I started something I couldn't finish: the Smiths reunion that wasn't

Three former members of the indie band were due to reunite for a series of gigs that fell apart as soon as they were announced. Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon explain why they tried to make it happen

There’s no panic on the streets of Salford, but there is something in the cold Monday morning air. A few days earlier, keen fans spotted something intriguing on former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce’s social media: a series of images bearing a musical note and Joyce’s surname, along with those of bassist Andy Rourke and short-lived “fifth Smith”, guitarist and sometime bassist Craig Gannon.

Was it possible? A Smiths reunion in the offing? Albeit one with no mention of Morrissey or lead guitarist Johnny Marr. The news was formally announced in the early hours of 22 January: three-fifths of one of the most influential bands in British pop history were reuniting for a series of classical concerts, reinterpreting the Smiths’ hits alongside an orchestra. Come lunchtime, Joyce and Gannon were going to spill the beans.

But, of course, this is the Smiths, a group unfamiliar with the concept of plain sailing. Bands live and bands die, but few do it quite as publicly, and Classically Smiths was already set to implode.

The Smiths were formed in Manchester in 1982 by Steven Patrick Morrissey and guitarist Marr. They recruited Andy Rourke on bass and were casting about for a drummer when a mutual friend put them in touch with Mike Joyce.

Joyce, 54, sits in a corner of a Salford Quays restaurant with Gannon, 51, and recalls his recruitment – playing hooky from his other band, Victim, to try out with the newly minted group. “I had a listen to their cassette and thought, ‘Wow, that sounds really good.’” They offered him the job and, after some soul-searching about leaving Victim, Joyce joined.

Performing Hand in Glove on Channel 4’s The Tube in 1984.

He knew he’d made the right decision from the first time they played their 1983 debut single, Hand in Glove. “When we were rehearsing, it sounded great, but I’d never heard it properly because all I could hear was my drums. When I heard it through the speakers for the first time, I was like, ‘Wow, what exactly is this?’ People were asking me what we sounded like, and I didn’t really know how to explain it.”

Gannon came to the Smiths much later, in early 1986. The release of their third studio album, The Queen Is Dead, had been dogged by legal disputes with label Rough Trade. Morrissey had sacked Rourke over his heroin use. Gannon was brought in to replace him – on guitar, he says, rather than bass – but Rourke was reinstated a couple of weeks later, and Gannon stayed in the band until October 1986. The posthumously released live album, Rank (1988), demonstrates the band’s pumped-up muscle, he says. “Me being there freed Johnny up a lot to embroider his guitar parts.”

Despite the Smiths’ punishing schedule – five studio albums in five years, plus intense global touring – and their very public crash and burn in 1987, Joyce mostly remembers the good times. “You only had to look at the numbers of people who came to the gigs, at the amount of records we were selling, the reaction of the people when we played live, to know this was something special. It was 365 days a year, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The idea of having two or three weeks off – what for? How could it get any better? When you’re young, you think that’ll last for ever.”

Which, of course, it couldn’t. In summer 1987, Marr called a band meeting in a Kensington fish and chip shop and told them it was over. He was leaving.

“I was shocked,” says Joyce. “We all were, apart from Johnny. I didn’t see it coming. It wasn’t as though there’d been a big breakdown in communications or people hadn’t been speaking to each other for six months. I thought it might blow over, that it was a blip and we might just take six months out, but it soon became pretty obvious that wasn’t the case.”

The Smiths were over, but there was worse to come. In 1989 Joyce and Rourke began legal action against Morrissey and Marr when it became apparent that the latter had each received 40% of the profits compared to Joyce and Rourke’s respective 10%. It was a messy, public spat. Rourke settled early; Joyce pushed on and it took until 1996 for a high court decision in his favour, with the judge calling Morrissey “devious, truculent and unreliable” in the way he withheld the real profit-sharing ratio from Joyce and Rourke.

“I regret that it had to happen,” Joyce says. “I don’t regret that I went through with it. I was hoping to have dealt with it prior to going into court, but that wasn’t the case, unfortunately. But obviously I felt vindicated. Of course it hurt, being in a court room with three guys I’d spent five years with and for it to end up like that. It was difficult for us all.”

‘When you’re young, you think it’ll last forever.’ (l-r) Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon.
‘When you’re young, you think it’ll last forever.’ (l-r) Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Which brings us back to Salford and the prospect of these shows with the Manchester Camerata Orchestra. The plan: to play the hits, plus material from Strangeways Here We Come, the final album, which was never toured due to the split. Joyce and Gannon are brimming with enthusiasm. Manchester promoter Joel Perry pitched them the concept. “I thought, that sounds like a fantastic idea,” says Joyce. “I embraced it straight away. There were no second thoughts.”

“A big part of it for me was that me, Mike and Andy would be playing together again,” says Gannon. “I mean, we last played together 31 years ago.”

A week prior to the announcement, Gannon and Joyce got together in the basement of Joyce’s house in Altrincham and played There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, followed by How Soon Is Now. “It just sounded absolutely fantastic,” Joyce says, grinning, “and if it sounds that good with two of us …”

Rourke lives in New York now, and wasn’t over for the Classically Smiths press launch on Monday. He’d been working on a new project with Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan prior to her sudden death. But he’s as up for it as Gannon and Joyce, presumably. A press release quotes him as being “thrilled and excited”. Joyce says nothing, and Gannon adds: “Well, I’ve not spoken to him recently. But there’s been a lot of email contact, and I’m sure he’s as excited as we are.”

