The Smiths – A Brief History of the Legendary English 80’s Rock Band

by Jay Sandwich

The Smiths is an English rock band that formed in 1982 and separated in 1987. It was a musical quartet of lads from Manchester, originally founded by two people – Steven Patrick Morrissey (born on May 22 , 1959), the flamboyant and controversial singer and lyricist, and Johnny Marr (born October 31 ,1963), the ground-breaking wizard guitar player. 

The band lineup was soon after completed by drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke.  They made 4 official albums together, and rival The Beatles in terms of popularity in the UK.  Of course, the world loves them, too.

Morrissey and Johnny Marr (whose real name is Johnny Maher, but he changed it to not be confused with the Buzzcocks drummer) officially met each other on May 20th, 1982, at Morrissey’s home in Stretford (384 Kings Road).  They had seen each other previously, at a Patti Smith gig where they were first introduced.

Here is a Smiths fan doing a drive-by of the Morrissey’s old house.  It all started right there!

The Smiths – Band History

Before The Smiths came together, Johnny Marr was looking for a good lyricist and singer, having been in a few bands that didn’t work out, and he met with Steven Morrissey, whose lyrics he’d heard through a friend, Billy Duffy, future guitarist for The Cult and former member of a band whose Morrissey was briefly the singer, The Nosebleeds.  Hard to believe Morrissey sang in this band, even for a short time.  Ladies and germs – the Nosebleeds!  (without Morrissey singing, sorry)

Marr one day showed up on Morrissey’s doorstep to implore him to join his band, which Morrissey eventually agreed.  In the beginning, the two songwriting partners were truly on the same wavelength, although Morrissey was several years older than Marr.

Morrissey presented Johnny with some lyrics he wrote, including “Suffer Little Children”, a dark-themed set of lyrics inspired by the infamous Moor murders, and the two worked on several other songs as well, such as the cast off “Don’t Blow Your Own Horn”, and “The Hand that Rocks The Cradle”. 

After recording several tracks with Simon “Si” Wolstencroft (future member of The Fall) on drums, Morrissey and Marr recruited drummer Mike Joyce in the fall of 1982 after Wolstencroft failed to show interest in joining the band.

Joyce was once a member of punk bands The Hoax and Victim. They then recruited as bassist a fellow named Dale Hibbert, who provided the group with the use of the studio where he worked as recording engineer.  Here is a more recent picture of Dale Hibbert.

And here is a song they recorded with Dale on bass at the time, “I Want A Boy For My Birthday” (1982), which was a cover of a song by the band The Cookies, a girl group from the ’60’s.

According to Marr, neither the personality nor the musical style of Hibbert were well suited to the group (Hibbert thinking the band acted too homosexual on stage) and they replaced him after The Smiths’ first concert, which took place at the Manchester Ritz on October 4 , 1982, put on by a friend of Marr, Andy Rourke.

The group was to be called The Smiths, from that point on. According to Marr: “We wanted a very normal name…not something that would have sounded like space men or that kind of bullshit”.  It was also around this time that Steven Morrissey became simply “Morrissey”, and forbade people from calling him Steven, which he always hated.

The band were beginning to gig more, and had a new swath of demoes, including “Miserable Lie”, “Handsome Devil”, and “What Difference Does It Make?”  They used this demo to hopefully get signed by EMI, but they were declined.  Not deterred entirely from making it to the bigtime, they then approached the indie label, Rough Trade.

Their first single, “Hand in Glove”, was released in May of 1983 on Rough Trade, who had agreed to cut that single only and see where it went from there.  The single did not chart, but it made an impact nonetheless, with its evocative cover art suggesting homoeroticism. 

In turn, this small buzz lead to them appearing on John Peel, who loved the band, and eventually having their first interviews with Sounds and NME.

Here is a live version from 1984 of “Hand In Glove” when The Smiths performed on The Tube.

“Hand In Glove” was then followed by “This Charming Man”, which reached number 25 on the British charts in November 1983, and then “What Difference Does It Make?”, reaching number 12 in January of 1984.  It was at this time that The Smiths started cracking the chart positions and gaining a fanbase.

In February 1984, their first album, simply dubbed The Smiths, sold 300,000 copies, taking second place on the British charts. Two songs, “Reel Around the Fountain” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” were considered controversial, because some tabloids claim that they evoked pedophilia, an assertion vigorously denied by the group.

