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30 Years Ago: The Smiths Play Their Final Concert

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On Dec. 12, 1986, the Smiths played their final show at London’s Brixton Academy. Nobody knew it would be the band’s concert swan song at the time. And although cracks had started to show in the Smiths’ veneer all year, the group sounded vibrant and inspired.

“Bigmouth Strikes Again” found Morrissey spinning like a whirling dervish, arms flailing, while “Is It Really So Strange?” turned into a twangy lope with a distinct theatrical edge. A raucous encore take on “The Queen Is Dead,” meanwhile, snarled with defiance, courtesy of Johnny Marr‘s distortion-smeared riffs and Morrissey’s invective.

The show was a benefit for Artists Against Apartheid—with tickets ranging from five to eight pounds, according to the fan site Passions Just Like Mine—and was originally supposed to be at Royal Albert Hall in November. Unfortunately, Marr had wrecked his BMW, which necessitated postponing the concert. Although the guitarist had “managed to walk away pretty much unscathed,” he told The Guardian in 2006, “when people see photos of the car wreck, they can’t believe I got away with it.”

That was just the tip of the drama iceberg for the Smiths in 1986, however. Earlier in the year, bassist Andy Rourke had been fired due to his heroin addiction; busted after buying the drug; and then promptly re-hired. A prolonged battle to have new record The Queen Is Dead released from label limbo had taken its toll on the group. And the last four shows of the Smiths’ U.S. tour—including a sold-out gig at Radio City Music Hall—were canceled, officially due to Rourke being bit by a stingray, but unofficially due to the band’s debauchery-induced exhaustion.

The December Brixton Academy show, however, found the Smiths ostensibly soldiering on toward the future. The band played “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” which ended up appearing on 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come; this version was stormy, although somewhat plodding. The Queen Is Dead‘s “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” was played in concert for the very first time, and it was appropriately melancholy and meditative, which gave Morrissey the chance to show off an exaggerated growl and croon. And the band did a new medley with “London”—here, a fiery, rockabilly rave-up— mixed together with the first album track “Miserable Lie,” here a falsetto-driven careen.

“You have incredibly good taste,” Morrissey quipped to the crowd after the latter. In general, he was in good spirits: In fact, during “The Queen Is Dead,” he held up a sign that said “Two light ales please,” which ended up becoming the name of a Smiths/Morrissey fanzine. (He was more controversial elsewhere, swinging a noose over his head during “Panic,” with its chorus of “Hang the DJ.”) The crowd hung on his every word, however, and stretched their arms beseechingly to him during the show-ending “Hand in Glove.” And, as per usual, die-hards rushed the stage—especially during the second encore’s dreamy, starry-eyed “William, It Was Really Nothing.”

Marr didn’t take his post-crash second chance lightly: Speaking to CBS News in November 2016, he recalled the accident “cleared my head massively yeah, because before that, you know, I was staying up late, I was drinking too much, I was doing drugs. But it was a real wake-up call, 100 percent, yeah.” In fact, by July 1987, Marr had left the group, effectively ending the Smiths.

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