Songs That Saved Your Life by Simon Goddard

Songs That Saved Your Life

Full Title: 
Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of the Smiths 1982-87
Release Date: 
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
# of Pages: 
Expiration Date: 
2025-01-01 01:00

One of the seminal groups of the Eighties, The Smiths’ career was as brilliant as it was brief. Now, drawing on interviews with band members, producers, and colleagues, music journalist Simon Goddard presents a meticulous chronological survey of the group’s musical evolution, from their first demos in 1982 to their final fractured studio session five years later. Investigating the stories behind the songs, and detailing every British TV and radio session, he also offers a unique analysis of each track’s concert life. Granted unprecedented access to The Smiths’ studio archives and to the private collection of outtakes and rehearsals retained by drummer Mike Joyce, the author lifts the lid on unreleased material as well as the lost songs and alternate versions that have remained closely guarded secrets until now.

How Soon Is Now?(Morrissey/Marr)
Recorded July 1984, Jam Studios London
Produced by John Porter
B-side of William, It Was Really Nothing (12 inch only),
Released August 1984, Rough Trade (RTT166)
Also issued as single A-side (Highest UK Chart Placing #24)
Released February 1985, Rough Trade RT176/RTT176

The song that would later be hailed as ‘the “Stairway To Heaven” of the 80s’ by Seymour Stein, the mogul behind The Smiths’ American label Sire, began life as ‘Swamp’ one of Marr’s home demos concocted during the early summer of 1984 at his flat in Earls Court. The basis of the tune was the guitarist’s attempt to capture the spirit of Creedence Clearwater Revival; no mean feat considering at the time Marr had heard almost nothing of the group, taking The Gun Club’s cover of their ‘Run Through The Jungle’ as his starting point. ‘I had an impression of what Creedence were supposed to be about,’ says Marr. ‘Partly because I’d already gotten into The Gun Club and heard “Run Through The Jungle” from their second album [1982’s Miami]. It triggered off some echoes of what I’d heard of Creedence. So I made this demo, “Swamp”, trying to capture the same vibe. It didn’t have the tremolo figure on it, but it had the slide part in regular concert tuning. It was quite a pretty figure, but only hinting at what it became. It was still quite passive, nowhere near as intense as it got.’

   Marr had already given a copy of ‘Swamp’ to Morrissey when supplying him with demos for all three tracks that would appear on the ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single. After completing the first two A and B sides by the Friday evening, the following afternoon Marr began jamming his ‘Swamp’ riff with Rourke and Joyce. ‘I remember us playing it for a while and me really hoping we could make it sound like a Smiths track, because the chances were it might not have. So I had me fingers crossed that it was gonna be like us, already liking it myself and having given it to Morrissey.’ While the track slowly came together, its mysterious, trippy atmosphere proved irresistible for the three musicians and producer John Porter, all of whom liked a recreational spliff when the mood suited. By the evening, they’d even made amendments to the studio fixtures and fittings to match their mellow disposition. ‘We just took all the lights out in the studio,’ confesses Joyce, ‘and put red bulbs in and got, well, stoned. Off our tits. That was it really.’

   ‘We were always stoned,’ laughs Porter. ‘Vast quantities of hashish were consumed, and weed and whatever else we could lay our hands on. At first, I told them to play it for as long as they needed, a good four of five minutes. We did it and I got two good takes. Then I got both takes and cut out the bits which weren’t good and chopped them together. That’s why it ended up as long as it did.’

   ‘We kicked it around until it did feel like us,’ says Marr, ‘but I could hear that it had something lacking. So I saw my opportunity to throw the tremolo part down that I’d been looking to use for quite a while.’ At least three different records can lay claim to the inspiration for this, the track’s celebrated quivering guitar texture. Marr would have been just 11 years old when he heard the first, Hamilton Bohannon’s 1975 UK top ten hit ‘Disco Stomp’. ‘I was obsessed with that track. I remember hearing it in the back of the car with my parents, driving back from Wales on a hot day. The sound of it just really turned my head.’ Equally important was ‘I Want More’, a rare UK hit for Krautrock demigods Can in 1976. Last but not least was Bo Diddley, another of Marr’s musical obsessions during the summer of ‘84. Diddley, real name Ellas McDaniel, had pioneered a distinctive, oscillating tremolo guitar style as early as 1955, the likes of ‘Mona’ casting a discernible shadow of ‘How Soon Is Now?’ three decades earlier. ‘So,’ says Marr, ‘it was my boyhood love of “Disco Stomp”, Can’s “I Want More” and then tying the whole thing together with the Bo Diddley bow, as it were. That was the whole thing.’

