There is A Light that Never Goes Out: A Retrospective of The Smiths
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There are few bands as beloved and beleaguered as The Smiths. There are also few acts that have achieved a legacy like theirs from a career that spanned a mere five years, four albums, and a handful of singles. Blending the distinct vocals and personality of singer Steven Patrick Morrissey, the incredible guitar playing of Johnny Marr, and their ability to write impeccable pop songs blended with dark, emotive, sardonic lyrics The Smiths burned brightly before flaming out under the weight of their discordant personalities.
Morrissey and Marr had known each other as teenagers, having been introduced by future member of The Cult, Billy Duffy. They came together a few years later in 1982 at Marr’s prompting and began working on material together. They spent that year with different band members and recording demos, playing their first live show in the fall. Mike Joyce won the gig as the permanent drummer and by the end of the year Andy Rourke had settled in on bass. They tried to get signed locally in Manchester and without luck, travelled down to London where Rough Trade agreed to record and release their first single, “Hand in Glove.” Though it didn’t reach the charts, the song did well enough to gain them some press and an appearance on the John Peel show. That boosted interest enough that Rough Trade signed them and they were on their way to recording their first album, just one year after forming and with only a few live shows under their belt.
This Charming Man \ Non-album single (1983)
Reel Around the Fountain; Pretty Girls Make Graves; Still Ill; What Difference Does It Make? \ The Smiths (1984)
During a time in which keyboards and dance music were becoming dominant, a guitar-led pop band went against the grain. However, from the start a song like their second single, “This Charming Man,” wouldn’t be denied regardless the style. From the bright guitar intro and jaunty melody and then Morrissey’s emotive vocals juxtaposing those sounds, The Smiths, named purposely to convey boredom and mediocrity, gave notice they were going to be anything but ordinary. The song also touched on the gay and homo-erotic themes that would gain the band attention and controversy, including charges of promoting paedophilia which Morrissey would vigorously deny.
- This Charming Man
- Reel Around the Fountain
- Pretty Girls Make Graves
- Still Ill
- What Difference Does It Make?
- Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
- Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
- How Soon Is Now?
- The Headmaster Ritual
- What She Said
- That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore
- Barbarism Begins at Home
- Bigmouth Strikes Again
- The Boy with the Thorn in His Side
- There is a Light that Never Goes Out
- You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby
- A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours
- Death of a Disco Dancer
- Girlfriend in a Coma
- Stop Me if You Think You've Heard This One Before
- Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me
- Everyday is Like Sunday
- November Spawned a Monster
- Sing Your Life
- Get the Message
- The Messenger
- The Tracers
Early in 1984 they released their next single, “What Difference Does It Make?” in tandem with the release of their first, self-titled album. The single was again a jaunty and pop-infused melody offset by dark-tinged lyrics, this time including falsetto vocals, a technique Morrissey would draw up upon often through their career. The single grew their success and led to solid sales and attention for the album, which debuted at #2 on the UK album chart, where it would also peak.
The first album was the band’s most straightforward and accessible, with pop-rock songs laced with Marr’s light and catchy riffs. “Reel Around the Fountain” leads the album as a longer, mid-tempo and moody track, and one of the songs that would invite the charges of promoting paedophilia due to lyrics like, “It's time the tale were told / Of how you took a child / And you made him old” followed by references of being slapped on a patio and “Fifteen minutes with you / Well, I wouldn’t say no.” The song, “Pretty Girls Make Graves” is less jaunty and rides a catchy bassline, while “Still Ill” captures the energy and lament that marks the mood of the entire album – always with the draw of the inventive and catchy guitar licks of Marr. The album included the prior singles “Hand in Glove” and “This Charming Man” and made for an eminently listenable LP from start to finish.
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now \ Non-album single (1984)
Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want \ B-side (1984)
How Soon Is Now \ Non-album single (1985)
As was often the case for acts of this era, especially in Britain, there was a flurry of singles issued before the next album was compiled. The first was “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” which more than their prior songs was the first to capture the essential Smiths sound of a bright, catchy pop song along with morose and depressing lyrics, which I’d quote if the song’s title didn’t say it all. The next single was, “William, It Was Really Nothing,” but it would be the B-side, “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” that would have the greater legacy, especially after the Dream Academy’s cover would be used in the 1986 movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the instrumental version would be used in the movie itself) and then The Smiths’ version included the same year in John Hughes’ other blockbuster, Pretty In Pink. The song is also notable as being one of the shorter and slower songs of the band, offering a different and more nuanced take on the band’s sound and the interplay of Marr’s guitar and Morrissey’s voice.
