The group were signed to the independent record label Rough Trade Records, for whom they released four studio albums and several compilations, as well as numerous non-LP singles. Although they had limited commercial success outside the UK while they were still together, and never released a single that charted higher than number 10 in their home country, The Smiths won a growing following, and they remain cult and commercial favourites. The band broke up in 1987 amid disagreements between Morrissey and Marr and has turned down several offers to reform.
The released debut album followed a scrapped full-length version of the album recorded between July and August 1983 by producer Troy Tate. This collection, with its numerous variations from the final released version, is known as the "Troy Tate Sessions" and is a rarity. The planned single, "Jeane," was retained as a B-side for the "This Charming Man" single. Shortly after the release of the album, Sandie Shaw, who Morrissey was a fan of, recorded vocals for "Hand in Glove" backed by Marr, Rourke and Joyce. The hit single resulted in the band performing barefoot (a Sandie Shaw trademark) in tribute on Top of the Pops.
In 1984, the band released several singles not taken from the album: "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (the band's first UK top-ten hit) and "William, It Was Really Nothing" (which featured "How Soon Is Now?" as a B-side). The year ended with the compilation album Hatful of Hollow. This collected singles, B-sides and the versions of songs that had been recorded throughout the previous year for the Peel and Jensen shows.
Early in 1985 the band released their second album, Meat Is Murder. This album was more strident and political than its predecessor, including the pro-vegetarian title track (Morrissey forbade the rest of the group from being photographed eating meat), the light-hearted republicanism of "Nowhere Fast", and the anti-corporal punishment "The Headmaster Ritual" and "Barbarism Begins at Home". The band had also grown more adventurous musically, with Marr adding rockabilly riffs to "Rusholme Ruffians" and Rourke playing a funk bass solo on "Barbarism Begins at Home". The album was preceded by the re-release of the B-side "How Soon is Now?" as a single, and although that song was not on the original LP, it has been added to subsequent releases. Meat Is Murder was the band's only album (barring compilations) to reach number one in the UK charts.
Morrissey brought a political stance to many of his interviews, courting further controversy. Among his targets were the Thatcher government, the monarchy and the famine relief project Band Aid. Morrissey famously quipped of the latter, "One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it's another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England. The subsequent single-only release "Shakespeare's Sister" reached number 26 on the UK Singles Chart, although the only single taken from the album, "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore", was less successful barely making the top 50.
However, all was not well within the group. A legal dispute with Rough Trade had delayed the album by almost seven months (it had been completed in November 1985), and Marr was beginning to feel the stress of the band's exhausting touring and recording schedule. He later told NME, "'Worse for wear' wasn't the half of it: I was extremely ill. By the time the tour actually finished it was all getting a little bit... dangerous. I was just drinking more than I could handle." Meanwhile, Rourke was fired from the band in early 1986 due to his use of heroin. He received notice of his dismissal via a Post-it note stuck to the windshield of his car. It read, "Andy – you have left The Smiths. Goodbye and good luck, Morrissey. Rourke was temporarily replaced on bass by Craig Gannon (formerly a member of Scottish New Wave band Aztec Camera), but he was reinstated after only a fortnight. Gannon stayed in the band, switching to rhythm guitar. This five-piece recorded the singles "Panic" and "Ask" (with Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals) which reached numbers 11 and 14 respectively on the UK Singles Chart, and toured the UK. After the tour ended in October 1986, Gannon left the band.
The group had become frustrated with Rough Trade and sought a record deal with a major label. Marr told NME in early 1987, ""Every single label came to see us. It was small-talk, bribes, the whole number. I really enjoyed it." The band ultimately signed with EMI, which drew criticism from the band's fanbase.
Despite their continued success, personal differences within the band – including the increasingly strained relationship between Morrissey and Marr – saw them on the verge of splitting. In August 1987, Marr left the group, and auditions to find a replacement for him proved fruitless. By the time the group's fourth album Strangeways, Here We Come was released in September, the band had split up. The breakdown in the relationship has been primarily attributed to Morrissey becoming annoyed by Marr's work with other artists and Marr growing frustrated by Morrissey's musical inflexibility. Marr particularly hated Morrissey's obsession with covering 1960s pop artists such as Twinkle and Cilla Black. Marr recalled in 1992, "That was the last straw, really. I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs." In a 1989 interview, Morrissey said that the lack of a managerial figure and business problems were to blame for the band's eventual split.
Strangeways peaked at number two in the UK but was only a minor US hit, although it was more successful there than the band's previous albums. The album received a lukewarm reception from critics, but all four members name it as their favourite Smiths album. A couple of further singles from the album were released with earlier live, session and demo tracks as B-sides, and the following year the live album Rank (recorded in 1986 while Gannon was in the band) repeated the UK chart success of previous albums.
