The Smiths

 The Smiths

 Morrissey – circa 1985

 “Everybody’s got to live their lives and God knows I’ve got to live mine” – ‘William It Was Really Nothing’ (Morrissey, Johnny Marr)

The gladioli is a long-stemmed flower of the iris family.  It’s beloved by grandmothers everywhere.  It’s not normally associated with rock bands though.  Yet, there is Morrissey – the mono-monikered lead singer of British rock band The Smiths – waving about bunches of gladiolas.  It is 1984 and The Smiths are performing ‘This Charming Man’ on British television show ‘Top of the Pops’.  No, this is definitely not the usual behaviour of a rock band.  But then, The Smiths are hardly the ‘usual’ kind of band in any case.

Steven Patrick Morrissey is born 22 May 1959 in Davyhulme, Manchester, England, U.K.  He is named after Steve Cochran (Steven Patrick Cochran), an American actor perhaps best known for his role in the gangster movie ‘White Heat’ (1949) starring James Cagney.  Morrissey’s parents are Irish Catholics who emigrated from Dublin.  His father, Peter Morrissey, is a hospital porter.  His mother, Elizabeth Morrissey (nee Dwyer), is an assistant librarian.  The couple already have an older daughter, Jackie.  At a very early age, Steven Morrissey develops an interest in writing.  His subsequent literary influences include Oscar Wilde and Johan Wolfgang Goethe.  His top priority is writing poetry.

“As a very small child I found recorded noise and the solitary singer beneath the spotlight so dramatic and brave,” Morrissey recalls.  This turns into an interest in pop music.  “I first bought a Buffy Sainte-Marie record when I was 12,” he says, citing the work of the U.S. folk singer as his earliest purchase.  “I began to go to concerts when I was 12 years old,” Morrissey adds.  The first band he sees is T-Rex at Belle Vue in 1972.  The concerned boy’s father takes him to the gig.  “Pop music was all I ever had,” claims Morrissey.  Among his favourites are David Bowie, Ray Davies (of The Kinks) and Marc Bolan (of T-Rex).  He takes a particular interest in The New York Dolls, an American glam rock band whose all-male line-up are smeared in lipstick and make-up.  “My parents were worried about me,” Morrissey admits, “certainly when I became so deeply interested in music and people like The New York Dolls who, at the time, were very peculiar indeed.”  Eventually, Morrissey becomes president of the English New York Dolls Fan Club.  “Some people have wives and girlfriends.  I had The New York Dolls.”  Morrissey also writes letters to the English rock music newspapers ‘Melody Maker’ and ‘New Musical Express’.

On top of his interests in literature and pop music, Morrissey develops into a passionate film fan.  His favourite film is said to be ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ (1960) starring Albert Finney.  Morrissey professes not to watch any movies made after 1970.

Morrissey attends St Mary’s Secondary Modern School.  Then, when his family moves to the Manchester suburb of Stretford, he transfers to the Stretford Technical School.  He is described as being ‘lonely and depressed as a teenager.’  It’s a state of mind that stays with him into adulthood.  “My life is unrelenting grey, relieved only by passing moments of absolute blackness,” is a fairly typical Morrissey outburst.  At least he shows that reading all that Oscar Wilde has given him a similarly dark wit as demonstrated in this example: “I have found the best way to avoid ending your life as a bitter wreck is to start out as one.”

After leaving school, Morrissey briefly works for the Inland Revenue, the British tax office.  In 1978 he joins his first band, The Nosebleeds.  This lasts only for ‘a couple of months’ and by the end of 1978 is over.  Next, Morrissey auditions to join Slaughter And The Dogs and rehearses with that act, but it amounts to little.  So he turns to writing reviews for ‘Record Mirror’.  Morrissey also pens two published books – or booklets – ‘The New York Dolls’ (1981) and ‘James Dean Is Not Dead’ (1983), the latter about one of his favourite movie stars.  “I never had a social life,” Morrissey claims.  “I never left the house.  I just sat and read and watched television and did all those things in life that are generally considered to be quite negative and soul destroying.  And I would write furiously.  It was the thing that helped.  But also you had to have a grain of hope, which is a difficult thing to have.”  Morrissey’s life changes with a fateful knock at the door.  Johnny Marr has come to call upon him.

