With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said: 'Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing.'
I said: 'That's nothing - you should hear me play piano.'"
The Smiths were a Manchester-based alternative rock band that formed in 1982 and broke up in 1987. Based on the songwriting partnership of Morrissey (vocals) and Johnny Marr (guitar), the band also included Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums). Their sound was largely defined by the combination of Morrissey's witty, Deadpan Snarker lyrics and campy, melodramatic vocals with Marr's jangly, catchy pop-rock melodies (drawing a lot from The Beatles, Power Pop and Classic Rock) and the steady support of the Rourke-Joyce rhythm section. However, they branched out beyond pop-rock and experimented toward the end of their career.
Widely regarded as one of the most important bands to emerge from the British indie music scene of The '80s, the Smiths had a major influence on other artists, including Radiohead, The Stone Roses, and Suede. The band's influence on British alternative and indie rock is often compared to the influence that R.E.M. had on those genres in the United States.
Following the band's breakup, Morrissey went on to have a successful solo career. Marr formed Electronic with Joy Division/New Order guitarist Bernard Sumner, and also formed the short-lived Johnny Marr & the Healers. He also played with cult alternative rockers The The, contributed to Talking Heads' final studio album Naked, and has done session work for too many artists to list. He was a member of the American indie rock band Modest Mouse from 2005 to 2008. After leaving Modest Mouse, he was a member of the British indie band The Cribs from 2008 to 2011, before setting off on a solo career of his own. Rourke, meanwhile, became a session musician and later formed the supergroups Freebass (with Joy Division/New Order's Peter Hook and The Stone Roses' Mani) and Blitz Vega (with Happy Mondays' Kav Sandhu) before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2023.
- The Smiths (1984)
- Meat Is Murder (1985)
- The Queen Is Dead (1986)
- Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
Their numerous non-album singles and b-sides are collected on:
- Hatful of Hollow (1984)
- The World Won't Listen (1987)
- and its far more famous American equivalent Louder Than Bombs, issued the same year.
"I would go out tonight, but I haven't got a trope to wear...":
- '50s Hair: Morrissey's trademark pompadour.
- All Boys Want Bad Boys: It became slowly more evident in Morrissey's lyrics, reaching its culmination in his solo work. Stand-out examples include "Sweet and Tender Hooligan" and "I Want The One I Can't Have".He killed a policeman when he was thirteen
And somehow that really impressed me
- Alliterative Title: "Death of a Disco Dancer", "Meat Is Murder", "Rubber Ring", "Rushholme Ruffians", "Shakespeare's Sister", "These Things Take Time",note "Well I Wonder", "What's the World", "Wonderful Woman".
- All of the Other Reindeer: Alongside The Fall, The Smiths are one of the few Manchester-based bands of their era not to have signed with Factory Records.
- Amusing Injuries: The narrator of "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" injures himself on the crossbar of his bicycle, apparently breaking his spleen and knee.
- Author Appeal: "This Charming Man" and "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" both mention leather car seats, which Morrissey admitted to finding "erotic." And then there's his interest in ruffians and criminals, which became even more pronounced in his solo work."
- Black Comedy: Present in a lot of their songs, as a counterbalance to the more depressing lyrics.
- "Unhappy Birthday" is a prime example, with morbid lyrics made funny by their matter-of fact delivery and anticlimactic nature (the narrator shoots himself toward the end of the song, but it keeps going).
- "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" managed to be both quite sad and quite funny at the same time.
- Boarding School of Horrors: "The Headmaster Ritual", written about the horrors of the British Education System as corporal punishment was still legal at the time. The song was released in 1985, and corporal punishment was banned in state schools and state-funded private schools in 1987, and then for all other private schools in 1999 (England and Wales), 2000 (Scotland) and 2003 (Northern Ireland).
- Closet Key: "This Charming Man" is about a man's bicycle getting a flat tire, and he's picked up by a passing, charming rich man. They proceed to flirt during the ride, though the protagonist is still hesitant about it.
- Cool Shades: One of Johnny Marr's favorite fashion accessories.
