The Definitive Biography of The Smiths


Every rock band needs a singer. Doesn’t hurt if he’s devastatingly handsome and a brooder. (Rough Trade, Stephen Wright)

In May 1982, a teenaged guitarist in Manchester, England, knocked on the door of a recluse named Steven Morrissey. Johnny Marr, as he soon styled himself, dreamed of finding a musical soulmate, and he suspected that the shy, bookish writer and singer might be the one.

He was right.

Within weeks, the two had formed the band that became the Smiths, and their sound was polished from the first shows. In five short years—before the two fell out in predictable fashion—they would make four influential studio albums, put a dozen moody hits with titles like “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” on the U.K. pop charts and convert countless teens worldwide (including me) to vegetarianism.

For anyone who was “16, clumsy and shy” in the 1980s, Tony Fletcher’s A Light That Never Goes Out (the title is taken from the song There Is A Light That Never Goes Out that appeared on the Smiths album The Queen Is Dead) will rekindle painful and lovely aural memories, from “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” “I Know It’s Over” and the classic “How Soon Is Now?” Exhaustively researched—the author’s history of Manchester and its Irish immigrants wouldn’t be out of place in an encyclopedia—the book takes an extensive, definitive look at the roots of the band. Even serious fans, though, might not want to wait until page 228 to meet the Smiths as they finalize their lineup.

The author Tony Fletcher, before his sizable record collection.

Morrissey (as the lead singer came to call himself) is a difficult subject for a biographer: abrasive and famously coy about his sexuality—he has claimed to be of a “fourth” sex. He can be cruel in his lyrics, such as in “Unhappy Birthday” where he sang, “You’re evil / And you lie / And if you should die / I may feel slightly sad / (But I won’t cry).” He could be cruel in life as well. Morrissey wrote and spoke often of suicide, overtly in songs like “Asleep,” a beautiful, frightening nocturne. His response to critics who noted a spate of suicides among his fans was typically cold: “I don’t want to be a nurse. I’d rather say, in essence, well, the despair you feel is true.”

Johnny Marr was the band’s true leader. A brilliant, innovative guitarist, his tremolo-soaked jangle in songs like “William, It Was Really Nothing” added the power-pop counterpoint to Morrissey’s moping. Marr suggested drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke to round out the group. He was also the one who made five years of apologies on behalf of a lead singer who never really wanted to leave his bedroom.

Even though the band’s hit song “Panic” complained of DJs playing music that “says nothing to me about my life,” the Smiths never labored in obscurity. Their self-titled first album, released in 1984, went to no. 2 on the U.K. charts. An awful early tour in New York, marked by cockroaches in the hotel and the drummer’s chickenpox, introduced the group to a wider audience and interested American labels.

The boys enjoyed their sudden success. But only for a while. In 1982, Marr and Morrissey had bonded over their mutual love for British singer Sandie Shaw, a 1960s star they both idolized. (Shaw had had a hit with a tune called “Heaven Knows I’m Missing You Now”). Two years later they were recording with her. On one memorable occasion in 1984, Morrissey was late and refused to open his door to anyone but Marr. When Marr came into the house, he spotted Sandie Shaw on Morrissey’s fire escape, frantically waving to Morrissey. They were both trying to get the singer to make his appearance at the promotional event. Marr calls this “one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

The British book cover.

Fletcher documents the creation of the music in detail, and it is fascinating to learn that it was Morrissey himself who designed the iconic album cover for “Meat is Murder,” featuring an army helmet in a Warholish four-square design. We also discover what tune opens “The Queen Is Dead” (it was a British chestnut, “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty”).

But the band’s demise seems inevitable from the moment, way back in 1983, when Marr and Morrissey, who wrote all the songs, decide to split royalties 40-40 and give the rhythm section the remaining 20%. This was later the source of a court battle that awarded Joyce and Rourke more money—the judge summed it up nicely when he wrote “Mr. Morrissey is a more complicated character . . . devious, truculent and unreliable.” Morrissey himself later reflected about his rhythm section: “They were lucky. If they’d had another singer, they’d never have got further than Salford shopping centre.”

If the singer’s outlook was dark, the band’s fortunes were bright. Their breakthrough record Meat Is Murder reached No 1 on the UK charts. And their influence has, if anything, actually strengthened over the years. A 2002 poll in New Musical Express anointed The Smiths the “most influential artist ever” and all four of the band’s albums appeared on Rolling Stones list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

By 1987 (and page 485), it is obvious that drugs (Rourke), drink (everyone but Morrissey) and nastiness (Morrissey, on depressing display throughout) will sink the Smiths. The band ends with a whimper as they grimly lip-sync their way through a show in Italy in one of their last performances, the strain of exhaustion and a rotating cast of managers ending things just as a new album, “Strangeways Here We Come,” is due for release.

Fletcher accomplishes the key task of a music biographer, which is a richer enjoyment of the music—I repeatedly scurried to iTunes to download and listen to the music—some of it a slog, much of it masterful. (My kids will benefit from my reconnecting to the anti-corporal punishment anthem “Barbarism Begins at Home.”)

Yet the band’s short life, catty feuds and petty end make the Smiths a questionable subject for Fletcher’s considerable skills of biography and research, which seem better suited to a figure of enduring greatness and wider impact. Like Winston Churchill. Or the Ramones.

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths By Tony Fletcher (Crown, 698 pages)

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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