John Martin Maher is born 31 October 1963 in Ardwick, Manchester, England.  Like Morrissey, he is the son of Irish immigrants.  His father and mother, John and Frances Maher, come from Athy in County Kildare.

“Guitars have been the obsession of my life,” admits Johnny Marr.  “I first picked one up at the age of 4.”  Marr reels off a list of famous guitarists who have influenced him: John Lennon (of The Beatles), George Harrison (of The Beatles), Keith Richards (of The Rolling Stones), Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), jazz-rocker John McLaughlin, and Nils Lofgren.  His favourite album is ‘Raw Power’ (1973) by The Stooges.

From Ardwick, the Maher family moves to Wythenshawe in 1972.  Young Johnny attends St Augustine’s Catholic Grammar School.  In 1977 that merges with another school to become St John Plessington High School.

“I was really into football and all that.  I played football like everybody else,” Johnny Marr notes.  What he modestly omits is that he was approached by Nottingham Forest to play soccer professionally, but he declined.  Perhaps if the offer had come from the team he supports, his beloved Manchester City Football Club, it might have been a different story…or perhaps not…”[Football] came a long way second to music.  I knew from about 11, 12 period that that was it, that [music] was what I wanted to do.”

Johnny Marr forms his first band, The Paris Valentinos, when he is 13.  The bass player in the group is Andy Rourke.  Andrew Michael Rourke is born 17 January 1964 in Manchester, England.  “I met Johnny at school.  About 12 or 13,” Andy Rourke confirms.

Johnny Marr meets Angie Brown around 1978 or 1979.  She shares Johnny’s birthday – 31 October – but is a year younger than he.  Angie becomes his girlfriend.

In 1979 Johnny Marr forms a new group, Sister Ray, without Andy Rourke.  This doesn’t last very long.  The same year, Marr moves on to another outfit, White Dice.  This group does include Rourke and also vocalist Rob Allman.  In October 1980, having finished high school, Johnny Marr starts attending Wythenshawe College.  White Dice dissolve in 1981.  Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke try their hands at a funk band, Freaky Party, in 1982.  This too winds up and Johnny Marr is at a loose end.  By this time he has made the acquaintance of Joe Moss, an encouraging mentor.  “People I liked were people on the hustle, y’know?” suggest Marr.  “I thought it was really cool to be running around hyper, making things happen.”  Marr has songwriting ambitions.  Rob Allman, former White Dice singer, suggests that Johnny might want to try contacting Morrissey.  Joe Moss shows Marr a documentary about the famed 1950s rock ‘n’ roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  When asked how they got together, they say it was just a matter of knocking on the other’s door.  Johnny Marr takes this idea to heart.

Here is how each of the principals recalls the historic first meeting of Morrissey and Johnny Marr.  Morrissey: “I was discovered like by Johnny the guitarist who came and unearthed me one day and insisted that we collaborate and I was just there dying and he rescued me to be very nice.”  Johnny Marr: “I remember that guy Morrissey who was pretty good.  So I got on the bus one day and went to his house and knocked on the door.  I think at the time he’d given up on the idea of it ever happening for him.  It must have been really weird for him.  Just out of the blue the door opens and this hyperactive flash git with a massive quiff [of hair] just goes, ‘Aaarr’.”

Morrissey and Johnny Marr begin writing songs together and deciding on what kind of group they want to create.  Joe Moss comes on board as the would-be manager of the hypothetical band.  “We had Joe’s resources and my resourcefulness and Morrissey’s drive.  We planned a strategy and The Smiths emerged immediately,” claims Johnny Marr.

