Smiths album cover. (Credit: Rough Trade)

What actually went down during The Smiths' lawsuit?

The only thing more prone to a break-up than a band is a sit-com couple made of Lego. A myriad of strains and time spent breathing the same air inevitably causes tensions and then more often than not someone throws the towel in. Thus, sadly, what once started off as a few friends against the world high on the sanguine fumes of careless creativity and adrenalised adventure quickly surpasses the bittersweet realm of success and turns sour. 

The break-up of The Smiths’ is one of indie music’s most grisly examples. But, aside from a slew of tell-all memoirs, tabloid stories and political fallouts, what in the hell actually happened?  

“I was only 24 [when The Smiths split] and I was really fucking heartbroken,” Johnny Marr declared retrospectively to Radio X, “It was really devastating for me because I was forced into it, that’s the simple way of explaining something complicated.” 

In five short years from their formation in 1982 to the split in 1987, The Smiths went from being vagabond lads to guitar music saviours with around 70 revered songs under their belts, while still at an age when beard hair proves patchy. Despite this rise to prominence and miraculous evasion of backlash that usually follows, cracks began to show. 

Marr was exhausted and took a break from the band in 1987. However, what started as a break quickly became something more. Marr had collaborated with other musicians outside of the group and he perceived that his fellow bandmates thought he was taking steps to move on. An article appeared in NME with the heading “Smiths to Split” and Marr believed that Morrissey had planted the story. This was the beginning of a very rapid end. It would seem in retrospect that the break-up was an inevitability, but the two contributing hands with the most fingerprints on the scene was Morrissey’s hang-ups regarding Marr working with other musicians and Marr’s frustrations with Morrissey’s musical inflexibility. As Marr said in 1992 regarding Morrissey’s desire to cover 1960s pop tracks, “I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.”  

The inevitable issue for a lot of bands that split is that the rhythm section often finds it a lot harder to go it alone. And this, in short, was what led to the bitter court case that followed the breakup. 

During the duration of The Smiths, Marr and Morrissey each took a hefty 40% of the performance and recording royalties, leaving Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce with only 10% each. Following the split, this led the duo’s barrister to famously quip that they were treated as session musicians and were as “readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower.” In some ways, you could argue that if anything this analogy weakened their position when they went to press for equal royalties. 

Rourke was in debt at the time and settled for a lump sum of £83,000 and retained 10% of royalties thereafter. Joyce, however, continued with the claim. He managed to get the lawsuit to the High Court of Justice in 1996 on the grounds that not only was he rightfully an equal partner in The Smiths, but that he had also been under the assumption that he was always being paid as such. 

The damning conclusion for Marr and Morrissey came when they could not legally provide evidence that the 40:40:10:10 split had been explained to the rhythm section, thus Joyce triumphed in court receiving a back payment of £1million and 25% split henceforth. 

What’s more, the judge added to the soap opera drama of the publicly unfurling case with his flourishes of entertainment that seemed to go beyond the call of duty. Rather inexplicably, he ranked the band by their IQ declaring Marr as the most intelligent before stating that Rourke and Joyce were “unintellectual” which, if anything, plays into classic rhythm section stereotypes. And he also offered up his judgement on the basis of character assessments which described Joyce and Rourke as “straightforward and honest”, but condemned Morrissey as “devious, truculent and unreliable where his own interests were at stake”; while Marr was daubed as “willing to embroider his evidence to a point where he became less credible.”

In the end, this bitter embarkment led Morrissey to offer the third person post-mortem in Melody Maker: “The court case was a potted history of the life of the Smiths. Mike, talking constantly and saying nothing. Andy, unable to remember his own name. Johnny, trying to please everyone and consequently pleasing no one. And Morrissey under the scorching spotlight in the dock being drilled. “How dare you be successful?” “How dare you move on?” To me, the Smiths were a beautiful thing and Johnny left it, and Mike has destroyed it.”

This bitter fracas continued in various legal skirmishes up until 2005, long before the memoirs. Ultimately, it was a sorry end to The Smiths, a band who helped rescue the music industry from the clutches of synth-sedation in a maelstrom of artistry that they were perhaps too young to handle without the support of modern bands. 

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