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The Smiths

Redefining an 80s generation of disillusioned youth caused by Britain’s inane ability to rid itself of the poverty and turmoil caused by Thatcher’s Tory government, The SMITHS (and their romanticised focal point, Morrissey, in particular) were the neo-intellectual person’s answer to the drabness surrounding them – musically, only The CURE, The FALL and a few other creative post-punk acts could be mentioned as their equals. As is so often the case, the sum of The SMITHS parts was always less than the whole, the group’s influence on modern rock music incalculable, their unique sound echoing through the strains of countless indie success stories and untold hopefuls alike.
Formed late ’82 in Manchester, England by (Stephen Patrick) Morrissey and jangly lead guitarist Johnny Marr, the former was an intellectually intense, budding pop scholar and music journalist, having previously had a tribute biography (James Dean Isn’t Dead) published by Babylon Books; he’d previously served time (a few weeks) with punks The NOSEBLEEDS, and rehearsed for a transitional late 70s, SLAUGHTER & THE DOGS. As UK president of NEW YORK DOLLS fan club, the eclectic Morrissey showed there was more than one string to his bow. Four years his junior, Marr, had cut his six-string teeth in a variety of Manc beat combos, including Sister Ray, White Dice, Freaky Part and Paris Valentinos; none of them getting out of the starting stalls.
The Morrissey-Marr pairing formed their songwriting partnership, at first producing demos with the help of future FALL sticksman/producer Simon Wolstencroft. The SMITHS quartet were duly completed by Marr’s bassist buddy Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce (ex-VICTIM), each member realising the potential of their unique vision. Kicking off at The Ritz in Manchester, the band played a series of bonding gigs around the country, earning rave reviews and attracting the interest of top indie labels during early ‘83. Turning down a deal at their local Factory Records (home to NEW ORDER, et al), The SMITHS recorded a one-off debut single for Rough Trade; `Hand In Glove’ was championed by Radio One’s charismatic DJ John Peel and duly topped the indie charts that summer. Wooed by the majors, Morrissey and Co stuck to their principals and inked a long-term contract with the label, earning respect in all quarters of the music industry.
Later that year, saw the release of the Top 30 hit, `This Charming Man’, the first real glimpse of The SMITHS’ strange allure – Marr’s rhythmic exuberance buoying Morrissey’s morose verbal complexities. This was also the first time the Great British public were treated to the legendary sight of the singer sashaying and shimmying across the Top Of The Pops stage sporting a hearing aid and a back-pocket full of gladioli – like some fantasy incarnation of Johnnie Ray in flower-power mode. Defiantly original, The SMITHS rapidly amassed a large, fiercely partisan fanbase with Morrissey as chief deity; Marr running a close second.
A follow-up single, `What Difference Does It Make?’, narrowly missed the Top 10 in early ’84, with their breathlessly anticipated eponymous debut THE SMITHS {*10} hitting the shelves the following month. It didn’t disappoint, a darkly ruminating kick in the eye for the tosspot music scene of the mid-80s and a compelling showcase for the unbounded potential of the Morrissey-Marr writing partnership. While the album missed the No.1 slot by a whisker, a high profile scrape with the tabloids followed soon after, the press hounds rounding on what they supposed to be ambiguous references to child abuse. The highly articulate Morrissey vocally put matters to right, the singer finally vindicated when a mother of one of the Moors Murder victims openly supported the `Suffer Little Children’ track, another target of press speculation. Every track on their debut evoked an emotive response; arguably among the best were `Still Ill’, `Reel Around The Fountain’, `You’ve Got Everything Now’, `Miserable Lie’, `Pretty Girls Make Graves’ and of course, the three 45s up to now. The SMITHS were nothing if not controversial, the frontman’s pro-miserabilist, anti-royalist and openly celibate stance making him the first real “bed-sit” non-pop star and drawing more and more attention to the group.
No bad thing of course, when the music was as good as follow-up 45s, `Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and `William, It Was Really Nothing’, another couple of classic Top 20 entries released later that summer. Both were included on the brilliant HATFUL OF HOLLOW (1984) {*9} part-compilation set, along with a number of BBC session recordings (Peel and David Jensen) and a few fresh tracks, notably the haunting `Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ and one of the group’s trump cards, the near 7-minute `How Soon Is Now’ (previously released as a B-side to `William…’ and subsequently as a single in its own right in early ‘85), a churning mantra presumably laying bare the depths of Morrissey’s tortured soul with its bitter lyrical plea; that pop/dance outfit Soho later managed to incorporate its ominous guitar reverb into a club hit is surely one of the great wonders of modern music.
