Steven Patrick Morrissey was born on 22 May 1959, at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, Lancashire. His parents—Elizabeth (née Dwyer) and Peter Morrissey—were working-class Irish Catholics. They had emigrated to Manchester from Dublin with his only sibling, elder sister Jacqueline, a year prior to his birth. They had given him the forename of Steven after the American actor Steve Cochran. His earliest home was a council house at 17 Harper Street in the Hulme area of inner Manchester. Living in that area, as a child he was deeply affected by the Moors murders in which a number of local children were murdered by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley; the killings had a lasting impression on him and would be referenced in the lyrics of the Smiths song "Suffer Little Children". He also became aware of the anti-Irish sentiment in British society against Irish migrants to Britain. In 1970 the family relocated to another council house at 384 King's Road, Stretford.
Following an early education at St. Wilfred's Primary School, Morrissey failed his 11-plus exam, and proceeded to St. Mary's Technical Modern School, an experience that he found unpleasant. He excelled at athletics, although was an unpopular loner at the school. He has been critical of his formal education, later stating that "the education I received was so basically evil and brutal. All I learnt was to have no self-esteem and to feel ashamed without knowing why". He left school in 1975, having received no formal qualifications. He continued his education at Stretford Technical College, and there gained three O-levels in English Literature, Sociology, and the General Paper. In 1975 he travelled to the United States to visit an aunt who lived in New Jersey. The relationship between Morrissey's parents was strained, and they ultimately separated in December 1976, with his father moving out of the family home.
"I lost myself in music at a very early age, and I remained there ... I did fall in love with the voices I heard, whether they were male or female. I loved those people. I really, really did love those people. For what it was worth, I gave them my life ... my youth. Beyond the perimeter of pop music there was a drop at the end of the world."
— Morrissey, 1991.
Morrissey's librarian mother encouraged her son's interest in reading. He took an interest in feminist literature, and particularly adored the Irish author Oscar Wilde, whom he came to idolise. The young Morrissey was a keen fan of the television soap Coronation Street, which focused around working-class communities in Manchester; he sent proposed scripts and storylines to the show's production company, Granada TV, although all were rejected. He was also a fan of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey and its 1961 film adaptation, which was a kitchen sink drama focusing around working-class life in Salford. Many of his later songs directly quoted from A Taste of Honey.
Of his youth, Morrissey said, "Pop music was all I ever had, and it was completely entwined with the image of the pop star. I remember feeling the person singing was actually with me and understood me and my predicament." He later revealed that the first record he purchased was Marianne Faithfull's 1964 single "Come and Stay With Me". During the 1970s he became a glam rock fan, enjoying the work of British acts like T. Rex, David Bowie, and Roxy Music. He was also a fan of American glam performers Sparks, Jobriath, and The New York Dolls, the last of which were a significant influence on Morrissey, to the extent that he organised a British fan club for the band through small adverts in the back pages of music magazines. It was through the Dolls' interest in female pop singers from the 1960s that Morrissey too developed a fascination for such artists, who included Sandie Shaw, Twinkle, and Dusty Springfield.
Early bands and published books: 1977–1981
Morrissey idolised American film star James Dean and published a book on the subject
Having left formal education, Morrissey initially gained employment as a clerk for the civil service, and then for the Inland Revenue, also working in a record store and as a hospital porter, although subsequently quit and began claiming unemployment benefits. He used much of the money from these jobs to purchase tickets for gigs, attending performances by Talking Heads, Ramones, and Blondie. He regularly attended concerts, having a particular interest in the alternative and post-punk music scene. Having met the guitarist Billy Duffy in November 1977, Morrissey agreed to become the vocalist for Duffy's punk band The Nosebleeds. Morrissey co-wrote a number of songs with the band—"Peppermint Heaven", "I Get Nervous" and "I Think I'm Ready for the Electric Chair"—and performed with them in support slots for Jilted John and then Magazine. The band soon disbanded.
