Tuesday, February 25, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths


The Smiths were one of the most influential British rock bands of the 1980s and beyond and their impact on the music scene in the UK and US has extended far beyond their short lifetime as a band.  While there have been many books written about them, most seem to be frustratingly incomplete and tend to focus more on Morrissey and Johnny Marr or simply Morrissey himself. There are some essential books that have been around for some time, including Johnny Rogan's seminal biography "Morrisey and Marr: The Severed Alliance," Simon Goddard's "The Songs That Saved Your Life," and of course Morrissey's own memoir which was published late in 2013 and which I reviewed here. However,  Rogan's book tends to focus more on the Morrissey-Marr partnership and the machinations of the band, while Goddard's book is an excellent scholarly look at simply the music itself. And Morrissey's book? Well, I can't say much more than it's uniquely his and of course recounts his life from solely his perspective. What "A Light That Never Goes Out" offers is the definitive biography of The Smiths as the four-membered band they were, although as the author adroitly states, "for a band that tried to come off as a gang, some members were more equal than others."

***special thanks to Emma and Maureen at Windmill Books for sending me a review copy of the book!***

Tony Fletcher has written many excellent musician biographies, including essential books on Keith Moon and R.E.M. (the latter which I have reviewed previously here). In the introduction, he gives an overview of previous books on the Smiths (as I have also done above) and states his intention to focus on the band, their music, history, and relationships and not focus inordinately on Morrissey (and to a lesser extent, Marr) more than is necessary to the exclusion of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. The result is a book that takes into account and rightfully celebrates the considerable and essential contributions of Rourke and Joyce to the sound and image of the Smiths alongside those of Morrissey and Marr.
Similar to Mark Lewisohn's new Beatles biography (which I've reviewed here), Fletcher begins the book by tracing the familial roots of the Smiths, which just like the Beatles, come originally from Ireland.  A common thread connecting all four members of the Smiths is their Irish roots, which in the case of all except for Andy Rourke, had both their mothers and fathers as Irish immigrants to Manchester (in Rourke's case, his mother's family was English and his father was Irish).  All of them, but especially Morrissey, grew up with a lot of extended family living near them and the impact of being first-generation Irish-English was a deeply rooted part of their identity, especially when dealing with anti-Irish sentiment while they were growing up in Manchester. Parallel to the mass Irish immigration to Manchester and the north of England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Fletcher also gives a history of the city during this time period in order to show how growing up in Manchester had a profound and unique effect on who the Smiths turned out to be as people. Working his way through their childhood and formative musical experiences, the author paints a picture of four very different individuals with disparate tastes and abilities and shows how they would eventually come together to form the band in 1982. Morrissey's youth has been described in his memoir, but here Fletcher does a good job to show that while intensely private, he was not the complete recluse he's been made out to be over the past thirty years (this myth oftentimes perpetuated by Morrissey himself). Marr and Rourke were childhood friends who had been in bands together prior to the Smiths, while Mike Joyce was a punk drummer who would seem to be the odd man out given the other three's musical tastes, yet he ended up being the perfect fit.

The story of the Smiths naturally has to have a strong focus on the songwriting partnership of Morrissey and Marr that was at the core of the band and the reason they formed in the first place. The story of how the supremely talented Marr boldly knocked on Morrissey's door and "rescued" (in Moz's own words) him from a meaningless existence as they instantly bonded over their shared love of 45s and 1960s girl groups is retold, but what was new information to me is that they had briefly been introduced some time before at a Patti Smith concert. I had always thought they had never properly met prior to their mutual friend bringing Marr to Moz's house; here the parallels to the Beatles (where new information in Lewisohn's book suggests that Lennon and McCartney had met prior to the church fete in July 1957) are again eerie in their similarities. Almost immediately, they set their sights on forming a band and bringing back the magic of 1960s British rock centering around the songs that they began composing together. After various transient members passed through, they settled on a lineup that included Joyce on drums and Rourke on bass. Here again, Fletcher gives a bit of a history lesson showing how the indie scene grew and developed in England in general and Manchester in particular over the course of the 1970s and early 80s and how it eventually led the newly formed Smiths to sign to the legendary London-based label Rough Trade. What was remarkable was how fast the band got big in their first year; after only a handful of gigs and a couple of 45 singles, they were one of the most popular and acclaimed bands in the UK and already had set their sights on the US and elsewhere. Among matters that would come back to haunt them, however, were their lack of a true manager after original mentor Joe Moss left them in late 1983 in order to focus on his family, and the royalty split. Understandably, as the songwriters, Morrissey and Marr stood to earn more from publishing royalties than Rourke and Joyce, but by the band as an entity existing on paper as only Morrissey and Marr and excluding the other two members, they were also cut out of the record royalties and would each only earn a paltry 10% each from the remaining income, while Marr and Moz each would earn 40%. Among the multiple parallels with their American counterparts R.E.M. (not least of which because Fletcher also wrote that band's definitive biography), including having the striking similarities of a mercurial and sexually ambiguous lead singer with a distinct vocal style and a way with words, a uniquely self-taught guitarist whose style flew in the face of contemporary convention, a supremely talented and inventive bass player whose melodic bass lines served more as a counterpoint to what the guitarist was doing, and an often overlooked but rock solid and irreplaceable drummer, they were complete opposites insomuch that whereas R.E.M. chose to split the compositional credit and spoils equally amongst their four members and had all been through the many years of slogging to the top together, the Smiths' rapid and relatively easy ascension gave them no such shared sense of unity beyond their enjoying each other's company and the great music they made together, never mind that from day one, Morrisseey and Marr were the sole composers. As such, this uneven distribution, as well as their almost farcical management situation, would be the main contributors to their ultimate demise.