The first Smiths album is followed the same year by the “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (the first top-ten hit of The Smiths) and “William, It Was Really Nothing” singles, which includes the future mega hit, “How Soon Is Now?” on side B.

Around this time, The Smiths toured a lot in the UK, but rarely in the rest of Europe (for instance, their concerts in Paris on May 9th, 1984 at the Eldorado, and on the 1st of December that same year at the Exhibition Center, Porte de Versailles, are the only French dates in the history of the Smiths).

In late 1984, The Smiths released their first compilation, called “Hatful of Hollow”, featuring singles, B-sides, and songs recorded for the BBC.  At this time, The Smiths is voted best group of 1984 by the readers of the NME (a title that the group took every year until their break up in 1987).

In 1985, the band released their second album, the socially conscious “Meat Is Murder”. At this time, the band was touring extensively in the UK and the US and were working on their next studio album, the eventual classic, “The Queen Is Dead”. 

Meanwhile, controversy abounded as Morrissey said and did things to draw attention to the group, such as make provocative statements of all kinds to the media, arousing their ire while simultaneously giving them things to talk about.

However, the group was having a number of difficulties. A dispute with Rough Trade delayed the album, completed in November 1985, by almost seven months, and Marr begins to feel stress due to an exhausting schedule: many recordings, and tours. He will say later: “I was very sick … I drank more than I could handle”. Andy Rourke was fired from the group in early 1986 because of heroin use. Andy received the notice of his dismissal by a post-it glued to the windshield of his car, penned by Morrissey.  Andy still claims that this happened, while Morrissey denies it.

Rourke is replaced as Smiths bassist by Craig Gannon (former guitarist of Aztec Camera and The Bluebells), but is restored to his original position after a fortnight. As a quintet, with Gannon on rhythm guitar, The Smiths recorded the singles “Panic” and “Ask” (with Kirsty MacColl on chorus), and did concerts in the United Kingdom and the United States. Gannon left the group in October of 1986.

“The Queen Is Dead” was released in June 1986 with Alain Delon on the cover of the album. This album would go on to be what many consider to be their crowning achievement (no pun intended), with many of their most beloved songs on the album, with perhaps “There Is A Light And It Never Goes Out” being perhaps the perennial Smiths track. 

At the end of 1986, the band changed labels and, after some tug of war between labels, The Smiths ended up with their original dream label, EMI, stirring the brewing discontentment among fans and media alike.

The Smiths put out two new singles (“Shoplifters of the World Unite” in January and “Sheila Take a Bow” in April), performing at the San Remo Festival in May, but it seems that at this time, the man behind the guitar sound of The Smiths, one Johnny Marr, was severing his ties with the band.

The guitarist felt stifled in a band which was, at that time, focused mainly on Morrissey’s persona. Also, Johnny’s enthusiasm for other forms of music such as dance and electro did not find a field of expression: “The Smiths had become a kind of club where all new influences were discredited, even taboo,” he confided to Johnny Rogan for his book on the Smiths, “Morrissey and Marr”: The Severed Alliance (1992).

The August 8 , 1987, Johnny Marr announced that he left the group by sending a message to the NME: “What in the past made me happy makes me unhappy, I had to leave”.

So, “posthumously”, The Smiths released on September 28th, 1987, their last album, “Strangeways, Here We Come”. 

As an epitaph, the band decided to release a live album called “Rank” (1988) from a concert given at the National Ballroom in Kilburn on October 23, 1986.

Legacy of the Band

Although their level of commercial success was relatively modest in their day, The Smiths became one of the most celebrated groups in the British rock pantheon. According to the BBC, it is “the group that inspires a deeper devotion than any British band since the Beatles”.  According to music journalist Simon Goddard, the band is “the most influential guitar band of the 1980s”.

In 2002, The Smiths were named the most important musical artist of all time in a survey conducted by NME. In 2013, The Queen Is Dead was voted best album of all time by NME as well. In both cases, The Beatles took second place. In 1996, The Queen Is Dead was voted Best Album of the Decade 1986-1996 by the inRocKuptibles, which was the subject of a tribute album, The Smiths Is Dead.

Johnny Marr, Post-Smiths

The band split the following year after the departure of Johnny Marr, who would accompany various artists for the next two years (Midge Ure, Kirsty MacColl, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys) before joining The The (Mind Bomb album in 1989, Dusk in 1993) and then founding the group Electronic with Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order and Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys . The single “Getting Away With It” by Electronic went on to be a success, a meeting of pop icons.

