A bedroom-trained recluse with limited experience in local punk bands, Steven Patrick Morrissey (who was also the ex-president of the UK New York Dolls fan club and author of the book James Dean Isn’t Dead) finally seized his moment in the summer of 1982 when he formed The Smiths with guitarist Johnny Marr, born John Maher (he adapted his name to avoid confusion with the Buzzcocks‘ drummer).
They played their first show at a local club called The Ritz.
Not many bands are given a second chance to make their debut, but then not many bands rewrote the rules quite like The Smiths did in 1984.
Despite feverish anticipation, the release of their self-titled debut album in February 1984 was not greeted with unanimous hosannas.
NME complained about “elephant’s ear production” (grey and flat), while Morrissey and Johnny Marr, buoyant in public, expressed private disappointment. It was almost fitting – Morrissey’s lyrics knew all about grasping defeat from the jaws of victory – yet part of their appeal was always that they were the pale-and-interesting outsiders making supremely confident artistic gestures.
So, audaciously, Hatful Of Hollow appeared just nine months after The Smiths was released, and it quickly became the record many considered to be the group’s true debut.
Containing BBC radio sessions for John Peel and David Jensen, plus the band’s singles and B-sides to date, it was an essential document for the new devotees and a blueprint for independent music.
Here was the humdrum town rendered exotic, intoxicating yet unshakably grim, like gas seeping out of a bedsit boiler.
Thematically too, it was all there; encoded sexuality (William, It Was Really Nothing, You’ve Got Everything Now), tabloid-alarming allusions to paedophilia (Handsome Devil, Reel Around The Fountain ), people revving their engines for a journey they know they’ll never make (These Things Take Time, Hand In Glove, pretty much every track), at odds with rock ‘n’ roll’s fondness for instant gratification.
With its stabs at pleasure amid inescapable greyness, Hatful Of Hollow was the perfect soundtrack to end an Orwellian year. It showed a band who not only had the musical gifts to create an abundance of great songs at this tender stage of their career but the aesthetic instinct to create their own world.
The Smiths also achieved their first UK Top 10 hit in 1984 with the single Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, with lyrics which were the very essence of Morrissey miserabilism. A renowned celibate, Morrissey had a morbid dread of sex (Pretty Girls Make Graves), and an obsession with child killers (Suffer Little Children).
1985 saw the Meat Is Murder album enter the UK chart at #1. The album did not fare so well in the red meat-loving USA where the album peaked at #110.
The Smiths opened 1986 in a position of stalemate. Unable to record new material, they were doubly frustrated by the postponement of their new album which Rough Trade was keeping on ice until a legal dispute was settled.
Bassist Andy Rourke was briefly ousted from the band due to his flirtation with heroin. He was soon reinstated along with a second guitarist, Craig Gannon, who had previously played with Aztec Camera, The Bluebells and Colourfield. Gannon was eventually fired, prompting legal action against the group.
In June 1986, The Queen Is Dead was released and won immediate critical acclaim as a superb display of Morrissey/Marr at their finest. A stadium tour of the US followed, during which time the group enjoyed a Top 20 hit in the UK with Panic.
After telling the NME “whoever says that The Smiths have split shall be severely spanked by me with a wet plimsoll” after reports of battles with Johnny Marr, Morrissey announced in 1987 that the band had indeed split up.
The singer signed a solo deal with EMI while Marr hooked up with The Pretenders. The Smiths’ final studio album, Strangeways Here We Come – released posthumously – went to #2 in the UK.
The band ended up in court in the 90s, with former drummer Mike Joyce suing for lost earnings.
Morrissey was described by a UK judge in December 1996 as “devious, truculent and unreliable” and ordered to pay a £1 million share of profits to Joyce. Morrissey commented later, “I wish the very very worst for Joyce for the rest of his life”.
Johnny Marr (John Maher)