May 23 – Granddaddy Of ’80s Music

A music fan who shaped a good deal of modern music. A music fan, scientist, engineer…but poor businessman that is. We remember Robert Moog today, inventor of the modern synthesizer, who was born this day in 1934.

Moog grew up in New York City, and loved music. But he had little real inclination to play it, despite his parents putting him in harp lessons. Instead he was fascinated by the instruments, and by his dad’s career. His father was an electrical engineer for ConEd. At age 14, he built a theremin (a strange sound-shifting instrument used on the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” for instance) from blueprints. By 1953 – while still a teen – he began manufacturing them in small numbers and selling them by mail order, for about $50 (about $550 in today’s funds). “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he’d later say, “I was doing this to have a good time.”

He carried on to university, eventually getting two engineering degrees including a PhD.Somewhere along the way, a customer of his hooked a keyboard up to one of his theremins and that got him thinking about the possibilities. He began thinking about the idea of having the range of sounds made by a theremin controlled by a number of dials and combined with the sounds and simplicity of a simple electric piano keyboard. Thus by a 1964 New York engineering conference was born the Moog Synthesizer, the first commercially available musical synth. There had been a few synthesizers before that, but they were of little practical use for musicians, costing over $100 000, being large enough to fill a whole room and being run by punchcards. Moog’s synth was portable, albeit huge by current standards, and cost under $10 000, and of course utilized keyboards. In 1970 he refined it into the smaller, cheaper Mini Moog, which was the first really popular synthesizer in pop music, quickly being adopted by Rick Wakeman of Yes and Frank Zappa’s band among others. By then he’d already gained some credibility in the industry when the classic-lite album Switched on Bach, playing upbeat Bach music largely on a Moog, won a Grammy.

For all that, Moog was not great at business. He started Moog Music in the ’60s, sold it at one point but then bought it back but he lacked the acumen for running a large company and it didn’t do well financially. Among his “problems” was that he only filed for one patent. If he had patented all the groundbreaking innovations he’d introduced in his instruments, he doubtless would have made far more money…but perhaps stalled the progress of his instrument breaking through. As Sound On Sound wrote, if he patented all he could have “it’s likely the synthesizer industry as we know it would never have happened.” By the second half of the ’70s, Moog was losing ground to a number of competitors including Roland, who were able to refine the instrument a bit more and mass produce them at lower costs.

By the 1980s, he’d moved to North Carolina and had become a university music professor, although he still ran a music instrument company. He passed away from cancer in 2005, leaving behind his second wife and five children, and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously..

So put on some ’80s clothes and crank up the Depeche Mode or Soft Cell and remember the “archetypal American maverick inventor”, who as the Guardian put it “changed the complexion of pop and classical musical worlds.”

May 23 – Change Was Only Roxy Music Constant

Ever-morphing and ever-popular in Europe, Roxy Music put out their seventh (and penultimate) studio album, Flesh + Blood this day in 1980. The album was surprisingly the first of their records to go platinum in the UK and the second one to top the charts there; it cracked the U.S. top 40 which they’d only done once before.

Roxy was down to just a core trio of Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera by this time but were well-supplemented with a raft of studio musicians including Paul Carrack on this one. The album was a little uneven and focused largely on love lost and also included a couple of ’60s cover songs – Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and the Byrds “Eight Miles High.” That marked the first time the band had recorded cover songs, although Bryan Ferry had put out a couple of solo albums in the ’70s consisting of nothing but coves.

Critics weren’t impressed; Rolling Stone called it “such a shockingly bad Roxy Music record” while years later would upgrade it to a 3-star rating saying “good – but lacked the spark that made some of the earlier albums so good.” Allmusic similarly gave it an unusually bad 2-star rating, surprising in that the review wasn’t all that bad really. They suggested that at its best, it was “effortlessly suave and charming”, that “Oh Yeah” was one of their best singles ever, but that the cover songs were superfluous and showed the band was running low on ideas. Ferry’s own website says of it “a record of grace and graciousness, sense and sensuality” and while top 10 singles “Oh Yeah” and “Over You” are good enough, it’s “Same Old Scene” that steals the show. Biographer David Buckley notes it was the band’s “most perfect dance record” and that a year later “the charts would be full of songs with a similar musical trajectory.”

