Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



UK pop quartet formed in Manchester in 1982: singer Morrissey (b Steven Patrick Morrissey, 22 May 1959), guitarist Johnny Marr (b 31 October 1963), both from Manchester, also songwriting partners, plus Andy Rourke, bass; Mike Joyce, drums. They were very independent, the name chosen for anonymity; they never made a promo video and remained on the indie Rough Trade label despite offers from majors. Early sessions were produced by Troy Tate (ex-Teardrop Explodes); distinctive debut single 'Hand In Glove' '83 followed by 'This Charming Man', 'What Difference Does It Make', 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' and 'William, It Was Really Nothin' ', all top 30 hits '83-4. The Smiths '84 included 'Hand In Glove' (later a hit for Sandie Shaw), majestic 'Reel Around The Fountain', sombre 'Suffer Little Children'. Marr's lavish Byrds-style guitar, Morrissey's enigmatic lyrics and delivery were the centre of their appeal. Meat Is Murder '85 was regarded as less substantial; Hatful Of Hollow '85 was sessions culled from John Peel's radio show.

They attracted a cult following in the USA; Morrissey, a devoted fan of Johnny Ray and Billy Fury, was rarely out of the rock press, leading to a single 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' '86. Singles 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore', 'Shakespeare's Sister' and 'Boy With The Thorn In His Side' were regarded as disappointing, but top 20 'Panic' '86 was a return to form, as was The Queen Is Dead '86, with its remarkable title track, music-hall 'Frankly Mr Shankly' and 'Cemtry [sic] Gates'. Marr was 'Duane Tremelo' on Billy Bragg's single 'Levi Stubbs' Tears' '86. Craig Gannon (ex-Aztec Camera) played with them '86; they donated a track to charity LP Animal Liberation '87; Shoplifters Of The World Unite compiled recent hits and alternative takes, The World Won't Listen other rare tracks, and Strangeways, Here We Come was their last new record. The live album Rank fulfilled their contract; they split mid-'87 after Marr went to USA to record with Talking Heads.

Morrissey released Viva Hate '88 on Sire, reissued '94 on CD; a video compilation Hulmerist revealed a songwriter who seemed to have lost his way. (It was named after Hulme in Manchester, Morrissey's boyhood neighbourhood; the 'l' is silent and it sounds like 'humorist'.) Elvis Costello mocked that he 'comes up with the greatest song titles in the world, only somewhere along the line he seems to forget to write the song'. Other CDs on various EMI labels included Kill Uncle '91, Your Arsenal '92, Beethoven Was Deaf '93, Bona Drag and Vauxhall And I '94; the rock band on Vauxhall went with him to RCA for Southpaw Grammar '95. His solo career has not set the world on fire but the generation that spent the '80s as students in bedsits still thought he was God, and his writing on Southpaw threatened to stop winking at the audience and get serious. Morrissey's Maladjusted '97 on Island (produced by Steve Lillywhite) was more of the same clever whimpering, still lacking good tunes. An album called Years of Refusal had some energy, but World Peace Is None Of Your Business in 2014 found him still morose and misanthropic, while still in good voice.

Morrissey and Marr had made a record royalty deal which gave them each 40 per cent and Rourke and Joyce each 10 per cent; when the latter two found out the lawsuits started: Rourke settled for £83,000 '89 but Joyce won £1m '96, Smith and Marr also liable for legal costs of £250,000, Morrissey was described by the judge as 'devious, truculent and unreliable when his own interests were at stake'. The Smiths Is Dead '96 on Epic was compiled by Christian Fevret, editor of French paper Les Inrockuptibles, to mark the tenth anniversary of the paper and of The Queen Is Dead (his readers chose Queen as the best record of the last decade), ten artists including the Boo Radleys, Trash Can Sinatras, Billy Bragg etc performing The Smiths' songs. 

Marr formed a synth-pop duo Electronic for a debut album '91, followed by Raise The Pressure '96 on Parlophone, with vocalist Bernard Sumner (ex-New Order), guests Denise Johnson on vocals and Kraftwerk keyboardist Karl Bartos. He considered Boomerang, a 2003 album by Johnny Marr + the Healers, to be a band album; he settled in Portland OR in 2005 but returned to Manchester to record The Messenger in 2012, regarded as his first solo album. He told Jim Fusilli for the Wall Street Journal that he had set out to make a record that he could play live: 'I didn't want the audience to stand waiting for a minute and a half to get to the point.' Fusilli wrote that 'As a vocalist, Mr. Marr delivers his lines drily and honestly without the controlled hysteria of his former partner, Morrissey.' 

Gavin Hopps' monograph on Morrissey, The Pageant of his Bleeding Heart (2009), defined him as a 'disturbance'. Morrissey's Autobiography (2013) was published in Penguin Classics, alongside millennia of classic world literature, which is a commentary of some kind (whose commentary, we do not know). It was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by Gwendoline Riley, who thinks that The Smiths 'changed the pop landscape forever', describing the book as 'a rich and substantial work, the figure at its centre emerging as both compelling and complex.' There was never any doubt the boy has a way with words.