Those charming men again
MUSIC: TONY CLAYTON-LEAreviews A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths By Tony Fletcher William Heinemann, 698pp. £20
THIRTY YEARS after their formation, writes Tony Fletcher, and 25 years since they split up, the legacy and cultural significance of the UK rock band The Smiths remain intact. It’s time, the book’s cover blurb declares, that their tale was told – a rather self-conscious reference to the line in the song Reel Around the Fountain. And Fletcher isn’t too wide of the mark: there is a strong argument to be made that the maverick Manchester quartet were the most important and influential British rock act of the 1980s.
Fletcher, 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 really valid to revisit a story that was minutely examined in Johnny Rogan’s acclaimed book Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance? Fletcher’s counterpitch could be that A Light Never Goes Out is the first group biography. Unlike Rogan’s book, he brings in the band’s other two original members, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, as well as its leaders.
Using a rigidly linear narrative, Fletcher begins with Manchester during 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,” he writes. “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 200,000 people left Ireland for the UK. From Crumlin village to Manchester’s Moss Side came a handful of members 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, Co 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 the dynamic was there: the aloof, aphoristic, often intransigent Morrissey (blithely setting out, as Fletcher writes, “to incorporate and revive the imagery, the plots and often the direct words of Salford’s Shelagh Delaney and her fellow playwrights and screenwriters”) and the outgoing, intuitive, protective Marr (raised on 1960s Rolling Stones records and inspired further by punk rock). “I was there, dying,” recalled Morrissey, archly, of their creative ignition in May 1982, “and he rescued me.”
In keeping with the egalitarian nature of the book’s premise, drummer Joyce and bass guitarist Rourke are here, too, but, perhaps inevitably, they are continuously undercut and overshadowed by Morrissey and Marr. (“For Mike and Andy to . . . have power of veto,” says the bands first manager, Joe Moss, “ . . . that’s inconceivable. It’s not their vision; they’re part of Johnny and Morrissey’s vision.”)
Therein lies the book’s crippling fault, for despite Fletcher’s best intentions he simply doesn’t provide enough balance for the narrative. Another flaw, particularly in such a lengthy book, is Fletcher’s writing, which although fastidiously attentive to detail lacks even a hint of the wit and crackle of its subjects’ songs.
Thankfully, the story itself is riveting and Fletcher tells it lucidly and fairly. The drive to continue reading is provided by Marr’s no-nonsense spirit and by Morrissey’s eminently quotable lyrics and interviews (sourced from a variety of publications, including quite a few interviews from this newspaper).
There’s also the fact that the music was so distinguished and the band’s output so prolific. In the five years from the band’s formation, in 1982, to its disintegration, in 1987, The Smiths released four studio albums, a number of compilation albums and numerous non-album singles. And how incomparable their recorded legacy remains.
The band had two crucial elements: Marr’s inventive musicianship, best exemplified, perhaps, on the song How Soon Is Now?, which sublimely defines a sense of disconnectedness; and Morrissey himself. His is a persona of his own construction, though answerable, perhaps, to specific cultural and sexual reference points, from Oscar Wilde (who, writes Fletcher, became Morrissey’s “first true hero, indeed something of a role model and an inspiration”), James Dean and the northern England-based works of Delaney, Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse, to the humour of Victoria Wood and the 1960s Carry On movies. His skill as a lyricist was to match his functional borrowings from other people’s work with his own sense of isolation and rejection of conventional notions of masculinity.
A Light That Never Goes Out is a decent retread of old ground, and it’s a worthy enough addition to rock-music biography. Its publication will, of course, prompt a question: will The Smiths ever re-form? Surely if bands such as The Stone Roses, who issued hell-freezes-over denials through the years, can do it, then anything is possible? Not so, according to Morrissey. “I would rather eat my own testicles than reform The Smiths,” he has said, “and thats saying something for a vegetarian.”
Tony Clayton-Lea writes on pop culture for The Irish Times. His most recent book is 101 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die, published by Liberties Press