The Smiths’ final album… 35 years on

Mike Joyce, former drummer with The Smiths told David Hennessy about 35 years since Strangeways, Here We Come, his Irish upbringing and his current relationship with Johnny Marr and Morrissey.

Last week it was 35 years since The Smiths released their final, and what many call their best, album Strangeways, Here We Come.

To mark the occasion drummer Mike Joyce donated his original silver disc to charity, raising funds for Manchester’s Back on Track charity.

The charity works with adults managing problematic drug/alcohol use, living a crime-free life, improving mental health and wellbeing, or finding a stable home.

It was on 28 September 1987 that The Smiths released Strangeways, Here We Come.

But the band itself had already split up and some acrimonious court cases would follow.

Does it feel like 35 years? “It doesn’t at all,” Mike told The Irish World.

“It doesn’t feel that long ago.

“I think also because the music still sounds pretty relevant.”

Mike says he wanted to raffle off his prized silver disc to help those less fortunate.

“It is a prized possession but there’s so many charities and so many institutions that are struggling.

“When I got asked to be a patron of Back on Track, I didn’t really know what that entailed.

“I had no idea so I went to an open day and listened to some of the testimonies of people that had benefited from the organization and I would do whatever I could in terms of making people aware that Back on Track was there.

“So I just thought, ‘What can I do to help the charity?’

“I’ve got this disc.

“It means a lot to me but I don’t mind parting with it for this cause.”

Mike recalls the time of recording it and, perhaps surprisingly given they split so soon after, it being a good atmosphere and experience.

The Smiths had already been acclaimed for their eponymous 1984 album, the follow up Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead.

“Now with the first album that was pretty much all the songs that we had rehearsed and worked on anyway.

“Second album, it’s the typical kind of difficult second album. It’s got to be different from the first but not so different that you’re going to lose a lot of the fans that you have from the first and if it sounds the same as the first, journalists are gonna say, ‘There’s nothing new here’.

“Then with The Queen is Dead, we had a lot to prove.

“So with Strangeways, we all felt very comfortable recording that – contrary to what some people have said, but not from the people that were actually there.”

The Smiths were formed in 1982. Mike remembers the audition that would see him join the band.

“I’d seen Johnny around town a few times, he was painfully cool.

“It was a mutual friend of ours, a guy called Pete Hope that said that he was looking for a drummer.

“It was the first time that I’d met Morrissey when I went down for the audition.

“And when I went in there, I can’t even remember Morrissey saying anything at all.

“He was just kind of pacing up and down the room: Overcoat on, furtive glances, trying to check me out but not wanting to be caught looking at me.

“Odd, that’s how I would describe it because all of the musicians that I’d worked with in the past were quite open, gregarious.

“I mean, Johnny Marr’s guitar playing – it was stunning even in ‘82 when I first got down there, I had never worked with a guitarist that was that good.

“And I thought the lyrics and the singing were very different from anything – because I had just been in punk bands before – So this was very different from any bands that I had been in prior to that.

“I thought, ‘These guys are great’.

“I didn’t join straight away because I was still quite friendly with a band called Victim from Northern Ireland so I felt as though it was a slight betrayal really, I just found it a bit difficult committing myself to The Smiths.

“I think a number of weeks after the audition Johnny was practically hounding me – I know it sounds ridiculous now – But he was saying, ‘You have to join the band’.

“I was like, ‘I’m not sure about it’.

“And then one night I thought, ‘You know, it’d be ridiculous to pass up on an opportunity like this where the guitarist is one of the best guitarists that I’ve heard and the singer and is one of the best singers that I potentially could work with’.

“So in the end, it was kind of a no brainer.

“And I remember saying to one of my friends when we first started rehearsing, I said, ‘They sound incredible. I think they could even be the next Psychedelic Furs’.

“And he was like, ‘No chance, they’re not going to be that cool, they’re not going to be that good or that successful’.

“And that was before we’d recorded anything.

“When we recorded Hand in Glove and listened back to that through the speakers, I suppose that was the first time that the band had ever heard the band.

“We’d heard the guitar and the bass and the drums and the vocals in a rehearsal room, but never with the clarity of in the studio and especially with a second guitar being over dubbed and Johnny’s harmonica, etc.

“So that was the first time that the Smiths had ever been heard anywhere.

“And when I heard that, that’s when I thought, ‘Wow, this is something that is very different from anything I’ve ever heard before and it’s better than anything I’ve ever heard before’.

“It was genreless, you couldn’t really say it was rock or punk or funk or folk or whatever, you couldn’t really put a label on it.”

