The Smiths’ Mike Joyce: ‘I know people say never say never but ‘never’ is the most appropriate word’

Ex-Smiths drummer on the prospect of a reunion tour, the timelessness of their music and why Strangeways, Here We Come is the band’s greatest album.

What is it about Strangeways, Here We Come, 35 years after its release, that makes it your favourite Smiths album?

There are great songs and great songwriting on this album. Let’s start with the foundations and work our way up. There were great lyrics, great singing and great bass playing as always, nothing new there. For me Johnny (Marr) really shone on this album. There was a lot more string arrangements and emulators. Rough Trade wouldn’t put their hands in their pockets to get a string section in. It was Johnny Marr playing a lot of these string parts. It sounds like a very different album for what you would expect from an indie band around the time – in fact an indie band from any era. It is a very unusual album in terms of the sounds that are on there. Even without it being the last album, it would still be my favourite. It’s the one that is most dear to me. I think it would have been anyway even if we carried on and made a few more. Who knows? It was a great experience recording it as well. Stephen Street the producer was really on form for the recording. I have heard that it is Morrissey and Johnny and Andy’s (Rourke – the bass player) favourite album. It’s the only thing that we agree about.

What’s your favourite song on the album?

I think it would be Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. The intro, the ideas that went in there, Johnny’s piano playing, it is out of this world. It doesn’t really make sense in terms of timing and in terms of what The Smiths had done before or what they were in terms of a very emotive swinging, bar-room kind of tune. It really gets me every time. Every time I hear it, it gets a bit goosey. It’s timeless and that’s probably why it stands out. It could fit in any era.


It seems to me that your music has never dated.

When we first recorded Hand In Glove (their first single), though we had done a lot of rehearsing, we sat down and listened to what The Smiths sounded like through speakers for the very first time. It sounded pretty special though it was a pretty traditional line-up of bass, drums, guitar and vocals.

Even then it didn’t sound dated. I thought to myself, “what the hell is that? Where does it sit? It’s not punk, it’s not pop, it’s not soul, what is it?” I never heard anything like it. We covered a lot of bases in terms of styles of music. From the first single to the last album, none of it sounds dated. Listen to How Soon is Now? and as soon as you hear that intro, it is wow! That could easily be released in 2022. It’s just a great record. We were timeless.

You recorded in Strangeways in March 1987. By the time it came out in September 1987 you had split up. Do you feel a certain sadness listening back to it thinking that was your last album and what you might have achieved had you stayed together longer?

I did immediately after the split. When Johnny told us at a meeting in London that he wanted to leave the band I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was incredulous. Obviously there must have been a lot of turmoil going on in Johnny’s head. I wasn’t party to that. I think I was just bewildered when it happened rather than being angry or bitter or resentful. It’s a very hard emotion to deal with because the numbers don’t add up. We had just recorded the best album we had done. It was shocking. That’s why I stuck around with Morrissey and Andy (O’Rourke - bass player). One quarter of what I adored had been taken away but I still had three-quarters left. It didn’t affect my admiration for Morrissey’s writing and singing and also the same with Rourkey. That’s why I stuck around with those guys for a little while. There’s no bitterness. There has to be a beginning and a middle and an end for every band.

But you were only together for five years.

I know, but look at the legacy of work we left behind. There are bands which take five years between albums and what a way to go out. Do we all want to split up when we are on stage with beards and the grandkids? I don’t think so. We were kids. That intensity only comes from youth. Johnny was 22 when we split up and I was eight months older than Johnny. When The Smiths got together I was 19. Somebody sent me a link to The Smiths playing in Madrid in 1985 at a festival. Morrissey was absolutely on fire. My son came in and I showed it to him. I told him that he was older now than I was when I was on that stage. That blew his mind. He was 23 when I showed him that.

The Smiths were 100 per cent Irish in terms of your background (all eight parents were Irish-born). Is that correct?

