A Troubled Past
Born in Manchester, a large industrial town in northern England, Steven Morrissey was raised to do whatever it is that people in Manchester are expected to do. After spending a misspent youth as a bed-sit fan of glam rock bands and reading volumes of books, and writing some of his own, Steven eventually went about trying to join a band.
In 1982, John Mahr was working at a clothes shop and also trying to find someone who could write lyrics to his music. When a mutual acquaintance reminded John about that Steven kid who was a pretty good writer, the two got together. In a matter of an afternoon, they put together a number of songs that would eventually become standards of the early group. Originally intending only to write songs and sell them, it soon became obvious that they were the only people capable of performing what they had written.
After using friends to fill in the missing parts of a four-piece, the pair then enlisted the help of some available musicians to construct the band known as The Smiths: Johnny Marr (formerly John Mahr) on Guitar and Morrissey (formerly Steven) on vocals, Mike Joyce on Drums and Andy Rourke on Bass Guitar.
The Smiths were noticed early on for being different. Rather than use synthesizers, they used guitars. Rather than dress in the fashion, they dressed down. And rather than mimic the dull, industrial, hollow town in which they lived, The Smiths used flowers, color and heartfelt emotion to express themselves. And the music press took notice. They immediately appointed The Smiths to the prestigious position of the novelty band of the week.
Fortunately, The Smiths proved to have staying power. Morrissey, having imagined himself as a rock star all his life was quite prepared to actually act like one, at least for the sake of interviews. The press recognized Morrissey as being a great source for memorable quotes, and scheduled many interviews with him. This kept The Smiths' name in print longer than expected.
Meanwhile, the band had put together a hit single, "This Charming Man". Upon release, it became the biggest selling single ever for their small label, Rough Trade. The song made The Smiths a name in the world. And it wasn't long before The Smiths were ready to unleash their debut self-titled LP,
An enthusiastic press received the record with high expectations, but the record could not meet them. So it seemed the band might slip away as fast as they had arrived. It wasn't until The Smiths released their fourth single "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now", that things started to change. On the B-side was "Suffer Little Children", one of the songs Morrissey & Marr had produced in their very first meeting. Based on the events and people in the horrific serial killings of local children known as "The Moors Murders", Morrissey's lyrics painted a haunting picture of a local populace unwilling to confront the reality of the crimes that had taken their young.
Once the subject of the song had been broached in the press, the media incorrectly portrayed the song as being sympathetic to the murderers. The story caught on like wildfire, resulting with the records' ban from large shops, and negative stories about the irresponsible singer, Morrissey. Needless to say, this resulted in a jump in sales for The Smiths' records.
Soon after, the band released a compilation of songs that had been recorded specially for BBC radio, which also contained two of the band's most recognizable pieces: "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" and the seminal "How Soon is Now?". Sales of this record, "Hatful of Hollow", out-paced their first LP, and established The Smiths as one of the best young bands in Britain.
A second studio LP followed in 1985, "Meat is Murder". Obviously, The Smiths were not going to back down from being controversial. A tour in the US followed, establishing a fan base in the US that has never gone away. But as for the record, again the press had very high expectations, and again they could not be met. Although the LP was a number one hit, the critics still waited for a masterpiece.
In 1986, it arrived in the form of "The Queen is Dead". Containing radio hits like "There is a Light That Never Goes Out", "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side", mixed with the emotional "I Know It's Over" and the hilarious "Some Girls are Bigger than Others", this LP has proven to be the standard by which all pop guitar groups have been measured since.
A string of hit singles followed: "Panic", "Ask", "Shoplifters of the World Unite" and "Sheila Take a Bow". And after a world tour that ended in the group feeling spent and worn out, the band pressed on with their fourth LP, 1987's "Strangeways Here We Come". Featuring memorable song titles like "Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me", "Girlfriend in a Coma" and "Stop Me if You've heard This One Before", Strangeways marked the end of their contract with Rough Trade, as the band prepared to move on the larger EMI label and larger international success.
Unfortunately, it not only was the end of their contract, but it became the end of The Smiths. The work schedule of the band proved to be too grueling, and Johnny Marr abruptly decided to leave. A doomed effort to find a replacement resulted in the ultimate dissolving of the band, and the future seemed bleak. No one seriously thought that any member of the band would do anything but crawl back into the hole they had come from. Morrissey, especially, seemed to be lost without his friend at his side.
But unbeknown to the rest of the world, work progressed on steadily. Morrissey had kept writing lyrics in anticipation of finding a replacement for Marr, so when it was decided that The Smiths would end, Morrissey turned to long-time Smiths engineer/producer Steven Street for help. Street put together a cassette of some music he had written, and soon after Street had arranged for Durutti Column's Vini Reilly to come in and play guitar in recording the new material.
"Morrissey the solo artist" debuted to a highly skeptical world. But his first single "Suedehead" was immediately recognized as not being 'just as
In 1989, Morrissey held an impromptu free concert in Wolverhampton, originally intended as being filmed for a video. The event became widely anticipated, as the reclusive Morrissey had not played live for nearly two years. To make things even more exciting, Morrissey had assembled the remaining members of The Smiths (without Marr) to play with him. The event remains today as one of the more legendary concerts of English music history. A frenzied crowd of loving fans sang his name in the style of an English soccer chant, and continually rushed the stage to hold, hug and kiss Morrissey as he tried to work through a short set of nine songs.
But after two more hit singles, the partnership with Street ended through money and legal problems. Morrissey quickly assembled a new team of people, and released a novelty single, "Ouija Board, Ouija Board". But for the very first time, the press saw a crack in Morrissey's string of success. And after being on such a high for so long, it was time for the famous 'press backlash' effect to happen.
