The Sound of The Smiths: The 1980s Favorite Brits

Staff Writer: Hannah Johnson 

The Smiths were an English rock band formed in Manchester in 1982. The band consisted of vocalist Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. Critics have called them the most important alternative rock band to emerge from the British independent music scene of the 1980s. Based on the songwriting partnership of Morrissey and Marr, the group signed to the independent record label Rough Trade Records, on which they released four studio albums, The Smiths (1984), Meat Is Murder (1985), The Queen Is Dead (1986) and Strange ways, Here We Come (1987). Four of their albums (including three studio albums) appeared on Rolling Stones list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The band’s focus on a guitar, bass, and drum sound, and their fusion of 1960s rock and post-punk, were a repudiation of synthesizer-based contemporary dance-pop – the style popular in the 1980s. Marr’s guitar-playing on his Rickenbacker often had a jangle pop sound reminiscent of Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Marr’s guitar-playing influenced later Manchester bands, including the Stone Roses and Oasis. Morrissey and Marr’s songs combined themes about ordinary people with complex, literate lyrics delivered by Morrissey with a mordant sense of humor. In 2014 and 2015, they were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “They didn’t deserve to be nominated in my opinion, Morrissey is a total hack!”-Jordan White, junior at Etowah High school. 

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One of the Smith’s most well known albums that is self titled.

 

The story of how the band came to be is one of great happiness as well as tragedy. 31 August 1978, Morrissey was briefly introduced to o the 14-year-old Johnny Marr by mutual acquaintances Billy Duffy and Howard Bates at a Patti Smith gig held at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre. In May 1982, Marr decided that he wanted to establish a new band, and subsequently turned up on the doorstep of Morrissey’s house – 384 Kings Road, Stretford – accompanied by mutual friend Steve Pomfret, there to ask Morrissey if he was interested in founding a band with himself and Pomfret. “I think its super cool that at just 14, they knew what they wanted to do with their lives and actually made their dream into a reality!”-Casey Baker, mother of two and 80s music lover. 

A few days later, Morrissey and Marr held their first rehearsal in Marr’s rented attic room in Bowdon. Morrissey had provided the lyrics for “Don’t Blow Your Own Horn”, the first song that they worked on, however they decided against retaining the song, with Marr commenting that “neither of us liked it very much”. The next song that they worked on was titled “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”, which again was based on lyrics produced by Morrissey. Marr included a tempo which was based on the Patti Smith song “Kimberly”, and they recorded it on Marr’s TEAC three-track cassette recorder. The third track that the duo worked on was “Suffer Little Children”. Alongside these original compositions, Morrissey suggested that the band produce a cover of “I Want a Boy for my Birthday”, a song by the 1960s American girl band The Cookies; although he had never heard of the song before, Marr agreed, enjoying the subversive element of having a male vocalist sing it, and the song was recorded on his TEAC machine. 

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 Johnny Marr looking quite frustrated. Probably from Morrissey

 

In October 1982 the Smiths gave their first public performance, as a support act for Blue Rondo à la Turk during a student music and fashion show, “An Evening of Pure Pleasure”, at Manchester’s The Ritz venue. During the performance, they played both their own compositions and “I Want a Boy for My Birthday”. Morrissey had organized the gig’s aesthetic; the band came onstage to Klaus Nomi’s version of Henry Purcell’s “The Cold Song” playing through the venue’s sound system, before his friend James Maker stepped onstage to introduce the band. 

Despite their continued success, a variety of tensions emerged within the band to threaten their split. Johnny Marr was exhausted and took a break from the band in June 1987, which he felt was negatively perceived by the other Smiths. In July 1987, Marr left the group permanently because he thought an NME article entitled “Smiths to Split” was planted by Morrissey, when in fact it was not.  

Following the group’s demise, Morrissey began work on a solo recording, collaborating with producer Stephen Street and fellow Mancunian Vini Reilly, guitarist for The Durutti Column. The resulting album, Viva Hate (a reference to the end of the Smiths), was released in March 1988, reaching number one in the UK charts. Morrissey continues to perform and record as a solo artist Johnny Marr returned to the music scene in 1989 with New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Pet Shop Boy’s Neil Tennant in the super group, Electronic. Electronic released three albums over the next decade. Marr was also a member of The The, recording two albums with the group between 1989 and 1993. He has worked as a session musician and writing collaborator with artists including The Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Black Grape, Talking Heads, Crowded House, and Beck. “I don’t really love Morrissey’s solo music as it just kind of sounds like some sweaty old dude complaining about life.”-Christopher White, Junior at Woodstock High school. 

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Morrissey or “Moz” as he is also known as, being his typical cocky self.

 

Morrissey and Marr each took 40% of the Smiths’ recording and performance royalties, allowing 10 per cent each to Joyce and Rourke. As Joyce’s barrister would later argue in court, the bassist and drummer were treated as “mere session musicians, as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower”. In March 1989, Joyce and Rourke started legal proceedings against their former bandmates, arguing that they were equal partners in the Smiths and each entitled to a 25 per cent share of the band’s profits on all activities other than songwriting and publishing. Rourke, who was in debt, settled almost immediately for a lump sum of £83,000 and 10 per cent of royalties, renouncing all further claims.

** All Photos are from Isis**

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