- Coolest Club Ever: Subverted by "How Soon Is Now?" The singer is told "there's a club if you'd like to go / You could meet somebody who really loves you ..." But what actually happens is:So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry and you want to die
- Cover Version: "Work Is a Four-Letter Word" by Cilla Black and "Golden Lights" by Twinkle are infamous for incensing Johnny Marr to the point that he left the band, leading to their breakup.Johnny: I wrote "I Keep Mine Hidden", which I liked, but "Work Is a Four-Letter Word" I hated. That was the last straw, really. I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.
- Credits Gag: According to the liner notes to The Queen Is Dead, the backing vocals to "Bigmouth Strikes Again" are performed by Ann Coates... In reality, those vocals were Morrissey's own voice sped up, and "Ann Coates" is a pun on Ancoats, a district of Manchester.
- Dead Artists Are Better: "Paint A Vulgar Picture" is about this, and how it's exploited.
- Deadpan Snarker: Morrissey.
- Drowning My Sorrows: "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"Oh, so I drank one
It became four
And when I fell on the floor
...I drank more
- Dumbass DJ: "Panic" was inspired by Steve Wright at the BBC, who played Wham!'s "I'm Your Man" after announcing the Chernobyl disaster.
- The '80s: The band were active throughout the decade and are generally viewed as Britain's archetypal '80s Alternative Rock act.
- Easter Egg: The band had a habit of including hidden messages etched in the runout grooves of their singles:
- "Hand In Glove": KISS MY SHADES/KISS MY SHADES TOO
- "How Soon Is Now?": THE TATTY TRUTH / TIM TOM
- "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side": ARTY BLOODY FARTY/IS THAT CLEVER
- "Shoplifters of the World Unite": ALF RAMSEY'S REVENGE
- "Sheila Take a Bow": COOK BERNARD MATTHEWS
- "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side (Demo Mix)": TRUMP Will Kill AMERICA
- Epic Rocking: By album:
- Meat Is Murder: "Barbarism Begins at Home" (6:57) and the title track (6:06)
- The Queen Is Dead: The title track (6:24)
- Hatful of Hollow: "How Soon Is Now?" (6:44)
- Fake-Out Fade-Out:
- "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" fades out, then back in before carrying on for another minute and fading out again.
- Inverted with "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" where the song fades out rapidly and then fades slowly back in at the beginning of the song.
- Free Handed Performer: Morrissey is seen playing guitar in the music video for "How Soon is Now ?" but in reality, he didn't master any instrument (blaming it on a lack of patience when it comes to learning how to play).
- Gray Rain of Depression:
- The opening line of "William, It Was Really Nothing": "The rain falls hard on this humdrum town / This town has dragged you down ..."
- The last minute of "Well I Wonder", a song about unrequited love, is punctuated by the sound of pattering rain.
- Hypocrite: Even after releasing Meat Is Murder, Morrissey admitted to wearing leather shoes until synthetic leather shoes became more widespread years later.
- "I Want" Song: "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want".
- Intercourse with You: "Stretch Out And Wait", "Reel Around The Fountain", and "Handsome Devil" are some of the less subtle examples.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Morrissey had turns of this. He often insulted other artists and pissed people off throughout the band's run, but he also wore a fake hearing aid during the band's 1986 Old Grey Whistle Test performance to support a hearing-impaired fan who was ashamed of wearing one.
- "Just Joking" Justification: The aptly titled "Bigmouth Strikes Again.""Sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking when I said I'd like to smash every tooth in your head..."
- Large Ham: Morrissey, frequently and entertainingly.
- Lesser Star: Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. The band's contract apparently only listed Morrissey and Marr as the official members of the band. Joyce and Rourke even sued the other half of the band for royalties that were owed them. Although Rourke wound up settling amicably out of court with Morrissey and Marr, Joyce kept pushing his part of the lawsuit and received a 1 million pound settlement (which in turn alienated him from Rourke). Rourke eventually patched things up with his childhood friend Marr and found steady work as a session musician for bands like The Pretenders. Joyce, meanwhile, left the music business and never reconciled with any of his old bandmates apart from Rourke. Morrissey claims that Joyce's lawsuit is the main reason why the Smiths never reunited, moreso than his rift with Marr.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Sonically, they were like a slightly less murky R.E.M.. Lyrically, they were like a funnier The Cure. One good example is "Barbarism Begins at Home", a song about parental abuse set to a funky guitar beat.
