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December 6, 2012

Book Notes - Tony Fletcher "A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths"

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tony Fletcher's A Light That Never Goes Out is a thoroughly researched and informative biography of the short history of the seminal 198s indie band the Smiths.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"An up-to-date and revealing rock biography that sets a standard of completion that will likely prove hard to beat."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Tony Fletcher's Book Notes music playlist for his book, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths:

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths is, to a large extent, exactly what it says it is: a biography of the English rock band, the Smiths. But while the introduction starts with the first proper meeting of guitarist Johnny Marr and vocalist Morrissey in 1982, and ends with the band's break-up only five years later, it covers considerably more ground than just the 70 – count them! – songs that the pair wrote during that ferociously productive period. I am always enthralled by the social-cultural melange from which bands emerge. (My previous book, All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets Of New York 1927-77, covered 17 such different neighborhoods/genres.) In A Light That Never Goes Out, I write about Manchester, glam, punk, post-punk, American modern rock and the thriving British independent scene of the 1980s, and offer abundant musical citations beyond those of the Smiths' songs themselves. Here are some of the key reference points.

The Cookies: "I Want A Boy For My Birthday"

Morrissey and Marr were each equally fascinated by American girl groups of the 1960s – they bonded over a Marvelettes B-side – and so perhaps it's no surprise that the first song they committed to tape, and which they performed at their opening gig, was a cover of a Goffin-King composition for New York City's the Cookies. The original version, which apes 'Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,' is a piece of stereotypical heterosexual romantic nonsense, and nothing as exciting as their hits 'Chains' or 'Don't Say Nothin' Bad About My Baby.' But that makes it all the more fascinating that the Smiths took it up, and that Morrissey sang it 'straight,' thereby intending that the Smiths be seen as a 'gay' band. That idea lasted as long as it took the other Smiths, all with steady female partners, to realize that the only person who could walk it like he sang it was the singer, a far bigger mantle than Morrissey was (ever) willing to take on. The song was gone by their second gig; the original demo recording, almost inevitably, live on via YouTube.

T. Rex: "Metal Guru"

Morrissey's first gig, in the summer of 1972, was to see T. Rex at the Belle Vue in Manchester; Johnny Marr's first single, purchased earlier that same year from a record store in much the same area, was T. Rex's 'Jeepster.' Marc Bolan's glam reinvention of his old hippie act Tyrannosaurus Rex scored four British number one singles in sixteen months at the start of the 1970s, and Bolan became the first bona fide teen idol in a generation along the way. The music was effortlessly simple: groove-oriented, lyrically meaningless, essentially concerned with emitting oodles of sex, swagger and soul – true, then, to the original spirit of rock 'n' roll. Their number one in the summer of 1972, when Morrissey first saw them and as Marr got into them, was 'Metal Guru,' and it was surely their greatest. Hearing that song, said Marr, was a 'spiritual elevation,' which might explain why, 14 years later, he and Morrissey would consciously set out to replicate it for their anthemic 45, 'Panic.'

Patti Smith: "Land"

Many people are aware that Morrissey was a massive New York Dolls fan, that he ran the American group's UK fan club for those who actually cared enough to join it, that he even had something to do with their reformation in recent years. But it was another New York artist who came of age in the 1970s, Patti Smith, who provided Morrissey and Marr with the more profound musical inspiration. Around the release of her first album Horses, Smith challenged sexual stereotypes with her image; she put poetry to music whether or not it appeared to fit the meter; she spoke her words as much as she sang them; she willingly invited controversy with her lyrics. In other words, she was a perfect role figure for Morrissey. Guitarist Lenny Kaye, equally, tore down musical barriers with his free-jazz, R&B, punk rock guitar and was a major influence for Marr. Indeed, Morrissey and Marr met for the first time, ever so briefly, when Smith played the Manchester Apollo in 1978. I can't help but listen to the line 'the boy looked at Johnny' from the song 'Land' and think of Morrissey opening his front door in the spring of 1982, and finding Johnny Marr at his doorstep, offering to form a band and in the process, answering all his prayers.

Buzzcocks: "Orgasm Addict"

Manchester was, unquestionably, Britain's second punk city, largely thanks to the two concerts the Sex Pistols played there in 1976, as promoted by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, who formed Buzzcocks along the way and gave punk in general, Manchester punk in particular, an air of pop artful intellect. That may not be evident on first listen to 'Orgasm Addict,' but its willful provocativeness is at once carefully composed and wildly un-restrained. The single artwork, designed by Morrissey's muse (and Devoto's former girlfriend) Linder Sterling, and which represented an important statement of feminist art, now belongs to Britain's Tate Gallery. As such, Morrissey's observation of Buzzcocks that they were 'the only ones who possibly sat down beforehand and worked out what they intended to do' seems perfectly pertinent.

Joy Division: "Love Will Tear Us Apart"

Morrissey was to prove uncharacteristically reticent when it came to offering opinions about Manchester's biggest and most influential post-punk band. That might be because he continued to crave the approval of (Joy Division's label) Factory Records founder Anthony Wilson, with whom he had something of a passive-aggressive relationship. It could be because he was secretly jealous of their success. Or perhaps he just didn't want to speak ill of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis who, in 1980, on the eve of an American tour, took his own life - especially considering the extent to which Morrissey sang and talked about suicide but did not, of course, act upon it himself. Either way, this song changed the British and independent musical landscape in 1980 and remains every bit as popular on the 21st Century American 'alternative' dancefloor as anything by the Smiths. The two bands share a reputation for gloominess that, in the former's case, was not undeserved, says Marr. 'Joy Division were definitive Manchester,' he told me for the book. 'They sounded like what it was like living up here.'