By September 1982 the band-to-be is dubbed The Smiths.  There are a couple of different – not necessarily contradictory – accounts of how the band’s name was chosen.  ‘The duo settles on the name “The Smiths” as a reaction against all the bands who choose complicated names to emphasise their music’ [i.e. synth-pop acts like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark or A Flock Of Seagulls].  ‘The Smiths get their name from the couple who turned in the people responsible for the moors murders in England.’  Both Morrissey and Johnny Marr are familiar with the book ‘Beyond Belief’ (1967) about these killings.  From July 1963 to October 1965 Ian Brady and Myra Hindley commit ‘the moors murders’, killing five children aged between 10 and 17 in the Manchester area.  At least four of the victims were also sexually assaulted.  Myra Hindley’s younger sister, Maureen, is married to David Smith and it is David and Maureen Smith whose evidence leads to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators.

In 1982 The Smiths’ line-up is founded with: Morrissey (vocals), Johnny Marr (guitar), Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums).  Michael Joyce is born 1 June 1963 in Fallowfield, Manchester to Irish parents.  Mike Joyce comes from the ‘punk-inspired’ Hoax And Victim.  Morrissey states that Rourke and Joyce “were also roped in by Johnny.”  Andy Rourke, who’d worked with Marr in The Paris Valentinos, White Dice and Freaky Party remembers, “I got a call from [Johnny Marr] saying he was gonna do a demo [recording] at Decibel Studios…I’d never even heard the songs before.”  Mike Joyce observes that, “Morrissey said very little…I felt as though he thought I was stupid.  I just felt a bit intimidated by him.  Not because he was [the famous] Morrissey – because he wasn’t, he was a bloke named Steve.”  There is no clear reason why Steven Morrissey chooses to be known under the single name of Morrissey.  The closest explanation is that the singer ‘even refers to himself as Morrissey, so no one ever uses his first name.’  Johnny Maher calls himself Johnny Marr to avoid confusion with drummer John Maher of Manchester-based punk band The Buzzcocks.  Following The Buzzcocks (1976-1980), the post-punk Joy Division (1978-1980) and its successor, New Order (1980 on), The Smiths add to the musical reputation of the industrial city of Manchester.  “The post-punk era is where I come from,” proclaims Marr.  “I’m very proud to come from that generation.  We were the people who went on to make indie records in the 1980s.”  Morrissey enthuses over his bandmates, “They’re just the most capable musicians I came across in my history.  A perfect little family.”  For him, the social aspect of The Smiths is particularly valuable.  It provides him with a gang of his own.

The Smiths are usually described as an alternative rock act or an indie rock band.  Being an ‘alternative rock’ act just means playing something different to what fills the mainstream pop charts at the time.  Being ‘indie’ means releasing music on an independent label i.e. not one of the major organisations that tend to run the rock music industry (e.g. Warner Brothers, EMI, RCA, etc.)  In 1982, when The Smiths begin, the British charts are dominated by synth pop acts.  For a while, it looks like these pale lads with electronic synthesiser keyboards might actually supplant rock’s historic guitar-centric approach.  Johnny Marr’s guitar obsession defies that trend.  So The Smiths are ‘alternative’ and ‘independent’, but these descriptions do more to define what they are not, than what they are.

Without wishing any disrespect to the considerable musical contributions of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, The Smiths are defined by the contrast and tension between Morrissey and Johnny Marr.  As the band’s co-songwriters, they shape the sound of The Smiths.  On paper, the duo seem like they would be as compatible as oil and water.  The amazing thing is that their quite different qualities actually prove complementary.  Some Smiths fans may admire Morrissey’s swooping, crooning vocals and oddball persona (“He could definitely be a bit strange,” says Marr).  Some Smiths fans may admire Johnny Marr’s jangling, inventive and tasteful guitar work (“I don’t like to waste notes,” says Marr).  But virtually all Smiths fans admire the way Morrissey and Marr play off one another.  ‘The dynamic that exists between Johnny Marr and Morrissey is endlessly fascinating.’  Whenever Morrissey’s latest flight of fancy threatens to leave The Smiths stranded in the ozone, Marr is there to ground the band with an interesting guitar texture.  Whenever Marr threatens to be running through the complete history of rock guitar parts, Morrissey throws in something totally unexpected that puts it all in a fresh perspective.  Broadly, Morrissey writes the lyrics and Marr the music.  Morrissey says, “Me being literary and Johnny with his melodic ideas, it merged together successfully.  I can’t really explain it.  It’s very natural.”  Johnny Marr says, “I couldn’t have given my music to anybody else who appreciated it more, ‘cos he just fell in love with it…You know, in many ways he was my biggest fan.”  They are ‘possibly the greatest songwriting duo of the 1980s.  Morrissey’s witty and morbidly sentimental lyrics are a perfect match with Marr’s odd, chord progressions and unusual tunings.’