After The Nosebleeds' split, Morrissey followed Duffy to join Slaughter & the Dogs, briefly replacing original singer Wayne Barrett. He recorded four songs with the band and they auditioned for a record deal in London. After the audition fell through, Slaughter & the Dogs became Studio Sweethearts, without Morrissey. Morrissey came to be known as a minor figure within Manchester's punk community. By 1981, Morrissey had become a close friend of Linder Sterling, the frontwoman of punk-jazz ensemble Ludus; both her lyrics and style of singing influenced him. Through Sterling, he came to know Howard Devoto and Richard Boon. At the time, Morrissey's best male friend was James Maker; he would visit Maker in London or they would meet up in Manchester, where they visited the city's gay bars and gay clubs, in one case having to escape from a gang of gay bashers.
Desiring to become a professional writer, Morrissey considered a career in music journalism. He frequently wrote letters to music press, and was eventually hired by the weekly music review publication Record Mirror. He authored a number of short books for local publishing company Babylon Books: in 1981 they released a 24-page booklet he had written on The New York Dolls, which sold 3000 copies. This was followed by a volume he wrote about the late film star James Dean, titled James Dean is Not Dead. Morrissey had developed a love of Dean, having covered his bedroom with pictures of the deceased film star.
Establishing the Smiths: 1982–1984
In August 1978, Morrissey was briefly introduced to the 14-year old Johnny Marr by mutual acquaintances at a Patti Smith gig held at Manchester's Apollo Theatre. Several years later, in May 1982, Marr turned up on the doorstep of Morrissey's house, there to ask Morrissey if he was interested in co-founding a band. Marr had been impressed that Morrissey had authored a book on the New York Dolls, and was inspired to turn up on his doorstep following the example of Jerry Leiber, who had formed his working partnership with Mike Stoller after turning up at the latter's door. According to Morrissey: "We got on absolutely famously. We were very similar in drive." The next day, Morrissey phoned Marr to confirm that he would be interested in forming a band with him. Steve Pomfret—who had served as the band's first bassist—soon abandoned the group, to be replaced by Dale Hibbert. Around the time of the band's formation, Morrissey decided that he would be publicly known only by his surname, with Marr referring to him as "Mozzer" or "Moz". In 1983 he forbade those around him from using the name of "Steven", which he despised. Morrissey was also responsible for choosing the band name of "The Smiths", later informing an interviewer that "it was the most ordinary name and I thought it was time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces".
Alongside developing their own songs, they also developed a cover of The Cookies' "I Want a Boy for My Birthday", the latter reflecting their deliberate desire to transgress established norms of gender and sexuality in rock in a manner inspired by the New York Dolls. In August 1982, they recorded their first demo at Manchester's Decibel Studios, and Morrissey took the demo recording to Factory Records, but they weren't interested. In late summer 1982, Mike Joyce was adopted as the band's drummer after a successful audition. In October 1982 they then gave their first public performance, as a support act for Blue Rondo à la Turk at Manchester's The Ritz. Hibbert however was unhappy with what he perceived as the band's gay aesthetic; in turn, Morrissey and Marr were unhappy with his bass playing, and so he was removed from the band and replaced by Marr's old school friend Andy Rourke.
After the record company EMI turned them down, Morrissey and Marr visited London to hand a cassette of their recordings to Geoff Travis of the independent record label Rough Trade Records. Although not signing them to a contract straight away, he agreed to cut their song "Hand in Glove" as a single. Morrissey chose a homoerotic cover design in the form of a Jim French photograph. It was released in May 1983. It was championed by DJ John Peel, as were all their later singles, but it failed to chart. The band soon generated controversy when Garry Bushell of tabloid newspaper The Sun alleged that their B-side "Handsome Devil" was an endorsement of paedophilia. The band denied this, with Morrissey stating that the song "has nothing to do with children, and certainly nothing to do with child molesting". In the wake of their single, the band performed their first significant London gig, gained radio airplay with a John Peel session, and obtained their first interviews in music magazines NME and Sounds.