Roxy Music came back two years later with their North American breakthrough, Avalon… then promptly broke up for years. They’d now back together for the first time in years getting ready for a 50th anniversary tour, kicking off Sep. 7 in Toronto.

May 22 – Voice Of Marshall Not Tucker-ed Out Yet

Wonder how many people call him “Marshall”? Happy 74th birthday to Doug Gray – the voice of, and sole original member of the Marshall Tucker Band.

Doug, and his band, came from Spartanburg, SC. He and his friend, bassist Tommy Caldwell were in bands together as early as high school, with Gray being the singer and periodically playing keyboards. Both were sent to Vietnam, disrupting their musical paths obviously, but they regrouped upon their return home, forming a band called Toy Factory. After a few personnel changes, they changed their name, to the one we know. Strangely, Marshall Tucker was a real person but he had nothing to do with the band! He was apparently a blind piano tuner whose name was inscribed on a key they found in the rehearsal space they were using. They liked the name and adopted it, which might well have surprised Tucker.

They signed to Georgia’s Capricorn Records, which in the ’70s was a Southern Rock powerhouse, having a much in-demand studio in Macon and being the home to the Allman Brothers among other artists. They put out their first album, a self-titled one, in 1973 which had the single “Can’t You See,” a commercial failure at the time but since one which has become a staple of Classic Rock radio stations. It was a rarity among their tunes though since Gray didn’t sing lead on it, unlike almost all the other songs people know by them.

With their blend of “country, rock’n’roll and blues” they didn’t always fit radio formats that well, but their albums sold – two (1977’s Carolina Dreams and a greatest hits one) went platinum in the U.S. and five more gold. They did score a couple of hits mind you, “Fire on the Mountain” and their biggest, 1977’s “Heard it in a Love Song”, which got to #14 (and #5 in Canada.) Their popularity was helped immensely by their touring, averaging 300 shows a year through the second-half of the ’70s. Quite often they were accompanied by the Charlie Daniels Band; Charlie played fiddle on several of their records and as Gray remembered, “he’d go headline, then we’d swap.” Daniels death in 2020 was “devestating” to Gray who says they were planning yet another tour together just before he passed away.

Another death which hit Gray hard was Tommy Caldwell’s in 1980, which is said to have made the band lose direction somewhat, and momentum. They put out nine albums of new material in the ’70s, just a dozen more over the next 30 years.

By now, there have been 30 members of the Marshall Tucker Band besides their current lineup, with Gray being the only constant. Not much seems to be written about his personal life, but it is known he looks at the band as “extended family – the entire band and the road crew.” He says the “50 year thing is a good feeling. It really is, we’re getting a lot more respect (than early on)”. And to celebrate their doing a 50th Anniversary tour this summer and fall, covering all corners of the country including a triumphant hometown free concert in Spartanburg June 7. If you’re a northerner who’s a southerner at heart, you might want to see them in sunnier climes next winter…in February they star on a Royal Caribbean Rock Legends tropical cruise!

May 22 – What Was That Number Again?

The world’s most famous phone number became that on this day in 1982 – one hit wonders Tommy Tutone hit “867-5309/Jenny” rang up as #4 in the U.S.

The San Francisco area rockers included members of Clover (a band which morphed into Huey Lewis and the News) and is still going, forty or so years after they began. They actually recorded a new album in 2019, some 21 years after their previous one. According to Alex Call, the writer, “was just trying to write a four-chord rock song.” He explains “I actually came up with ‘Jenny’ and the telephone number and the music…just sitting in my backyard.” Despite rumors, the song wasn’t autobiographical. “There was no Jenny,” he says, adding that when guitarist Jim Keller dropped by, he suggested that the girl’s number should be up on a bathroom wall “we wrote the verses in 15 or 20 minutes.”

