The reputation of The Smiths as one of the very greatest pop groups seems to grow over time even as that of former frontman Morrissey becomes diminished with every predictable and increasingly sour outburst he comes out with against his well-worn targets of the establishment in general and the royal family in particular. Back in his group’s heyday he was able to successfully present himself as a startlingly fearless, witty and articulate figurehead for those many souls who found themselves disillusioned and depressed by the crass vulgarities of modern culture and the brutality of society’s institutions, both formal and vernacular. It was his genius for distilling this disdain and bewilderment into his lyrics, allied with the tireless talent for contriving surprising but always rigorously disciplined song structures of his musical partner Johnny Marr that made The Smiths’ body of work so penetrating and imperishable. To my ears at least they made every other group sound facile and irrelevant, and their continued refusal to reform only makes the music they recorded over a quarter of a century ago now seem even more special, even if the lack of reunion is due mainly down to bad blood between certain of the group’s members.
For The Smiths everything happened fast. Before the eighteen year old Johnny Marr knocked on Morrissey’s door with a view to proposing a songwriting partnership in May 1982 neither the group nor any of its songs existed (although Marr had previously played with his school friend and eventual Smiths bassist Andy Rourke in a few casual bands) – excepting a one-off four-song showcase slot later that year with a stand-in bass player and drummer they played their first gig in early 1983, put out their first two singles that year, along with three BBC radio sessions showcasing some extraordinarily accomplished songs, and stood poised to release their first album by the beginning of 1984 with a small library’s worth of favourable press cuttings and reviews under their belt. Unlike pretty much any other critically-acclaimed group The Smiths never had “potential”: they arrived fully-formed, with a complete absence of embarrassing early material. That searing version of Handsome Devil on the B-side of Hand In Glove was recorded live at The Hacienda at only the group’s third gig! Ultimately, the group’s end was as abrupt as its beginning, with Johnny Marr’s exhaustion and frustration with the lack of a steady management figure to cope with Morrissey’s capricious nature causing him to pull the plug in September 1987, but they made the most of the time, recording seventy original songs, only a handful of which are disposable and the bulk of which are as thrilling and potent and intelligent and melodic as anything in pop music. Considering the chaos that surrounded the band, with constant conflict with their record company and promoters, the pressures of dealing with a quote-hungry media and legions of besotted fans, tours coming apart due to inadequate preparation and not a little abuse of alcohol and other substances their strike rate and quality control when they got in the studio is unbelievable.
There have been a fair few books put out in the last twenty years or so on both The Smiths and Morrissey solo, but Tony Fletcher’s new labour of love A Light That Never Goes Out may well be the only one anyone who’s interested in the roots of the group and their subsequent explosive career will ever need. Its nearest competitors (that I’ve come across, anyway) are Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, which is where a lot of the inner workings of the band were first exposed, and Simon Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life, which is an excellent analysis of the group’s music, organised in song by song fashion in the same way as Ian MacDonald’s definitive Beatle book Revolution In The Head. Goddard’s is still the one to go for if you’re looking for specific detail on the recordings, but Rogan (whose book came out in 1992) has now been eclipsed by Fletcher, if only for the new book’s more measured approach, depth of research and above all newly collated information about the band members’ childhoods and formative years.
Fletcher starts a long way back, with his first chapters dealing with Manchester as the engine of the industrial revolution and subsequent expansion of the British empire before moving on to explain the circumstances by which the city gained a significant Irish population in the early years of the Twentieth Century. I hadn’t appreciated until now that all four Smiths have strong Irish ancestry, and although there are few direct references in Morrissey’s lyrics the book makes clear that a major source of his adult contrarianism is the miserable time he had when attending a harshly authoritarian Catholic school. Interestingly, Marr went through some similarly challenging experiences but reacted quite differently – the close bond between this preternaturally confident and extrovert boy and the ambitious but isolationist Morrissey is right at the core of this story. Fletcher also takes the trouble to lay out the relationships between the different areas of Manchester the band members grew up in and moved through, and sketches in their family backgrounds and the amateur groups they were involved in. This is all highly readable, though you do start to worry that Fletcher’s never going to get round to telling you about The Smiths – you’re 200 pages in before Marr gets to knock on Morrissey’s door.
Fortunately the pace picks up as the band get going, and from this point on events unfold in a breathless rush, with The Smiths developing so fast that they’re continually leaving their various support mechanisms behind, and decisions being made all the time that confound conventional music business wisdom. They stake their independent credentials to the mast by signing with the ethically sound Rough Trade, but it doesn’t take long before Morrissey starts to carp about disappointing chart positions and the absence of flyposting campaigns (given his refusal to sanction a promotional video and his habit of not turning up for interviews and gigs it seems a bit rich). They record a sure-fire platinum-selling rock anthem How Soon Is Now? then throw it away as the extra track on a 12″ single. A second album appears barely a year after the first – it’s a massive step forward creatively, with Marr effortlessly turning his hand to myriad musical styles and Morrissey honing his lyrics into a multi-pronged critique of violence in society, but the choice of title of Meat Is Murder makes it clear the band aren’t interested in commercial compromise. The band are on the verge of breaking America, but the responsibility for holding it all together falls more and more on Johnny Marr’s shoulders, and despite his work ethic he’s only one man, and barely twenty-two years old at that. Andy Rourke is sacked when his heroin habit comes to light, but is rapidly re-instated. A second guitarist, Craig Gannon, is hired, then let go. The third album The Queen Is Dead is an absolute masterpiece, but the group refuse to release its best track There Is A Light That Never Goes Out as a single. And so on and so on.
Fletcher skilfully digs into all this mayhem, and considerably more besides, while all the time making sure he maintains a neutral tone. Personally, I’d have stuck a bit more blame on Morrissey for at times wilfully sabotaging his own group and indirectly endangering the health of his musical partner, but there you go. The author went the extra mile to secure interviews with nearly everyone involved (see if you can guess who one of the refusals came from), and has been able to synthesise what’s probably as close as a definitive version of events as we’ll ever get. If the book has a fault, it’s that its ending seems abrupt – there was plenty of colourful fall-out, not to mention one or two great records, in the wake of the band’s split, but he stops in 1987 at the same point as the band does. Maybe he’s planning a sequel.
A few years ago the New Musical Express ran a chart of the most influential rock acts of all time, based on annual poll results and number of column inches. It’s hardly an unskewed demographic they were sampling but the result was brilliantly shocking nonetheless – in second place: The Beatles. In first place: The Smiths. Happy now?