the Top of the Pops show.
1984 also saw the release of a couple of singles which weren't taken from the album: "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (the band's first top ten hit), and "William, It Was Really Nothing" (popularly believed to have been written by Morrissey about his friend Billy Mackenzie, lead singer of The Associates and which featured one of the Smiths' most well-known songs, "How Soon Is Now?" as a B-side). The year ended with the compilation album Hatful of Hollow. This collected singles, B-sides, and the versions of songs which had been recorded throughout the previous year for the Peel and Jensen shows. The radio session versions were felt by many (including the band) to be superior to those released on singles and the debut album.
Meat Is Murder
Early in 1985 the band released their second album, Meat Is Murder. This album was more strident and political than its predecessor, including the vegetarian proselytising of the title track (Morrissey forbade the rest of the group from being photographed eating meat), the light-hearted republicanism of "Nowhere Fast", and the anti-corporal punishment "The Headmaster Ritual" and "Barbarism Begins at Home". Musically also, the band was more adventurous, with Marr adding rockabilly riffs to "Rusholme Ruffians" and Rourke playing a funk bass solo on "Barbarism Begins at Home." The album was preceded by the re-release of B-side "How Soon is Now?" as a single, and although that song was not on the original LP, it has been added to subsequent releases. Meat Is Murder was the band's only album to reach #1 in the UK charts.
As well as the album being more political than its predecessor, Morrissey brought a political stance to many of his interviews, courting further controversy. Among his targets were the Thatcher administration, the Monarchy and Band Aid, of which Morrissey famously quipped, "One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it's another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England."
Subsequent single "Shakespeare's Sister" (not taken from the album) was not a great success in chart terms, nor was the only single taken from the album, "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore". Many considered this an odd choice for a single, with its backwards guitar and lack of any consistent hook. The charts reflected this, with it barely cracking the top 50. September 1985's "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side", however, was an indication of bigger things to come.
The Queen Is Dead
During 1985 the band completed exhausting tours of the UK and the US while recording the next studio record, The Queen Is Dead, released in June 1986 shortly after the single "Bigmouth Strikes Again". A typical mixture of the mordantly bleak ("Never Had No One Ever", which seemed to play up to stereotypes of the band), the dryly humorous ("Frankly, Mr Shankly" allegedly a message to Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis disguised as a letter of resignation from a worker to his superior) and a number of songs that synthesised both of these sides ("There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "Cemetery Gates") the record reached No. 2 in the UK chart, and is now generally thought of as their best work. In 1989, SPIN magazine rated "The Queen Is Dead" as #1 of "The Greatest Albums Ever Made". Subsequent "Greatest Albums" lists by numerous music publications have placed the album at the top or within the top ten, including the NME and Melody Maker.
However, all was not well in the group. A legal dispute with Rough Trade had delayed the album by almost seven months (it had been completed in November 1985) and Marr was beginning to feel the stress of the band's exhaustive schedule. He later told NME, "'Worse for wear' wasn't the half of it; I was extremely ill. By the time the tour actually finished it was all getting a little bit ... dangerous. I was just drinking more than I could handle." Meanwhile, Rourke was fired from the band in early 1986 due to ongoing problems with heroin. He received notice of his dismissal via a Post-it note stuck to his car windscreen, it read "Andy - you have left The Smiths. Goodbye and good luck, Morrissey." He was temporarily replaced on bass by Craig Gannon but reinstated after a fortnight. Gannon was retained and switched to rhythm guitar. This five-piece recorded the singles "Panic" and "Ask" (with Kirsty McColl on backing vocals), and toured the United Kingdom; after the tour ended in October 1986, Gannon was fired.
Strangeways, Here We Come
1987 started off well for the band, with the single "Shoplifters of the World Unite" (one of Morrissey's favourite Smiths songs) released early in the year to chart success and mild controversy and concern from parents over whether the song encouraged children to thieve. This was followed by a second compilation, The World Won't Listen (the title was Morrissey's comment on his frustration with the band's lack of mainstream recognition, although ironically the album reached #2 in the chart), and single "Sheila Take a Bow", the band's second (and last) UK top 10 hit. Another compilation, Louder Than Bombs, was intended for the overseas market and covered much the same material as The World Won't Listen, with the addition of "Sheila Take a Bow" and material from Hatful of Hollow, as that compilation was yet to be released in the States.
Despite their continued success, personal differences within the band - including the increasingly strained relationship between Morrissey and Marr - saw them on the verge of splitting and by the time Strangeways, Here We Come (named after Strangeways Prison, Manchester) was released in September 1987, the band had ceased to exist. The breakdown in the relationship has been primarily attributed to Morrissey becoming annoyed at Marr's work with other artists, and Marr becoming frustrated by Morrissey's musical inflexibility. Marr in particular hated Morrissey's obsession with covering 1960s pop artists such as Twinkle and Cilla Black. Referring to the songs recorded in the band's last session together (B-sides for the "Girlfriend in a Coma" single which preceded the album's release), Marr said, "I wrote "I Keep Mine Hidden", but "Work Is a Four Letter Word" I hated. That was the last straw, really. I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs."
