Smiths, the

▪ British rock group

      one of the most popular and critically acclaimed English bands of the 1980s. The original members were lead singer Morrissey (original name Steven Patrick Morrissey; b. May 22, 1959, Manchester, Eng.), guitarist Johnny Marr (original name John Maher; b. Oct. 31, 1963, Manchester), bassist Andy Rourke (b. 1963, Manchester), and drummer Mike Joyce (b. June 1, 1963).

      Prime exponents of British alternative rock, the Smiths were based around the unlikely partnership of singer-lyricist Morrissey (a reclusive bookworm inspired as much by Oscar Wilde (Wilde, Oscar) as by his glam-rock (glam rock) heroes the New York Dolls (New York Dolls, the)) and budding guitar hero Marr. With drummer Joyce and bassist Rourke completing the lineup, the band burst on the Manchester scene and quickly won a cult following with sessions recorded for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (British Broadcasting Corporation) radio, live shows, and the plangent folk-punk of their debut single, “Hand in Glove.” Signed to the prominent independent label Rough Trade, the Smiths scored several U.K. hits, notably “This Charming Man” and “What Difference Does It Make?” Morrissey's flamboyant stage presence, forlorn croon, and compellingly conflicted persona (loudly proclaimed celibacy offset by coy hints of closeted homosexuality) made him a peculiar heartthrob, and songs such as “Still Ill” sealed his role as spokesman for disaffected youth. But Morrissey's “woe-is-me” posture inspired some hostile critics to dismiss the Smiths as “miserabilists.”

      After their brilliant eponymous debut and the sparkling radio-session collection Hatful of Hollow (both released in 1984), the Smiths released Meat Is Murder (1985), an uneven album ranging from the ponderous title track's vegan rage to the poignant “Well I Wonder.” The group's marked shift from the personal to the political, combined with Morrissey's carefully fashioned outsider image, made the Smiths into champions for those alienated by Tory materialism and disgusted by its pop music reflection (glossy, lyrically inane funk and soul (soul music)). The Smiths' non-rhythm-and-blues (rhythm and blues), whiter-than-white fusion of 1960s rock and postpunk was a repudiation of contemporary dance pop, a stance emblazoned in the hit single “Panic,” with its controversial chorus, “Burn down the disco / Hang the blessed DJ.” After 1986's The Queen Is Dead, their most perfect balance of private angst and public anger, the Smiths—frustrated at the failure of their singles to hit the Top Ten—abandoned Rough Trade for the marketing muscle of the major label EMI (in the United States they remained with Sire Records). Shortly before the release of their last album for Rough Trade, Strangeways, Here We Come (1987), the group broke up unexpectedly.

      Morrissey's solo career started promisingly with 1988's Viva Hate (on which guitar virtuoso Vini Reilly proved a capable Marr surrogate); however, on subsequent singles and Kill Uncle (1991), Morrissey, backed by an undistinguished rockabilly band, dwindled into tuneless self-parody. His muse rallied with the glam-rock-influenced Your Arsenal (1992) and the delicate Vauxhall and I (1994). These albums, and the less impressive Southpaw Grammar (1995) and Maladjusted (1997), testified to a growing homoerotic obsession with criminals, skinheads, and boxers, a change paralleled by a shift in the singer's image from wilting wallflower to would-be thug sporting sideburns and gold bracelets. A seven-year hiatus followed, and fans and critics warmly greeted the politics and pathos of You Are the Quarry (2004) and the solid craftsmanship of Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006). Despite Morrissey's aesthetic fluctuations in the decades following the demise of the Smiths, the cult of this true pop original endured.

Simon C.W. Reynolds
      Marr's post-Smiths career was equally productive, even if it lacked the theatricality of Morrissey's. Drawn once again to a charismatic vocalist with a penchant for dark lyrics, Marr joined Matt Johnson in The The, where his signature sound drove two of that band's most successful albums—Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1991). Marr teamed with Bernard Sumner of New Order (Joy Division/New Order) in the supergroup Electronic. Although Marr and Sumner had initially conceived their partnership to be temporary, the success of the 1989 single "Getting Away with It" inspired the pair to record three well-received dance albums. More than a decade after the demise of the Smiths, Marr formed his own group, the Healers. Distribution issues plagued the band's debut effort, however, and three years passed before it hit stores as Boomslang (2003). In 2007 Marr joined alternative rock act Modest Mouse on the group's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.


Representative Works

The Smiths
The Smiths (1984)
Hatful of Hollow (1984)
The Queen Is Dead (1986)

Viva Hate (1988)
Vauxhall and I (1994)

Additional Reading
Nick Kent, “Morrissey, the Majesty of Melancholia, and the Light that Never Goes Out in Smiths-dom,” in his The Dark Stuff (1994), pp. 202–211, examines Morrissey's unhappy childhood and persecuted adolescence in Manchester, the seedbed for the singer's pursuit of fame as a type of revenge. The essay by Simon Reynolds, “Morrissey,” in his Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock (1990), pp.15–29, is based on an interview and defends the singer's glamorization of failure, neurasthenia, and unrequited love as a rebellion against the 1980s culture of health and efficiency and compulsory happiness. Jon Savage, “Morrissey: The Escape Artist,” in his Time Travel: Pop, Media, and Sexuality, 1976–96 (1996), pp. 257–264, compares Morrissey to the hero of Billy Liar, the 1960s novel and film about a doomed dreamer who never leaves his northern England hometown, and analyzes the singer's love-hate relationship with Manchester and his increasing isolation from contemporary pop culture on the eve of the 1990s. Michael Bracewell, England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie (1997), celebrates Morrissey, often criticized for his parochial nostalgia for a lost 1960s Britain, as the last of a dying breed of quintessentially English pop aesthetes.

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Universalium. 2010.

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