Late in 1984 the label would issue a collection of the band’s singles, B-sides, and Peel recordings, Hatful of Hollow. The album would reach #7 in the UK chart showing The Smiths may not have been able to drive success with singles, but their music had appeal and was building a strong audience.
Part of the band’s appeal would be Morrissey’s intriguing style. Though sexually ambivalent (usually assumed to be gay, he would be coy about his sexual preferences and typically declare himself as celibate) his emotive, vulnerable and slightly flamboyant style (he regularly performed with an open, print shirt and a literal bouquet of flowers hanging out the back pocket of his pants) and appealing looks would draw a strong following of young admirers regardless of gender. He was a regular of the teen magazines and music press in England which devoted lots of ink towards The Smiths. His voice also was really unlike anything else heard then and now. Certainly competent, effortless, and with some range and strength, his ability to create moods of ambivalence or exultation, sadness or elation, without ever sounding dull or disengaged, brought many listeners to The Smiths’ sound. His persistent moroseness and crooning would also alienate many a listener too.
Before releasing their second album, two more singles would be released in 1985: “How Soon Is Now?” and “Shakespeare’s Sister” (a name later adopted by a 90s pop duo). Neither would create the commercial breakthrough the band was seeking, both topping out in the mid-20s on the UK singles chart. However, the lack of sales belied the influence of “How Soon Is Now?” It had first appeared also as a B-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing” and was included on Hatful of Hollow before being released early in 1985 as an A-side. “How Soon Is Now?” is generally recognized as the band’s signature song and one of the most significant singles of the decade. My local alternative radio station in Toronto, CFNY, would in 1991 list it as the #1 song of all time as voted by listeners (it would drop to #2 in the 1999 list). The song is distinguished once again by Marr, providing one of the most recognizable and unique guitar tracks of the modern rock era. At almost seven minutes in length it’s not the most standard single, and rife with echoey guitar and drums and a dark, swirling mood marked by Morrissey’s offhand and vulnerable vocals, which was his best performance to date. The song jumped out on the radio and was unlike anything of its time or before, and even stands apart from most of The Smiths own discography. Perhaps because it wasn’t entirely new, it didn’t sell commensurate to its impact and influence; but “How Soon Is Now?” established The Smiths as one of the leading bands of the decade, and while admittedly (for me at least) the song has worn out its welcome over the years and it can be hard to re-create the sense of originality and excitement that accompanied its arrival, its an unmistakable landmark in the history of modern rock music.
The Headmaster Ritual; What She Said; That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore; Barbarism Begins at Home \ Meat Is Murder (1985)
By the time of the second album, after releasing seven singles, an album, and a compilation album, it seemed like The Smiths had been around longer than the mere two years of their recording career (and for the many who found their bleakness and Morrissey’s personality tiring, probably longer). Meat is Murder arrived not only as a political statement, but as a bold statement of the band’s musical brand. Marked by lyrics promoting vegetarianism (the title track) and against corporal punishment at home and in school (“The Headmaster Ritual” and “Barbarism Begins at Home”) the album was as dark and moody as its predecessor but the music and vocals were far more sophisticated and varied through the album. Less bright and jangly, the album was a deeper and more satisfying listen that demanded your undivided attention. This album was my first purchase of The Smiths and many listens imprinted itself on me as an important and moving piece of art.
Johnny Marr, in particular on this album, asserted himself as one of the strongest song writers and guitar players of his generation. The guitar playing on this album leaves you breathless despite nary a solo to be found on it. Yet every song rides his playing (with some nice bass work to play off it, such as in “Barbarism Begins at Home”) and the entire album is dependent on every whim of Marr’s hands. “What She Said” is a breathless run of strumming guitar and energy, and though Morrissey’s voice rides shotgun, it’s the frenetic pace and accents from Marr that makes you jump from your seat when this song comes on (along with some nice drumming from Joyce). As new wave and synth-led music was reaching its zenith that year, such guitar-led music was a nice change and helped set The Smiths up to be one of the more successful and distinctive bands of the decade’s second half.