Yes, well the names say it all really. Johnny Maher changed his name because the drummer from Buzzcocks were called John Maher. We had pretty much the same kind of Catholic upbringing in a Northern city. The first port of call after getting off the boat is either Liverpool or Manchester. My father was from near Shrule, Co Mayo and my mother from Portarlington, Co Laois. I went home to see my Dad a few times because his brother still owns the farm there. We would go over in August to help in the fields and stuff. It was fantastic. It was a great experience for a kid to go over there. We all had a similar upbringing because that kind of strong Irish Catholic background is never going to leave you, especially with us being first generation born over here. After the slum clearance in about 1969 when they got rid of the old back-to-backs, we were offered new housing in Fallowfield, Manchester. They put a lot of the Irish in there. It was a massive Irish community arriving in this sweet, suburban little outskirt of Manchester. The church was very strong for them and the social club. It was a very tight-knit community with a lot of drinking, dancing and religious fervour.

And yet many people see The Smiths as a quintessentially English band.

We were all born in England. We were 19 to 20, in Morrissey’s case he was 22 or 23 when The Smiths started. Of course living in the UK is going to influence you. We had been over to Ireland with our mums and dads, but there is a quintessentially English feel to our accents. Up until I was about 16, there was a lot of Irish kids I was involved with at home, but then my friendships with other people expanded outside that Irish upbringing. I think we might have sounded English because we didn’t sound American. If you think of Morrissey’s accent a lot of people sang with American accents, but Morrissey sang with a Mancunian accent.

When was the last time you saw Morrissey?

The last time I spoke to him was in 1996, very briefly. He comes to Altrincham just around the corner from where I am now periodically and I have seen him walking down the street and I drive past. I saw him in a computer shop and he was getting some cartridges. I was looking for a new MacBook. I came in and he was standing at the corner. I was just standing at the door and I thought, this could be interesting because obviously once he has got his cartridges and he turns around, he is going to have to come out the door. I just stood by the door waiting for him to turn around just to see what would happen really and see how it would have panned out. I was waiting 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute and I was just standing there and it was getting a bit odd.

A woman at the back came out and asked me if she could help her with anything and I said, “yes, I’m looking for a MacBook”. She said “come in the back and there are a few examples of what we got for sale here”. And I thought maybe it was meant to be. I could easily have said “no, I’m fine thanks. I’ll just wait to be served here”, but something inside me thought that I’m not going to wait all afternoon for him to turn around. It didn’t happen. I would be interested to know what would have happened if he had turned around and saw me.

I see Johnny at the football (we are both big Manchester City fans) sometimes and we look at each other and that’s about it. That will do for me. We are not kind of rolling around in the car park fighting and we don’t completely ignore each other. That’s fine. It’s called being civil and that’s OK. I speak to Andy a lot. He lives in New York now. I’m going over to the States next year and I’ll see him.

In 1996 Mike Joyce took Morrissey and Marr to court and demanded an equal share of the band’s royalties. At the time Morrissey and Marr were getting 40 per cent each of the royalties and O’Rourke and Joyce got 10 per cent each. Joyce succeeded in having his share increased to 25 per cent.

You spoke about last speaking to Morrissey in 1996. That was around the time of the court case. Did the court case create bad blood?

It did. I didn’t realise it was going to have the level of publicity that it did. For some reason, naivety or stupidity, I thought we would go in and sit down. I was on the stand for four or five hours. Wow, that was very tough. Of course it caused bad blood. Nobody wants to be involved in a court case. I was told by my barrister before we went in that 99.9 per cent of these situations get dealt with on the steps of the court. You hammer it out in a little room where the trial is due to take place. That didn’t happen. There was no negotiation put forward. I don’t think any of us expected it to be as traumatic as it was. If somebody took me to court, I don’t think they would be on my Christmas card either.

We are 26 years on from that. Do you think Morrissey and Johnny Marr still resent you having taken that court case against them?

I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them. I think there is a Morrissey quote when he said “time heals wounds, but sometimes it doesn’t”. I think that is an interesting and pointed thing to describe a situation. I don’t know if he was talking about The Smiths case, but I can understand it. We don’t really know each other regardless of the court case. It’s been 40 years when we first got together in 1982. It’s been a hell of a long time. We don’t really know each other anymore yet for those five years of The Smiths we saw each other every single day of our lives for that period. Even when we came off tour or out of the studio, we were still each other’s best friends. It was very difficult to have friends outside the band because they can’t really understand what was going on in our lives without actually being there.