The Smiths’ main lyrical themes include shyness, angst, a weird sort of romance, and social conscience.  Johnny Marr offers this summary: “It was good to be in a group that stood for and against certain things. We were against synthesisers, the Conservative government [Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as British Prime Minister virtually coincides with The Smiths’ history], groups like OMD [Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark], the English monarchy, c**k rock guitar solos and the American music scene at the time.  We stood for the Englishness of The Kinks, T-Rex and Roxy Music, the arty quirks that kept those groups from being huge in the U.S.”

The Smiths make their live debut late in 1982.

The debut single, ‘Hand In Glove’, is released on the independent label Rough Trade in 1983.  Over Johnny Marr’s ringing guitar, Morrissey declares, ‘Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds / And it’s not like any other love / This one is different because it’s ours.”  He goes on to defiantly add, “And if the people stare, the people stare.”  The track is alleged to have ‘veiled references to homosexuality.’

Morrissey’s sexuality ‘provokes reams of speculation.’  Publicly, he declares himself to be celibate.  “I was never a sexual person,” is his assertion.  Throughout The Smiths’ career, debate rages about the band’s enigmatic frontman.  Is he straight or is he gay?

In November 1983 The Smiths issue their second single, ‘This Charming Man’ (UK no. 25, AUS no. 52).  This is the track performed on ‘Top of the Pops’ early the following year when Morrissey shows up with ‘National Health spectacles, a hearing aid and bunches of gladioli’.  It’s not a look that he maintains or accoutrements he always bears, but it creates an impression.  Johnny Marr’s needle-sharp guitar lines thread their way through Morrissey’s shrieks and cries as the vocalist feyly announces, “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear / It’s monstrous, it’s gruesome, that someone so handsome should care.”

The ‘notably rockier’ ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ (UK no. 12) is the next single.  “All men have secrets and here is mine / So let it be known,” teases Morrissey in his hiccupping vocal.  Johnny Marr’s folk rock guitar jangle offsets the vocalist’s warning that, “The Devil will find work for idle hands to do.”

‘The Smiths’ (1984) (UK no. 2, US no. 150, AUS no. 77) is the group’s debut album, released in February.  John Porter acts as producer for this set.  ‘Hand In Glove’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ are both on this album.  (The U.S. version, released on Sire Records, also includes ‘This Charming Man’.)  Another track on the album, ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ stirs some controversy because it is ‘alleged to condone child abuse.’

The Smiths release two more non-album singles in 1984.

Morrissey’s ‘celebrated miserabilism’ is on full display in the swooning ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ (UK no. 10): “I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now.”  In this supposedly autobiographical piece, the vocalist asks, “In my life / Why do I give valuable time / To people who don’t care if I (adopts falsetto) live or I die?”  If that sounds overly dramatic, Morrissey underscores the same point in an interview: “Don’t talk to me about people who are ‘nice’ ‘cos I have spent my whole life in ruins because of people who are ‘nice’.”  The B side to this single is ‘Suffer Little Children’, a song about the moors murders, the possible source for the group’s name, The Smiths.

The hasty strum of ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ (UK no. 17) holds markers for some of The Smiths favoured themes.  “The rain falls hard on a humdrum town / This town could drag you down,” references their industrial hometown, Manchester, and the effect of the Conservative government’s economic policies.  “Would you like to marry me / And if you like you can buy the ring,” tips into woozy romanticism.

‘Hatful Of Hollow’ (1984) (UK no. 7) in November is ‘a collection of B sides, BBC sessions, and non-LP singles.’  The track listing includes ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, ‘What Difference Does It Make?’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Hand In Glove’, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and ‘Reel Around The Fountain’.  Also present is the slow acoustic number, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ and what will be the band’s next single, ‘How Soon Is Now?’