He also joined Portland alt-rock indie legends Modest Mouse in 2006 for a few years.  Music fans didn’t see that one coming, but he stayed with them for years touring, making TV appearances, and working on at least one popular album.

Marr’s first attempt as a front man came under the band name of Johnny Marr and the Healers with the album Boomslang in February 2004. 

Johnny also continued to broaden his horizons at the beginning of 2006, adding some instrumentation for Jane Birkin’s album, Fictions.

Johnny Marr then joined the band Modest Mouse, where he composed some songs from their album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank LP.  In 2008, he joined the The Cribs as a member of the band, with whom he participated in the recording of the album “Ignore the Ignorant”, released in 2009.

Since 2010, Johnny has been working on all sorts of projects, including recording solo albums (The Messenger, Playland), working on film soundtracks (Inception, The Amazing Spiderman 2, , and guesting on others’ albums (Hans Zimmer, Noel Gallagher, Blondie).

Morrissey, Post-Smiths

After The Smiths ended, Morrissey hooked up with Stephen Street, producer of the Smiths, and begin to work on new compositions with Vini Reilly of the band The Durutti Column as a guitarist.  Thus, he began a solo career in the spring of 1988 by releasing the excellent album “Viva Hate” which, not surprisingly, sounds very Smiths-like, and which spawned the hit singles “Suedehead” and “Everyday is like Sunday”.

The next album was released in 1991, that being Kill Uncle (anti-American plea), recorded with guitarist Mark E. Nevin of Fairground Attraction. Unlike the first album, Kill Uncle is met with less fanfare and it seemed that Morrissey’s career might be behind him, according to the media at the time.

Then, in 1996, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and Marr, arguing that they unknowingly received only 10% of the album royalties from The Smiths’ albums each, whereas 40% went to the “composers”.  This was what many consider to be the final nail in the Smiths reunion coffin, as it drudged up a lot of confusion and ill will between the former bandmates. Rourke and Joyce eventually got what they wanted, with the law being on their side in the end.  Morrissey held a grudge since this took place, especially as he ended up looking to the public like a greedy control freak.

With Morrissey’s next album, “Your Arsenal”, containing very rockabilly tones (thanks to the contribution of guitarists and composers Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte) and glam-rock (via Mick Ronson, former guitarist and producer of David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust era), Morrissey returns to the foreground and is considered by many to be back in fighting form.  A comeback has officially occurred.

In 1994, “Vauxhall and I” comes out and the single “Interlude” is recorded as a duet with the singer from Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The next two albums, “Southpaw Grammar” (on RCA) and “Maladjusted” (on Island) are commercial flops, and Morrissey’s creative vein seemed to be drying up (again, according to the media, who know nothing of art).

Then, as the pheonix is reborn from the ashes, Morrissey, now based in Los Angeles, then made a successful comeback with the album “You Are the Quarry” on Sanctuary Records.

A live “Morrissey Live at Earls Court” album was released in early 2005, playing songs from all throughout the Smiths and Morrissey’s solo career. Finally, a new album, Ringleader Of The Tormentors with the participation of Tony Visconti (Bowie, T.Rex , The Sparks, Rita Mitsouko and Ennio Morricone), was released on April 4, 2006, and in February 2009 Years of Refusal, with “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” for the first single. In July 2014, Morrissey returned to the front of the stage with an album recorded in the South of France, World Peace is None Of Your Business.  2017 sees the release of Low in High School.

Mike Joyce – Post Smiths

Although Morrissey and Marr tend to get most of the attention when it comes to The Smiths, drummer Mike Joyce has also been heavily involved in music since the band’s breakup way back in 1987.

After the Smiths packed it in, Mike went on to tour with Sinead O’Connor in support of her classic album, I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got.  Here’s Mike playing drums with her and her band at Pinkpop ’88.

Since the break-up of The Smiths mainly revolved around Morrissey and Marr not getting along, it was not surprising that Mike recorded on some of Morrissey’s solo material after the band split, such as his songs, “Interesting Drug”, and “The Last of the Famous International Playboys”.  You can clearly hear his tight, crisp drumming in the mix.

Mike Joyce has also worked with a number of well known bands over the years, such as Suede, Public Image Limited, and The Buzzcocks, in addition to other projects.