   Without the aid of samplers or digital simulators, Marr and Porter had to create their tremolo effect manually on traditional analogue equipment. The first step involved taking the basic rhythm guitar part, which had been recorded as a ‘dry’ DI (Direct Input) take, without any effects. This dry guitar pattern was next relayed to four Fender Twin Reverb amplifiers, each with its own vibrato tremolo switch. As Marr’s plain rhythm was played back through the four speakers, Porter and Marr controlled the vibrato on one pair of amplifiers apiece to create the swampy, shuddering texture required. Whenever their tremolo slipped out of sync, the recording was stopped then recommenced, sometimes recording in bursts of only ten seconds at a time. Marr and Porter overdubbed further finishing touches at the end of the session, including its mesmerising slide guitar. ‘Layering the slide part was what gave it the real tension,’ Marr later verified. ‘As soon as I played that bit on the second and third strings, John Porter put an harmoniser [an effects unit allowing recorded parts to change octave, as if speeded up, yet keeping the same time signature] on it. Then we recorded each individual string with the harmoniser, then we tuned the B string down a half step and harmonised the whole thing.’

   Finally, a separate guitar melody played in harmonics was dropped in as Marr’s secret nod to rapper Lovebug Starski whom he’d met a few months earlier at The Smiths’ New York show. ‘He came over and was very nice and took care of me,’ recalls Marr. ‘I was really excited by that music. I’d heard his records in Manchester but he was still this pretty obscure hip-hop guy. So to suddenly be there in New York and meet him, at the time I was like “Whoa! There he is! Lovebug Starski!” So that bit in “How Soon Is Now?” is a figure he’d used on one of his records [1982s Youve Gotta Believe] just a little motif that I thought was unusual and appropriate, so long as it worked. Which it did.’

   Morrissey himself had remained at home in his Kensington flat the whole day, possibly just as well for the sake of the skinned-up creativity executed in his absence. ‘By then our sessions eventually got into a pattern,’ says Porter. ‘We would pretty much do the tracking and then everybody would just leave me and Johnny to it. Mozzer wouldn’t even be there, unless it was a song they already knew. Most of the time we’d make these things up in the studio so it was pretty much done by the time he came in and put a vocal on top. I’d normally post a copy of what we’d been doing that day through his letterbox on the way home and then he’d come in the next morning with his notebook of lyrics and write something that seemed to fit.’

   Though Porter posted a cassette of a rough mix through Morrissey’s letterbox late that Saturday evening, Marr is keen to stress that the singer would have already spent some time drafting lyrics to his ‘Swamp’ demo. Morrissey duly joined his fellow Smiths back at Jam the next day and laid down his vocal in just a couple of takes. When Porter first heard the song’s opening line, he misinterpreted them as the ethereal metaphor ‘I am the sun and the air.’ ‘Great,’ he exclaimed to the others assembled around the mixing desk, ‘he’s singing about the elements!’

   The actual lyric was adapted from George Eliot’s Middlemarch – ‘to be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular’ – while the song’s title was plucked from one of Morrissey’s most ransacked early sources, Marjorie Rosen’s 1973 book of feminist film history, Popcorn Venus: ‘How immediately can we be gratified? How soon is “now”?’ (Of minor note, a rogue theory ‘How Soon Is Now?’ had originally been called ‘Father And Son’ was later refuted by Morrissey in a 1985 Melody Maker interview.)

   A sublime expression of social inadequacy and raw human yearning, the power of ‘How Soon Is Now?’ lay in its universal scenario of unrequited desire. The ballad of a bad night out the desperate, masochistic quest to find love in the essentially loveless environment of a nightclub becomes the catalyst for a broader decree of aching existentialism, one that aggressively demands affection in the face of recurrent rejection. Writing for New York’s Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly in 1989, Jon Savage took Morrissey’s lyric as specifically evocative of Manchester’s gay club scene during the late-70s and early-80s. ‘[It] captures that experience exactly,’ said Savage, ‘except the last line: home and sleep were not upsetting but a relief.’

   The original unedited vocal track saw Morrissey yodel an alternate melody during its instrumental passages: one such trial mix in which he experiments with hummed interludes and stops mid-song to ask John Porter ‘OK?’ was released as the B-side of the Italian edition of ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. In interviews of the period Morrissey admitted to having had voice coaching, though made light of its merits. However, it’s clear from ‘How Soon Is Now?’ that, compared to the Troy Tate sessions 12 months earlier, Morrissey’s voice had ripened in power and confidence. From first entry to pleading chorus (‘I need to be loved’), his vocal performance is staggering, even breaking out into an incongruously merry whistle at 4.30.

