British indie rock pioneers The Smiths had a brief but brilliant run in the ’80s, and it all started with a chance meeting 40 years ago.
The Smiths were like one of their masterful pop songs: luminous, funny, heartbreaking and brief. They released only four studio albums, between 1982 and 1987, at which point the band broke up with such bitterness that they haven’t reunited and most likely never will. Steven Morrissey (who goes by Morrissey) and Johnny Marr formed the nucleus of the radioactive atom that was The Smiths. Together they wrote uniquely disaffected anthems, which Morrissey sang, while Marr laid down intricate guitar parts punctuated by Andy Rourke’s bass and Mike Joyce’s drums.
I discovered The Smiths in college, where I majored in Abject Loneliness (and graduated with highest honors). Not only were their songs the perfect salve for the injuries I sustained during my fruitless quest for love, but they helped me put things into perspective. I mean, there’s sad and then there’s Mother-I-can-feel-the-soil-falling-over-my-head sad. Morrissey’s histrionics calmed me. And if he hadn’t met Johnny Marr that night in 1978, The Smiths may never have even existed.
HAND IN GLOVE
In his book Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982–87, Simon Goddard writes about this fateful meeting: “Manchester’s Apollo Theatre. The date is 31st August 1978. Patti Smith is due on stage any second. In the crowd, the 14-year-old Marr is stood with his older Wythenshawe friends, 17-year-old guitarist Billy Duffy and Howard Bates, bass player in local punk band Slaughter And The Dogs. They are joined by another boy, a lanky 19-year-old from Stretford called Steven Morrissey. He and Marr say ‘hello’ but nothing more. Duffy has already been rehearsing in bands with Morrissey and tells the impressionable Marr what a great lyricist this Stretford stranger is. The name of Steven Morrissey will linger at the back of Marr’s head for the next three and a half years, occasionally bubbling to the surface.”
Four years later Marr was desperate to start a band, and he needed to find the perfect singer. He watched a documentary about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the famous American songwriting duo responsible for “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion No. 9” and “Stand By Me” (to name a few). As a teenager obsessed with blues and jazz, Jerry Leiber was told about another boy, Mike Stoller, who played piano. According to Goddard, “Leiber decided to find where Stoller lived, knock on his door unannounced, and suggest they start writing songs together.” This gave Marr an idea. He recalled the “great lyricist” Steven Morrissey, whom he’d met at the Patti Smith show, and decided to find him and tell him they were going to be songwriting partners.
Goddard paints a picture of this second fateful meeting: “The year is 1982. The time, around one o’clock on an early summer’s afternoon. The place is Manchester. The door is that of 384 Kings Road in Stretford. The one doing the knocking is Johnny Marr. On the other side of the door is Steven Morrissey.” With one of the many poetic flourishes in his great book, Goddard writes, “In another few seconds the door will open and the two cells of The Smiths will irreversibly fuse as one and multiply to become the most beautiful organism in the history of popular music.”
I STARTED SOMETHING I COULDN’T FINISH
By the summer of 1983, Morrissey and Marr had formed a band with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, finally settling on a name chosen by Morrissey: The Smiths. In later interviews, he has explained the name by saying, “It was the most ordinary name and I thought it was time the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces.” According to Goddard: “It may even have been a subconscious reference to Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the subject of [Smiths song] ‘Suffer Little Children’. In 1966, the notorious child-killers were only caught through the testimony of Hindley’s sister Maureen, and her husband David Smith, frequently referred to in passing as ‘the Smiths’ in books such as Emlyn Williams’ Beyond Belief, Morrissey’s primary source for the song’s lyrics.” To further muddy the waters, Dale Hibbert, who played bass with The Smiths early on, recalls, “I seem to remember them saying it was to do with Patti Smith,” which would make sense given the story of Morrissey meeting Marr at the Patti Smith show.
As a songwriter and guitarist, Johnny Marr was influenced by a diverse list of artists: Motown, Burt Bacharach, Sam Phillips, 1950s rockabilly, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley and his lead guitarist Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Iggy & The Stooges, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, and many others. Morrissey’s lyrical influences were also diverse — and obscure. Per Goddard, when speaking to the British music magazine NME, Morrissey said, “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 percent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney, who wrote A Taste of Honey,” a British stage play from 1958. Speaking of his song “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” he stated that he was “putting the entire play to words.” It wouldn’t be the last time Morrissey begged, borrowed and stole from a wide range of sources, including a fictitious novel title shown during a montage in a 1943 Bette Davis film, kitchen sink dramas, playwright Keith Waterhouse, novelist and poet Elizabeth Smart, comedian Victoria Wood, Virginia Woolf (specifically her book A Room of One’s Own), Oscar Wilde, the film Rebel Without A Cause, and many others. Morrissey mixed these odd and varied influences into a subversive, melodramatic and often hilarious style all his own.
