Music

History Lesson: The Smiths

The Smiths are one of Manchester’s greatest exports and one of British music’s most important bands. Powered by Morrissey’s thoughtful storytelling and often dour lyrics and Johnny Marr’s iconic guitar riffs, their music acts as a blueprint for modern indie music.

Despite the band only being together for five years, between 1982 and 1987, The Smiths left a huge impression on music and continue to influence artists as varied as The xx, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, The Killers and Radiohead.

In this article, we’ll explore The Smiths, how they met, where they got their name from and the reasons why they split up…

Where are The Smiths from?

The Smiths were formed in Manchester in 1982, when Johnny Marr walked to Morrissey’s house with a mutual friend and asked him if he wanted to start a band. Marr and Morrissey immediately hit it off, bonding over a mutual love of literature and poetry.

In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Marr explained his relationship with Morrissey as: “He was looking for someone like me and I was looking for someone like him. And we liked each other straight away. We really liked each other.”1

After holding auditions for drummers and following the departure of their original bass player, Dale Hibbert, in late 1982, The Smiths’ most famous line-up – Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce – came together.

Incidentally, the band took their name from the fact that Smith is the most ordinary name they could think of.

The history of The Smiths

After spending the rest of 1982 recording demos and sending tapes to record companies (neither Factory Records nor EMI were interested in signing The Smiths), Rough Trade Records agreed to release ‘Hand in Glove’ as a single. The single performed well, but Rough Trade did not sign The Smiths to a deal immediately, instead waiting until the band had received more exposure and performed more gigs.

In early 1984, The Smiths released their self-titled debut album, which peaked at #2 in the album charts. The band also released ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, which was the band’s first top 10 single.

Second album: Meat is Murder

It‘s often said that the devil will find work for idle hands to do, but The Smiths were not keen on testing this idiom out, as they quickly released their second album, ‘Meat is Murder’, in early 1985.

Meat is Murder reached number one in the charts and is considered one of the best follow-up albums of all time.2

Third album: The Queen is Dead

The band’s incredible work rate continued with their third album, ‘The Queen is Dead’, being released in June of 1986. The album’s release was delayed due to problems with their record label, Rough Trade, but still performed strongly – reaching number 2 in the charts.

It’s rumoured that ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’, the second song on The Queen is Dead, was written about Rough Trade’s founder, Geoff Travis. The song’s lyrics detail someone quitting their job and are said to reference a poem that Travis wrote for Morrissey (“I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly”).

Fifth album: Strangeways, Here We Come

As the famous idiom goes, ‘the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long’, which may have been true in the case of The Smiths. The band released their fifth album, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, in as many years, and the cracks had started to show…

Johnny Marr was exhausted from managing the band and writing and producing most of the songs, and needed a break. In fact, when the album was released, the band were no longer together.

Why did The Smiths break up?

After wanting time away from The Smiths, Marr is credited as ending the band. However, exhaustion was not the only factor in the decision. Marr was said to be fed up with Morrissey wanting to cover 1960s pop songs, and Morrissey was unhappy with Marr working with other artists.

When Marr started Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner, Morrissey commented: “He’s replaced me. I’m not sure what with.”4

Marr is much more pragmatic about the split, but exhaustion did come into play; tired of managing the band, Marr said his position became untenable:

“We were deemed unmanageable. When we fired managers, I always had to deal with it. When we got to the end of the band’s life, it was put to me by my partner [Morrissey] that he wouldn’t work with the current manager, and we had to go back to how it was. I wasn’t prepared to do it, and so it became untenable. There was no way forward.”5

After splitting, the band’s relationship became even more strained, with Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke taking Morrissey and Marr court to claim back royalties they felt were owed to them.6

Get the look

As well as their iconic music, The Smiths are also famous for their fashion choices. The band’s first performance on Top of the Pops in 1983 will go down as one of the show’s most iconic, with Morrissey famously swinging a bunch of flowers while wearing pearls.7

The band’s look consisted of ‘ordinary’ outfits – and in a sea of over-the-top popstars like Adam Ant, The Culture Club and The Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths were the perfect tonic, often wearing oversized Oxford shirts and knitwear staples, like jumpers and cardigans paired with understated jackets and jeans.

If you’re just as inspired by what The Smiths wore as what they played, we recommend trying out some of the wardrobe staples below to complete your outfits.


1 Johnny Marr: ‘The conversation about re-forming the Smiths came out of the blue’: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/29/johnny-marr-the-smiths-morrissey-simon-hattenstone

2 Radio X – The best follow-up albums of all time: https://www.radiox.co.uk/features/x-lists/best-second-albums/

3 The Smiths – Frankly, Mr. Shankly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMv9DUx8-ig

4 Johnny Marr on the Smiths, Morrissey and putting politics back in pop: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jan/11/johnny-marr-smiths-morrissey-politics-pop

5 Johnny Marr: ‘The conversation about re-forming the Smiths came out of the blue’: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/29/johnny-marr-the-smiths-morrissey-simon-hattenstonehttps://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/29/johnny-marr-the-smiths-morrissey-simon-hattenstone

6 What actually went down during The Smiths’ lawsuit: https://faroutmagazine.co.uk/the-smiths-breakup-lawsuit-marr-morrissey-rourke/

7 The Smiths – This Charming Man (Live on Top of the Pops ‘83): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2s9ke-pKWw



Lyle & Scott

Lyle & Scott

Writer and expert