The Smiths

I discovered The Smiths as a teenage skateboarder roaming all over Central Florida. I knew the basics of The Cure, Depeche Mode, R.E.M. and other bands that had leaked over into the mainstream but at that time I was listening to a lot of Public Enemy and Agent Orange – stuff I’d seen (or rather heard) in the latest skateboarding videos. As a freshman in high school I met a group of older guys who were deep into the cult of Morrissey and The Smiths. I loved the music almost immediately and couldn’t believe that the same guys out shredding vert ramps and mastering huge staircases and handrails would hop in the car and blast “Hairdresser on Fire” with the windows down. As a shy kid, in a depressing small town, who read a lot of books and possessed a prematurely cynical worldview these songs spoke to me directly. I became a quick study in all things Morrissey and soon knew The Smiths catalog backwards and forwards. There was a small club called Visage that everyone used to go to on Friday nights, the DJ (a mythical figure in those days) played a revolving setlist but included a selection of weekly standards that included “How Soon Is Now”. The club was all about showing your loyalty and we’d always flood the floor when it came on and go particularly crazy when the DJ would throw us the occasional bone with “Suedehead” or “Panic”. I remember driving up to Atlanta to see Morrissey in 1991. It was a dream scenario for me – away from my parents, packed in a car with my buddies (boards in tow of course), headed to another city to see our hero. It was one of my first proper concerts and certainly the most memorable. The show was in the old Fox Theatre and Morrissey was still in top form with his new fully formed rockabilly band that would go on to record Your Arsenal. They played for almost 2 hours and I remember driving back from the show playing nothing but The Smiths/Morrissey at top volume all of us singing along completely unembarrassed.

The Smiths book

Given my personal history with the band it probably it’s no surprise that I enjoyed every page of Tony Fletcher’s book A Light That Never Goes Out. As an obsessive teenage fan, pre-internet I combed the music magazines and library for any mention of the band and thought I knew their history pretty well but it turns out I only remembered the highlights. At almost 700 pages the book takes it’s time and unearths so many great stories and details about not only The Smiths but that time period in general – an era incredibly rich with talent and possibility. As a music journalist during that time and supporter of the band from their inception, Fletcher had the access and experience necessary to tell this story from the inside while still maintaining enough literary objectivity to avoid sounding like a fawning fan boy. Despite some occasionally clunky prose, I think it will probably end up being viewed as the definitive history of the band and I highly recommend it for any fan of The Smiths. It led me to really go back and reexamine their catalog for the first time in almost two decades and I was happy to discover that not only does the music hold up but that it remains vibrant, singular and undeniably brilliant. My biggest revelation might have been finally understanding the massive contribution of Johnny Marr. Make no mistake, I knew Marr was a genius and that their musical partnership is what made The Smiths so special but when listening to these songs I knew so well with a more mature ear, I was blown away all over again by his intricate guitar work and gorgeous compositions. Of course it’s heartbreaking and inevitable to think about what might have been but part of what has preserved The Smiths legacy is the fact that it remains an unblemished moment in time. Over a period of less than 5 years they were able to carve out a place in music history as one of the world’s most important bands. After the jump there is a list of a few of my favorite reveals found in the book.

  • Morrissey was only 22 and Johnny Marr 19 when they started The Smiths
  • The day after they met, Morrissey and Marr wrote two songs together that would later appear on their debut album
  • Marr and Andy Rourke literally went to the Rough Trade record store in London to track down Geoff Travis and play him their demos. A day later they had a record deal.
  • Their original deal with Rough Trade was for 5 albums and was handwritten for a 50/50 split between label and band. Within the band the split went 40/40/10/10 with Morrissey and Marr taking the lion’s share and later being sued for doing so. Their publishing deal was a direct split between the two of them with the rhythm section receiving nothing because, “They were never going to write anything,” – Morrissey.
  • Morrissey was affectionately known by the band as The Mozzer and they never questioned his poetic genius or his much disputed sexuality
  • Morrissey designed the cover art for every record sleeve
  • Johnny Marr wrote all of the musical arrangements, including guitar, piano, harmonica, samples, etc
  • The Smiths never had an official manager, which was ultimately their biggest downfall
  • The video for “How Soon Is Now” was created by Sire, the band’s US label from a mix of concert and archival footage because The Smiths themselves vowed never to create “something so vulgar.”
  • For almost a year there was a fifth Smith, Craig Gannon, who was originally hired to replace bassist Andy Rourke when he was battling a heroin addiction but was kept on to help Johnny Marr reproduce his complex guitar parts on stage. He can be heard on much of the live album Rank.
  • After a series of incidents including Morrissey failing to show up to an expensive video shoot, Marr being denied a 3 week vacation and Morrissey insisting on covering a Cilla Black song for a b-side The Smiths eventually split over a press article written by an ambitious journalist for NME that was filled with gossip based largely on rumors. Johnny Marr assumed the piece was planted by Morrissey, an NME darling, and announced to the magazine that he was done with the band
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