The song was from their second album, and although signed to Columbia and scraping onto the American charts a year earlier with a song called “Angel Say No”, no one had high expectations for Tommy Tutone 2. “It didn’t have a lot of promotion,” Call remembers. “It was just one of those songs that got a lot of requests…it was on the charts for 40 weeks.” It earned them a gold single and also rose to #2 in Canada, but they never found the winning number again, failing to have any major hits since.

It wasn’t necessarily a hit for those with the number- people with it (including the daughter of Buffalo’s police chief) were routinely inundated with callers looking for “Jenny” by the hundreds and often ended up changing the number. It also probably frustrated a lot of romeos who were trying to get girls numbers in later years. “A lot of women have told me they use the number as a brush-off…which I think is really great.” So, remember guys, if you see a hot girl who doesn’t seem to swoon at you and you ask for their number…if she writes “867-5309” on your hand, you’re probably never going to see them again. (Perhaps a little like Tommy Tutone itself!)

May 21 – Hot Space Got Cold Shoulder From Fans

Being a successful musician seems to mean being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Being super-successful seems to involve that and being something of a magician or mystic at the same time, managing to steer the sound successfully. The problem is, once you have a following, if you keep sounding the same, people will typically get bored with you (AC/DC fans excepted) …but if you change sound, you risk alienating many of your fans who’ll long for your “traditional” sound. Few can navigate frequent change well and keep their fans. Even Queen struggled with it, as we found out four decades back – Hot Space came out this day in 1982.

It was their tenth studio album, coming about a year and change after their experimental soundtrack to Flash Gordon, and two years after their smash The Game which had elevated them to unmitigated superstar status worldwide with hits like “Another One Bites The Dust”. They were getting a bit restless perhaps, and well aware that the prevailing hit sounds were quite different than they were five or six years earlier when they were making their mark with songs like “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.” Bassist John Deacon and their star singer Freddie Mercury in particular seemed to want to shift gears with the band.

Drummer Roger Taylor says Deacon particularly was tired of their anthemic rock sound. “John’s always been R&B orientated,” he’d say a year or two after the album release, “I think we went too far and did too much.” Neither he nor guitarist Brian May liked Freddie’s personal manager, Paul Prenter one bit. Prenter apparently disliked rock and May says “he wanted our music to sound like you’d just walked into a gay bar, and I didn’t.” He further aggravated them by keeping Mercury away from reporters and rudely alienating quite a few American radio people in the process, never helpful when you want them to play your new record. For another change, they recorded it – slowly due to heavy partying – in Germany and Switzerland, no doubt taking in the latest Euro-pop sounds along the way.

The result was an interesting, but oddly varied album using far more synthesizers than they had before and fewer Brian May guitar bits. For the first time they brought in drum machines. The one real standout on the album was a song everyone already knew – “Under Pressure”, the duet with David Bowie which had been pre-released months earlier.

There were some other highlights, though opinions varied as to what they were. Brian May got to show off his guitar a little with his bluntly anti-gun “Put out the Fire”; the band did a tribute to John Lennon (with them recording the record at the time Lennon was killed) called “Life is Real,” and “Calling All Girls” was a likeable little pop song that would have sounded at home as one of the lesser tracks on The Game. Still, diehard fans found little to really cheer on and the new wave, younger crowd they were seemingly working to musically seduce weren’t interested.

