It’s a commonly held belief that The Smiths started life when guitarist Johnny Marr knocked on singer Morrissey’s door in May 1982 and asked if he’d like to form a group.
But there’s evidence that the two met well before then at a Patti Smith gig at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre in August 1978.
Marr was 14 at the time and was introduced to Morrissey by mutual friend Billy Duffy.
What is for sure is that Manchester band The Smiths became one of the most influential groups on the independent British music scene in the 1980s.
In fact, New Musical Express named the band ‘the most influential ever’ in a 2002 poll – and four of their LPs made Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all time.
Not a bad achievement considering it all began with a nervous encounter on the doorstep of Morrissey’s house at 384 King’s Road, Stretford.
Marr was accompanied by mutual friend Steve Pomfret, who was taken aback when Morrissey appeared. Marr said: ‘As soon as the door opened, Pommy took two very firm steps back. Which is one of the things that got me to talk so fast. It was just plain exuberance.’
The initial meeting was clearly a success as Morrissey phoned Marr the next day to say he’d like to be included.
Rehearsals started in Morrissey’s rented attic room in Bowdon and, by the end of the summer of 1982, the band had decided on the name The Smiths.
They liked the title because it was ordinary and they believed it was time for the ‘ordinary folk of the world to show their faces.’
In 1993, Morrissey dropped his forename Steven to become known simply as Morrissey. The name certainly stuck!
Pomfret left the band to be replaced by bass player Dale Hibbert who worked at Decibel Studios in Manchester. It was there that The Smiths recorded both The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Suffer Little Children.
The band’s first public performance was at The Ritz venue, Manchester, in October 1982. Permanent drummer Mike Joyce joined them as they supported Latin-jazz band Blue Rondo a la Turk.
The gig resulted in another change of line-up as Hibbert was replaced by Marr’s old school friend Andy Rourke.
The Smiths played Manchester’s Manhattan venue in January 1983 and, in February, performed their third gig at the city’s renowned Hacienda club in Whitworth Street West.
After a string of rejections from record companies, The Smiths released their first single Hand in Glove with Rough Trade Records in May 1983. It failed to make the Top 40.
But the group did win the backing of DJ John Peel, who saw them at the University of London and invited them to record a session on his radio programme.
The exposure on Radio 1 made all the difference. The follow-up single This Charming Man reached No. 25 in the charts and What Difference Does It Make got to No. 12.
The Smiths were on their way.
In February 1984, the band released their debut album The Smiths which went to No. 2 in the UK charts. In March the group made a landmark appearance on the Channel 4 music programme The Tube.
Popular recognition followed with the single Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now – memorable for Morrissey’s haunting vocal performance on TV’s Top of the Pops.
The single was the band’s first Top Ten hit and also marked producer Stephen Street’s first collaboration with band. It would not be the last.
Morrissey and Marr dictated the musical direction of The Smiths through their albums Meat is Murder (1985), The Queen is Dead (1986) and Strangeways Here we Come (1987).
Though superficially morose, Morrissey’s lyrics contained a deeper, dark humour. John Peel said The Smiths were one of the few bands who could make him laugh out loud!
Morrissey was determined to write about ordinary people and the troubles they faced – including poverty, loneliness, death and despair. As a result, he was quickly viewed as a figurehead for disaffected youth.
His influences ranged from post-punk bands like the New York Dolls and The Cramps to Sandie Shaw, Marianne Faithfull and Dusty Springfield. For sheer style he admired Pat Phoenix who played femme fatale Elsie Tanner on Coronation Street.
The Smiths’ legacy was immense. Marr’s guitar playing was described as a ‘huge building block’ for the Manchester bands that followed The Smiths – including The Stone Roses and Oasis.
And many miles from Manchester, a group called Blur came together after seeing The Smiths on The South Bank Show in 1987.