Mike says he became firm friends with Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke but not so much with ‘Mozzer’.

“Me and Andy and Johnny used to hang a lot, not so much with Morrissey.

“Morrissey kind of kept himself to himself.

“I didn’t feel as though Morrissey wanted to be friends with somebody like myself.

“A lot of the references that Morrissey would speak about, I was just scratching my head, ‘Don’t know what you’re on about, mate’.

“I don’t think I deemed to be very clever, and I was cool with that.

“I didn’t want to go out with Morrissey and sit down and talk about Oscar Wilde, I wanted to go out and party with my friends.”

There is one life choice that Mike can credit Morrissey with helping him make.

“In 1985 before we recorded Meat is Murder – In fact, the day that we recorded Meat is Murder – I wasn’t a vegetarian.

“And the day that we recorded that track, we sat down and discussed vegetarianism.

“Of course, Morrissey was already a vegetarian and I really couldn’t come up with a good enough reason as to why I shouldn’t become vegetarian.

“I kind of thought, ‘Well, there’s no argument here’.

“That was in 1985 and I’ve been vegetarian ever since, my children are all brought up vegetarian.

“Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

“Morrissey certainly said things to ruffle feathers. I think he’ll do that.

“I think he was doing that even before he was in a band.

“I think he’ll probably do that until the grave.

“I don’t agree with a lot of things that he says, but I do like the fact that he actually kind of opened that tinderbox, he really kind of gets a discussion going.

“I remember it was about Live Aid and people were saying, ‘It’s fantastic’.

“And Morrissey’s argument was, ‘It shouldn’t be down to some old dear up in Hull spending £1.75 on a single to save children’s lives. It shouldn’t be down to those people.

“Now that’s the kind of thing I don’t think of.

“But I think popular music needs people like Morrissey just to put his stick in the hornet’s nest every now and again.”

Strangeways, Here We Come would bring The Smiths their best chart position in America but mainstream success in America always eluded them.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you’re knocking on that door, they just won’t open it for a lot of people because it doesn’t meet their kind of agenda and what they decide will be the thing, that’s what I think kind of happened to The Smiths.

“We certainly didn’t touch billboards, put it that way.

“But I remember about ‘85, Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears had come out and we were over there.

“And it was number one on the Billboard chart.

“I mean, they were doing big business out there and they were playing 3,000 or 4,000 seaters in New York, Boston, and then when we played there, we played to, I think, 12 or 15,000.

“So it was a kind of a strange one really. We couldn’t even get anywhere near the charts but we were playing much bigger venues.

“If you got it, you got it and if you didn’t, it was okay.

“I remember the promoter, saying to us, ‘Next time you come over, it’s stadiums’.

“Well, of course, that next time didn’t come unfortunately.

“It could have maybe been a lot bigger.

“We’ll never know.”

Was the band’s break-up sudden or were the tensions building for some time? “It was very much a sudden thing when Johnny said he wanted to leave the band.

“I think if I’d seen arguments in the studio, or heated discussions at sound checks then I might have seen it coming.

“I think that’s why it came as a shock to the three of us, because none of us saw it coming really.

“It was just a bolt out of the blue. All three of us were completely shocked by the announcement that Johnny didn’t want to carry on anymore.”

The split would lead to the former band members facing each other in court. Bass player Andy Rourke and Mike would start legal proceedings against Morrissey and Marr arguing against their 10% shares.

Rourke would settle quickly but Mike would take his former bandmates Marr and Morrissey to the High Court and be awarded £1 million in back-royalties and 25 per cent henceforth.

“It’s not something that one wants to have to go through in any walk of life and it was unpleasant for everybody concerned.

“I think any band that forms obviously has to split up at some point.

“I think if somebody had offered me the beginning, middle and end of the Smiths ‘82 to ‘87 and the albums that we’ve made, I’d take that anytime.”

Since The Smiths both Joyce and Rourke have worked with Sinead O’Connor but The Irish World wonders if Mike has seen much of Morrissey and Marr.

“I saw him (Morrissey) in a shop not far from where I live, a computer shop.

“He was at the counter paying and I came in the door. He didn’t see me and I was just standing there.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m standing by the door so when he turns around, he’s gonna see me and we’re either going to have a big fight in here or I don’t know what’s gonna happen. This should be quite interesting because there’s only one way out of here’.

“So I just stood there and waited and waited and waited for him to turn around, and then somebody from the back came out and said, ‘Can I help you?’

“And for about two seconds I thought, I could just say, ‘No, I’m fine. Thanks. I’ll come and have a look in a minute’, and stand there and wait.