Morrissey has made a few controversial comments over the years. How do you view them?

I like to question the things that he says. When people do stand up and put their head above the parapet, they risk getting it blown off on social media. Whether you agree with it or not, I think it is brave for him to say the things that he says. I don’t agree with a lot of it, but what does it matter what I think of what he thinks? He is expressing an opinion. I was a meat eater and had been all of my life. On the day we discussed Meat is Murder in the studio, I became a vegetarian that day and I have been a vegetarian since 1985. My children and my grandchildren have been brought up vegetarian and that’s all because of Morrissey saying that. It’s the power of the spoken word and there is not enough of it around in pop music. People just want to dance around to a funky rhythm. It is dying art.

Do you ever envisage a Smiths reunion in any circumstances?

Not anymore. I thought there might have been a chance five, 10 or 15 years ago. I was speaking to Joe Moss who was our first manager who passed away a number of years ago (2015). There was a rumour going on that there could be a reunion and I called Joe and I said, “look Joe, if it does happen, please tell me. If I’m not involved, I don’t want to get a call from a newspaper saying The Smiths are going on tour. I’d be upset naturally, but please tell me.” He said “of course, I will”. Johnny and Morrissey had some get-together about six or seven years ago now and there was talk of a reunion then and I spoke to Joe then and he said the talk was of me being involved as well.

I know people say “never say never”, but it feels as though never is the most appropriate word. I’m sitting there thinking that phone will ring. If I got a call from Johnny and Morrissey and Andy and they said they were playing a surprise concert around the corner in a youth club and we are going to play Strangeways, Here I Come for the anniversary, I bet you I could. There were a lot of songs on there we never played live. It would be quite something given the way that music technology has come on. Morrissey sounds so good now. His voice sounds absolutely fantastic. I just don’t think it is going to happen. We don’t know each other anymore. That’s probably why it just wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t be The Smiths; it would be four blokes who don’t know each other in their sixties.

The Queen is Dead got a lot of airing around the time of Queen Elizabeth II. Morrissey was anti-monarchy. How did the rest of the band feel about that song when you first recorded it?

I was more into what we were creating musically than the lyrics. I thought it was a great title. The monarchy has been a spare part in my life. During the 1970s and 1980s with the yacht Britannia and all, the money they were getting all got stopped. You can have a go at royal family going back thousands of years. I think it is something. The title came from the book Last Exit To Brooklyn because I knew it was released. The lyrics were fantastic.

The Smiths emerged during a very bad in British history during the 1980s especially for the industrial North. Do you see any parallels with the meltdown that is happening in Britain at the moment?

There are parallels. It never seems to be what the public do. It’s workers looking for a decent wage and not getting it. That’s why we have privatization. It is never down to the people’s actions that we get these awful situations. The government is the only thing that can right this. I remember when Live Aid came out and I was discussing it with Morrissey. I said it is fantastic. If we can save one starving kid’s life, it will be worth it. He said it shouldn’t be up to one old dear in Newcastle spending £1.75 on a single. It should be down to the governments. That’s their responsibility not ours. That was so Morrissey and it was so right. It shouldn’t be down to people on the street putting their hands in their pockets, but that’s just the way it is. I’m trying to raise funds for my Strangeways, Here We Come raffle. I shouldn’t have to do this to help a charity which is doing such a great job for people who are struggling with homelessness. It should be government-funded and it is the same with the situation at the moment. Why are people struggling? Why is the NHS on its arse? There is enough money whenever there is a bloody war anymore.

What’s next for Mike Joyce?

I’ve got this new project called Love Tempo. It is with a friend of mine called Rick Hornby from Manchester. We are going to be recording an album or an EP with a fantastic singer-songwriter from San Francisco who shall remain nameless at the moment. It will be a big surprise for next year.

Mike Joyce is a patron of Back on Track, which help Manchester locals struggling with housing, addiction and mental health problems. He has donated his original silver disc for the album to raise funds at such a difficult time. So far, over £8,000 has been raised. Tickets for the draw and the JustGiving link on social media are here

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times