In 1984 Joe Moss ceases to act as the manager of The Smiths.  For the rest of the band’s career, Johnny Marr says there are “managers coming and going like it was a revolving door.”  This seems to be at least partly because The Smiths appear to operate at the whim of Morrissey.  A European tour is cancelled simply because the vocalist says he is not going.  “I think Morrissey’s pretty much the management,” observes Andy Rourke darkly.

The 1985 single ‘How Soon Is Now?’ (UK no. 24) is The Smiths’ best song.  The track is a showcase for unusual guitar feels from Johnny Marr, ranging from a slow, wavering tone that seems to be playing in reverse to a sliding sound that is virtually unearthly.  Morrissey rises to the occasion, intoning solemnly over the majestic introduction, “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.”  By the chorus though, he snaps, “You shut your mouth / How can you say / I got about things the wrong way? / I am human and I need to be loved / Just like everybody else does.”  This mixes bratty petulance with affecting profundity – and this is essentially the Morrissey approach in microcosm.  It fits perfectly with a sonic landscape that is simultaneously experimental and familiar.  So many contradictions blend faultlessly into a whole that, against all logic, functions beautifully.

The 1985 single ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ (UK no. 26) is mad folk music matched to a rickety rhythm.  “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you were a protest singer,” is Morrissey’s appropriate observation.  The song also contains a doom-laden vision, a terrible dread, which becomes a recurring feature of The Smiths’ songs: “Young bones groan and the rocks below say ‘Throw your skinny, white body down.’”

February’s ‘Meat Is Murder’ (1985) (UK no. 1, US no. 110, AUS no. 58) is produced by The Smiths.  ‘How Soon Is Now?’ is added for the U.S. edition.  Otherwise, the album’s best known song is probably the acoustic misery of ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ (UK no. 49), an assertion made because, Morrissey sings, “It’s too close to home and it’s too near the bone.”  Johnny Marr’s guitar is only vaguely distinguishable through the sonic morass, like a mountain glimpsed through mist.  The album is ‘bookended by lengthy, brutal songs about corporal punishment (‘The Headmaster Ritual’) and the horrors of the cattle industry (‘Meat Is Murder’).’  Morrissey is a vegetarian.  This disc is ‘the darkest entry in the U.K. group’s catalogue.’

The 1985 single ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ (UK no. 23) is a lively acoustic tune, though – as is customary – the lyrics are pretty bleak: “Behind the hatred there lies a murderous desire for love.”

One of The Smiths’ best singles is ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ (UK no. 23).  This 1985 release has a big dramatic sound, pitching electric guitars against acoustic guitars.  “Oh, sweetness, sweetness / I was only joking when I said / By rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed,” pleads Morrissey ineffectually.  His only option left is to moan, “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt,” as he struggles with his own martyrdom, like the girl from the Dark Ages burned to death by the Catholic church for supposed heresy.  The keening female voice in the background is credited to Ann Coates, but this is a pun on the Manchester district of Ancoats.  The backing vocal is ‘actually Morrissey’s voice altered to a higher pitch’ through electronic means.  “Bigmouth strikes again / I’ve got no right to take my place with the human race,” Morrissey flagellates himself.  Mike Joyce turns in an impressively furious drum break at the three-quarter mark before Johnny Marr turns up the electric guitar for a cavalry charge to carry the song home.

After ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ bassist Andy Rourke is ‘briefly ousted from the group due to his flirtation with heroin’ but things soon return to normal.

‘The Queen Is Dead’ (1986) (UK no. 2, US no. 70, AUS no. 30) in June is The Smiths’ top album.  It is co-produced by Morrissey and Johnny Marr.  ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ and ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ are both on this disc.  Also present is the unusual ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’.  Its flutes and strings make it seem almost like an out-of-body experience.  Here again is another suicidal worldview, albeit one framed in giddy abandon: “And if a double-decker bus crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die / And if a ten-ton truck kills the both of us / To die by your side, well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.”  The song’s title is repeated as it fades away.  The title track, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, is ‘full of quiet rage’ while ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’ is described as ‘strummy social commentary.’  Johnny Marr praises bassist Andy Rourke’s contribution to this disc as “something no other bass player could match.”  With this album ‘the kings of British mope rock’ craft ‘one of the finest achievements of the decade.’