“But I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is how it should be’.

“And I just said, ‘Yeah, okay’, and he walked out.

“But I thought it might have been interesting just to find out exactly how it would have been not in a courtroom or with a solicitor there, just me and him in a computer shop.

“Anyway, the moment passed, so I haven’t seen him or spoke to him for many, many years.”

What would he have said? “I think I would have just said, ‘Hi, how you doing?’

“But I was just waiting to see what his reaction would be.

“I presume he would have just pushed me out of the way and gone out the door, probably something along those lines.

“I wasn’t expecting a hug. That’s for sure.

“I don’t want it to be difficult with anybody.

“I see Johnny Marr at the matches because we’re both City fans, and I’ve seen him at a few gigs and say hello and that’s it really.

“He doesn’t want to speak to me and I have no reason to speak to him.

“I think it’s a bit difficult for the people that are around us, really because they’re like, ‘Oh, God, there’s Johnny’.

“In fact, I was at a 40th a while ago, and Johnny was there and somebody said to me, ‘Johnny’s here, what are you going to do?’

“And I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything. I’m just gonna have a drink and celebrate the guy’s 40th’.

“It’s as simple as that. I did see Johnny and just looked over at him and said hi, and that’s fine.”

With two Irish parents, Mike had a very Irish upbringing in Manchester.

“My dad was from Mayo, a place called Shrule.

“My mum’s from Portarlington.

“They had five kids in central Manchester, and then we moved to a place called Fallowfield and that’s where a lot of Irish settled as well.

“Very God-fearing folk. There was a church there and they needed a social club.

“So you know what they did? They built one. They just built it.

“None of this thinking, ‘Wouldn’t be great, we’ll get funds, we’ll do auctions. We’ll try and get… No, we’re just gonna build one’.

“Yeah, very, very strong Irish Catholic family.

“That’s exactly what we were.

“The Smiths actually played in Galway Leisure Centre, not far from where my dad was born.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful experience when I was in the Smiths, any time I’ve played Ireland has always been great.”

Mike was not unique in having Irish heritage in The Smiths as all four did, did this bond them? “It did because there was that solidarity.

“It wasn’t as though we’d be talking about something and say, ‘Well, obviously, it wasn’t like that for you’- You meaning the other band member.

“It was the same for us all.

“So that bonding was very much kind of the upbringing that we had.

“Parents from the same country, of course, it’s going to have that kind of natural bonding, but without us even discussing it or talking about it, it was just kind of a few jokes about mums and dads being very Irish.

“We had an affinity with each other because of the fact that we all had pretty much the same upbringing.

“So it’s not as though somebody’s gonna say, ‘Oh, really, your mum and dad went to church?’

“It was just a given, that’s what was happening every Sunday with us when we were kids.

“We did have a bond in there.”

Mike remembers hearing much Irish music in his youth thanks to that social club he mentions.

“My mum was working in the Irish club.

“I used to go in there with her.

“I’d be there for Big Tom and the Mainliners, and all the crew that did the Irish circuit.”

More recently another Irish band has really grabbed Mike’s imagination.

“When Fontaines DC came up on my radar, I was absolutely blown away.

“I went to see them live, Fontaines DC, and just fell in love.

“I hadn’t heard anything that excited me as much since I saw The Buzzcocks.

“When I saw Buzzcocks when I was about 13, it inspired me to play the drums.

“I wanted to be in a band and I wanted to play the drums because I had never seen anything like that.

“And the same feeling when I went to see Fontaines DC and never thought I’d get it again.

“It’s like falling in love for the first time. You just think, ‘Well, this is it, I’m never gonna get that again’.

“And lo and behold, I’ve seen Fontaine’s DC. I’m absolutely besotted with them.”

Many bands have reformed in recent years even after many years apart but with the Smiths, it just too ridiculous an idea for Mike to even consider.

“Who in their right mind thinks that Morrissey is gonna give me a call? ‘Hi, Mike. How you doing? Not spoke to you for thirty years, do you fancy getting The Smiths back together again?’

“Is that going to happen? I doubt it very, very, very much.

“I think everybody in the right mind does doubt it very, very, very much.

“People have said stranger things have happened because the Roses weren’t going to get back together again and The Police weren’t going to get back together again.

“Well, I think there’s probably more chance of the original Beatles getting back together than The Smiths.”

But Mike is looking to the future with his new project Love Temple.

“I’m working with a guy called Rick Hornby from Manchester, we’ve been writing some songs in my basement, and we’re going to be collaborating with a guy from San Francisco next year.”

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