DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
They didn't have many big hits. And in the beginning, when it would have made a difference, they didn't even make videos. In the 1980s, when post-punk extravagance was the name of the game, they dared to call themselves The Smiths, as if to pretend they were just an ordinary bunch of guys, and yet they were one of the defining groups of their era.
With the release of their complete works, rock historian Ed Ward has the occasion to look back and try and figure out what made them so important.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALF A PERSON")
THE SMITHS: (Singing) Call me morbid, call me pale. I've spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail. Call me morbid, call me pale. I've spent six years on your trail, six full years of my life on your trail. And if you have five seconds to spare, then I'll tell you the story of my life. Sixteen, clumsy and shy, I went to London and I, I booked myself in at the YWCA. I said, I like it here, Can I stay? I like it here. Can I stay? Do you have a vacancy for a back-scrubber?
ED WARD, BYLINE: When Steven Patrick Morrissey was 13, he was watching "The Old Grey Whistle Test," a BBC rock television show, when the New York Dolls came on. Later, he said that it was my first real emotional experience. It was hardly his last. Growing up awkward, tall and shy in suburban Manchester, he was the archetypal kid who didn't fit in, writing poetry and letters to the British rock press, disagreeing articulately with their critics.
Years before, Manchester had lost out to Liverpool as Britain's provincial rock capital. But with the arrival of punk, it snatched the crown back. Morrissey joined a punk band called the Nosebleeds briefly, but he had other ideas. In May 1982, he read that a writer for Record Mirror named Johnny Marr, a guitarist who'd been in a couple of bands, was looking for a lyricist. The two met and hit it off immediately, and a year later, they'd put together a band, had a couple of gigs, been signed to London's Rough Trade Records and started releasing singles. It took a couple of them, but they eventually had a hit, of sorts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?")
SMITHS: (Singing) All men have secrets, and here is mine. So let it be known, for we have been through hell and high tide. That means I can rely on you. And yet you start to recoil. Heavy words are so lightly thrown. But still, I'd leap in front of a flying bullet for you. So what difference does it make?
WARD: This wasn't pop music as we knew it, by any means, although a superficially similar band, R.E.M., was operating in the United States: an odd vocalist matched with a guitarist who could seemingly do anything. Unlike Michael Stipe, though, Morrissey didn't cloak his lyrics in ambiguity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIAM, IT WAS REALLY NOTHING")
SMITHS: (Singing) The rain falls hard on a humdrum town. This town has dragged you down. Oh, the rain falls hard on a humdrum town. This town has dragged you down. Oh, no, and everybody's got to live their life. And God knows I've got to live mine. God knows I've got to live mine. William, William, it was really nothing. William, William, it was really nothing. It was nothing.
WARD: Morrissey claimed to be celibate, although the British pop press was skeptical. The slowly increasing number of fans didn't care though. Some of them were drawn to the confessional songwriting, some to the guitar sounds. For instance, on the B-side of "William, It Was Really Nothing" was this gem.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW SOON IS NOW")
SMITHS: (Singing) I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar. And son and heir of nothing in particular. You shut your mouth. How can you say I go about things the wrong way? I am human and I need to be loved. Just like everybody else does.
WARD: The Smiths were also lucky to have a rhythm section like bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, who seemed to navigate the odd twists and turns of Johnny Marr's melodies with ease. The Smiths were also masters of marketing. Each of their singles and albums had, on the cover, an icon of filmdom, his or her photograph manipulated by Morrissey and Rough Trade's art director, Jo Slee.
Terence Stamp, Elvis Presley, Shelagh Delaney and James Dean were among the cover boys and girls who gave a new Smiths release a distinctive look. And it was a good thing that there was a distinctive look, because after their second album, "Meat is Murder," took aim at some social issues, it became clear that Marr's melodies were pretty similar, and that Morrissey's great subject was himself, take it or leave it.
What happened next was complicated. The band slowly gained momentum with the fans, at least in Britain. Their third album, "The Queen is Dead," is probably the high point of the band's career, released in June 1986 after a long and unexplained delay.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT")
SMITHS: (Singing) Take me out tonight where there's music and there's people and they're young and alive. Driving in your car I never, never want to go home because I haven't got one anymore. Take me out...
WARD: By 1987, the band was big enough that it had to sign with EMI in order to meet the demand for its records - and immediately everything fell apart. Johnny Marr had been working nonstop both with The Smiths and with other bands, and he realized he was about to have a breakdown. He quit the band, and within a few months The Smiths were no more.
Well, that's not strictly true. Their cult was growing in America, and it was rampant in Britain. They'd released a lot of singles and B-sides which hadn't shown up on albums, and their record companies set about repackaging them. And they've influenced pop culture disproportionately.
Smiths phrases turn up everywhere, from the "Meat is Murder" meme to Douglas Coupland's novel "Girlfriend in a Coma," which is a Smiths song, to a poster for a club event this past weekend which I saw emblazoned with the words "Hang the DJ." The Smiths are dead. Long live The Smiths.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in France. He reviewed "The Smiths Complete" collection, now repackaged for CD and vinyl.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.