Reviews weren’t terrible…unless you put it in context of them being for one of the most successful and loved acts of the decade preceding it. Smash Hits rated it 5 out of 10; The Guardian gave it just 2-stars noting “by the time (it) came out, disco had mutated into weird, skeletal dubby electronic sounds…which didn’t really suit Queen.” Rolling Stone was a bit more generous, rating it 3-stars. They opined “Queen offers a bit more than bluster” with their “funky songs”, singling out “Back Chat” as “a hot rock funk tune with guitar tracks as slick as any icy dancefloor,” but warning that “Body Language” is “a piece of funk that isn’t fun.” Later, allmusic rated it just 2.5-stars, the lowest of anything they did while Mercury was alive. They called it an “unabashed pop/dance album…devoting the entire first side to robotic, new wave dance pop driven by drum machines” before “finally getting synth-drum new wave right” with “Calling All Girls.” They summed it up by suggesting “Under Pressure” would be the only track on it fans would remember. Interestingly, to the record’s credit (well, debate among yourselves if it is that) it did have a big fan in Michael Jackson who loved it and said it was a big influence on Thriller.

While “Under Pressure” was one of their biggest hits, the other singles released didn’t exactly re-write the Queen song book or necessitate a lot of added cabinet space for awards. “Body Language,” with its oft-banned video peaked at #25 at home for them, doing a bit better here, hitting #11 in the U.S. and #3 in Canada. “Calling All Girls” hit #33 in Canada, but flopped in the States, the only other market it was put out in as a single; back in the UK “La Pelagras De Amor (The words of Love)” was released instead, and hit #17 and #10 in Ireland. “Put out the Fire” did well on North American rock radio, but wasn’t put out as an official single. When all was said and done, the album did top the Austrian charts and got to #4 in the UK, #5 in Germany and #6 in Canada. It stalled at #22 in the U.S., but still got them a gold record. Worldwide sales topped three million, decent but far down from their big hits of the late-’70s and 1980. The Game, for instance sold more than double that. The band’s manager, not to be confused with Mercury’s own, called it “a disaster.”

Sadly for American fans, the album’s limited appeal might have kept them from going to see Queen when they toured for it. As it turned out, it would be the last time Mercury would play shows on this continent, with their next one (and the last before he began to get ill from AIDS) being limited to Europe.

May 21 – Ziggy Danced To The Top

He’d been Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane, a wild innovator and one of rock’s more “out there” stars. But by 1983, David Bowie had perhaps grown tired of putting on masks and other-wordly personas and just wanted to be himself. And to take his career to the next level. On this day 39 years ago, he had succeeded, with his single “Let’s Dance” hitting #1 in the U.S. It was the first single and title track from his 15th studio album, which would go on to be the biggest of his career.

Bowie had, of course, some degree of success before in the 16 or so years he’d been recording prior to this. He’d even had a prior American #1 song, (“Fame”) and in his native Britain, he’d scored three. Nevertheless, he’d always been considered a bit of an oddity, a mid-level star known more for his wild appearance and alter-egos than his radio hits. He wanted to change all that. To do so, he had to step on a few toes. When preparing to record a new record, he’d originally penciled in his friend Tony Visconti to produce it, as he had his last four albums. He had a last-minute change of heart and brought in Nile Rodgers instead.

Rodgers was the American guitarist and co-leader of the band Chic, which had put out a string of disco-based hits at the tail end of the ’70s, and was also integral to producing and putting together the sound of Sister Sledge. Rodgers says when Bowie called him, “he told me that he wanted me to did what I do best – make hits.”

That he did, and he made Bowie’s sound a bit more danceable, a bit more smoothly pop-sounding than it had been in the past. This song for example, was (according to Bowie) rather a folksy-sounding guitar ballad before Rodgers got his hands – and session player pals – on it. Even when it was completed, Bowie didn’t think it sounded like a single. He was partial to “China Girl” (which would in time be released as a single and make #2 in the UK and #10 in the States) but both Rodgers and Bowie’s new record label, EMI , which he had just signed to, insisted otherwise. Wisely so, as it turns out, as it hit #1 in the UK, U.S., Canada, Ireland and elsewhere, quickly propelling the album to the top of the charts and platinum status.

