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The Smiths

Biography

The Smiths
Paul Cox/courtesy Of Sire Records

The Smiths became one of the most influential bands of all time by mixing the lush guitar matrices of Johnny Marr with the swooning vocals of Morrissey – a sexually ambiguous poet whose cranky yet delicate singing made most other British frontmen of the Eighties seem utterly normal (and boring). Morrissey often appeared in public wearing hearing aid, carried a pocketful of gladioli while performing, and was a magnet for controversy, whether advocating animal rights or trashing the charity supergroup Band-Aid, which he called "diabolical" (he also called the group's album "tuneless" and their leader Bob Geldof "a nauseating character").

None of that would have mattered had the Smiths' meticulous and romantic pop songs not been so strong. But the band provided a guitar-based alternative to the synth-pop sounds of so many other Eighties UK bands, paving the way for the Nineties Brit-pop explosion, and the Smiths' distinct LPs are still studied by millions of sensitive types all over the world.

Born in Manchester and the son of a hospital porter and a librarian, Morrissey first expressed himself by writing; unemployed in the late Seventies, he wrote a book on James Dean and another on the New York Dolls, whose English fan club he headed. He also played briefly in a band called the Nosebleeds. Veteran of such cult groups as Sister Ray and Freaky Party, Marr first met Morrissey at a 1979 Patti Smith concert, and by 1982 they decided to form a band. The pair eventually enlisted drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke for an eponymous debut that, on U.K. indie label Rough Trade (on Sire in the U.S.), entered the British chart at Number Two. An earlier single, "Hand in Glove," was then recorded with Morrissey's favorite female singer, Sixties British pop idol Sandie Shaw, and scored Number 27 in the U.K. This coup, along with The Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (Number 10 U.K., 1984), established the band.

The meteoric rise continued with Meat Is Murder debuting at Number One on the British chart; the group also caused a stir with Morrissey's stage presence, the singer wearing a garland of gladioli in tribute to Oscar Wilde, a hearing aid in homage to Fifties balladeer Johnnie Ray, and a ducktail haircut patterned after English rocker Billy Fury. Some critics sniped that the group's lyrics referred to child molesting, and Morrissey offended others with sharp comments about the all-star Band Aid benefit single for Ethiopian famine relief. His champions, though, hailed his oblique, angst-driven songs as latter-day examples of Ray Davies-styled social commentary.

With ex-Aztec Camera guitarist Craig Gannon added, 1986's The Queen Is Dead (Number Two U.K.) fared handsomely, but a disappointing U.S. tour showed that the Smiths had yet to penetrate the American mainstream. Later that year Johnny Marr was involved in a serious car accident; during his recovery, Gannon was fired. A single, "Sheila Take a Bow," became a Top 10 U.K. hit in mid-1987, but later that year, with Marr deeming their musical approach exhausted, the Smiths disbanded. Strangeways, Here We Come and the live Rank were released posthumously.

Despite his prolific output — Viva Hate, Bona Drag, Kill Uncle, Your Arsenal, and Vauxhall and I — Morrissey's solo career hasn't quite matched his success with the Smiths, although the singer has attracted a rabid following in the U.S. He released 1995's Southpaw Grammar (Number 66) and 1997's Maladjusted (Number 61) to an ambivalent critical response. (My Early Burglary Years was a collection of B sides and rarities.) But a tour in 2000 enjoyed sell-out crowds without a new album or even a record deal.

In 2004, Morrissey released You Are the Quarry (Number 11), his first solo album in seven years and highest-charting ever, then embarked on a triumphant tour. Well-received albums followed in 2006 and 2009.

Besides playing sessions with Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, the Pet Shop Boys, and Billy Bragg, Marr served for a while with the Pretenders, The The, and Electronic without ever finding a permanent venue. Marr's low profile led to a reputation as British rock's most talented underachiever. But he reemerged in 2000 for the first time at the front of his own band, the Healers, which included former Dub Pistol keyboardist Lee Spender, bassist Alonza Bevan from Kula Shaker, and drummer Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr).

Later in the decade Marr continued to act as a guitar mercenary, joining Modest Mouse in 2006. He toured with the band and performed on their Number One album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007). In 2008 Marr joined the English band The Cribs and played on their 2009 album, Ignore the Ignorant.

Rourke and Joyce played with the Adult Net before backing up Sinead O'Connor; Joyce eventually joined the reformed Buzzcocks. In 1996 they both sued Marr and Morrissey, complaining over the unequal sharing of Smiths earnings; Rourke settled out of court, but in 1998 Joyce won his case, with a British judge calling Morrissey "devious, truculent, and unreliable." A reunion is not expected.

from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)

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