Without the support of a hit among its grooves, February 1985 saw the release of the acclaimed MEAT IS MURDER {*9}; the showman singer partly substituting the navel gazing of old for a more socially-pointed stance; slap happy disciplinarians (`The Headmaster Ritual’), teenage thugs (`Rusholme Ruffians’), child-abusers (`Barbarism Begins At Home’) and of course, those partial to a bit of steak (via the title track), being the prime targets of the frontman’s razor-sharp lyrical barbs. Morrissey wasn’t hogging all the limelight, however, Marr’s nimble-fingered genius on the likes of subsequent minor hit `That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ seeing him touted as the greatest British guitarist since CLAPTON. The album gave the group their first No.1, solidifying their position as the biggest indie band of the decade; The SMITHS now at the peak of their powers. The comparatively disappointing non-album `Shakespeare’s Sister’ Top 30 breaker gave Stephen, Johnny and Co to wig-out in rockabilly aplomb.
Next up was the irrepressible `The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ and the scathing wit of `Bigmouth Strikes Again’, both featured on, and acting as preludes to third album proper, THE QUEEN IS DEAD (1986) {*10}. Though the album was delayed due to record company hassles, with personnel difficulties – Rourke briefly kicked out for heroin abuse and the addition of Craig Gannon – also arising, it remains The SMITHS’ magnum opus and, for many, the album of the decade. Effortlessly segueing from the darkly claustrophobic (the stinging social commentary of the title track and to a lesser extent, the lugubrious `Never Had No One Ever’) to the whimsically witty (`Vicar In A Tutu’) and on to the heartbreakingly poignant (`There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’), the album was breath-taking in its emotional sweep and musical focus. `Cemetry Gates’, `Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’ and the short ’n’ bittersweet `Frankly, Mr. Shankly’ showed the man with the quiff wryly humorous and as always, charming.
Though the band would never quite reach those heights again, The SMITHS’ highly prolific recording schedule continued apace with the anthemic `Panic’ (indie kids delighting in its clarion call of “hang the DJ”) and the breezy `Ask’, probably their most commercial moment. The fact that, like most of their singles, it failed to break the Top 10, led to the group announcing a split with Rough Trade and a new deal with E.M.I. Further controversy followed around this time as Gannon was sacked; the guitarist duly suing the group.
Early ‘87 saw the release of another semi-compilation of splendid B-sides and latest singles (including `Shoplifters Of The World Unite’): THE WORLD WON’T LISTEN {*8} essential if only for the classic Morrissey angst of `Half A Person’ and the sublime `Oscillate Wildly’. Always on the fringes of major American success, and following on from yet another non-album hit, the Top 10! `Sheila Take A Bow’, even an import “best of” set, LOUDER THAN BOMBS (1987) {*8} was juicy enough to crack the British charts.
Though the wellspring of the Morrissey-Marr muse was seemingly bottomless, relations between the pair were reaching breaking point and, by the release of 14th hit `Girlfriend In A Coma’ plus parent album STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME (1987) {*7}, The SMITHS had already split. The album’s morbid, fractured sound (example `Death Of A Disco Dancer’) apparently confirmed the growing musical differences between the group’s main protagonists, an inevitability perhaps, for such a consistently intense and perfectionist band. Signing off with two further moderate and truly poignant hits from the album, `I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’ and the John Barry-esque `Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’, fans were only wishing that one of the tracks, `Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ would ring true.
A posthumous live album, RANK (1988) {*7} appeared the following year, documenting the London stop on The SMITHS’ final frenzied tour of 1986. Various compilations were released in successive years, especially after Warner Brothers secured the rights to the band’s back catalogue in 1992, heralding a period when, ironically, most of the material was only available on US import. While Marr duly sessioned for the likes of The PRETENDERS and BRYAN FERRY before working with THE THE and forming ELECTRONIC (with NEW ORDER’s Bernard Sumner), MORRISSEY went on to a relatively successful solo career. JOHNNY MARR + The Healers delivered a post-Britpop album `Boomslang’ in 2003, but many thought it very derivative of The STONE ROSES, The CHARLATANS and a bit out of its depth and time.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS May2012

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