The BBC applauded the song’s “loud stadium-ized drum and bass sound” while journalist Johnny Law noted with it, “Bowie became for the first time. a global pop brand.” That would be helped along by the following singles, the aforementioned “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” “Let’s Dance” would have a second-life, unfortunately precipitated by Bowie’s death in 2016. After that it quickly rose to #23 again in the UK and was the #6 most-streamed song in the U.S.

Bowie wasn’t the only one to benefit from the great single. The striking guitar work on it is courtesy Texan bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom Bowie had seen at Montreaux the previous summer and been impressed enough to want him on the record. Vaughan had been a popular bar performer in Texas but was not widely known in 1982. After the Bowie single, he put out his debut album, Texas Flood, later in ’83 and it hit #38 in the U.S. and spawned his first hit song, “Pride and Joy.”

May 20 – New Wave Supergroup Were Getting Away With It

Yesterday we looked at the breakup of The Smiths, and noted singer Morrissey was quick out of the gates with a solo record not long after. Today we look at one of the first things the Smiths guitar ace, Johnny Marr did after their end. Marr had also played with the idea of a solo record, but he had a lot of friends in music, so he soon paired up with Bernard Sumner, multi-talented singer of New Order to form a band called Electronic. They were about as hot as they’d be this day in 1990, with their first single, “Getting Away With It” making it into the U.S. top 40.

Sumner had been thinking of doing a solo record as well at the time. He was still in New Order and they were doing well, but he was feeling a bit crowded or under-appreciated; that his song ideas weren’t given as much consideration as those of the others. So he started working on one, but found he got bored quickly. So he turned to Marr and they collaborated, bringing in some other big name new wave talent as well – drummer David Palmer of ABC and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who actually co-wrote this one.

Marr was a little bitter at Morrissey and how the Smiths ended, so this song was clearly a parody of “Moz” lyrics… the opening line of “I’ve been walking in the rain just to get wet on purpose” gives you a clue to that; Tennant called the idea “miserablism.” Musically though, the sound probably owed more to New Order, with Sumner doing the lead vocals and playing keyboards. Yet another Brit 80s star, Anne Dudley of Art of Noise was called in and arranged and added in the string section. It was somehow reminiscent of The Smiths as well in as much as it had a lively, breezily upbeat feel despite the deliberately morose-leaning lyrics. The NME hit the mark describing it as “A lovely airy melody” with “obtuse lovelorn one-liners” that end up making “the record be much more than the sum of its parts.”

It came out on New Order’s Factory Records, and they gave it a good push, releasing it as a single on 7” and 12” vinyl as well as a cassette single and CD one; with various mixes of the song ranging from about 4:23” in length to 7:30”. It would later be included on their debut, self-titled album.

The song never reached the heights, sonically or commercially of the best of the works of Marr and Sumner’s previous bands, but was a good start to a career – particularly as both of them made a point of Electronic being a side-project, not their life’s main work. “Getting Away With It” hit #12 in their UK (they’d actually have a couple of bigger hits there, including “Get the Message” which hit #8 about a year later) but hit #38 in the States, their only noteworthy success there. On alt rock charts, it reached #4. The album itself went gold in Britain.

Electronic recorded sporadically through the ’90s, at times involving members of Kraftwerk as well, but failed to have a major breakthrough beyond the first record…which is probably OK with them. A gold record and international hit from essentially a weekend side project? That’s “getting away with it”!

May 20 – Foos Rounded Into Fighting Form

Trying to prove he was more than just someone who knew Kurt Cobain…and succeeding! On this day in 1997, Dave Grohl put out his second post-Nirvana album as Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape. This album actually was a band effort (their debut was recorded basically as a Grohl solo) and continued to build the band’s reputation and bank accounts.

Grohl had recruited bassist Nate Mendel and guitarist Pat Smear – both of whom are still in the band – as well as drummer William Goldsmith, who isn’t. It ended up being the last album they’d do before Taylor Hawkins joined as the drummer. Sadly, as we know, Hawkins passed away recently leaving the job and the actual fate of the band in a state of flummox for now.