‘The last thing we wanted was to mislead anyone.’
‘The last thing we wanted was to mislead anyone.’ Photograph: Stephen Wright/Redferns

Perhaps that’s when alarm bells should have started ringing. Within hours of the interview in Salford, things had taken a very Smiths-like turn. Rourke issued a press statement saying it had been “erroneously reported” he was participating in the tour: “At no time did I give my consent for anyone in connection with this Classically Smiths project to act on my behalf or my name and nothing was ever confirmed, approved or contracted by me or my team.” His representatives stated that all parties were aware of this, and that the press conference and press release were scheduled and serviced to the media without Rourke or his team’s knowledge or approval.

I tried to get back in touch with Joyce, and was told that this was an “incredibly stressful time”. He released a statement that said he now wasn’t taking part in Classically Smiths, either. It intimated that he had known Rourke wouldn’t be participating, but wasn’t authorised to say so on the morning of the press conference and had attempted to skirt the issue of his involvement in interviews. He concluded: “After much deliberation and soul-searching, I have decided that without Andy, an integral part of why I agreed to take part in the first place, I have come to this difficult decision. I still believe the shows and concept to be a fantastic idea and wish them all the success they deserve.”

By Tuesday, Gannon had posted on Facebook – “with regret” – that the shows were off. (The post has since been deleted.) He claimed that the core trio had confirmed their involvement five months ago, but that Rourke’s alleged last-minute withdrawal came too late to amend the marketing materials. “It also meant that we were under obligation yesterday to go ahead with the press launch, which Mike and myself did, but were told we couldn’t mention anything about the situation with Andy. That’s unfortunate as the last thing we wanted was to mislead anyone.” (Neither Morrissey nor Marr have commented publicly.)

The shows were being organised by Bad Production, a company run by Joel Perry, based in Manchester, and Elliot Marks in California. Perry was at the Salford press launch with Joyce and Gannon, but after it emerged that the gigs were collapsing, he responded to requests for an interview with a one-line statement: “In response to recent comments in the press, the planned Classically Smiths events will now no longer be taking place.” Perry and Marks ignored repeated appeals from the Guardian for clarification; Perry’s phone appears to have been disconnected.

The reunion that never was died before it even got off the ground: a farcical second ending to a band whose legacy has already been tarnished by that court case, not to mention Morrissey’s pronouncements on race and Brexit. With Rourke saying he was never officially involved, and Joyce and Gannon maintaining that he pulled out at the last minute, this, too, could run and run.

“I started something I couldn’t finish”; “I was bored before I even began” – the Smiths wrote their own epitaph plenty of times before this mess.


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Smiths: a beginner's guide

Phoebe Hurst: Ten songs picked by our readers to introduce Manchester's finest – Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce – to newcomers

Phoebe Hurst

25, Feb, 2013 @10:46 AM

Article image
Johnny Marr scotches Smiths reunion rumours: 'Nigel Farage on guitar'
Marr alluded to his political differences with Morrissey, after a fan asked about rumours of a 2020 tour spread by ‘a trusted source’

Laura Snapes

07, Nov, 2019 @12:03 PM

Article image
The Smiths to release first single in decades
The band will issue a demo version of The Boy With the Thorn in His Side, with a sleeve designed by Morrissey

Guardian music

01, Dec, 2016 @9:05 AM

Article image
A light that never goes out: why the Smiths are eternally influential
In a second feature marking 40 years of the Smiths, fans including Andy Burnham and Connie Constance consider how and why the band have endured

Shaad D'Souza

01, Jun, 2023 @9:45 AM

Article image
Old music: The Smiths – Miserable Lie

Finbarr Sheehy: Morrissey knew that windswept mystical air. It meant he'd like to seize your underwear

Finbarr Sheehy

17, Apr, 2012 @9:54 AM

Article image
The Smiths: 10 of the best
Michael Hann: from a landmark debut single to the epics of love and loss, here are 10 classic Smiths songs to warm you up for Morrissey’s forthcoming UK tour

Michael Hann

21, Jan, 2015 @12:53 PM

Article image
'The Smiths and Morrissey changed our lives'

They might have split 24 years ago, but the Smiths remain as popular as ever. Here, Jon Savage explains their enduring appeal, while Rosanna Boscawen and Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy meet some of their devoted fans

Jon Savage, Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy and Rosanna Boscawen

01, Oct, 2011 @11:05 PM

Article image
These charming fans: Smiths devotees pose outside Salford Lads Club - in pictures

Photographer Stephen Wright captures Smiths fans recreating the famous image of the band outside Salford Lads Club

06, Mar, 2012 @5:26 PM

Article image
The Smiths are not reforming, say Morrissey and Marr's representatives
No surprises as pop world's most persistent unfounded rumour is once again knocked down by singer and guitarist

Sean Michaels

03, Oct, 2012 @10:34 AM

Article image
The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead turns 25 – in pictures

Stephen Wright took the famous Salford Lads Club photograph on the album's inside sleeve. Here is a selection of his finest Smiths shots ...

13, Jun, 2011 @11:47 AM