It couldn’t have lasted—a flame burning twice as bright, and so on. One of the best bands to emerge from the explosion of British new wave and post-punk in the 1980s, The Smiths built a template for thousands of mope-rock bands who followed. Longstanding animosity has meant that their brief time together contains their total legacy. No reunion shows or albums—despite rumors over the decades since they broke up in 1987; no ersatz version of the band, missing key members but limping ever on.
Live albums, compilations, and box sets may have appeared over the years, but they all contain music written, played, and recorded between 1982 and 1987, a period during which the songwriting duo of Morrissey and Marr had as much creative energy and purpose as any of the famous songwriting duos of twenty years earlier. Love them or hate them—there seem to be few people in-between—The Smiths’ importance to alternative and indie rock is inescapable.
Like many other hugely influential bands in popular music, the mythology can eclipse the complexities. Unmentioned in many a glowing account, for example, are the unsung onetime-members who played bass or guitar at points in the band’s short life—most significantly guitarist Craig Gannon, sometimes called the “fifth Smith.” Gannon played on such seminal hits as “Ask” and “Panic” before being let go from the band before they played their final concert, an Artists Against Apartheid benefit at London’s Brixton Academy on December 12th, 1986. See it above in a fan-recorded video.
Delayed after Marr was in a car accident, the concert shows them back to their core four lineup, reunited with fired, then rehired (then arrested) bass player, Andy Rourke. They play “Shoplifters of the World Unite” from their upcoming final album, 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come; they play The Queen is Dead’s “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” for the first, and last, time live onstage; they end the night where they began, with their very first single, “Hand in Glove.” No one knew at the time that it would be their last gig, including the band.
They continued on for the next few months, recording, making TV appearances, and pondering a major label move. Differences personal, legal, and creative soon drove the four members apart. They have all continued to contribute significantly to the direction of alternative rock, as supporting players, superstar indie guitarists, and, well, Morrissey. We might wish for a more polished document of their last show, but so it is. Fans are extremely unlikely to ever get chance to see it happen again.
“Yes, time can heal,” wrote Morrissey in his often embittered autobiography. “But it can also disfigure. And surviving the Smiths is not something that should be attempted twice.” We should count ourselves lucky—those of us in the love-the-Smiths camp—that they survived as long as they did, producing jangly, gorgeous, snide, maudlin, and morbidly hilarious indie-pop gems from the very beginning to the very end of their maybe-perfectly-concise career.
See the full setlist below:
Bigmouth Strikes Again
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (only live performance)
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
Shoplifters Of The World Unite
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
Is It Really So Strange?
This Night Has Opened My Eyes
/The Queen Is Dead
//William It Was Really Nothing
//Hand In Glove
(Via Open Culture)
I still kick myself for not appreciating The Smiths when they were still a going concern. One of my brothers Eric became a fan in about ’84 or so. Still, they would have broken up anyway.
Or would they have had they known I was a fan? Doubtful.