The follow-up singles "This Charming Man" and "What Difference Does It Make?" fared better when they reached numbers 25 and 12 respectively on the UK Singles Chart. Aided by praise from the music press and a series of studio sessions for Peel and David Jensen at BBC Radio 1, the Smiths began to acquire a dedicated fan base. In February 1984, they released their debut album, The Smiths, which reached number 2 on the UK Albums Chart.
As frontman of the Smiths, Morrissey—described as "lanky, soft-spoken, bequiffed and bespectacled"—subverted many of the norms that were associated with pop and rock music. The band's aesthetic simplicity was a reaction to the excess personified by the New Romantics, and while Morrissey adopted an androgynous appearance like the New Romantics or earlier glam rockers, his was far more subtle and understated. According to one commentator, "he was bookish; he wore NHS spectacles and a hearing aid on stage; he was celibate. Worst of all, he was sincere", with his music being "so intoxicatingly melancholic, so dangerously thoughtful, so seductively funny that it lured its listeners ... into a relationship with him and his music instead of the world." In an academic paper on the band, Julian Stringer characterised the Smiths as "one of Britain's most overtly political groups", while in his study of their work, Andrew Warns termed them "this most anti-capitalist of bands". Morrissey had been particularly vocal in his criticism of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; after the October 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, he commented that "the only sorrow" of it was "that Thatcher escaped unscathed". In 1988 he stated that Clause 28 "embodies Thatcher's very nature and her quite natural hatred".
The Smiths' growing success: 1984–1987
"The Smiths brought realism to their romance, and tempered their angst with the lightest of touches. The times were personified in their frontman: rejecting all taints of rock n' roll machismo, he played up the social awkwardness of the misfit and the outsider, his gently haunting vocals whooping suddenly upward into a falsetto, clothed in outsize women's shirts, sporting National Health specs or a huge Johnny Ray-style hearing aid. This charming young man was, in the vernacular of the time, the very antithesis of a 'rockist'—always knowingly closer to the gentle ironicist Alan Bennett
, or self-lacerating diarist Kenneth Williams
, than a licentious Mick Jagger
or drugged-out Jim Morrison
— Paul A. Woods, 2007.
In 1984, the band released two non-album singles: "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (their first UK top-ten hit) and "William, It Was Really Nothing". 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, which was their only studio album to top the UK charts. The single-only release "Shakespeare's Sister" reached number 26 on the UK Singles Chart, though the only single taken from the album, "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore", was less successful, barely making the top 50. "How Soon Is Now?" was originally a B-side of the 1984 single "William, It Was Really Nothing", and was subsequently featured on Hatful of Hollow and the American, Canadian, Australian and Warner UK editions of Meat Is Murder. Belatedly released as a single in the UK in 1985, How Soon Is Now? reached number 24 on the UK Singles Chart.
During 1985, the band undertook lengthy tours of the UK and the US while recording the next studio record, The Queen is Dead. The album was released in June 1986, shortly after the single "Bigmouth Strikes Again". The record reached number 2 in the UK charts. 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. Meanwhile, Rourke was fired in early 1986 for his use of heroin. Rourke was temporarily replaced on bass guitar by Craig Gannon, 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, ultimately signing with EMI, which drew criticism from some of the band's fanbase.
In early 1987, the single "Shoplifters of the World Unite" was released and reached number 12 on the UK Singles Chart. It was followed by a second compilation, The World Won't Listen, which reached number 2 in the charts – and the single "Sheila Take a Bow", the band's second (and last during the band's lifetime) UK top-10 hit. 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 July 1987, Marr left the group and auditions to find a replacement 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 partly attributed to Morrissey's annoyance with Marr's work with other artists and to Marr's growing frustration with Morrissey's musical inflexibility. Morrissey blamed the band's breakup on the lack of a managerial figure—in a 1989 interview with then-teenage fan Tim Samuels. Strangeways peaked at number 2 in the UK, but was only a minor US hit, though it was more successful there than the band's previous albums.