A couple of tracks on the record are the only Foo ones Goldsmith appeared on. When they recorded most of the album in late-’96 at a farm near Washington, Goldsmith was the man with the beat. However, Grohl didn’t like the way most of the demos sounded and re-convened the band in L.A. in the beginning weeks of ’97… without Goldsmith. He wasn’t altogether thrilled with the other’s skills and felt he wasn’t quite done with being a drummer himself, so he did most of the drumwork on the finished product. (He says now that while he liked the way it turned out, he regrets the way he handled the unceremonious dropping of the other drummer.) And while he produced the debut record himself (again – despite the name, the first Foo Fighters was truly a Dave Grohl solo work) he decided that if he added some studio musicians, it wouldn’t hurt to bring in a producer for a fresh set of ears. He picked Gil Norton, a talented Brit who came to fame working on the great ’80s Echo & the Bunnymen album Ocean Rain and had worked on a trio of Pixies records in between. Thankfully, Grohl didn’t have any real problems with Gil… he even used the British spelling of “color” (with the “U”) for the title as a nod to him. Norton was quite a perfectionist though. “It was frustrating, it was hard and it was long,” Grohl says of the recording. “At the end of the day, you listened back to what you’d done and you understand why you had to do it a million times.”

If the album was a real band effort musically, it was more of a personal work than the first one when it came to lyrics and themes. Grohl had just divorced his first wife and tried to work through the varying emotions involved on the album, resulting in the mix of hard rockers and more tuneful ballads and at times introspective lyrics. He says he even thought about putting a therapist’s couch on the cover! The therapy worked musically and commercially. It was a top 10 hit in the U.S., Canada and UK and to date is their biggest-seller in the States (at 2.4 million copies and counting.) The singles “My Hero”, “Monkey Wrench”, “Walking After You” (re-recorded for the X-files soundtrack) and “Everlong” made them mainstays of modern rock radio. Not only is the latter double-platinum as a single in the States (one of three they’ve landed), it’s also David Letterman’s favorite song and he had them perform it on his last late-night show

Reviews were mixed when it came out and if anything were more positive on the other side of the ocean. The NME rated it 8 out of 10 and declared it has “Dave Grohl established himself as a musical talent that didn’t end with being the drummer for Nirvana”, applauding “Norton’s production, providing a sheen that showcases Grohl’s knack with fuzzy guitars and bubblegum pop” and summed up by saying “it’s a record you should own.” Over here, Rolling Stone liked the “big, radio-ready modern rock sound” but called it “over-produced”; Spin put Grohl on their cover but gave the record only 6 out of 10. Although they say Dave “has come into his own”, they thought the Beatles-y tunes sounded like you’d “catch your dad whistling along while mowing the lawn” and referenced comparisons to Journey and Steely Dan – and not in a complimentary way.  Allmusic look back at it with more awe, declaring it “perhaps the best example of post-grunge modern rock.” Fans looking for the best example of this ‘best example” album might look for the 10th anniversary re-release. It included some outtakes and b-sides, two of which were of note – a popular acoustic version of “Everlong” and Grohl’s loud cover of “Baker Street.”

May 19 – When Stevie Really Began To Shine

Some cute child prodigies seem to enter the stage with a flourish then disappear before puberty sets in. Once in awhile though, they just keep getting better and making more of a mark for themselves. Such was the case for Stevie Wonder, as we were reminded this day in 1973. That was when he scored his second #1 song of the year, and third overall, with “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life.” It was the second single off his Talking Book album, 15th (besides compilations) of his career…even though he was just 22 when it came out!

