The Smiths Were The Idols of Indie
If the Cure became the perennial high priests of Goth then the Smiths were the idols of indie. Singer Morrissey who openly talked of being celibate in a very sexual age wrote extremely literate often controversial, lyrics, and raised being miserable to an art form.
They were part of the move back to guitar-driven music after the keyboard washes of the New Romantics, and Morrissey, with guitarist Johnny Marr, had a knack for encapsulating everything in catchy, but often adventurous, three-to-four minute pop songs. Their career was relatively brief, recording for just four years, but their popularity, and even more importantly, their influence, hasn’t diminished since their breakup in the late 1980s; if anything, it’s grown, and the cult of the Smiths – especially that of Morrissey, who continues to write and record as a solo artist – remains powerful.
The Early YearsMorrissey and Marr met in1982, finding an immediate mutual love of music and desire to create something new. Once they formed the band with its prosaic name, they quickly found fans both in their hometown of Manchester and in London, but, thanks largely to Morrissey’s stance, were determined to remain independent, refusing to sign with a major label. Their first single, Hand In Glove, was the result of a one-off deal with Rough Trade, an independent label. It established them in the indie charts, and created a strong buzz about the group, which was confirmed when their self-titled first album, went all the way to number two in the mainstream pop charts.
They’d quickly established a new standard for pop music, and become one of Britain’s leading groups, adored both by the pop fans and serious music writers. But for a young band they took the extraordinary step of releasing a collection of singles and rare tracks as their second LP – which charted, of course. Part of Morrissey’s ethic was design, and releases by the Smiths always boasted very distinctive sleeves, often featuring 60s actors or singers, a reflection of the vocalist’s seeming obsession with the period and its iconic (and even minor) figures.
The Height of SuccessThe divisive Meat is Murder, with its pro-vegetarian stance (very advanced for 1985), proved as popular as its predecessors, and The Queen is Dead, a year later, turned out to be the band’s commercial high point, and the record that first broke them in America, where college radio took to them avidly.
Yet the relationship between Morrissey and Marr, though productive, was often tense. After yet another compilation of rare work, The World Won’t Listen, it became even more strained during sessions for the group’s fourth studio album, 1987’s Strangeways Here We Come, an album which offered more of what they’d trademarked as their sound, with Marr’s guitar work and Morrissey’s vocals very much front and centre.
Where Morrissey seemed content to mine his own world for material and stick within the parameters he’d established, Marr was working outside the band and was eager to explore more. It all reached a head just before the album appeared.
AftermathMarr quit the group, and since there was no real way to replace him as one of the main creative forces, Morrissey disbanded the Smiths, embarking on a solo career that’s had its up and downs, both creatively and commercially. Marr went on to work with others, but only during the brief-lived Electronic did he enjoy any more commercial success.
The Smiths effectively created a temple for so many of the indie bands that arrived in their wake. The mix of layered guitars with angst-ridden vocals remains a powerful musical force today, not only in the U.K., but also in America, where the Smiths found themselves a strong cult following, and they remain one of the musical high points of the 1980s.