The album’s singles would be “Barbarism Begins at Home” and then “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” a lush and beguiling ballad that would presage their later style, and once again leverage the juxtaposition between music and lyrics that was the band’s signature. Neither single would chart well (or at all) yet the album went to #1 (the only one to do so), once again indicating The Smiths were becoming a leading act of the era. They weren’t yet garnering much attention outside of the UK, though were developing a strong following in the US and Canada among alternative and college music formats. The North American release would include “How Soon Is Now?” as a hidden track on the album, leading the second side.
Bigmouth Strikes Again; The Boy with the Thorn in His Side; There Is A Light that Never Goes Out \ The Queen Is Dead (1986)
Though only reaching #2 in the UK, the next album, The Queen Is Dead, would give The Smiths greater international success. It would reach #70 in the US and #29 and #30 in Canada and Australia respectively. The band’s penchant for long song titles also came to bear especially on this album. There was also another slight change in sound and tone, as the album rocked a little more and lessened the moody atmospherics of Meat Is Murder.
Emblematic of the fresher and accessible sound of the album were the lead singles, “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side.” It seemed to me that year you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing those songs – especially “Bigmouth” – so it’s surprising that neither cracked the top 20 on the UK charts (and perhaps indicative of the change I’d made in my listening habits, that I was less attuned to the top selling acts). The 12-inch single for “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” would be given to me by my mother for Christmas in 1986 (she scored some freebies from a co-worker, whose husband worked for Columbia House Record Club) and I would listen to it often. The album would be the #2 album of the year on CFNY, edging my beloved New Order’s Brotherhood and coming in behind Peter Gabriel’s album, So (really?). Both songs are marked by Marr’s guitar, again strumming at furious paces to take these songs through catchy and enervating melodies. While “Bigmouth” may have been the more distinctive song of the year – similar to “How Soon Is Now?” it has a different feel than other music of the time and Morrissey’s voice in particular is on another plane – “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” was simply a beautiful and joyous song musically, though of course the lyrics reference hatred and lies, but hey, Morrissey yodeled for good effect!
The album was also notable for another light and lovely pop song marked with dark and sordid lyrics in “There is A Light that Never Goes Out.” Once again set to intoxicating acoustic guitar, Morrissey put a positive spin on a grim spectacle, “And if a double-decker bus / Crashes into us / To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die.” For The Smiths, it appeared things were as ever, playing in the dark and the light (that never goes out).
Panic; Ask \ Non-album singles (1986)
You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby \ The World Won’t Listen (1987)
Before 1986 concluded the band released two more singles, “Panic” and “Ask,” which fared better than any released before. These singles included Craig Gannon on guitar, who had been brought in briefly as a replacement for Andy Rourke on bass, who had been turfed for his heroin use. When Rourke was allowed back into the band Gannon stayed on (he would leave the band by the end of the year). This episode revealed the underlying and growing challenges the band was facing. They were battling their labels over legal and promotional issues and the album had been delayed in being released as a result. Marr was tired of constant touring and the associated lifestyle and was feeling the ill health effects. Aside from Rourke’s drug use, there was discord in the band since, officially, the only members of the band were Morrissey and Marr. Rourke and Joyce were employees under contract, and never officially recognized as members of the band. This naturally led to a difference in status and income – perhaps fair since Morrissey and Marr wrote all the songs – but also problematic given the extent to which their rhythm section had contributed to this point. A tour of the US was also cut short by the band, cancelling the remaining four shows. Things were looking as bleak as their lyrics.
The frustration of not having achieved the success The Smiths felt they deserved – they still didn’t have a top ten single – was noted in the title of the next compilation of singles and B-sides, The World Won’t Listen, released in February of 1987. It would also go to #2 in the UK, same as two of their three albums to date. It included a song that was intended to be a single, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” (also a reference to their success shortfall?) but was passed over for what was released as the next single that year, “Shoplifters of the World Unite.” In America, an expanded version of that compilation (including Hatful of Hollow material as yet unreleased stateside) was released as a double-album, Louder than Bombs, which reached #62 in the US, their best result yet (it would be released in the UK also after its success).
