Members of the band and a few diehard fans weigh in ahead of the release of The Smiths' complete collection.
For fans of The Smiths: a complete box set
Even the most original and exciting rock groups sometimes outstay their welcome, finally breaking up after years of artistic and commercial decline.
REM and Oasis are recent prime examples. But one group who gloriously bucked this trend were The Smiths, releasing an unblemished run of classic albums during their meteoric five-year career in the 1980s, then splitting at the peak of their powers. Almost 25 years later, this iconic Manchester indie-rock quartet remain arguably the most influential and beloved British band since The Beatles.
Defiant outsiders in a decade when pop was dominated by hairspray and synthesizers, The Smiths were a product of the volatile songwriting chemistry between the charismatic singer Steven Patrick Morrissey and the gifted young guitarist Johnny Marr. By splitting in 1987, they denied themselves the major commercial success lavished on the Britpop bands they had helped inspire, including Blur and Oasis, just a few years later.
But as they prepare to release Complete, a remastered box set spanning their entire career, The Smiths probably enjoy a higher global profile today than during their 1980s prime. Still regularly lauded in critical polls, their albums have inspired novels, stage plays and art exhibitions. Lady Gaga, Russell Brand, JK Rowling, Thom Yorke and Will Self all belong to their army of famous acolytes. Even the British prime minister, David Cameron, controversially claimed to be a Smiths fan last year, prompting caustic rebuttals from both Morrissey and Marr.
A divisive band in divisive times, The Smiths were routinely ridiculed by critics as relentlessly miserable, self-pitying, flower-sniffing pop poets. But anyone who ever studied Morrissey's gloriously witty, literary lyrics or witnessed one of the band's explosively exciting concerts knows this is not true.
"It wasn't like that at all," recalls Marr. "It was like a football match where the home side were winning five-nil. We were playing a certain kind of tough rock music that belies the image of the band being fey and being about flowers and petals. Actually, people who knew us knew we were a pretty tough musical proposition."
Simon Goddard is the author of two definitive reference books on The Smiths, Songs That Saved Your Life and Mozipedia. He has loved the band since seeing them at his first ever rock concert, age just 13.
"It was everything," Goddard recalls. "The words, the music, the record sleeves, the interviews, the run-out groove messages. The Smiths were an education in itself. I'm grateful I was there to live it."
Another former adolescent Smiths obsessive is Janice Whaley, the young California mother behind a hugely impressive and oddly moving labour of love called The Smiths Project (www.thesmithsproject.com). Whaley spent most of last year in her makeshift home studio recording cover versions of every original Smiths song - 71 tracks in total - using only her voice in dreamy, multilayered arrangements.
Whaley first heard The Smiths in 1989, when she was 12.
"I became sick with a muscle disease soon after that," she recalls, "so they spoke to me about feeling isolated and misunderstood, as well as making me laugh through many years of being sick. For me, Morrissey said things that I hadn't yet been able to put into words for myself."
Also paying extraordinary homage to his teenage pop heroes is Jurgen Wendelen, the quiff-haired Morrissey impersonator in The Smiths Indeed, a Liverpool-based tribute band highly regarded by Smiths fans (www.thesmithsindeed.com). The sound-alike singer first discovered Morrissey and Marr when he was 16.
"The songs stood out because they instantly related to my own life," Wendelen says. "They are very intense and have that rare, perfect combination of original music and true-to-life lyrics. Once you start scrutinising them, you discover both music and lyrics are actually incredibly clever."
Growing up in 1980s Britain, The Smiths sounded like musical resistance fighters against Margaret Thatcher's decade of mindless hedonism and bitter political strife. And yet, many years later, these same songs somehow still strike a deeply personal chord with different generations and nationalities.
"I once believed The Smiths belonged to a specific era in the 1980s," Goddard admits. "But the fact that the songs live on irrespective of their original context says much for the universal appeal that was always there to begin with. Morrissey's themes - loneliness, frustrated ambition, persecution, hopelessness, hatred of authority, unrequited love - are fundamental human concerns."
Since The Smiths disbanded in 1987, their critical and commercial stock has skyrocketed. But Morrissey and Marr have turned down several multimillion-dollar offers to perform, perhaps because the split ended in bitter lawsuits and broken friendships. Both also have continuing musical careers, and neither seems keen to tarnish their glorious legacy for mere money.
"I've got absolutely no regrets about The Smiths," says Marr. "No part of anything that happened and no part of my decision to leave. Honestly, I loved making those records and I loved being in that band. And when I stopped loving it, I split."
Meanwhile, demand for their classic songs continues to grow, with The Smiths Indeed playing their first dates in the US earlier this year. Next month, the band are touring the UK to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Queen Is Dead, still widely regarded as the finest Smiths album.
"The enjoyment of playing Smiths songs live is its own reward," says Wendelen. "The classics still stand up today, more than ever, but are massively underexposed in the mainstream media. Another reason why what we do is valid, I think. They've lost none of their power. The love affair is not over."
After raising pre-order donations via the fan-funded Kickstarter website, Whaley is currently selling her Smiths Project albums online and through local record stores. She recently recorded a single with the Tears for Fears singer Curt Smith, and is working on an album of original material. Flooded with concert offers, she is also trying to figure out how to perform her all-vocal Smiths tracks live. "So far, any money I've made has gone back into the project," she says.
Revised reprints of Simon Goddard's Smiths and Morrissey books are due next year, but surprisingly, the author confesses he never listens to his favourite band's music nowadays. His love for them is too pure, too deep.
"It's how I keep The Smiths special - because they should never be taken for granted," Goddard explains. "The songs they wrote, the records they made are as perfect a body of work as exists in pop music. I never knew it at the time but, at the age of 40 and still writing about music for a living, I now know that I will never love any other pop group the way I love The Smiths."
The Smiths box set Complete is being released on Rhino October 3.