- Miniscule Rocking: "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" comes in at a brisk 1:50.
- My Greatest Failure: Marr admitted to Guitar Player magazine in 1990 that he regrets not writing down how he achieved the slide guitar sound of "How Soon Is Now?":"I wish I could remember exactly how we did the slide part — not writing it down is one of the banes of my life! We did it in three passes through a harmonizer, set to some weird interval, like a sixth. There was a different harmonization for each pass. For the line in harmonics, I retuned the guitar so that I could play it all at the 12th fret with natural harmonics. It's doubled several times."
- New Sound Album:
- The Queen Is Dead, which featured more elaborate production than on their previous albums and singles.
- Strangeways, Here We Come largely abandons the jangle pop sound that they are known for.
- Non-Appearing Title: "Paint a Vulgar Picture", though the original demo version does include it ("and they paint a vulgar picture / of the way they say you were").
- "How Soon Is Now". The closest is near the end where a verse says "When you say it's gonna happen now, when exactly do you mean? See, I've already waited too long, and all my hope is gone.
- "Barbarism Begins at Home"
- Oirish: Morrissey, Marr and Rourke are the sons of first-generation Irish immigrants to Manchester; Joyce's father is Irish as well. Morrissey and Marr were both taken to visit relatives back in the Auld Sod many times in their childhood where they were exposed to a lot of Irish musical traditions; the influence is most evident in Morrissey's crooning style and some of Marr's acoustic guitar work.
- Morrissey's lyrical style has been compared to the style of Irish literature, and considering his well-known fixation on Oscar Wilde it is perhaps not a surprise. He's also covered "Irish" topics such as family dysfunction, alcoholism and, of course, a death-fixation, although his take on it is perhaps closer to "Cré na Cille" than "The Dead".
- Only One Name: Morrissey. Well, it's Steven Patrick Morrissey in full, but you only need the last one.
- Oop North: One of Manchester's beloved musical exports, and noted for featuring Manchester prominently in their promotional pictures (especially for "The Queen Is Dead") and in their lyrics. Their first album featured a song focused entirely around the Moors Murders, "Suffer Little Children".
- Protest Song:
- "The Headmaster Ritual" and "Barbarism Begins At Home" against child abuse, the former by teachers and the latter by parents.
- "Meat Is Murder" against animal slaughter.
- "Panic" against dance-pop music, and how out of touch with current events it is.Burn down the discoHang the blessed DJBecause the music that they constantly playIt says nothing to me about my life
- "Paint a Vulgar Picture" against record companies and their tendency to exploit the artistsAt the record company meetingOn their hands - a dead starAnd oh, the plans they weaveAnd oh, the sickening greed
- Questioning Title?: "What Difference Does It Make?"
- Retraux: The band had a sound and image that hearkened back to the '50s and early '60s. To drive the point home, their "cover stars" were also typically from this era.
- Sadistic Teacher: "The Headmaster Ritual".
- Self-Deprecation: Quite often. "The Queen Is Dead" features the lyric "I know you and you can't sing/That's nothing, you should hear me play the piano". (Morrissey later fulfilled his threat on "Death of a Disco Dancer".)
- Serial Killer: The song "Suffer Little Children" was written about Real Life killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Morrissey's fascination with serial killers continued in his solo career with songs like "Jack the Ripper".
- Shirtless Scene: Moz at almost every concert and quite a few photo shoots.
- The band's practice of crediting "cover stars" on their albums comes from Roxy Music doing the same thing.
- The guitar riff on "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" is similar to David Bowie's "Cracked Actor"
- Similarly, the guitar riff in "Panic" is uncannily similar to T-Rex's "Metal Guru".
- The line, "Throw your homework onto the fire" from "Sheila Take A Bow" is taken from Bowie's "Kooks".
