The Smiths were a British rock/pop group active from 1982 to 1987. The group was based on the songwriting partnership of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, and were signed to the independent record label Rough Trade Records. The group sold many albums in the UK (although only two singles made the UK top ten), and as they were one of the most successful alternative rock bands to emerge from the British indie scene in the 1980s, they have had a major influence on subsequent "indie" music, including the Britpop movement and bands such as The Stone Roses, Gene, Radiohead, Blur, Suede, Oasis, The Libertines, Doves and many more. At the time, the group was notable in particular for two things: Morrissey's witty, controversial and unusual lyrics, and Marr's music, which helped return guitar-based music to popularity after it fell out of favour in the UK charts. The group released a total of four studio albums and several compilations in less than five years, as well as numerous singles.
Although not commercially successful outside the UK while they were still together, the Smiths won a growing following both at home and overseas in the closing years of the twentieth century.
The group was formed in early 1982 by two Manchester residents. Morrissey (Steven Patrick Morrissey, though he does not use his forenames) was an unemployed writer who had formed the UK New York Dolls fan club and briefly fronted punk band The Nosebleeds. Johnny Marr (originally John Maher, he changed his name to avoid confusion with the Buzzcocks drummer) was already a very skillful guitarist with a talent for songwriting, and he provided the music for Morrissey's lyrics throughout the group's career. Mike Joyce was recruited as drummer after a short audition. Dale Hibbert initially played bass, and provided demo recording facilities at the studio where he worked as a sound engineer. However, after two gigs, Marr's friend Andy Rourke replaced Hibbert. Marr and Rourke had previously worked together in The Paris Valentinos along with Kevin Kennedy, who later became a household name in Britain as Curly Watts in Coronation Street.
The origin of the band's name is unknown - they stated that it was a reaction against names they considered fancy and pompous such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Depeche Mode. The name may also be a homage to Patti Smith, one of Morrissey's idols, or Myra Hindley's brother-in-law David Smith, who informed on the Moors Murderers. Another theory to the origin of the band's name suggests that it was an ironic joke to give the band a quintessentially English name "The Smiths" when all of the band members were of Irish descent - Morrissey, Marr (Maher), Rourke and Joyce. Somewhat contrarily, in a 1984 interview Morrissey stated "I decided (to call ourselves "The Smiths") because it was the most ordinary name, and I think it's time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces."
The Smiths performing "Shoplifters of the World Unite" on Top of the Pops in 1987. Signing to indie label Rough Trade Records, they released their first single "Hand in Glove" on 13 May 1983. The record, like all of their later singles, was championed by DJ John Peel, but failed to chart. The follow-ups "This Charming Man" and "What Difference Does It Make?" fared better, and aided by much praise from the music press and a series of studio sessions for Peel and David Jensen at BBC Radio 1, The Smiths began to acquire a dedicated following (and in the case of Morrissey it continues to be a cult following). Morrissey's lyrics, superficially depressing, were often full of mordant humour ("one of the few bands capable of making me laugh out loud", said Peel) and his lovelorn tales of alienation found an audience amongst a disaffected section of youth culture, bored by the ubiquitous synthesizer bands that dominated the charts. Morrissey wrote about ordinary things, social statements of life, and everything from despair, rejection, and death, to vegetarianism and the English music scene. The group had a very distinctive visual style - album and single covers were colourful images of film and pop stars, usually in duotone, designed by Morrissey and Rough Trade art coordinator Jo Slee. Single covers rarely featured any text other than the band name, and the band themselves did not appear on the outer cover of any release. The "cover stars" were an indication of Morrissey's interests - obscure or cult film stars (Jean Marais, Joe Dallesandro, Terence Stamp, James Dean), figures from sixties British culture (Viv Nicholson, Pat Phoenix, Yootha Joyce, Shelagh Delaney), or pictures of unknown models taken from old film or magazine photos. In contrast to the 1980s obsession with exotic fashion, typified by new romantic artists such as Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran and magazines such as The Face or i-D, the group dressed in ordinary clothes - jeans and plain shirts - which reflected the "back to basics" style of the music. Morrissey occasionally affected props such as a (fake) hearing aid, thick-rimmed NHS-style glasses, and most famously bunches of flowers (often stuffed casually into the back of his trousers).
The sleeve of The Smiths' debut album, featuring Joe Dallesandro in Paul Morrissey's 1968 film, Flesh.By February 1984 their fanbase was sufficiently large to launch the band's long-awaited, self-titled debut album to number two in the UK chart. Despite its strong chart performance, The Smiths lacked some of the pop energy of the earlier singles, and suffered from being a little one-paced. Its mood was also unremittingly bleak, exemplified by such track titles as "Still Ill" and "Suffer Little Children"; the latter referring to the Moors Murders that had stunned not just Manchester but the whole of Britain in the 1960s.
Also evident were Morrissey's studied references to literature and popular culture icons. His frequent acknowledgement of his many idols (Alain Delon, James Dean and Oscar Wilde particularly) in interviews, along with some more subtle reference (the song-title "Pretty Girls Make Graves", for example, is taken from Jack Kerouac) encouraged a literary bent amongst fans, who already had a tendency towards bookishness. Both "Reel Around the Fountain" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" met with controversy, supposedly being suggestive of pedophilia. In addition, "Suffer Little Children" caused an uproar after a grandfather of one of the children murdered heard it on a pub jukebox. In spite of the uproar, the song is in fact entirely sympathetic to the children's plight and led to Morrissey establishing a friendship with Ann West, the mother of victim Lesley Ann Downey, who is mentioned by name in the song.
Shortly after the release of the album, Morrissey idol Sandie Shaw recorded "Hand in Glove" and another couple of Morrissey/Marr songs, backed by Marr, Rourke and Joyce. The hit single resulted in the band performing barefoot on the Top of the Pops show.
1984 also saw the release of a couple of singles which weren't taken from the album: "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (the band's first top ten hit), and "William, It Was Really Nothing" (popularly believed to have been written by Morrissey about his friend Billy Mackenzie, lead singer of The Associates and which featured one of the Smiths' most well-known songs, "How Soon Is Now?" as a B-side). The year ended with the compilation album Hatful of Hollow. This collected singles, B-sides, and the versions of songs which had been recorded throughout the previous year for the Peel and Jensen shows. The radio session versions were felt by many (including the band) to be superior to those released on singles and the debut album.