Without the help of a major label, a video or any real promotion, the Smiths' 1984 debut entered the U.K. charts at Number Two and became an alternative-radio favorite in the U.S. "We were incredibly sure of ourselves at the time," says guitarist Johnny Marr of himself and singer-lyricist Morrissey.
The band's single "This Charming Man" filled a gap on the radio. "Up until then, either you were a chart group with no substance or you were kind of an indie group who nobody ever got to hear," says Marr. "'This Charming Man' found a happy compromise. It brought a real commercial kind of sound together with interesting lyrics and a good groove concept."
Morrissey, the brooding lead singer, wrote provocative, literate lyrics to accompany Marr's haunting melodies.
"I went specifically to Morrissey's house because I knew he was a singer and a great writer, and I was desperate to pull a group together," says Marr. "I'd had enough of a bland music scene in England, and I felt like the time was absolutely right for us. On the face of it, it wasn't the most original thing to just get a four-piece band — guitar, bass, drums and a voice — but at the time, there was a move in England towards synthesizer music and duos. And lyrically, no one was dealing with the things that Morrissey was."
The first two songs the pair wrote together (before bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce joined the band) were the melancholic "Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and the bittersweet "Suffer Little Children."
"We just kind of built from there," says Marr. "I'd put all of the stuff on cassette and give it to Morrissey. We wrote so quickly that it didn't take us long to write the entire first LP — four weeks from start to finish. And that kind of kept that intensity up. We had a really close relationship that was really difficult for most people to penetrate."
Although the album was eventually recorded at Manchester's Pluto recording studio, the Smiths originally tried to cut it in London. "We recorded a whole load of tracks in London and it just didn't feel right," says Marr.
The band hooked up with producer John Porter during a Radio One session for the BBC. "We were actually waiting to be produced by somebody else, and John just happened to wander through the studio when we were setting up our equipment. We realized he was ex-Roxy Music and so on, and within about ten minutes of talking to him, we decided to sack the other producer. For me, as a guitarist, it was one of the best things that ever happened. I was starting to develop my style, and he saw something in my playing that he really felt he could work on."
Things were a little more strained between Marr and Morrissey. "There were one or two fights," Marr admits. "We had a very intense relationship. It wasn't exactly a laugh a minute." While the creative friction between Marr and Morrissey propelled them through future albums, that same intensity led to the band's eventual dissolution in 1987.