After “Shoplifters,” the single, “Sheila Take A Bow,” was released and gave The Smiths their first top ten single… just, reaching #10 in the UK. Musically this period continued to display the band’s great ability to write great songs. “Panic” and “Ask” are immensely catchy songs, and the addition of Kirsty MacColl on “Ask” gave the vocals a new dimension.
A Rush and A Push and the Land Is Ours; Death of a Disco Dancer; Girlfriend in A Coma; Stop Me If You Think You've Heard this One Before; Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me \ Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
The Smiths problems came to bear in 1987, as after recording the next album Marr left the band briefly through a combination of simply needing a break and misunderstandings with Morrissey, who was unhappy with Marr having worked with other artists. After reuniting the disagreements continued, this time over the musical direction of the band with Marr wanting to branch out and Morrissey wanting to hew more closely to their R&B roots. By the time the album was released in the fall, the band had officially declared themselves over.
It’s a shame it ended up that way, because who knows what the band might have achieved if they’d lasted longer. Yet, their short lifespan also contained The Smiths’ career to a tight list of four utterly fantastic albums and an impressive list of singles. Perhaps it was the conflict that contributed to it, or the initial rush of creativity that can be so hard to sustain in the long run? Perhaps the shortened career was a blessing in disguise?
Strangeways, Here We Come was a return to the moodiness of Meat is Murder and is their most varied and lavish album. Again, with more words per title than most albums, the songs move through moody and dramatic turns, though this time the music and lyrics were a little more cohesive. The obvious exception was “Girlfriend in A Coma,” which was one of the band’s purest pop songs, delivered happily while Morrisey lightly intoned, “Girlfriend in a coma, I know / I know it’s serious.” Along with the opener, “A Rush and A Push…” the album had several engaging and spirited moments, and the keyboard rhythm of that song was a welcome change. The later half of the album though is where the band delivered some of its biggest and most ambitious music, with “Stop Me…,” “Last Night…,” and “Paint A Vulgar Picture.”
I think it was the band’s best album and, buoyed by their increasing exposure at that point, the album reached the band’s top peak of #55 in the US while once again reaching #2 in the UK. “Girlfriend” was the only pure radio-friendly single and would reach #13 in the UK. The other singles didn’t fare as well, but The Smiths at this point were not, it had to be acknowledged, a singles band. Yes, they had issued a healthy list of non-album singles, but it was the consistent quality of their music, song after song, that built their success. It was the LPs and compilations that sold and endure, and not the singles, and that’s a rare breed of artist.
Everyday Is Like Sunday \ Viva Hate \ Morrissey (1988)
November Spawned a Monster \ Non-album single \ Morrissey (1989)
Sing Your Life \ Kill Uncle \ Morrissey (1991)
Morrissey wouldn’t break stride after the demise of The Smiths, channeling his hate and ennui into an impressive solo career that would shine brighter than that of his band, before settling into the inevitable fate of obsolescence of an aging rock star. His first album, Viva Hate, released only six months after the final Smiths album, featured the hit “Suedehead,” which reached #5 in the UK charts while the album went to #1. He must have been casting a weary eye back at Marr at that point for having held him back. The second single from that album was “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” an incredible, expansive, and utterly entrancing single. It’s one of my favourite songs.
The singer would follow up that debut with one success after another in both albums and singles. Given the distinctiveness of his voice and his love for the R&B and pop style, his albums quite frankly just sound like more Smiths songs, though the pop element carries through stronger and thus the greater chart success. By 2018 he has released eleven solo albums, three of which have reached #1 and all have cracked the top ten in the UK, and he’s had nine top ten singles though is yet to score that elusive #1 tune. He’s never been able to achieve much success outside of the UK other than on the minor charts such as the US Modern Rock chart.
