The song was initially recorded as a straightforward rock take for the B-side of the non-album single "When You're Young" (released in August, 1979). The song was re-worked with an all-strings arrangement at the suggestion of the band's drummer, Rick Buckler. This was for inclusion upon The Jam's fourth album Setting Sons released in November 1979.
Smithers-Jones differs from the majority of self-penned tracks by The Jam in that the song was not written by the band's guitarist and vocalist, Paul Weller. It was instead written by bassist and vocalist Bruce Foxton. The song is widely considered to be Foxton's finest songwriting contribution to The Jam, with the lyrical inspiration drawing from Foxton's own father who had decided to retire upon being made redundant.
Following the dissolution of the Jam, Foxton regularly performed the song with Belfast-based punk band Stiff Little Fingers, whom he subsequently joined in 1990.