Ripped in the press day after day, Morrissey severed all contact with the press and retreated to record a new album. But it proved to be difficult, recording really for the first time without the support structure of The Smiths around him. The sessions broke down and the proposed LP was scrapped. As Morrissey went back to basics and tried to work things out, the few tracks that were recorded were released as singles.
One of them, "November Spawned a Monster", with its unwieldy title, sprawling guitar, shrieking vocals and five-minute length looked to be a disaster in the making. But instead, it proved to be a wild success. Fans loved the new sound, and it gave the press notice that Morrissey was still in top form, and that maybe he had not yet reached the limit of his abilities. Morrissey himself has said that it was in making this song that he realized he could continue, on his own.
Morrissey's next LP, 1991's "Kill Uncle", proved to be another twist in the story. "Kill Uncle" featured the production team of Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer, who had worked with Madness and Elvis Costello. A new writing partner, Mark Nevin, was recruited to do the guitar work. What resulted was a timid record, over produced and slight of substance. Once again it seemed that Morrissey had his problems.
It wasn't until Morrissey had started to work on a video for the single "Sing Your Life" that things started to turn around. Looking for a band to play with him on the video shoot, Morrissey used a local rockabilly band, The Memphis Sinners. And at around the same time, Boz Boorer (who had played guitar with the rockabilly band The Polecats) and Morrissey struck up a friendship after discussing their love of old glam music like Marc Bolan and T-Rex. Things moved swiftly, as Morrissey asked Both Boorer and members of The Memphis Sinners to get together with him in the studio. They recorded what became the B-Sides to the "Sing Your Life" single. Quickly, live dates were played, and before anyone knew it, Morrissey was on his first world wide tour in five years.
The tour was an unqualified success, but still the press remained skeptical. But when the LP "Your Arsenal" was released in 1992, the press once again was put back on their heels. With a strong, noisy and lush rockabilly-glam sound, the LP shot Morrissey back into the spotlight. Produced by Mick Ronson, who was a member of David Bowie's band, the LP was dubbed "the 5th Smiths album" by many critics. It was nominated for a grammy in the US, and became Morrissey's biggest hit LP.
Another tour followed, and an enthusiastic following in the US and the world was solidified. A photo book of the 1991 tour was published ("Morrissey Shot"), a live record ("Beethoven Was Deaf") was released, along with a concert video ("Live in Dallas").
Still, as these things inevitably do, the tide turned. Morrissey's song "The National Front Disco" from "Your Arsenal" was widely interpreted as a pro-nationalist song by the press, and when he performed it on stage at a festival in England wrapped in the English flag, the fans threw bottles at him and forced him off stage. [Editor's note: this was in fact skinheads at the festival, mostly not Morrissey fans]. Then the press, recognizing an opportunity to kick a man when he's down, tore into Morrissey as if he was the incarnation of Hitler. To this day Morrissey refuses to comment on the event itself, and there are those who believe Morrissey to be a racist, nationalist bigot.
Then, Morrissey lost his close friend Tim Broad to cancer. Tim had directed all of Morrissey's videos since "Girlfriend in a Coma" in 1987. Too soon, Mick Ronson, the producer of "Your Arsenal" passed away as well. And going into the studio to record the next LP, a depressed Morrissey commented on it being his last.
To make things worse, a new biography "Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance" drew the questionable conclusion that it was Morrissey's vanity and ego that had split The Smiths apart. The press, still hungry for blood, celebrated the book and its author. In their eyes, Morrissey was now just another fallen star.
Having completed the recording for a new LP, it remained delayed for almost a year before release. But the tough times Morrissey hand languished through served to be grist for his mill. "Vauxhall and I" has become his most critically acclaimed album, and its lead single "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" proved to be his best selling single ever, finally piercing the wall of radio airplay and even MTV. Morrissey even signed with one of
But what should have been a triumph was lost in the shuffle. New bands like Oasis and Blur had arrived on the scene, and had taken the attention of the world with them. Using the classic four-piece arrangement that The Smiths had almost single-handedly revived, the new crop of bands brought the guitar back as the basic element of popular music. And even though Morrissey was at the top of his game, his status had been relegated to one of a grandfather: well-respected but no longer vital.
As this went on, though, Morrissey quietly backed away from his talk of retirement. He fired his new agency. He broke away from his eight-year affiliation with EMI in the UK. Recording a single album for David Bowie's old label, RCA, he experimented with the glam-rock guitar sound again to record his most uncharacteristic LP so far. "Southpaw Grammar" was filled with loud, feedback-laden guitar effects and the odd string arrangement thrown in. It was met with lackluster sales, but has gained critical appreciation in retrospect.
After that, he ended his thirteen-year affiliation with Warner Brothers / Reprise in the US. He signed a world-wide deal with PolyGram, working with Mercury in the US and Island in the UK. Releasing the 1997 LP "Maladjusted", Morrissey once more took his recent problems and turned them into material, this time in perhaps in his most direct fashion. Mike Joyce, the drummer for The Smiths decided to sue Morrissey & Marr for a larger share of royalties. Despite what seemed to be a small chance of winning, the court sided with Joyce, and it has cost Morrissey & Marr millions. Using this, Morrissey wrote the song "Sorrow Will Come in the End" to anchor the LP, a song which directly comments on the court proceedings. In fact the song is so vicious, that it will never be released in the UK due to libel laws.
But, pressing ahead, Morrissey toured the US and UK in 1997, and scored another top 20 hit single in "Alma Matters".