Strangeways... also peaked at #2 in the UK but was only a minor US hit. The track "Paint a Vulgar Picture" proved somewhat prophetic in foretelling how the group's songs would be "reissued and repackaged" in seemingly innumerable compilations. The infamous 30-second video for "Girlfriend in a Coma" garnered video rotation on MTV in America. The album received a lukewarm reception from critics, but all four members name it their favourite Smiths album. A couple of further singles from the album were released with old live, session and demo tracks as B-sides, and the following year the live album Rank (recorded in 1986 while Gannon was in the band) repeated the UK chart success of previous albums.
Following the group's demise Morrissey immediately began work on a solo effort, collaborating with Strangeways... producer Stephen Street and fellow Mancunian Vini Reilly, guitarist for The Durutti Column. The resulting album, Viva Hate (a reference to the end of the Smiths) was released six months later, reaching #1 in the UK charts. Morrissey continues to perform and record as a solo artist.
Johnny Marr returned to the music scene in 1989 with New Order's Bernard Sumner and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant in the supergroup Electronic. Electronic released three albums over the next decade. Marr was also a member of The The, recording two albums with the group between 1989 and 1993. Marr has also worked as a session musician and writing collaborator for artists including The Pretenders, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg and Black Grape. In 2000 he started another band, Johnny Marr and the Healers, with a moderate degree of success, and would later work as a musician on the Oasis album Heathen Chemistry. In addition to his work as a recording artist, Marr has worked as a record producer.
Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce have continued working together, including session work for Morrissey (1988-1989) and Sinéad O'Connor, as well as working apart. Rourke has recorded and toured with Proud Mary and is currently forming a supergroup with fellow bassists Peter Hook (of New Order and Joy Division) and Mani (of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream), called Freebass.
The Smiths were reunited in court in 1996 to settle a royalties claim by Joyce against Morrissey and Marr, who had claimed the lion's share of The Smiths recording and performance royalties and allowed only 10 percent each to Joyce and Rourke (composition royalties were not an issue, as Rourke and Joyce had never been credited as composers for the band). Morrissey and Marr claimed that the other two members of the band had always agreed to that split of the royalties, but the court found in favour of Joyce, and ordered that he be paid over £1m in back pay and receive 25% henceforth. As Smiths royalties had been frozen for two years, being under financial pressure Rourke settled for a smaller lump sum to pay off debts, and continued to receive 10%. Morrissey was described by the judge as "devious, truculent and unreliable." The singer later said "The court case was a potted history of the life of The Smiths. Mike, talking constantly and saying nothing. Andy, unable to remember his own name. Johnny, trying to please everyone and consequently pleasing no one. And Morrissey under the scorching spotlight in the dock, being drilled. 'How dare you be successful?' 'How dare you move on?' To me, The Smiths were a beautiful thing and Johnny left it, and Mike has destroyed it.". Morrissey's 1997 solo album Maladjusted included a song titled "Sorrow Will Come in the End" which commented on the case, and which was omitted from the UK version of the album due to fear of libel action. Morrissey (but not Marr) appealed against the verdict, and was not successful.
As a result of this court case, a Smiths reunion seemed like it would almost certainly never happen, despite the apparent thawing of relations between Marr and Morrissey in recent years. Both Johnny Marr and Morrissey have repeatedly said in interviews that there is no way a reformation will ever take place. In 2005, VH1 attempted to get the band back together for a reunion on its Bands Reunited show. The show abandoned its attempt after its host Aamer Haleem was unsuccessful in his attempt to corner Morrissey before a show.
Things heated up once more when in late November of 2005, while appearing on radio station BBC 6 Music, Mike Joyce claimed to be having financial problems, and had resorted to selling rare band recordings on eBay. As a teaser, a few minutes of an unfinished instrumental track known as "The Click Track" was premiered on the show. Morrissey hit back at Joyce with a public statement shortly after, on the website www.true-to-you.net.
Relations between Joyce and Rourke cooled significantly as a result of Morrissey's statement which revealed that Joyce had misled the Courts by not declaring that, amongst others, Rourke was entitled to assets seized by his lawyers, from Morrissey. Rourke, it stated, had been deprived of royalty payments fom Morrissey as they had already been covertly seized by Joyce who was obligated to declare that others (Rourke, Lillywhite and Street) had an interest in funds he wished to seize.
In December 2005 it was announced that Johnny Marr + The Healers would play at Manchester v Cancer, a benefit show being organized by Andy Rourke and his Production Company Great Northern Productions. Rumours suggested that a Smiths reunion would occur at this concert, but were dispelled by Johnny Marr on his website. What did eventuate was Rourke joining Marr onstage for the first time since The Smiths broke up, performing "How Soon Is Now?".
For Full Smiths Discography See Below
* David Bret. Morrissey: Scandal and Passion
(Robson 2004; ISBN 1-86105-787-3; covers both Smiths and
Morrissey's solo career)
The Smiths Links
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Smiths"
THE SMITHS CDs available from booksmusicfilmstv.com - in association with Amazon.co.uk
The Smiths Discography
(and complete list of chart
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