The Savoy, Cork, May 1984 and there’s magic in the air. Just three months after releasing their debut album, the Mancunian-Irish lads on stage are in the midst of creating one of those special nights that gig-goers remember for the rest of their lives. Led by a charismatic lead singer — open-shirted with a bunch of daffodils hanging out of his arse pocket — the foursome have a chemistry and swagger that is backed up by an already-impressive catalogue of superb songs.
Those who were at the Savoy would soon be joined by millions of others in realising that the rock gods had created the Smiths to connect Steven Patrick Morrissey, the ultimate lyricist of his generation, with Johnny Marr, the best guitarist of the era. Unfortunately, their time on this Earth was not long. By 1987, after just four albums, they’d have undergone a messy breakup.
A great band with an intriguing story; Steven Fletcher produces a worthy biography. He’s an unashamed fan and music biz insider, but brings enough of his journalistic training to the book to ensure a riveting read. It’s about 200 pages in before we even get to the formation of the Smiths, and before that we get a revealing portrait of Manchester life for the children of working-class Catholic immigrants, complete with Friedrich Engels’ disparaging remarks about the dirty, hopeless Irish in the city.
Marr (who changed his surname from Maher to avoid confusion with the Buzzcocks drummer) gave extensive interviews for the book, and the affable guitarist’s reincarnation from coke-snorting rock megastar to low-key vegan Buddhist probably helped with the articulate reflection he provides throughout. Bass player Andy Rourke also gave his time, as did many of the people behind the scenes, a fact which goes some way to alleviating the absence of Morrissey and drummer Mike Joyce. The singer’s reluctance to talk may partly be down to the publication of his autobiography later this year.
Marr emerges as the driving force of the band, and Fletcher is particularly adept at tracing the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that earned the group a reputation for being difficult to work with. These troubles weighed heavily on the guitarist as his overcrowded plate was piled higher with stints as de-facto manager and general ambassador between his close friend Morrissey and the rest of the world.
Mozza himself remains an intriguing figure. The angst and longing laid bare in his lyrics seem genuine, and his introverted nature and 9-5 routine didn’t always sit well with the more stereotyped behaviour of the rest of the group. Underneath the shyness and shrouded sexuality, however, was a sharp wit and a keen sense that his band could conquer the world. But he was his often his own worst enemy in ensuring this didn’t quite happen and it was his no-show at a video shoot that finally convinced Marr to pull the plug on the whole project.
It was a sad end to the group and the lead duo’s close relationship, but at least it meant that the Smiths never got a chance to go into a musical decline.