- The lines "I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice" from their song "Reel Around the Fountain" are taken from Shelagh Delaney's 1958 play, "A Taste Of Honey"
- From "Cemetery Gates": "Keats and Yeats are on your side, While Wilde is on mine"
- The guitar riff from "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" is based on The Rolling Stones' version of "Hitch Hike" by Marvin Gaye. Johnny Marr noticed that the riff to "There She Goes Again" by The Velvet Underground used the riff from "Hitch Hike", and he deliberately placed the riff in "Light" to see if critics would compare it to The Velvet Underground or The Stones.
- The title of their instrumental "Oscillate Wildly" is also a shout out to Oscar Wilde himself.
- "Shakespeare's Sister" shares the same title as an essay from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.
- "Shoplifters of the World Unite" takes its title and title lyric from Karl Marx's aphorism "Workers of the world, unite!"
- Sixth Ranger: Second guitarist Craig Gannon, who only appeared on the "Panic" and "Ask" singles and the live Rank album.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Morrissey was mouthy and pissed off a lot of music industry people all throughout The Smiths' rise in popularity.
- Smoking Is Cool: Johnny looked pretty damn cool with a cigarette, especially in the OGWT Meat Is Murder tapes.
- Spoof Aesop: The entirety of "Accept Yourself", but especially:Every day you must sayOh, how do I feel about my shoes?
- Stage Names: Morrissey's full name is Steven Patrick Morrissey, and Johnny Marr's real name is John Maher. The latter changed his name to avoid confusion with the drummer of the Buzzcocks and because it sounds like the French phrase 'J'en ai marre', which roughly means 'I'm fed up with it all'.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: The narrator of "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" names off some of the injuries he received from his bicycle accident, then follows them with "Who said I lied to her?/Because I never".
- Take That!:
- The Title Track of The Queen Is Dead is an extended expression of disillusionment towards the British Royal Family, with Morrissey going on to become one of British music's most vocal anti-monarchists in the years after the band split up.
- The Record Store Day 2017-exclusive 7" for "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side (Demo Mix)" features◊ the text "TRUMP Will Kill AMERICA" etched in the runout groove.
- Three Chords and the Truth: To an extent. The band's music was generally intricate and melodic, but the emphasis on guitar-based rock was a reaction against synthesizer-heavy Eighties pop music.
- Teeny Weenie: "Miserable Lie" has the line "I look at yours, you laugh at mine."
- Truck Driver's Gear Change: Quite a few of them in "Paint a Vulgar Picture", so that each verse seems to ascend into the next one, finally building up to the climatic guitar solo (the only one in the Smiths' musical catalogue).
- True Companions: Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke were lifelong friends, from when they were children until Rourke's passing in 2023. Despite a few rough patches following The Smiths' breakup, the two stayed in contact all their lives, and both invited each other to play with their respective bands even after the famously bitter court case that killed any chance of a reunion. It was Marr who broke the news of Rourke's passing on Instagram, writing a touching eulogy to his longtime friend and collaborator.
- Unrequited Love: A recurring lyrical theme, often going straight into Obsession Song territory. Examples include "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", "I Want The One I Can't Have", and "I Know It's Over."
- Uncommon Time: "Back to the Old House" is in 6/8
- Ur-Example: "How Soon Is Now?" is an Ur-Example of Shoegazing.
- The Vicar: The subject of the aptly named "Vicar in a Tutu".
- We Used to Be Friends: This seems to be the case with Morrissey and Johnny Marr, and is often cited one of the reasons The Smiths broke up to begin with, and one of the other reasons why the Smiths never had a reunion. That and a wide range of ''reasons,'' both Marr and Morrissey, stated every time speculation of a reunion was said.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: The title character of "Vicar in a Tutu".
- Word Salad Title: The band named themselves "The Smiths" as a reaction against the word salad band names of their contemporaries.
- Writer on Board: Meat Is Murder, as Morrissey supports PETA, and has stated he accepts the violent actions of Animal Wrongs Groups. Based on interviews they've given, the rest of the band seems to have reacted to his fervency with mild exasperation, but they are all vegetarians as well and avoid animal products.
- Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Both Morrissey and Marr forbade David Cameron from listening to The Smiths after he told the media that "This Charming Man" is his favorite song due to his stance on hunting.