Aztec Camera: "Oblivious"

Around the time the Smiths recorded their debut 45 'Hand In Glove' in a single day on a small self-financed budget, Rough Trade Records released 'Oblivious' by Aztec Camera, a group built largely around the almost impossibly prodigious teenager Roddy Frame. Johnny Marr was all too aware not only of Frame's talent, but of Aztec Camera's indie credentials, and in late March, as 'Oblivious' threatened to deliver Rough Trade its first hit, boarded a train to London with bassist Andy Rourke, walked into the Rough Trade warehouse/offices, and asked to see the man in charge, Geoff Travis. The thing he did not know was that Aztec Camera were already set to leave the independent for major label pastures and that Travis was determined to hold on to whichever act he could replace them with. Travis had the ears to recognize something special about the recording of 'Hand In Glove' handed to him that day. He then had the smarts to offer the Smiths a long-term deal. Johnny Marr, in turn, heard 'Oblivious' as a joyful pop single full of chiming guitars and knew that he had to match it.

The Smiths: "This Charming Man"

…And this is what he came up with, a musical tour de force which, with only their second single, propelled the Smiths over the indie parapets and into the pop charts. The song's initial recording, for a John Peel session in September 1983, wears the influence of 'Oblivious' all too prominently: "That was me pulling my finger out because Roddy got on the radio," said Marr of the influence. The second attempt, recorded in London with new producer John Porter at the helm, raised the stakes but was too blatantly commercial in its ambitions. Third time around, again with Porter but this time back in Manchester, nailed it. Marr's guitars are electric, emotionally if not always physically, and there are, literally, a soccer's team worth of them. Morrissey's voice is everything we came to know and love, even if the lyrics are, for him, comparatively meaningless. The bass line is straight out of Motown and as for the drums, Porter wisely dealt with Mike Joyce's early imperfections by setting the entire rhythm down on programmed Linn Drums, recording all the other parts – and then inviting Joyce to play over the top of it. The perfect pop single in every sense, it was also Rough Trade's first proper hit. The Smiths had arrived.

The Smiths: "How Soon Is Now?"

Along with 'Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,' this is the Smiths' most popular song in the United States, and less debatably, their most imaginative and unique, its tremolo opening guitar riff one of the most instantly identifiable in the rock canon. As a reflection of the Smiths' incredibly prolific work rate of that period (late 1984), and perhaps also their complete lack of business sense, it was released as a B-side. The Smiths soon recognized their mistake and belatedly released it as a British A-side, only to see it flop. In America, however, the record company wouldn't allow for such mistakes, commissioning a promotional video, placing the song in key position on the Smiths' second album Meat Is Murder, and making it the focal point of advertising for the album, all very much against the group's wishes. A Light That Never Goes Out details the recording process behind 'How Soon Is Now?' in large part because it was so complex and pain-staking. At the same time it was evidently joyous; the Smiths had reached that point in a young band's career where anything is possible.

The Smiths: "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out"

The song that provided the title for my biography is another of the Smiths' most readily recognizable classics, and yet, for the very fact that it is something of a pop standard, is atypical of their repertoire. Most Smiths songs eschewed verses, bridges and choruses for unpredictable repetitions of different musical and lyrical themes and, as per 'How Soon Is Now?', engaged in wild studio experimentation rather than following standard arrangements. With 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,' however, the Smiths returned to their original source of mutual inspiration – the partnership of Leiber and Stoller and their various Brill/Music Building protégés – and delivered the quintessential pop ballad, complete with soaring (sampled) strings and unforgettably melodic and romantic chorus. Even the aspect of the song that appeared defiantly Morrissey-esque – the invitation to sudden joint demise at the wheels of a double deck bus or ten ton truck – was in fact a throwback to the death songs of the 1950s and 1960s. Being the Smiths, they did not release it as a single. That it has subsequently shown up on so many personal mix tapes and Hollywood soundtracks – it even formed the plot basis for (500) Days of Summer – speaks volumes to the Smiths' musical legacy, to the fact that their own firmament continues to shine brightly.

Cilla Black/The Smiths: "Work Is A Four-Letter Word"

The Smiths came in on American sixties girl-group The Cookies; they went out on English sixties pop singer Cilla Black. Although it could be argued that 'I Want A Boy For My Birthday' is the more conventional song, lyrically at least, the Smiths had progressed exponentially in the five years since they had attempted to record it. As such, Johnny Marr was appalled when informed that Morrissey intended to cover Cilla Black's theme song from a slated 1968 movie for a B-side. A piece of 'throwaway' Bacharach-David style fare, neither the original version nor the Smiths' (s)lightly re-worked interpretation was particularly offensive, but if you were an over-worked, over-stressed Johnny Marr pining for a holiday, it was nonetheless entirely possible to take the lyrics as a pointed message from your supposed best friend and business partner regarding your lack of commitment. After the session, Marr went on his holiday, and decided not to return. At least not to the Smiths. "Cilla Black, unbeknown to herself, broke the Smiths up," Morrissey admitted a decade later.

Tony Fletcher and A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Guardian review
Independent review
Irish Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
Newsday review
Sabotage Times review
Slate review
Sunday Times review

Chronogram profile of the author
Louder Than War contribution by the author (a list of his top 10 Smiths songs)
Shelf Life interview with the author
Village Voice interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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