   The simplicity and directness of its lyrics were all the greater for Marr’s iridescent background score. Maintaining his beat to a mechanical constant, Joyce’s steady Diddley pulse provided a solid vertebrae around which Marr and Rourke could weave their supernatural magic. At over six-and-a-half minutes, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was a heroic achievement, both sonically and technically.

   ‘I was really pleased and really excited about it,’ says Porter. ‘I felt we were breaking new ground. I remember calling up Geoff on the Sunday night and saying, “We’ve just done this great track, you’ve got to come down”, so he did with Scott Piering. I could tell Geoff didn’t like it very much. He just kept looking at me constantly and I could sense him thinking, “What the fuck is this?”. Scott dug it, I could see like me he thought it was cool. So I was very disappointed by Geoff. I got the vibe that he thought I was pushing them in a direction he didn’t want them to go in.’

   Despite pressure from the producer to save it for a separate A-side, it was finally issued as planned on the 12 inch B-side of ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ that August. Night-time radio began to pick up on it almost immediately; by the autumn ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was the most frequently demanded Smiths track by listeners of John Peel, Janice Long (who had taken over from David Jensen’s early evening slot) and Annie Nightingale’s Sunday night request show. ‘Obviously it came out as a single in its own right later,’ defended Travis after the event. ‘Maybe you could say we made a mistake not releasing that as the A-side [instead] of “William ”.’

   Its inclusion on November’s Hatful Of Hollow compilation offered some solace, yet only when the song provided The Smiths with their first number one in John Peel’s end of year Festive 50 poll did Rough Trade reconsider. Partly in response to the Festive 50, in late January the song was belatedly released in a radio-friendly three-and-a-half minute edit as The Smiths’ sixth UK 45; a rare anomaly in which the previous single’s B-side was now being promoted as their latest chart contender. Rough Trade justified the move by claiming it was to spare British fans having to fork out “an extortionate price” for a Dutch 7 inch import released the previous autumn. Sadly, the label’s indecision backfired. ‘How Soon Is Now?’ failed to follow its three predecessors inside the top 20 and was a disappointment to fans who were less than enthusiastic about parting money for old rope, even given the draw of new B-sides.

   Its release also thwarted plans to precede the imminent Meat Is Murder album with a foregoing single; ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ had already been issued as a promotional DJ 12 inch that same month. ‘They threw it away,’ mourns Porter. ‘By the time everyone got hip to it everybody had already bought it, twice. So they shot themselves in the foot.’ As Nick Kent noted, at least in America the single alerted ‘a young Anglophile audience to a group whose every US press clipping initially seemed to view them as some wacky gay-rock crusade until [“How Soon Is Now?”], bolstered by an unsolicited video for MTV rotation, did the trick.’

   In truth, although it increased their profile across the Atlantic, Morrissey was deeply depressed by its US release. The ‘unsolicited’ video notwithstanding, Morrissey lambasted its ‘abhorrent sleeve’ as well as Sire’s decision to tack it on the American release of Meat Is Murder as an extra track. The fact that today it remains, without doubt, their most popular recording is a sweet if mildly ironic consolation for both their own and their label’s failure to highlight its brilliance with an adequate single release first time round; when reissued by WEA in September 1992 it fared marginally better, reaching number 16 in the UK.

   More than any other Smiths track, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ has crossed over into the fabric of mainstream pop culture. It was famously sampled on ‘Hippy Chick’, a UK top ten hit by Soho in 1991 (for which Morrissey and Marr claimed a quarter of all royalties), used as the soundtrack to an international advertising campaign by Pepe Jeans, since covered by both rock and dance artists and licensed to all manner of ‘classic rock’ compilation albums. As performed by The Psychedelic Furs’ offshoot band Love Split Love, it’s been adopted as the TV theme tune to the cult US witchcraft series Charmed. Even chart-topping ‘faux lesbian’ Russian pop ‘sensation’ t.A.T.u famously covered the song in 2003. For those who hate The Smiths, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ is their populist saving grace; the exception to the rule. ‘This sounds incredibly egotistical,’ Marr once recalled, ‘but [with “How Soon Is Now?”] I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as “Layla”. When that song plays in a club or a pub, everyone knows what it is instantly.’

   With the ageless opening shimmer of ‘How Soon Is Now?’, time has declared Marr’s mission accomplished.



Simon Goddard is a music journalist who writes for a variety of publications, including Q magazine.