In 1986 The Smiths continue their practice of issuing non-album singles.  Both of these 1986 singles have Craig Gannon (born 30 July 1966) on second guitar.  Formerly of Aztec Camera, Gannon accompanies The Smiths on their 1986 international tour.  Although described as ‘the fifth Smith’, Gannon is ousted from the act, prompting him to take legal action against the band – though it doesn’t lead to his being reinstated.

The Smiths’ 1986 singles are ‘Panic’ and ‘Ask’.  ‘Panic’ (UK no. 11) is an odd sing-song shanty predicting “Panic on the streets of London”, a condition that spreads to cities like “Birmingham…Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside.”  However the song is perhaps most notorious for its chorus: “Burn down the disco / Hang the blessed D.J. / Because the music they constantly play says nothing about my life.”  This on-target barb aimed at the sugar-coated fantasies proffered by disc jockeys is lent a chill by a chanting kiddie gang echoing Morrissey, “Hang the D.J., Hang the D.J.”  The huffing ‘Ask’ (UK no. 14) suggests that, “Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.”  Morrissey pushes his lover, “If there’s something you’d like to try, ask me / I won’t say no, how could I?”  If that’s insufficient incentive, he adds, “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb that will bring us together.”

Johnny Marr marries his girlfriend, Angie Brown, in 1986.  They go on to have a son, Nile, and a daughter, Sonny.

The Smiths head into 1987 with ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ (UK no. 12).  This is not really a call to arms for petty thieves; it is more like a plea for unity that refers to those so disadvantaged that they resort to stealing.  Well, after all, it does change from urging “take over” to “hand it over.”  And what prompts this petition for solidarity?  “But last night, plans of a future war was all I saw on Channel Four.”  In other words, it’s the same fear of ‘the bomb’ from the previous single.  This is musically underlined by Johnny Marr’s rumbling guitar avalanche.

February’s ‘The World Won’t Listen’ (1987) (UK no. 2, AUS no. 25) is another collection of odds and ends.  It mixes The Smiths’ post-1984 one-off singles with some additional stray material.  March’s ‘Louder Than Bombs’ (1987) (UK no. 38, US no. 62) serves a similar purpose but is expressly ‘designed to whet interest in the U.S.’ so it takes a wider view of the group’s history.  Additionally, unlike its predecessor, it includes The Smiths’ next single for 1987, ‘Sheila Take A Bow’ (UK no. 10).  Despite its thumping drums and slashing chords, this song retains a gentle quality.  In the lyric, Morrissey poses a by now familiar question: “Is it wrong not to always be glad?”

‘Strangeways Here We Come’ (1987) (UK no. 2, US no. 55, AUS no. 28), The Smiths’ fourth proper album, is issued in September.  Strangeways is the name of a prison in Manchester.  The disc is co-produced by Stephen Street, Morrissey and Johnny Marr.  ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ (UK no. 13) has a reassuring air at odds with its subject which, Morrissey’s vocal acknowledges, “I know, I know, it’s serious.”  From the sawing strings that arrive late in this number, The Smiths switch to a blast of brass late in ‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’ (UK no. 23).  Prancing about the rough guitar chords, Morrissey insouciantly trills, “Hair brushed and parted / Typical me, typical me / I started something and now I’m not too sure…”  ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ (UK no. 30) has a lengthy (1.54) piano introduction played over what sounds like an audio recording of a riot.  It is actually the sound of crowd noises from the miner’s strike, one of the flashpoints for those against the policies of the Thatcher government.  The song itself has a boldly cinematic sweep, incorporating acoustic guitar and strings.  “No hope but no alarm, just another false alarm,” Morrissey glumly intones.  This album is also home to ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ (AUS no. 91).  Johnny Marr claims that ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ is “actually me favourite album.”

