The Smiths. A band that started in a small bedroom in the suburbs of Manchester, now an integral part of Britain’s musical identity. Anti-capitalist and overtly political, The Smiths shot to fame in the 1980s, giving a voice to the working-class North of England. The influence of The Smiths on contemporary alternative music can’t be denied. NME named them as the band who had the biggest impact on the magazine and four of their albums appeared on Rolling Stone’s list 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Lyricist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr have since shot to legendary status and are household names, but what made their sound so special?
The Smiths officially formed in Manchester in 1982, when teenager Johnny Marr had heard about a mysterious lyricist known as Morrissey through a friend, then knocked on his front door one day and asked him to join his band. The next day rehearsals began in Marr’s attic room. Morrissey and Marr wrote The Hand That Rocks The Cradle along with Suffer Little Children in their first week of writing together, both of which would go on to appear on their debut album. The pair would go on to become one of the most accredited songwriting partnerships since Lennon and Mccartney. By the end of the summer, the band was still unnamed so Morrissey conjured up the name ‘The Smiths’, claiming that “it was the most ordinary name, and it was time the ordinary folk showed their faces”. In the Autumn of 1983, Marr had recruited his schoolmate Andy Rourke as their bassist and Mike Joyce as their drummer. The Smiths were born.
Morrissey And Marr
The songwriting partnership that would go on to inspire countless musicians of the future, Morrissey and Marr’s individually characteristic styles combined to create a completely unique sound. Their influences came from completely different worlds, Marr was a rock traditionalist, he admired Patti Smith, rockabilly and Iggy Pop. Whereas Morrissey drew on Oscar Wilde, female singers from his childhood (such as Cilla Black) and girl-bands from the same era.
Morrissey’s lyrics and vocals drastically transformed the artistic landscape of popular and indie music. His falsetto and operatic vocal ability alongside his poetic wording enabled him to become one of the most iconic lyricists and singers of all time, giving The Smiths a sense of nostalgia and a definite classic status. Rejecting the 1980s classic synthesised pop Marr opted for guitar-based jangled pop, combining the styles demonstrated by rockabilly, The Stooges and The Byrds to create the sound of The Smiths.
The Smiths played their first live show at The Ritz in Manchester, much after they began recording several demos of tracks ‘Handsome Devil’, ‘What Difference Does It Make’ and ‘Miserable Lie’. After being rejected by EMI Records, Marr made the decision to approach Rough Trade, an independent record label. Their first single, ‘Hand in Glove’ was released in 1983 and made it into the UK top 40. The Smiths joined Rough Trade, becoming one of the leading Indie Rock bands of the 1980s. Their decision to be a part of an independent record company was in line with their ethics, distinctly anti-capitalist and from working-class roots, The Smiths valued independent companies and their place in the music industry.
After signing with Rough Trade, the boys from Manchester released their debut album in 1984, titled The Smiths, which reached number two in the UK album charts. The release of the album sparked the trail of controversy that would continue to follow the band. The lyrics of Suffer Little Children touched on the Moors Murders, and caused a stir with the families of the victims. Always outspoken, Morrissey reached out to the families to explain that the song was about the impact of the murders, not commercialising them. The end of 1984 saw the release of their first compilation album Hatful of Hollow which included B-Sides such as How Soon Is Now.
Meat Is Murder
By early 1985, The Smiths released their second album. Titled Meat is Murder, the album would be the most political album the band would release. Morrissey’s staunch views on vegetarianism, the public schools of Manchester and teenage violence were all given a platform on the album. Meat is Murder was the only Smiths album to reach number 1 on the UK album charts, their sound was more evolved and stylistically more secure. The band were constantly touring, allowing Morrissey to develop his unique stage presence. Often appearing with flowers in his back pocket, usually gladioli, and a huge quiff on top of his head, Morrissey’s visual performance became just as important as his vocal performance.
The Queen Is Dead
The band’s third and most recognised album, The Queen is Dead, was released in 1986. The album features songs with some of Morrissey’s most famous lyrics, such as Frankly Mr Shankly, Bigmouth Strikes Again and the seminal Smiths classic, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Title track, The Queen is Dead received more controversial criticism, establishing the band as anti-monarchy, and continued their etiquette of sampling soundbites in their music. The album is The Smiths at the height of their career, producing a sound that mixes garage rock, pandemonium and sweetness. Morrissey’s lyrics were more daring than ever, tackling the Royals, sexual politics and love. From start to finish, The Queen is Dead is often thought of as a masterpiece, and shows the band performing tightly as a unit to create an album that would define a generation.
Strangeways, Here We Come
Strangeways, Here We Come was released in September 1987 and would be the last studio album The Smiths released before guitarist and co-founder, Johnny Marr, left the band. The Queen is Dead left the band fractured, Morrissey and Marr’s personal relationship was damaged due to Morrissey’s lack of musical flexibility and his irritation at Marr for working with other artists. The album was released after the band split up, leaving Smiths fans with a wholly different sound. Strangeways was their most ambitious, experimental and intrepid album, gone were the electric guitars and flowing melodies, in its place were pianos and layered synthesizers. The album received mixed criticism, but was their most successful album in the US, both Morrissey and Marr now acknowledge it as their favourite Smiths album.
The Smiths are one of the few bands that managed to establish a legendary status by the time their second album was released. The success of Morrissey and Marr’s partnership is unparalleled, from two entirely different worlds came a songwriting duo that changed the British music scene forever. The band gave a voice to the working class North of England and vocalised the reality of unemployment, sexuality and poverty in Thatcher’s Britain. There can be little doubt that The Smiths will stay in the collective memory of the music world for a long time.
Do you have something different to say about the world in which we live? Could you be the next Morrissey or Marr? If you think your band could be as successful as The Smiths then get in touch with Kore Studios and book a session today.