One of the things that make for a great Rock group is the chemistry between the lead singer and guitarist. Even though they may come from different places and have varied influences, if they mesh it's magic. When the relationship falters, it means the end.
That was what happened with Smiths' vocalist (Stephen Patrick) Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. Marr, looking for a lyricist, came across the former Manchester, England, New York Doll's Fan Club president and author ("James Dean Isn't Dead"), Morrissey. The Smiths began in '82 along with Andy Rouke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums). The group left Manchester the following year for London and began working the club circuit. That got them noticed by Rough Trade Records.
To say Morrissey was moody would be an understatement. Early influences included author Oscar Wilde, '50s torch singer Johnnie Ray and '60s British pop/rock sensation Billy Fury. In various ways, these influences contributed to Morrissey's stage persona including flowers stuck in his pants (Wilde), wearing a hearing aid (Ray) and the combed back and tall hairstyle (Fury). He had the look of a man who knew the world's dark secrets and was tortured by that knowledge.
Marr's guitar was a captivating tool. He played with a haunting passion and drive that was inescapable. He could make the guitar howl or drone then play intricate lines that melded perfectly with Morrissey's lyrics. Like all great guitarist, Marr could incorporate a number of styles from 60's jangle Rock to gritty Punk and still leave his own mark.
In late '83, the Smiths got noticed with the single "This Charming Man." Their self-titled debut rolled out the following year. A quarter of a century later, that album was voted the second greatest, gayest album of all time by a panel assembled by Out magazine. The top honor went to David Bowie's '72 creation, "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars." Still, #2 all-time is very good.
"Hatful Of Hollow" (a collection of B-sides and BBC recordings) hit next. The incredible "How Soon Is Now" came from the album "Meat Is Murder." One of the Smiths best albums "The Queen Is Dead" rolled out in '86 with the addition of ex-Aztec Camera guitarist Craig Gannon. But he departed before the end of the year.
'87 was a bad year. First, Marr complained publicly that Morrissey's new songs had a definite MOR smell to them. Morrissey, less publicly, expressed displeasure with Marr's numerous outside projects including work with Brian Ferry. Following the announcement of the Smiths' demise, their weakest album (not surprisingly since it was recorded in the midst of the break up), "Strangeways, Here We Come" was released. Strangeways was the name of a Manchester prison.
The Smiths were always far more popular in their native U.K. than the U.S. "Meat Is Murder" knocked Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A." out of the top spot on the U.K. album charts. However, when "The Queen Is Dead" was released it was kept out of #1 by Genesis' "Invisible Touch." Hold on, it gets worse. "Strangeways, Here We Come" lost out to Michael Jackson's "Bad." Then it gets awful. The live "Rank" couldn't get to #1 because that spot was firmly held by Kylie Minogue's "Kylie."
The Smiths' compilations including a live album "Rank" came out as Morrissey established a respectable solo career and Marr joined The The and The Pretenders among his other activities. Morrissey found a strong Alt. Rock/College audience and produced several inspired tracks like "Suedehead," "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" and "Certain People I Know."
As compelling (or depressed) as Morrissey could be, it was Marr's post-Smiths work that proved to be the most intriguing and rewarding.
Following his brief tenure with The Pretenders, Marr fronted a couple groups (The Electronic, Johnny Marr & The Healers). While nothing really rang the bell, Marr/The Smiths reputation grew exponentially.
Modest Mouse asked for Marr's help in '06 for "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank." Aside from playing guitar, Marr also wrote songs with lead singer Isaac Brock. Eventually, the band asked him to become a full member. The album went #1 in the U.S., ironically the first time Marr had ever been associated with a stateside chart-topper.
A couple years later, Marr joined The Cribs after playing with them on '08's NME Awards Tour. Upon the completion of "Ignore The Ignorant" he told a journalist that it was the best thing he'd done in 25 years.
Marr issued his sophomore solo effort "Playland" in '14. It was a follow-up to his debut, "The Messenger," a year earlier.
1984 The Smiths
1985 Meat Is Murder
1986 The Queen Is Dead
1987 Strangeways, Here We Come
With the exception of the Smiths final studio album "Strangeways, Here We Come," the Smiths entire catalog is remarkable. Their debut album, "The Queen Is Dead," ("Panic" and "Big Mouth Strikes Again") and "Meat Is Murder" ("How Soon Is Now") clearly illustrate why the Smiths are an important '80s group.
There's Morrissey's intense yet intellectual lyrics/vocals along with Johnny Marr's richly varied guitar. There are two compilations that provide an excellent Smiths' overview, "The Best, Volumes I & II" or "Louder Than Bombs." Also, there is "Singles" which tracks the Smiths' U.K. chart activity.