“November Spawned A Monster” and “Sing Your Life” are two of his stronger singles. They are two different styles and show that Morrissey has been willing to vary his sound to some extent, and that he simply has a fantastic grasp of catchy and emotionally laden songs. Over the years his politics and habit of cancelling shows and tours, and his whining and lecturing about various topics has alienated many. He still has an ardent following, as his sales indicate, and the legacy of The Smiths will make sure he’s always respected as an artist, but Morrissey no longer remains as compelling and leading an artist as he once was. Despite the strength of his solo material, he definitely lacks the chemistry of working with Marr to provide an extra boost to his music.
Get the Message \ Electronic \ Electronic (1991)
The Messenger \ The Messenger \ Johnny Marr (2013)
The Tracers \ Call the Comet \ Johnny Marr (2018)
Johnny Marr, as he’d started during his time with The Smiths, became a gun for hire for a variety of others. He wrote, played, and produced for a multitude of other acts including: Billy Bragg, Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry, The The (Mind Bomb in 1989 & Dusk in 1992), Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Tom Jones, Modest Mouse in the 2000s, Oasis, Pearl Jam, and guesting in Neil Finn’s Seven World’s Collide projects.
His first major project as a principal contributor was in the all-star band, Electronic, initially formed along with Bernard Sumner of New Order and Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys (they would only appear on the initial single and two other songs on the first album). The band’s first single was the fantastic, “Getting Away with It” in late 1989 followed by a full album early in 1991. “Get the Message” was the strong lead single from that album. Marr and Sumner’s ability to write danceable, guitar-laden songs made for a great album. They would follow-up with two more albums over the remainder of the 1990s.
Marr would next form is own act called The Healers (including Zach Starkey on drums) in 2003 and issue an album, Boomslang, along with the very good singles, “The Last Ride” and “Down on the Corner.” Unfortunately, this album isn’t available on streaming services otherwise I would have included it. We next heard solo material from the guitarist under his own name in 2013 with the album, The Messenger. It has been followed by two more, Playland (2014) and this year’s Call the Comet. I’ll be seeing Marr at the comfy confines of The Velvet Underground later this month. His music is usually in the guitar-driven Britpop style, and has not been able to achieve any level of success nearing that of The Smiths or Morrissey. However, his contributions to anyone’s music invariably improves it, and his own albums are solid and enjoyable listens. Whether it's the absence of a charismatic front man and vocal like Morrissey, or just an inability to capture the hooks as he did in The Smiths, Marr has not been able to capture the magic he produced in the '80s.
The Smiths are recognized as one of the most important and influential modern rock acts. Their tenure was short, but they created a style of modern rock that offered something different to the synth-laden sounds of the 1980s and set the stage for the return of guitar rock in the 1990s. Though their sales didn’t convey the depth and extent of their fan base and critical reception, The Smiths undoubtedly were an immense act of their era. If Morrissey and Marr were to reunite today, they would sell out stadiums. Their songs are still routinely played on the radio and they have spawned an impressive catalogue of compilations and re-releases, many of which have been more successful than the originals (e.g. “This Charming Man” was re-released for a greatest hits package in 1992 and gave The Smiths their one and only top ten hit, with a #8 placement, while the album itself was their second #1 LP).
For me, The Smiths are as much a part of my teen years as any other act, though never grabbed me as much as others. I love their music, but the personality of Morrissey and the teen angst appeal of their music kept me from diving fully in. It seemed that everyone I knew listened to them and they were staples at high school parties and dances, so it's surprising to look back and see just how overlooked they were in North America. And yet they weren't - like so many highly successful British bands from the UK, a lack of chart success didn't mean they didn't have a substantial and die-hard following. Read this take on Morrissey's first appearance and associated pandemonium he brought to a bewildered Johnny Carson on his first Tonight Show appearance in 1991. As is often the case with a seminal band, The Smiths succeeded on a deeper level with their fans and were not made for mainstream success.
Morrissey is one of the most iconic and unique singers of his generation. His voice is effortless and pure, ranging from a falsetto to a subtle tenor that allowed him to convey the world-weariness and dark emotion of his lyrics. Those lyrics were paired best with the inventive and catchy guitar work of Marr, who is easily one of the best players of the modern rock era. Yet, while Morrissey has had greater success solo, its the combination with Marr that produced the greater legacy. The Smiths, who could elate, depress, frustrate, and ultimately make you dance or nod your head to their infectious groove, were one of the most consistent and impressive acts we’ve been privileged to know