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The Smiths

The Smiths

Fact Sheet

Musical genre:Rock  
Country  United Kingdom
Years active1982-1987
The Smiths were a hugely influential British rock group and 'indie music' pioneers. The group was formed in early 1982 by Manchester residents Steven Morrissey (b. May 22, 1959), and Johnny Marr (b. John Maher, October 31, 1963). The pair began to write songs, based around Marr's guitar playing and lyrics by Morrissey, an occasional and none-too-successful music journalist.

Andy Rourke was a local bass player, and friend of Marr's. Mike Joyce was recruited as drummer after a short audition. Signing to Rough Trade records, they released their first single "Hand in Glove" on 13 May 1983. The record, like many 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, began to pick up a fanatical 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 new romantic bands that dominated the charts.

By February 1984 this fanbase was sufficiently large to launch the band's long-awaited, self-titled debut album to #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 Manchester in the 1960s. Also evident was Morrissey's studied references to literature and popular culture icons. His frequent acknowledgement of his many idols (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 Hubert Selby) encouraged a literary bent amongst fans, who already had a tendency towards bookishness. "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" caused some controversy over its content, supposedly suggestive of pedophilia.

With their profile further raised by a hit version of "Hand in Glove" by Sandie Shaw (another Morrissey idol), who was supported by the band, barefoot, on the Top of the Pops show, and a critically feted album of session material (Hatful of Hollow, released in November 1984) the band returned to the studio to record their sophomore effort, Meat Is Murder. This album was more strident and political than its predecessor, including the vegetarian proselytising of the title track and the light-hearted republicanism of "Nowhere Fast". Musically, the band were more adventurous, with Marr adding rockabilly riffs to "Rusholme Ruffians" and playing funk on "Barbarism Begins at Home".

During 1985 and 1986 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. 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") and a number of songs that synthesised both of these sides ("There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "Cemetry Gates") the record reached #2 in the UK chart, and is now usually thought of as their best work. Meanwhile, Rourke left the band for a short time due to ongoing problems with heroin.

By 1987 personal differences within the band, and the increasingly strained relationship between Morrissey and Marr, saw them on the verge of splitting and by the time that year's Strangeways, Here We Come (named after a Manchester prison) was released, the band had ceased to exist. Workmanlike rather than inspired, it too peaked at #2 in the UK and was only a minor US hit, although the track "Paint a Vulgar Picture" proved somewhat prophetic in foretelling how the songs would be "reissued and repackaged" in seemingly innumerable compilations.

Though not an international commercial success at the time (only two singles "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Sheila Take a Bow" made #10 in the UK chart, none charted in the US), The Smiths generated a growing cult following throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century. They received increased acknowledgement in the 1990s and the re-released "This Charming Man" reached #8. The band released a total of four studio albums and at least as many compilations in less than five years, as well as numerous singles. In 2002, they were voted 'most inspirational band' by NME magazine.

The band finally split due to a break-down in relationship between Morrissey and Marr: Morrissey becoming annoyed at Marr's work with other artists, and Marr becoming frustrated by Morrissey's musical inflexibility.

The Smiths were reunited in court in 1996 to settle a royalties claim by Joyce against Morrissey and Marr, who claimed the lion's share of the Smiths earnings from recordings and delegated only 10 percent each to Joyce and Rourke. The court found in favor of Joyce, and ordered that he be paid over 1m in back pay. Rourke had long since settled for a smaller sum to pay off debts. Music journalists have speculated that the chance of The Smiths reforming is extremely low, as the break-down in their relationship was so severe.