Following the group's demise, Morrissey began work on a solo recording, collaborating with Strangeways producer Stephen Street and fellow Mancunian Vini Reilly, guitarist for The Durutti Column. The resulting album, Viva Hate (a reference to the end of the Smiths), was released six months later, reaching number one in the UK charts. Morrissey continues to perform and record as a solo artist.
Johnny Marr returned to the music scene in 1989 with New Order's Bernard Sumner and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant in the supergroup Electronic. Electronic released three albums over the next decade. Marr was also a member of The The, recording two albums with the group between 1989 and 1993. He has also worked as a session musician and writing collaborator for artists including The Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Black Grape, Talking Heads, Crowded House and Beck. In 2000 he started another band, Johnny Marr and the Healers, with a moderate degree of success, and later worked as a guest musician on the Oasis album Heathen Chemistry.
In addition to his work as a recording artist, Marr has worked as a record producer on Haven's debut album Between the senses. In 2006 he began work with Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock on songs that eventually featured on the band's 2007 release, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. The band subsequently announced that Marr was a fully fledged member, and the reformed line-up toured extensively throughout 2006-07. Marr has also been recording with Liam Gallagher of Oasis. In January 2008, Marr had reportedly been adding his skill and experience to a secret songwriting session with Wakefield indie group The Cribs. Sources reveal that they worked together for a week at Moolah Rouge recording studio in Stockport - a favourite haunt of Bolton's Badly Drawn Boy, Damon Gough and fellow northern indie heroes I Am Kloot - and have penned a number of new songs.
Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce have continued working together, including doing session work for Morrissey (1988–89) and Sinéad O'Connor, as well as working separately. Rourke has recorded and toured with Proud Mary and is currently forming a group called Freebass with fellow bassists Peter Hook (of New Order and Joy Division) and Mani (of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream). He has recently started a radio career, hosting a show on Saturday evenings on XFM Manchester.
In 1996, Joyce took Morrissey and Marr to court, claiming that he had not received his fair share of recording and performance royalties. Morrissey and Marr had claimed the lion's share of The Smiths' recording and performance royalties and allowed ten percent each to Joyce and Rourke. Composition royalties were not an issue, as Rourke and Joyce had never been credited as composers for the band. Morrissey and Marr claimed that the other two members of the band had always agreed to that split of the royalties, but the court found in favour of Joyce and ordered that he be paid over £1 million in back pay and receive twenty-five percent henceforth. As Smiths' royalties had been frozen for two years, Rourke settled for a smaller lump sum to pay off his debts and continued to receive ten percent. While the judge in the case described Morrissey as "devious, truculent and unreliable", he did not state that the singer had been dishonest. Morrissey claimed that he was "...under the scorching spotlight in the dock, being drilled..." with questions such as " 'How dare you be successful?' 'How dare you move on?'". He stated that "The Smiths were a beautiful thing and Johnny [Marr] left it, and Mike [Joyce] has destroyed it." Morrissey appealed against the verdict, but was not successful.
In late November 2005, while appearing on radio station BBC 6 Music, Mike Joyce claimed to be having financial problems and said that he had resorted to selling rare band recordings on eBay. As a teaser, a few minutes of an unfinished instrumental track known as "The Click Track" was premiered on the show. Morrissey hit back at Joyce with a public statement shortly after, on the website true-to-you.net. Relations between Joyce and Rourke cooled significantly as a result of Morrissey's statement which claimed that Joyce had misled the courts. Morrissey claimed that Joyce had not declared that Rourke was entitled to some of the assets seized by Joyce's lawyers from Morrissey.
Both Johnny Marr and Morrissey have repeatedly said in interviews that they will not reunite the band. In 2005, VH1 attempted to get the band back together for a reunion on its Bands Reunited show. The programme abandoned its attempt after host Aamer Haleem was unsuccessful in his attempt to corner Morrissey before a show. In December 2005 it was announced that Johnny Marr and The Healers would play at Manchester v Cancer, a benefit show for cancer research being organised by Andy Rourke and his production company, Great Northern Productions. Rumours suggested that a Smiths reunion would occur at this concert but were dispelled by Johnny Marr on his website. What did eventuate was Rourke joining Marr onstage for the first time since The Smiths broke up, performing "How Soon Is Now?".
To this day Morrissey refuses to reunite his old band, going as far as to say that he would "rather eat [his] own testicles than re-form The Smiths, and that’s saying something for a vegetarian. In March 2006, Morrissey revealed that The Smiths had been offered $5 million to reunite for a performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which he turned down, saying, "No, because money doesn't come into it." He further explained, "It was a fantastic journey. And then it ended. I didn't feel we should have ended. I wanted to continue. [Marr] wanted to end it. And that was that. When asked why he would not reform with The Smiths, Morrissey responded "I feel as if I’ve worked very hard since the demise of The Smiths and the others haven’t, so why hand them attention that they haven’t earned? We are not friends, we don’t see each other. Why on earth would we be on a stage together?
