Friday, December 4, 2015

The Smiths: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part IV

There’s a club and you'd like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
Then you go home, and you cry and you want to die

I think “How Soon Is Now?” plays the same role for the Smiths that “Alabama Getaway” plays for the Grateful Dead: It’s the favorite Smiths song for people who don’t really like the Smiths. Most Smiths songs feature the chiming, swirling guitar of Johnny Marr, as opposed to the wall of electric guitars, centered around a single chord, that he amasses here. It’s actually a single guitar played back through four different speakers with heavy vibrato, in addition to the searing slide part, but it sounds like an army. It’s not like anything else in the band’s catalog.

It's out of step lyrically with much of their catalog too. Morrissey’s lyrics for the band tend to be mordantly funny – “Please, please, please, let me get what I want/Lord knows, it would be the first time.” Ain’t nothing funny about “How Soon Is Now?,” which is just chilling, and all too recognizable. The words are more in keeping with Morrissey’s image as a whiny, self-pitying grandee, although, y’know, the guy is pretty funny in real life too.  Special thanks to friend of this blog Gavin Edwards for unearthing the following exchange:

Interviewer: Did you hear t.A.T.u's version of 'How Soon Is Now'?
Morrissey: Yes, it was magnificent. Absolutely. Again, I don't know much about them.
Interviewer: They're the teenage Russian lesbians.
Morrissey: Well, aren't we all?

“How Soon Is Now?” was originally the B-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing,” which puts it in the “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” class of double-sided singles.  The record company knew what it was doing, though, because when it was eventually released as its own A-side, it went just to No. 24 on the UK singles chart. Near as I can tell, the Smiths never even creased the Hot 100 here in the U.S. of A., although “How Soon Is Now?” did appear on the U.S. Dance Singles chart.  

In my opinion, “How Soon Is Now?” is the band’s crowning achievement, but the rest of their stuff is pretty fantastic as well, as different as most of it is. Marr was a singular guitarist with a hugely distinctive sound, and an incredible composer. As a frontman, Morrissey had personality to burn, and was simply one of the best lyricists of the day:

Sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking when I said
I’d like to smash every tooth in your head

You know what rock & roll doesn’t have enough of? Humor. Morrissey could be a self-important prig, but being funny makes everything go down easy.

If there’s one drawback to the Smiths’ candidacy, it’s that their career was short-lived.   "We got on absolutely famously,” Morrissey has said of first starting to work with Marr back in 1982. “We were very similar in drive." Their first single, “Hand in Glove,” came out in May 1983, and the band was incredibly productive for the next four years, issuing four studio albums, a  live album, two EPs, and if my counting is right,  five non-album singles, all with terrific songs on both sides.

By 1987, they were done with each other. (One biography of the group was rather overdramatically titled The Severed Alliance.) Marr cited, rather charmingly, Morrissey’s fascination with Cilla Black as the cause of their breakup – he insisted that a cover of her “Work Is a Four-Letter Word” be the B-side to “Girlfriend in a Coma.”  "That was the last straw, really,” Marr said. “I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs." 

But in those four years, they released more quality music than most bands who last two or three times as long. There was no slack period or decline phase; all their work is worth hearing. Every other marker is positive: the Smiths’ music remains durable and innovative, distinctive and eclectic, influencing bands from Oasis to the Shins to Hootie and the Blowfish. It still sounds fresh and engaging, 30 years after it was recorded. I vote YES for the Smiths.

Nothing's changed 
I still love you, oh I still love you
Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to
My love


  1. That's a very astute observation on "Alabama Getaway," which is my favorite Grateful Dead song.

  2. "Alabama Getaway" has a lot of energy to it, which most Dead fans don't seem to value very highly.

  3. "Alabama Getaway" has a lot of energy to it, which most Dead fans don't seem to value very highly.