A beginner’s guide to The Smiths

Don't know where to begin with Morrissey and Marr? Start something you can't finish here

For anyone new to The Smiths, this quote from frontman Morrissey serves as a neat digest of what they’re about: “[The band] happened because I walked home in the rain once too often.”

That’s not to say they’re architects of misery and nothing else, but they capture a very specific, sodden, woe-is-me gloom. Coupled with astute reflections on their love / hate relationship with Manchester, a flamboyance that matched Morrissey’s mysterious androgyny, and a wry, black humour, few bands knew exactly what they were about, and of their place in the world, quite like The Smiths. 

There’s a strong argument that in the present day, Morrissey’s recent remarks make fandom problematic. But The Smiths weren’t solely about their frontman. They had one of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time in Johnny Marr, and in Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums), a criminally underrated, fidgety rhythm section. They’re a remarkable band who can’t be ignored.

The Smiths’ rapid journey – from disaffected Manchester misery-peddlers, to their brilliant peak (‘The Queen is Dead’ topped NME’s 500 greatest albums of all time), to their sudden self-destruction – all happened within the space of five years. And most importantly, they split before they could decline.

Formation: 1982
Peak: 1986
Split: 1987

Start with this TV performance

Date: 24 November 1983

Their Top of the Pops debut is a perfect introduction to The Smiths’ world. Performers were required to mime on the iconic BBC show, but Morrissey subverts the format, substituting his microphone for a bunch of flowers. The flailing arm, the disco ball, the bleakness of their most famous song – their second single – set against floating pink balloons: these juxtapositions belonged to The Smiths. Again, they weren’t just a bunch of sad saps.

Then watch this essential interview

Date: 22 March 1985

Filmed around the time of second album ‘Meat Is Murder’ and focusing on Morrissey’s childhood, it highlights the band’s desire to speak up for ordinary men. Right down to the band name, they didn’t miss a beat in speaking for the everyman, angling against authority.

Morrissey’s quotes are golden. He “doesn’t understand” how he ended up in a miserable, unfulfilling school. He expresses his “great anger” and “massive sadness” at how strong communities had been replaced by mirror-image council flats. And he implies, with a knowing smirk, that his songwriting would “go down in the annals of history.” This is The Smiths – confusion, anger, longing and arrogance rolled into one.

Listen to this album first

‘The Queen Is Dead’

Date: 16 June, 1986

The lowdown: The Smiths were at their peak, and they simply couldn’t put a foot wrong. Recorded in winter 1985 with producer Stephen Street, it was the product of a time when these frenzied, poetic songs began to sound effortless. Even when Morrissey could barely be bothered lyrically, Marr would slide in with a guitar line many would wait an entire career for (‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’).

Essential track: ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’

Morrissey is so unbelievably in love that he’d gladly suffer a horrific crash, so long as he wasn’t alone. “To die by your side, well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” Again, that’s The Smiths. Noel Gallagher and Johnny Marr have said it’s up there with the band’s best tracks. See if you agree above.

Next, listen to this

The Smiths, Meat Is Murder

‘Meat Is Murder’

Date: 11 February 1985

The lowdown: Even by their second record, Morrissey and Marr’s strengths began to perfectly complement each other. The former’s loose vocal delivery felt like it could go anywhere – from yodelling (‘The Headmaster Ritual’) to actual barks (‘Barbarism Begins At Home’). On the former, the frontman courted controversy by accusing “belligerent ghouls” of running “Manchester schools.” It made national news, and it was indicative of the band’s uncompromising, politicised, sometimes preachy ways. Its pro-vegetarianism title-track splits views, but there isn’t a dud moment on this record.

Essential track: ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’

‘Meat Is Murder”s centrepiece is a juggernaut. Packing clever codas, luscious acoustics and stark lyrics about depression, it doesn’t get better to this.

After that, hit play on this amazing John Peel session

Date: 21 September 1983

The lowdownFew bands, save for Nirvana, Oasis and Arctic Monkeys, have matched The Smiths’ meteoric rise since they split. And on that point, it remains a rarity for groups to quit at their peak. Tracking their five years together, there’s the tangible sign of a group growing in confidence faster than they could keep track. 1984 debut ‘The Smiths’ is essential, but with ‘Meat Is Murder’ and ‘The Queen is Dead’, they accelerated at a ridiculous pace. The above 1983 John Peel session just about captures a snapshot of a band on the rise.

And fall in love with this compilation
The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow

‘Hatful of Hollow’

Date: 12 November 1984

The lowdown: On ‘Hatful of Hollow’, they combine those Peel Session tracks with a handful of B-sides – some of the best B-sides ever, it should be noted – plus performances of songs from ‘The Smiths’. Their US label, Sire Records, initially refused to release this compilation, but it’s ended up becoming arguably more loved than some of their full-lengths.

Essential track: ‘What Difference Does It Make?’

It’s often downplayed, because he doesn’t resort to showy riffs and he’s barely performed a solo in his career, but Marr’s rhythmic guitar style can’t be matched. But one member couldn’t idly wander off without the other keeping them in check. Take ‘What Difference Does It Make?’, a standout from their debut and ‘Hatful of Hollow’. The opening guitar part is all well and good, but it’s where Morrissey takes the song – a tale of distrust, sexuality and lust – that matters.

The Smiths were arrogant, bullish, tender, mocking, inventive, and not once did they ever get boring. Despite the chorus of ‘please reform!’ Facebook comments, many Smiths fans are happy they’ve never returned, so as not to tarnish what they made in those five brilliant years.