In August 2007, the NME reported that Morrissey had turned down a near £40 million offer to reunite with Marr for a 50-date world tour in 2008 and 2009. The condition would only be that Morrissey would have to play the dates with Marr, meaning the deal could have gone ahead without Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. According to an anonymous press release on true-to-you.net, an unofficial fan site tacitly supported by Morrissey, Morrissey was approached in summer 2007 by a "consortium of promoters" with a $75 million offer to tour during the next two years. The offer required Morrissey to make a minimum of fifty worldwide performances with Johnny Marr, under the Smiths' name. true-to-you.net reported that the offer had been refused. Other reports say that the whole $75 million tour was a hoax.
In an October 2007 interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, Johnny Marr hinted at a potential reformation in the future, saying that "stranger things have happened so, you know, who knows?" Marr went on to say that "It's no biggy. Maybe we will in 10 or 15 years' time when we all need to for whatever reasons, but right now Morrissey is doing his thing and I'm doing mine, so that's the answer really." This is the first potential indication of a Smiths reunion from Marr, who previously has stated that reforming the band would be a bad idea.
Marr's jangly Rickenbacker guitar-playing was influenced by The Byrds, Neil Young's work with Crazy Horse, George Harrison and James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders. Marr often tuned his guitar up a full step to F# to accommodate Morrissey's vocal range, and also utilised open tunings. The guitarist devoted his focus to the production of the group's music. Citing producer Phil Spector as an influence, Marr said, "I like the idea of records, even those with plenty of space, that sound 'symphonic'. I like the idea of all the players merging into one atmosphere".
Musically, Morrissey's role in the band was to create vocal melodies and lyrics. Morrissey's lyrics, while superficially depressing, were often full of mordant humour; John Peel remarked that The Smiths were one of the few bands capable of making him laugh out loud. Influenced by his childhood interest in the working-class social realism of 1960s "kitchen sink" television plays, Morrissey wrote about ordinary people and their experiences with despair, rejection and death. While gloomy "...songs such as 'Still Ill' sealed his role as spokesman for disaffected youth", Morrissey's "manic-depressive rants" and his "'woe-is-me' posture inspired some hostile critics to dismiss the Smiths as 'miserabilists.'"
The Smiths dressed mainly in ordinary clothes – jeans and plain shirts – which reflected the "back to basics" guitar-and-drums style of the music. This contrasted with the exotic high-fashion image cultivated by New Romantic pop groups such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran and highlighted in magazines such as The Face and i-D. Morrissey once wore a fake hearing aid to support a hearing-impaired female fan who was ashamed of using one, and thick-rimmed National Health Service-style eyeglasses.
Marr's guitar playing "was a huge building block for more Manchester legends that followed The Smiths - The Stone Roses"; their guitarist John Squire has stated that Marr was a major influence. Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher has called The Smiths an influence, especially Marr; Gallagher stated that "when The Jam split, The Smiths started, and I totally went for them."
Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien has acknowledged that he idolized The Smiths in the 1980s; the band pays homage to The Smiths in their song "Knives Out". After O'Brien played with Johnny Marr in New Zealand in 2001, he acknowledged that Marr was the reason he had picked up a guitar as a teenager.
The "Britpop movement preempted by The Stone Roses and spearheaded by groups like Oasis, Suede and Blur, drew heavily from Morrissey's portrayal of and nostalgia for a bleak urban England of the past." Britpop band Blur "formed as a result of seeing The Smiths on British television's South Bank Show in 1987. However, even though leading bands from the Britpop movement claimed to be influenced by The Smiths, the Britpop bands were at odds with the "basic anti-establishment philosophies of Morrissey and The Smiths", since Britpop "was an entirely commercial construct." In the book Saint Morrissey, the author claims that Britpop "airbrush[ed] Morrissey out of the picture...so that the Nineties and its centrally-planned and coordinated pop economy could happen."
Journalist Chloe Veltman argues that "the fanatical adoration surrounding Morrissey today is founded on nostalgia, specifically a yearning for the Morrissey of the 1980s – the superstar-outsider frontman of The Smiths." She argues that The "Smiths have had a much more profound influence on subsequent culture than Morrissey has had on his own over the entire 17 year history of his solo career." She also points out that the "extensive catalogue of pop bands, plays, novels, films and other cultural artifacts that have been influenced by Morrissey's ideas and aesthetics draw their inspiration from The Smiths rather than Morrissey solo."