Thirty years following their formation, writes author Tony Fletcher, and twenty-five years since they split up, the legacy and the cultural significance of UK rock band, The Smiths, remains intact. It’s time, says the book cover blurb, their tale was told. So far, so self-referencing and myth making. And yet Fletcher isn’t too wide of the mark – there is a strong argument to be made here for the maverick Manchester quartet as the most important and influential British rock act of the 1980s.
Fletcher (an experienced music writer/biographer who has written acclaimed books on The Clash, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, and REM) may have set himself up for a fall, however: is it possible to validly revisit a story that has already been forensically detailed by Johnny Rogan’s acclaimed book Morrissey & Marr: the Severed Alliance (Omnibus Press, 1992)? Fletcher’s counter pitch is that A Light That Never Goes Out (William Heinnemann) is the first group biography (rather than Rogan’s, which focuses on the personal/creative dynamics of the group’s titular primary figures), bringing in the band’s other two original members, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce.
Utilizing a rigidly linear narrative, Fletcher begins with Manchester in the Industrial Revolution. “A city that… to a large extent financed and furnished the Victorian empire did so on the backs of its underpaid, malnourished, mistreated workers. Its inhabitants therefore mix an instinctive pride for their city’s copious achievements with a necessary prejudice against their own bosses and municipal leaders who have often sold them out without a second thought. The result is a somewhat cheerful cynicism.”
Fast forward to the 1950s, when some 200,000 people left Ireland for the UK. From Crumlin village to Manchester’s Moss Side came a handful of the Morrissey family; from Crumlin also (via Pearse Street) came members of the Dwyer household. Peter of the former wed Betty of the latter, and in the early summer of 1959 their son Steven Patrick was born. Several years later, the Maher family from Athy, County Kildare, made the same journey to the same city, and in the late autumn of 1963, John Maher was born.
Within 20 years, Maher (now renamed Marr in order to avoid confusion with another Manchester-based musician) had knocked on Morrissey’s front door on Manchester’s Kings Road, thereby initiating one of the most fruitful songwriting partnerships in British pop music history. From the beginning, writes Fletcher, the dynamic was there: the aloof, underachieving, aphoristic, often intransigent but exceptionally culturally aware Morrissey (blithely unashamed to live by the Oscar Wilde maxim “talent borrows, genius steals”, as he rifled through plays, movies and novels for his lyrics) and the outgoing, intuitive, musically cultivated, protective Marr (raised on 1960s Rolling Stones’ records and inspired further by punk rock). “I was there, dying,” recalled Morrissey, archly, dramatically, of the creative ignition that took place in May 1982, “and he rescued me.”
Of course, in keeping with the egalitarian nature of the book’s premise, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke are here, too, but as with the music (“For Mike and Andy to be able to have power of veto,” says the band’s first manager, Joe Moss, “to be able to say no to things, that’s inconceivable. It’s not their vision; they’re part of Johnny and Morrissey’s vision”), they are continuously undercut and overshadowed by Morrissey and Marr. Therein lies the book’s crippling fault line, for despite the best intentions of Fletcher throughout, he simply doesn’t provide enough balance for the narrative to be anything but weighted. Another flaw (particularly in such a lengthy book of largely factual narrative) is Fletcher’s writing, which although fastidiously attentive to detail lacks even a hint of the wit and crackle of its subject.
Thankfully, the story itself is riveting (and Fletcher tells it lucidly and fairly), the drive to continue reading provided by Marr’s emotive, no nonsense spirit and by Morrissey’s eminently quotable song lyrics and interviews (sourced from a variety of publications, including quite a few interviews from this newspaper).
There’s also no avoiding just how distinctive the music was, how prolific was the band’s output (in the short space of five years, from formation in 1982 to disintegration in 1987, The Smiths released four studio albums, a few compilations and numerous non-album singles) and how incomparable their recorded legacy – a modest back catalogue by any stretch of the imagination – remains.
Alongside the quantity and quality, however, are two crucial elements; the first is Marr’s inventive musicianship, best exemplified, perhaps, on the song How Soon Is Now?, which, then and now (and perhaps ever onwards?) sublimely defines a sense of disconnectedness. The second is Morrissey himself, a character/persona wholly of his own construction, answerable, perhaps, to certain cultural and sexual reference points, and a deftly pilfering lyricist that is equal parts humourist (“I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear”), soothsayer (“Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me”) and therapist (“I am human and I need to be loved”).
And so to A Light That Never Goes Out: a decent if blighted overview of old ground, no more and no less, but a worthy enough addition to rock music biography lists. Its publication will, of course, prompt the following question: will The Smiths ever reform? Surely if bands such as Stone Roses can bury hatchets after issuing hell-freezes-over statements down through the years, then anything is possible? Not so, according to Morrissey: “I would rather eat my own testicles than reform The Smiths – and that’s saying something for a vegetarian.”
(This review first appeared in The Irish Times, September 2012)