When Steven Patrick Morrissey was 13, he was watching The Old Grey Whistle Test, a BBC rock television show, when the New York Dolls came on. Later, he called it "my first real emotional experience." It was hardly his last: Growing up awkward, tall and shy in suburban Manchester, he was the archetypal kid who didn't fit in, writing poetry and letters to members of the British rock press, disagreeing articulately with their critics.
Years before, Manchester had lost out to Liverpool as Britain's provincial rock capital, but with the arrival of punk, it snatched the crown back. Morrissey joined a punk band called the Nosebleeds briefly, but he had other ideas. In May 1982, he read that a writer for Record Mirror named Johnny Marr, a guitarist who had been in a couple of bands, was looking for a lyricist. The two met and hit it off immediately, and a year later, they'd put together a band, had a couple of gigs, signed to London's Rough Trade Records and started releasing singles. It took a couple tries, but they eventually had a hit of sorts called "What Difference Does It Make?"
This wasn't pop music as we knew it, by any means, although a superficially similar band, R.E.M., was operating in the U.S.: an odd vocalist matched with a guitarist who could seemingly do anything. Unlike Michael Stipe, though, Morrissey didn't cloak his lyrics in ambiguity.
Morrissey claimed to be celibate, although the British pop press was skeptical. The slowly increasing number of fans didn't care, though. Some were drawn to the confessional songwriting, some to the guitar sounds. For instance, on the B-side of "William, It Was Really Nothing" was the gem "How Soon Is Now."
Of course, it helped that The Smiths had a rhythm section like bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, who seemed to navigate the odd twists and turns of Johnny Marr's melodies with ease.
The Smiths' members were also masters of marketing. Each of their singles and albums had, on the cover, an icon of filmdom, his or her photograph manipulated by Morrissey and Rough Trade's art director, Jo Slee. Terence Stamp, Elvis Presley, Shelagh Delaney and James Dean were among the cover boys and girls who gave each new Smiths release a distinctive look.
It was a good thing that there was a distinctive look, because after The Smiths' second album, Meat Is Murder, took aim at social issues, it became clear that Marr's melodies were pretty similar — and that Morrissey's great subject was himself, take it or leave it. What happened next was complicated. The band slowly gained momentum with the fans, at least in Britain. And The Smiths' third album, The Queen Is Dead, is probably the high point of the group's career, released in June 1986 after a long and unexplained delay.
By 1987, the band was big enough that it had to sign with EMI in order to meet the demand for its records — and immediately everything fell apart. Johnny Marr had been working nonstop, both with The Smiths and with other bands, and realized he was about to have a breakdown. He quit The Smiths, and within a few months, the band was no more. Well, that's not strictly true: The Smiths' cult was growing in America, and it was rampant in Britain. The group had released a lot of singles and B-sides which hadn't shown up on albums, and record companies set about repackaging them. And it's influenced pop culture disproportionately: Smiths phrases turn up everywhere, from the "meat is murder" meme to Douglas Coupland's novel Girlfriend in a Coma, which is a Smiths song, to a poster for a club event this past weekend which I saw emblazoned with the words "Hang the DJ." The Smiths are dead. Long live The Smiths.