Stephen Patrick Morrissey was born May 22, 1959, in Manchester, England; not surprisingly a shy, awkward youth, he became obsessed with music and film as a teenager and devoted his writing talents to penning a New York Dolls fanzine (he was the president of their U.K. fan club), as well as a tribute to James Dean and numerous opinionated letters to the weekly music paper Melody Maker. During the explosion of punk in the late ’70s, Morrissey unsuccessfully auditioned for Slaughter & the Dogs and sang for a brief period with a band called the Nosebleeds. He met guitarist Johnny Marr in 1982 and the two began writing songs together, forging one of the most productive partnerships British pop had seen in quite some time.
The Smiths’ 1983 debut single, “Hand in Glove,” a love song filled with oblique references to homosexuality, made them an underground sensation in the U.K. and as Morrissey attracted more attention, he demonstrated a flair for manipulating the media. His interviews were filled with blunt, unpredictable opinions and intentionally outrageous statements and his notoriety wasn’t hurt by his stage presence (he performed wearing a hearing aid with flowers sticking out of his back pockets) or his self-proclaimed celibacy in the wake of much speculation about his sexuality. Possessed of a darkly cynical bent as a lyricist, he was often misinterpreted as advocating some of the more disturbing things he sang about, which only added to the furor surrounding the band.
The Smiths’ eponymous 1984 debut was a smash in the U.K. and in its wake, Morrissey began promoting his political views, heavily criticizing Margaret Thatcher, and advocating vegetarianism (hence the title of the follow-up LP, Meat Is Murder). The Queen Is Dead (1986) was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but friction between Morrissey and Marr was growing. Marr departed after 1987’s Strangways, Here We Come and Morrissey broke up the rest of the band to begin a solo career.
Feeling betrayed by Marr’s defection, Morrissey channeled his frustration into creating new material with producer Stephen Street. His first two solo singles, “Suede head” and the gorgeous “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” were significant British hits in 1988 and his first album, Viva Hate (its title a reference to the Smiths’ breakup), was commercially and critically well received. He released several more high-quality singles, including “The Last of the International Playboys” and “Interesting Drug,” but spent an inordinate amount of time laboring on the follow-up album, issuing the stopgap compilation Bona Drag in 1990. In the meantime, the Madchester fad was sweeping British indie music and when the lackluster Kill Uncle was finally released in 1991, it only magnified the disappointment. U.K. reviewers took Morrissey to task, suggesting that the record marked the end of his glory days and that he would never be able to match the songs he’d written in tandem