Fifteen years ago today: So what difference did they make?

Maeve Walsh recalls the release of the Smiths' debut album into the Eighties electro-pop scene
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A decade and a half on, it's hard to disagree with the debut-album predictions of the Smiths' prime movers. In the history of pop, The Smiths would be "a complete signal-post", according to Morrissey, the Wilde-fixated singer, and "one of the great milestones", according to scally guitarist Johnny Marr.

Such confidence was justified. Formed in 1982, with drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke, the band released two singles the following year. Then, in January 1984, "What Difference Does It Make?" reached the top 10, making rude acquaintance with such Eighties icons as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Thompson Twins, Madness, Madonna and Cyndia Lauper.

By now they were appearing on Top of the Pops. The music press was eating out of their hands, and Morrissey, a bunch of flowers already his trademark, couldn't stop talking to them. The Smiths were important. But The Smiths, released on 27 February 1984 by Rough Trade, didn't quite live up to the hype.

The album had something of a false start, with John Porter replacing Troy Tate as producer. But "it wasn't a case of changing anything", claims Rough Trade supremo Geoff Travis. "What they were doing was so perfectly formed it was just a case of getting it down on tape". Sections of the music press weren't convinced: "As far as lyrical forms are important, Morrissey has mastered his art [but] the tunes just jump and rock and occasionally mellow frighteningly." (Sounds) "The Smiths was supposed to be magnificent. And it isn't. That's not to say it's in anyway a poor record. It's just not up to the Olympian heights we might have expected." (Record Mirror) But Melody Maker was in muso-mood: "There are moments here that float and shimmer with a spectacular inevitability, a timelessness, an opinion of their own enormous qualitities that only the very best pop music can boast".

The Smiths entered the top 10 on 3 March, rising to no 2 the next week. Travis believes it was lack of airplay - rather than the Thompson Twins' Into the Gap - that kept them off the top. Within a year, the band released two more albums: the singles'n'sessions compilation Hatful of Hollow, and Meat is Murder. The Queen is Dead, possibly their finest hour, arrived in 1986; The World Won't Listen compilation was released in 1987, followed by Strangeways Here We Come, after their acrimonious split.

It was a vast output for just four years. Morrissey became an icon, a rent-a-quote opinionator and an idiosyncratic chronicler of longing, loss and "Vicars in Tutus"; Marr was hailed as a guitar great. Travis calls them the "supreme example of a successful cult band", whose career helped independent labels keep hold of ground-breaking bands. "Great groups are really only once in a lifetime," says Travis. "They definitely helped to steer the culture back to the classic guitar group. They broke the mould, which is what great bands do." From 1982 to 1987, Marr says, they were "the best band in the world. No contest."

Whatever you thought of them (and reactions, particularly to Morrissey, ranged from one extreme to the other), their influence was immense. Chris Bohn - formerly Biba Kopf, NME journalist and Smiths-sceptic - interviewed them and was converted. "I'd thought they were repetitive, tedious and fairly retro. Then I listened more closely to the songs and I was won over." Travis says: "They gave bands like the Stone Roses and Oasis the confidence to go with that sort of music." For one aspiring musician seeing them on TOTP was it: "From that day, I wanted to be Johnny Marr". He was Noel Gallagher.