Talking Book was considered by many the beginning of the run of truly great albums he made through the ’70s. Not that his earlier work was chopped liver; he’d already delivered such memorable hits as “For Once In My Life” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” But little by little he’d been getting better, and taking more control over his music. While most of his early songs were written by others, some covers of well-known hits, others written specifically for him by Motown staff, by Talking Book he was the main writer of all the songs. Not to mention that his expertise on the keyboards kept increasing, and his range of instruments expanding. On this hit, he played the electric piano and drums, he added a range of synthesizers and the clavinet (best heard on his other single from the record, “Superstition”) to the mix. Loni Groves and Gloria Barley add background vocals on this, with Jim Gilstrap singing the first two lines. The reasoning for that was seemingly known only to Wonder, but it worked!

At under three minutes it was the shortest song on the album (the album and single are the same length but the single had the tasteful horns added in) and also the first one recorded. It was recorded in one night at the Electric Lady Studios in New York City during the sessions for his previous album, but he decided to hold it back. Undeniably a happy little love song, one is left to surmise what his inspiration was. He’s said “the feeling of the melody is happy because I wrote in when I was in New York in late spring, early summer. Good things were happening!” Which is nice to hear, albeit suprising as that was right around the time Wonder was divorcing his first wife, fellow Motown singer Syreeta Wright.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is one of those ’70s songs that seems to raise spirits right away. Rolling Stone would call it a “pop tour de force” while Billboard predicted it would be a hit, noting its “outstanding production.” Years later, the former would rank it among the 200 best songs of all-time.

It didn’t let anybody down commercially, being the hit predicted. It got to #1 in the U.S. by knocking Tony Orlando’s massive “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” out of the top spot. It was a top 10 in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few other lands and won Stevie one of four Grammys he’d collect in 1974, it winning Best Pop Performance by a Male. Amazingly though, most agree his best work was still to come, later in the decade, proving again that Stevie lives up to his last name.

May 19 – Solo Careers, Here We Come?

Separate ways here they came – The Smiths wrapped up recording their final album, Strangeways Here We Come this day in 1987. Few other bands split as quickly or permanently. Although their record company wouldn’t announce the band’s split until that fall, as music historian Alan Cross says “the band ceased to exist the moment Marr left the studio.”

Tensions had been high between Morrissey and Johnny Marr for months. Morrissey, surprisingly, wasn’t happy with their commercial success to that point (which seems odd given his apparent disregard for doing anything to make himself popular or avoid controversy), while equally surprising, Marr, the superb guitarist who gave them their sound was tiring of the jingly Rickenbacker guitar sounds song after song and wanted to broaden their range. He did get his way a wee bit, bringing in a synthesizer to add some string-like effects on a couple of songs, an autoharp which he played on “I Won’t Share You” and he even got Morrissey to play piano on “Death of a Disco Dancer.” They battled over the band’s plans for a tour and the “last straw”, according to Marr, was when Morrissey insisted on putting a cover song Marr hated on the B-side of the lead single, “Girlfriend in a Coma”. “Moz” got his way and won the battle, but arguably lost the war. They did a ’60s cover, “Work Is A Four-letter Word” and had it as the b-side. The song was done originally by blue-eyed soul singer Cilla Black. Marr said “that was the last straw! I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs!”

He left the day the recording finished for L.A. , “so off I went and I never saw Morrissey again.” The album did well but didn’t break any new ground for them, hitting #2 in the UK but selling less than their previous album, The Queen is Dead. In North America, it hit #27 in Canada and #55 in the U.S., their best-showing to date but still not representative of the influence and appeal they had at home. “Girlfriend in a Coma” got to #13 there, their fifth-straight top 20 hit (it also gave Douglas Coupland the title for a popular ’90s novel) and the characteristically gloomily-titled “Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me” and “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” also did OK for them in Britain, although neither gained the “classic” status that their fans decreed on most of their earlier hits.

Morrissey was quick out of the gate, releasing his first solo album in 1988. To date, he’s put out 13 solo studio albums, with mixed commercial results – three hit #1 in the UK, but others have struggled to sell. Johnny Marr’s gone on to be a part of several other bands and back up acts like the Pretenders and Bryan Ferry on guitar. Strangeways, for the record, is a notorious Manchester jail.