In 1987 Johnny Marr ‘grows increasingly disenchanted with the band and the music industry…Over the course of the year Morrissey and Marr become increasingly irritated with each other.’  Johnny Marr recalls, “I was wanting to do other things.  I thought now’s the right time, the time for it to finish, y’know?”  Mike Joyce winces, “I said, ‘We could do one more album at least,’ and I think that was the worst thing I could have said.  Johnny just couldn’t…”  Andy Rourke opines, “I think Marr had a nervous breakdown.  He’d had enough of all the pressure and needed a break…He went on holiday…and a week before he came back, there was a story in the NME (the ‘New Musical Express’, a British rock newspaper) that he’d left the band and that’s what he came back to.”  The story becomes reality and The Smiths disband in 1987.  The tension between Morrissey and Johnny Marr is thick.  “We wouldn’t speak to each other for a long time,” acknowledges Marr, “and there was a lot of weird, veiled nonsense between us in the press.”

The live album, ‘Rank’ (1988) (UK no. 2, US no. 77, AUS no. 30), closes the book on The Smiths.

As the band’s frontman and most colourful character, it is unsurprising that Morrissey – arguably – does the best after the split.  He releases a number of solo albums and carves a new career for himself.  From 1994 to 1996 he is in a relationship with photographer Jake Walters, but then moves on to Tina Dehgani.  “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual,” Morrissey finally states in 2013.  “In technical fact, I am humasexual.  I am attracted to humans.  But, of course…not many.”  Wit aside, Morrissey still seems deeply conflicted.  Bisexual is probably the most apt description for him, but it is not an easily resolved question.

Johnny Marr works with both The Pretenders and former Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry in 1987.  He also lends his talents to The The (1988-1994), Electronic (1989-1999), Johnny Marr’s Healers in the late 1990s and Modest Mouse (2006).

In 1991 Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce sue Morrissey and Johnny Marr, claiming they received only ten percent each of the band’s earnings while their confederates pocketed forty percent each.  “I’m not a session player,” protests Joyce.  “My recollection is a certain way and Johnny’s is of another way…”  Marr counters, “I didn’t make any phone call to [the record label] Rough Trade, let’s put it that way.  [I didn’t say,] ‘Make sure there’s only two names [,Morrisey’s and mine,] on the contract.’”  Andy Rourke settles out of court, but Mike Joyce wins his case in late 1996.  The ill will generated by the whole ugly situation pretty much kills off any notion of a Smiths reunion.

“The Smiths was an incredibly personal thing to me,” said Morrissey.  “It was like launching your own diary to music.”  He said that, in the band, “The union was perfect.”  Johnny Marr said of The Smiths, “To me, they were the best out of England from 1982 to 1987.  The best band in the world.  The best rock band.  Without anyone coming anywhere near us, couldn’t touch us…No contest.”  The gladioli may not be the most exotic plant in the world, but it is, in its own way, quite beautiful.  In this sense, it was an apt symbol for The Smiths, a band that, in its own way, created some beautiful music.  The Smiths were the ‘most important U.K. group of the 1980s’ and ‘as smart as pop music gets.’

Sources:

  1. ‘The Rise and Fall of The Smiths’ (television documentary, BBC Two Network) – Directed by Mike Connolly, narrated by Marc Almond (1999)
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  9. ‘The Independent’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘”If you want to know about me and Morrissey, Google it”: Ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr talks relationships and reunions’ by Fiona Sturges (25 May 2013) (reproduced on independent.co.uk)
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  11. askmeaskmeaskme.com as at 11 April 2014
  12. wiki.answers.com as at 11 April 2014
  13. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 224
  14. allmusic.com, ‘The Smiths’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 7 April 2014
  15. ‘The Smiths Singles’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Warner Music U.K. Ltd, 1995) p. 3, 4, 5
  16. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 58, 63, 67, 73
  17. lyricsfreak.com as at 5 April 2014

Song lyrics copyright Warner Music U.K. Ltd.

Last revised 2 May 2014

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