The date is December 12th, 1986, and The Smiths are once again in Brixton, London. Although they are one of the most popular bands of the burgeoning independent rock movement, their previous year proved to be a trying one. A dispute with their label, Rough Trade Records, caused a six-month delay in the release of their third album, The Queen is Dead. Bassist Andy Rourke was struggling with heroin addiction and was briefly replaced by Craig Gannon. When Rourke was allowed back, Gannon switched to rhythm guitar, but was out by the end of the band’s American tour in October.
After returning to England, guitarist Johnny Marr was involved in a car accident that required them to push their appearance at an anti-apartheid show back to December. Marr had been suffering from exhaustion on the band’s previous tour and nearly had a nervous breakdown after the accident, but he managed to have himself together for the Brixton show.
Despite the band’s furious pace, they still found time to compose new material. ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’ had just been written, and a new song, ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’, was also in its early stages. Both songs were set to be played for the first time at the Brixton Academy benefit.
In addition, the band decided to revive a few classics from their back catalogue, including ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ for the first time since 1984 and a rare performance of their first single, ‘Hand in Glove’. Otherwise, the setlist consisted of some of the band’s best new material: ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’, ‘Ask’, ‘Panic’, and ‘Cemetery Gates’, all of which had only been in The Smiths’ live repertoire for 1986.
Although difficulties, both business-wise and personal, were continuing to consume the band, no one on stage had any intention for this to be the last full-length Smiths show. As 1987 first came around, the band signed a new recording contract with EMI (although they would continue to be distributed by Rough Trade), released ‘Shoplifters’ as a single and saw it reach number 12 on the UK singles charts, and began recording Strangeways, Here We Come. By all appearances, The Smiths were as strong as ever.
But the recording of Strangeways highlighted the band’s increasing disconnect. Marr began wanting to play less guitar, and Strangeways has a more pronounced keyboard-heavy sound compared to the band’s previous three LPs. His disagreements with Morrissey continued to plague the band, and when Marr asked for a break from the band, Morrissey responded by replacing Marr with guitarist Ivor Perry. In the time between the completion of Strangeways and the album’s release, The Smiths had officially split, making their Brixton show their last official gig.
Check out footage from The Smiths’ final show down below.
The Smiths setlist, Brixton Academy, December 12th, 1986
- ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’
- ‘London/Miserable Lie’
- ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’
- ‘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?’
- ‘Cemetry Gates’
- ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’
- ‘Still Ill’
- ‘The Queen Is Dead’
- ‘William It Was Really Nothing’
- ‘Hand In Glove’