In the studio, Marr would generally lay down each song as an instrumental, working with Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce and various producers to come up with arrangements. Finally, at the end of the process, Morrissey would come in and record his lead vocal, sometimes in one take. (That’s also the first time the band would hear Morrissey’s words and melodies.) According to Goddard, Smiths producer Stephen Street said, “Morrissey was very, very reluctant to use synthesizers or anything electronic. The only way Johnny and I could get around that was by trapping guitar notes into these extended infinite reverbs that would hold for a long, long time, then use the fader to bring it in at the right moment.” Sometimes Morrissey allowed the use of a simple synthesizer, but synth was never used as heavily as was the fashion in the ’80s. (Morrissey’s falsetto wailing at times functioned like a traditional synth part, however.) Despite resisting the trends of popular music, all four of The Smiths’ studio albums and many of their singles did well in the charts.
Goddard recounts the words of another Smiths producer, John Porter: “We were always stoned. Vast quantities of hashish were consumed, and weed and whatever else we could lay our hands on.” He goes on to add: “Any sound we need we’ll do it with guitars. So me and Johnny would be dropping spanners on them, taping bits up, just having fun smoking a lot of dope while staying up all night and making silly noises.” Marr and his producers pushed the limits of the guitar, often weaving a multitude of creatively processed takes into a sonic tapestry.
Their debut album, The Smiths, was released in 1984. It contained the classics “What Difference Does It Make?” and “Hand in Glove,” as well as the unsettling “Suffer Little Children.” In 1985, they released Meat Is Murder, which featured “The Headmaster Ritual,” “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and the over-the-top vegetarian anthem “Meat Is Murder.” The next year, they released The Queen Is Dead, with a few of my personal favorite tracks: “Cemetry Gates,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” The Smiths would break up just before the release of their final studio album in 1987, Strangeways, Here We Come, which featured some of their best songs: “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” and “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”
I KNOW IT’S OVER
Early on, The Smiths signed with independent record label Rough Trade. Morrissey and Marr, both in their early 20s, signed the contract rewarding them each a 40% share in the band, while Rourke and Joyce received 10% each. Goddard writes, “Unknown to all concerned at the time, as the ink dried on the Rough Trade contract, so the depressing inevitability of The Smiths’ eventual undoing was irreversibly set in motion.”
According to Goddard: “There would be no final farewell, no last huzzah for The Smiths. Future legal documents would mark the partnership of Morrissey and Marr as having dissolved on 31st May 1987. Five years, more or less, to the day it began.” In the first week of August of that year, “without prior consultation with the other three members,” Goddard writes, “Marr contacted the NME to confirm he had quit. The Smiths were no more.” And so that saga of The Smiths ended, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, not with a bang but a whimper.
“As the 1980s came to an end,” Goddard writes, “so too did the likelihood of The Smiths ever reforming. Seven years later, the High Court case of December 1996 eradicated any last residual grains of hope. Mike Joyce successfully won his longstanding claim for a quarter of all performance earnings; an estimated £1 million in back royalties. In summing up, Judge John Weeks offered his infamously damning character summary of Morrissey as ‘devious, truculent and unreliable when his own interests were at stake.’”
Despite the band’s irreconcilable differences, Marr says he tried to patch things up personally with Morrissey: “I thought we needed to get back together in private because the relationship, something that was very important to the two of us, was unresolved. It had become public property. So we spoke a couple of times and got together quite a few times. I took him for a drive. We probably ended up in Duckinfield or somewhere appropriately glamorous. But after a couple of hours it seemed like there was no point in us getting together just to drive around and talk about the good old days.” He sums up their relationship: “We came together to make music. We were the right people to make music together and then we formed an amazing and unique friendship. But without the music that friendship was kind of redundant, really.”
THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT
Maybe it’s for the best that The Smiths didn’t reunite. Doing a few shows for a cash grab doesn’t seem like their style anyway. And it’s impossible to imagine Morrissey and Marr, now in their 50s, capturing anything remotely like the magic of the raw recordings they made when they were young, inexperienced lads from Manchester involved in a mad cosmic collaboration for the ages.
The Smiths are dead. Long live The Smiths!