The lawsuit that was mentioned earlier which occurred in 1996 was a big deal when it happened, as it pitted Mike against Morrissey and Marr over past band royalties, and things got ugly fast – particularly with Morrissey, who seems to hold a grudge to this day (as you’ll notice if you read Moz’s autobiography).  The sad truth of the matter seems to be that none of the members of The Smiths knew anything about contracts when they started out, and it came back to haunt them later on.

In 2007, “Inside the Smiths” was released, featuring Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce in a documentary about the band that lacked the other two members.  Despite the wrath Morrissey seems to have for Mike, both Mike and Andy put a more positive spin on The Smiths and the two star members.

More recently, Mike Joyce is a DJ and has been known to play shows as such.

Andy Rourke – Post-Smiths

Like the rest of the band, Andy Rourke has kept busy doing music and is still heavily involved in it.

After the Smiths broke up, he and Mike Joyce followed the same path for a while, performing with Sinead O’Connor for her seminal album, I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got, and then recording with Morrissey for his first deluge of solo recordings.  In addition to what Mike did, Andy also appeared on a few other tracks like “November Spawned a Monster” and “Piccadilly Palare”.  He also wrote music for several Morrissey tracks as well, including “Get off The Stage”, “Yes, I Am Blind”, and “Girl Least Likely To”.

Andy has also performed with several well known acts, like Ian Brown (of Stone Roses fame), Badly Drawn Boy (with whom he toured for two years), Moondog One (with Oasis member Bonehead, Mike Joyce, and Craig Gannon), as well as recording with The Pretenders.

Andy was also responsible for forming Manchester Vs Cancer, which became a series of concerts, which began in 2006 and, at one point, saw the on stage reunion of Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke playing several Smiths tracks, including “How Soon Is Now?”

More recently, Andy Rourke has a band with Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries called D.A.R.K.  Here is footage of that band practicing.  It’s not perfect, but it’s cool!

The Smiths – Discography

The Smiths – Rough Trade (ROUGH61 – February 1984)

Meat Is Murder – Rough Trade (ROUGH81 – February 1985)

The Queen Is Dead – Rough Trade (ROUGH96 – January 1986)

Strangeways, Here We Come – Rough Trade (ROUGH106 – September 1987)

Live Albums

Rank – Live at Kilburn National Ballroom (10/23/1986) – Rough Trade ROUGH126 – September 1988

The Peel Sessions (BBC, May 1984) – Strange Fruit SF PS 055 – October 1988


Hatful of Hollow – Rough Trade ROUGH76 – November 1984

The World Won’t Listen – Rough Trade ROUGH101 – March 1987

Louder Than Bombs – Sire 9 25568-1 – April 1987

The Sound of The Smiths – November 2008

Trivia and Such

The Smiths has also influenced many bands / artists, such as:

  • Peter Doherty / The Libertines / Babyshambles
  • Oasis
  • The Kooks
  • The Stone Roses
  • The Drums
  • Sweden
  • Placebo
  • Kaiser Chiefs
  • Blur
  • Radiohead
  • Coldplay
  • Belle and Sebastian
  • Supergrass
  • Pulp
  • Chelsea

Watch this video showing bands talk about their favourite Smiths track.  Hard choice!

The song “How Soon Is Now?” has been covered by Love Spit Love, a version that was used for the television series, “Charmed” for the theme song.  This song has been referred to as a seminal ’80’s song and known for its groundbreaking sonic structure on many occasions.  

Johnny Marr has also been known to play “How Soon is Now?” during his concerts in recent times.

The song, “Asleep” was covered by Emily Browning, for the soundtrack of the movie “Sucker Punch”.

The song “Asleep” speaks of the loneliness that accompanies the last moments of a dying person, and his desire to die to go to a better world. The song is part of Charlie’s playlist, who is the main character from the movie Charlie’s World.

The Smiths are a part of the plot in the movie “500 Days of Summer”. The first thing Summer and Tom have in common is their passion for the Smiths. Summer sings “There Is A Light And It Never Goes Out” in the elevator scene.

The Austrian band Mika has a song called “Now I Know How Morrissey Felt”, recalling the phrase about Joan of Arc from “Bigmouth Strikes Again”.

About Jay Sandwich

Jay is an ex-shred guitar player and current modular synth noodler from a small town somewhere. Quote: “I’m a salty old sandwich with a perspective as fresh as bread.” No bull.

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