On August 1st 1987, the NME ran a piece entitled ‘Smiths to Split’, which was to be the final nail in the coffin of a band whose career has had a profound effect on popular culture, and who are still fervently worshipped thirty years on from their untimely demise.
Although their musical output is frequently ranked amongst the greatest ever recorded, The Smiths’ legacy is one which transcends an audio experience – also extending into art and fashion with overtly political overtones. So much so that a 2002 poll by the NME ranked the group above The Beatles as the most influential artist of all time.
For those who don’t know, The Smiths formed in Manchester in 1982 and were driven by the creative partnership of songwriters Morrissey (vocals) and Johnny Marr (guitar), backed by the astute rhythm section of Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums). Morrissey and Marr were prolific songwriters, penning a vast wealth of critically acclaimed material in just five years, most notably four studio albums that took them from indie outsiders to the top of the charts: The Smiths (1984), Meat is Murder (1985), The Queen is Dead (1986), and their swansong Strangeways, Here We Come (1987).
Tensions between the pair over the band’s direction came to a head in 1987, and Marr called time on his career in The Smiths. Without the man responsible for their distinctive sound, and with Morrissey already planning his solo career, the biggest guitar band in the UK were gone in the blink of an eye.
In 1982, then-18-year-old Marr – inspired by his future bandmate’s authorship of a book about the New York Dolls – travelled from his home in Wythenshawe to knock on Morrissey’s door in Stretford. The rest, as they say, is history. It was to be the beginning of an illustrious artistic partnership, with the pair proving to be the perfect foil for each other.
Morrissey read voraciously, devouring poetry and literature alike, while obsessing over Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delaney. This profound love of writing was coupled with a deep-seated interest in the normality of life, which allowed him to develop a sense of humour which was as morbid as it was mordant. Marr had pretty much been attached at the hip to a guitar from an early age, and on his doorstep, Moz was presented with a uniquely talented and dedicated musician who would not only carve out an instantly recognisable sound but also serve as the band’s producer and de facto manager. It can only have been fate that brought these two individuals together.
In the simplest terms, The Smiths’ emergence was so important because they represented the antithesis of the rest of the music that was being made in the country. The simplistic guitar-bass-drums approach was a rejection of the synthesiser-dominated pop music led by the likes of Duran Duran and The Human League. The Smiths were arguably the first band to fuse the jangly guitars of the 1960s with the post-punk sound pioneered by fellow Mancunians Joy Division and New Order. Marr’s playing was at the centre of this style, and it was entirely his own creation. Having grown up idolising the glam rockers of the 1970s, he began to incorporate jangling riffs much like Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, whilst also being heavily influenced by the scratching chord sequences of disco’s founding father Nile Rodgers.
Here was a band emerging out of a dark and dingy corner of Thatcher’s Britain, making music about ordinary people and everyday life, and representing a culture of normality in the way they dressed. Fans fell head over heels for the group. Rourke and Joyce opted for more straightforward and traditional looks, rarely seen in anything other than jeans paired with a shirt or a polo. Moz and Marr, on the other hand, crafted a chic that had an underlying feminine aesthetic. Marr glistened with jewellery and even wore a beehive hairstyle reminiscent of 60s girl groups like The Ronettes, while Moz regularly donned women’s blouses. The latter would always remain coy when faced with questions about his sexuality, and touched upon it in the lyrics of songs such as ‘Still Ill’ and ‘Hand in Glove.’
The Smiths’ image was a huge part of what made them so important to their fans – and the band taught their fans that expressing themselves however they wanted was a joy that they deserved. GQ recently ran a piece on how The Smiths became the first champions of a trend that they refer to as ‘normcore’ and describe as ‘the deliberate choice of [wearing] unremarkable or unfashionable clothes.’ For a fan base of broadly intelligent and often somewhat introverted characters, Morrissey made wearing cardigans and quoting Oscar Wilde cool, and Marr showed the world a new side to the role of lead guitarist.
And it wasn’t just their image, but also their imagery, that resonated with people. The Smiths’ famous obsession with flowers began in 1983. The video for ‘This Charming Man’ – arguably the group’s best-loved song – featured Moz swinging a bouquet while a sea of petals hides the floor underneath his bandmates. They began to integrate flowers into live performances starting with a well-documented gig at The Hacienda. Within months, the entire stage would be covered with flowers at Smiths gigs; fans would throw as many as they could at their heroes.
Following the release of their first album in 1984 and the swell in popularity they experienced, as a result, Morrissey and Marr consciously sought to make more of a political statement with their next effort. Both had become vegetarian during the course of recording Meat is Murder and the title track mirrors their newfound stance. Morrissey would go as far as banning the rest of the band from eating meat.
Also targeted on the album were Thatcher’s administration, and anti-royalist sentiments were alluded to in ‘Nowhere Fast’ while Moz’s negative experience of school life and corporal punishment were reflected upon in ‘The Headmaster Ritual.’ For The Smiths’ young fan base, fresh out of a school system they loathed, rebelling against a government and royal family they didn’t believe in, and open to radically new ideas, Meat is Murder would really strike a chord. By the end of 1985, The Smiths had become the most important band in the country.
How to follow such a well-received album but with their crowning jewel, the magnum opus that was The Queen is Dead. Here we see the band at the peak of their powers. Marr’s guitar playing hit new heights on lead single ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and the achingly beautiful ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’, while Moz’s lyrics – poetic, heartfelt and insightful with a devilish humour in places – would consolidate his place as the finest wordsmith in popular music. By the end of 1986, The Smiths had become a religion. But all was not well in the band’s camp. When they walked off stage at the end of their gig at Brixton Academy in December, it would be for the final time.
The legacy that they would leave behind must have been beyond the wildest dreams of the two dreamers who recorded demos in Marr’s bedroom for the first time in 1982. In just five years, The Smiths had carved out a place in history for themselves as one of the most influential bands in the history of music. For many people, The Smiths’ songs are a call to arms as much as they are a beacon of hope: to be who you want to be in the face of adversity and to stand up for what you truly believe in. For others, they are simply a collection of material that sounds timeless.
“Has the world changed, or have I changed?” sang Morrissey on ‘The Queen is Dead’ and it’s with this in mind that many would be apprehensive about a reunion, although the likelihood of it ever happening is incredibly low. Sadly, the legal troubles that plagued the aftermath of The Smiths tarnished the relationships of those involved and it would appear that they will never be the same again. But as the saying goes, don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened.
Ten years ago The Smiths jangled their way into my world, and I can safely say I have devoured every inch of their back catalogue. It still continues to amaze me every single time I listen. On behalf of all fans of the band, thank you for changing the world, and my life, forever.