In the Britain of 1982, any connection between pop music and reality was purely coincidental. The New Romantics had seen to it that flamboyant escapism was the order of the day. The aloof, overdressed likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were role models in a society that treated the impoverished with undisguised contempt. With Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, the British social climate of the time demanded that if you weren't a glamorous, wealthy success, you should at least behave as though you aspired to join the moneyed elite.
But what if you were a young music fan unhappy with such a cold, merciless climate? What if, in fact, you were miserable now?
Well, then you were likely to turn to The Smiths.
This Charming Man
The group grew out of a collaboration between two friends from the city of Manchester in north-west England. Steven Patrick Morrissey was an intense, obsessive music fan and film buff who ran the UK fan club for the American glam/punk band The New York Dolls. He also wrote a book about the Dolls, as well as one about the legendary film actor James Dean.
He had made a brief and unsuccessful venture into pop performing with punk band Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds, and had continued to write lyrics after parting company with them. When he showed his latest songwords to his friend John Maher, the aspiring guitarist and composer was impressed enough to set about setting them to music. Recruiting bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, they formed a band and then gave it the plainest, most unpretentious name they could think of: The Smiths1.
Meanwhile, Morrissey and Maher both decided to amend their own names for public consumption. Morrissey chose to be known simply by his surname, and Maher became Johnny Marr to avoid confusion with the John Maher who played drums in the popular Manchester punk band Buzzcocks2.
What Difference Does it Make?
The Smiths' music was rock of a kind; it was, after all, played in a very traditional way, with guitar and bass and drums. But it certainly wasn't rawk. It had none of the pomposity and machismo that characterises much mainstream rock to this day. Marr's guitar style was light and melodic; The Smiths' music never attempted to bludgeon the listener into submission, although their lyrics were often hard-hitting. The Smiths recorded for the London-based independent label Rough Trade for most of their career, and their style made them one of the definitive indie bands.
Morrissey behaved as if he was determined to break every rule of rock star behaviour. From Elvis Presley onwards, it had been the norm for male rock stars to attempt to project aggressive, confident heterosexuality. Morrissey wore unflattering glasses and a conspicuous hearing aid, brandished bunches of flowers on stage, and claimed to be celibate. His lyrics were often confessions of inadequacy or desperate cries of loneliness. The Smiths seemed like a four-man Losers' Liberation Front. Thousands loved them for it, and turned them into chart winners.
Bigmouth Strikes Again
The Smiths' first single, 'Hand In Glove', appeared in the spring of 1983. Although it failed to chart, it established the band as cult favourites. Before the year was out, Morrissey was flaunting his flowers on national UK television as The Smiths' second single, 'This Charming Man', made it into the UK Top 30. Its sexually ambiguous lyric troubled some radio programmers, and The Smiths would remain controversial throughout their brief but brilliant career.
Their eponymous debut album reached number two in Britain's national chart in 1984, despite further protests prompted by the song 'Suffer Little Children', whose lyrics dealt with the series of child murders perpetrated near Manchester in the mid-Sixties by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. 1984 also saw the release of the similarly successful 'Hatful Of Hollow', a compilation of tracks The Smiths had recorded for radio sessions, and single B-sides. Meanwhile, the band became regular visitors to the UK's singles chart, with 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' taking them into the Top 10.
In 1985 The Smiths unleashed what would remain their darkest work: the bitter, uncompromising Meat Is Murder. The album was full of songs about violence, from domestic brutality in 'Barbarism Begins At Home' to the slaughter of animals for food in the title track. The album topped the UK chart despite minimal radio exposure.
The Smiths were now a massive phenomenon in British pop - but behind the scenes there were problems. Bassist Rourke succumbed to traditional rock'n'roll lifestyle problems, and was briefly replaced by Craig Gannon3.
As far as possible, Morrissey and Marr handled the group's business affairs themselves rather than employ managers, a policy that protected their creative freedom but added to the pressure the pair were under4. Plans for The Smiths' next album were further disrupted when Marr was badly injured in a car crash.
But when the album appeared in 1986, it was hailed as a classic of alternative rock. It showcased all The Smiths' strengths: Marr's marvelous melodies, Morrissey's eloquence and the band's versatility. Its title, The Queen Is Dead, ensured further outraged tabloid headlines. The title track was a damning assessment of the state of the British nation, featuring an imaginary conversation between Morrissey and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II5.
The album's mood ranged from despondency ('I Know It's Over') to knockabout comedy ('Frankly Mr Shankly'). Where Meat Is Murder was sullen and bitter, The Queen Is Dead was often beautiful. There can be few more genuinely romantic songs anywhere in pop than the gorgeous 'There Is a Light that Never Goes Out'.
The Queen Is Dead is widely regarded as The Smiths' masterpiece, and it usually gets a prominent mention when British music magazines ask their writers or readers to select the best albums ever made.
Throughout 1986 and early 1987, The Smiths released a succession of outstanding singles, notably 'Panic', a vicious attack on dance culture that ended with Morrissey repeatedly urging 'hang the DJ', and the provocatively-titled 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite'. The Smiths began to gain attention in America, despite Morrissey's refusal to engage in the kind of heavy touring schedule traditionally endured by British bands seeking Stateside success. A new album, Strangeways Here We Come6 was recorded, but by the time it was released in 1987, The Smiths had disbanded.
I Know It's Over
The tensions within the disintegrating band seemed to take their toll on Strangeways Here We Come, an intermittently inspired but patchy album on which The Smiths sometimes seemed to slip into self-parody. Strangeways does, however, contain some fine moments; it begins and ends strongly, lurching into action with the rousing 'A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours' and ending with the delicate and gorgeous 'I Won't Share You'.
The best moment in between comes, perhaps significantly, with a song that savagely satirises the music industry: 'Paint A Vulgar Picture'.
It was Marr who quit and prompted the split, claiming that the stresses of The Smiths' situation were threatening his sanity. Musical difference were also a factor. Marr didn't share Morrissey's deep aversion to dance music and electronica. Indeed, Marr's next long-term musical project - a collaboration with New Order's Bernard Sumner - was actually called Electronic. Marr now leads his own band, Johnny Marr's Healers.
Morrissey, meanwhile, launched a solo career that for a time made him more successful than The Smiths had been. He gradually faded from prominence during the Nineties, but both he and The Smiths retain a fanatical cult following.
The number of Internet sites dedicated to Morrissey and The Smiths reflect the extraordinary, enduring power of Morrissey's words and the skill and inventiveness of the band.
The Smiths made a brave stand against the blandness and conformity that surrounded them. It's now well over a decade since they split, but to many they remain heroes.