The book follows the trajectory of the Smiths' career from that white hot start in 1983 through all of their triumphs and their several (usually minor) hiccups along the way. Drawing on reference material from the 1980s as well as more contemporary sources, including comments from those around the band, such as their crew members, the people at Record Trade (including owner Geoff Travis, who has been the target of Morrissey's bile all the way to the present day and who was summarily eviscerated in Moz's memoir last year), and new interviews from 2011 from the two Smiths who agreed to talk to the author (Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke), Fletcher is able to give the most detailed insider's account of the band's saga. We are given probably the most detailed behind the scenes look into the nature of Morissey and Marr's deep and mutual friendship and how it developed over time before becoming irreparably strained and damaged by the end of the band's life. The picture painted of the pair, and of Morrissey in particular, is how young and inexperienced they were, but also how lacking they were in interpersonal skills as well as in handling the trappings of their rapid fame. While Marr was very social and took on a ridiculous workload of writing, recording, producing, and managing that led to the mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that eventually took its toll on him, as well as his desire to always progress musically and avoid self-parody, Morrissey was just as obstinate and callous as a young man as the way he's perceived in 2014. While the entire band's ethos and desire to maintain their indie credibility was admirable, it also led to multiple missed opportunities and damaged relationships along the way.  Their refusal to make music videos, honor numerous tour and interview commitments (usually due to Morrissey refusing to show up when he didn't feel like it), pay their bills, and their insistence on saturating the market with new non-album singles while their recently released albums hadn't yet fulfilled their chart lifespans, while admirable, all led to blown chances that could have led to the band get even bigger on a truly global scale.

At the core of all of this, though, is the fact that, apart from the first year of the band's existence, they basically had no management. There were various figures who would come into the picture and act as their manager, but they were never paid and when they would insist on getting a yes or no confirmation on whether they were the official manager, they were summarily fired. Mainly, this was due to Morrissey refusing to allow anyone any input into the band's direction and also his paranoia that anyone who got close to Marr, Rourke, or Joyce was a threat to him. The irony is that he never saw that his aloof and intensely private lifestyle was an obstacle to anyone getting close enough to him to gain his trust, and believe me when I say that it is clear from the book that every managerial candidate tried to do so. Eventually, in 1986 when the band were at their peak commercially and critically, and Marr was burnt out and ready for an official manager who they eventually appointed, the cracks were big enough that this began to drive the final wedge between the two. Once Morrissey recruited Joyce and Rourke, who he'd never been close with, to his side after panicking when Marr announced he wanted to take a holiday to recharge his batteries after their final album, Strangeways Here We Come was complete, paranoia took hold on Marr's part and increased passive-aggressive behavior (even worse than usual) from Morrissey led to the final split.

The author does an excellent job making sure the music, on record and on stage, gets its deserved chance to shine throughout the book, and his analysis of the songs, the insight into their recording processes, and how they fit into the context of British and American society at the time is excellent. Focusing on how Marr brought 1960s pop and rock sensibilities back to music in 1980s Britain via his writing and playing, and how Morrissey used his own lonely and introverted existence to tap into the psyche of his audience in a way that just about everyone could relate to showed how, like so many great bands, the Smiths were the perfect band at the perfect time in the perfect place. The fact that their appeal was just as great, if not greater, in the US than in the UK makes it all the more shameful that they split on the eve of beginning their major label deal with EMI. It has to be said, however, that their behavior toward Rough Trade, who had basically gone all in financially and promotionally for the Smiths, was pretty reprehensible. The nadir had to be when, in the middle of the binding contract they'd signed in 1982, they insisted on being allowed to leave the label, blaming poor and inconsistent chart performance of their singles on Rough Trade. This, after having a #1 and a #2 album, not to mention numerous top 20 (and some top 10) singles, and without any self-reflection that perhaps not every song they released was an instant classic. As much as their indie credentials were admirable, they also come off as incredibly demanding and entitled, which is a bit ridiculous for a young and new band that really didn't have the legs to stand on at that point in their career: this wasn't exactly R.E.M. or Husker Du a decade and seven top albums into their careers when they left their smaller indie labels (both bands also left at the end of their contracts and didn't try to leave in the middle of them!). However, both the author and Johnny Marr make a point to reiterate that the band were ridiculously young during all of this (Morrissey, the oldest member of the band, was 28 when they split, while Marr and Joyce were 24 and Rourke 23). The fact that they basically functioned as a self-determining band of mates, but on the scale of a major international act and the biggest UK band of their generation is simultaneously ridiculous and awesome (in the literal sense of the word).

If I have one complaint with the book, and it's a minor one, it's that it doesn't get into as much of the post-Smiths years, especially those immediately after the split, as I would've liked. The author states in the introduction that he did not really intend to delve much into that, especially the Mike Joyce lawsuit, so it is not a surprise when the book ends without going into too much detail on that matter. To Fletcher's credit, he does discuss in detail the bizarre weeks after the break-up when the other three Smiths actually tried to recruit a new guitarist to replace Marr, as well as the fact that they (along with one-time fifth member Craig Gannon) actually ended up serving as Moz's backing band during the first couple of years of his solo career (which he began immediately after the split, somewhat strangely for someone who had been desperate to hold onto the fraying shreds of the band in mid-to-late 1987). I would have liked a bit more discussion of the band's feelings towards each other in the ensuing years and their reflections on the Smiths, but I can also see how focusing on the messy break-up could detract from the telling of the Smiths saga. What I did like is that the author presented everyone pretty fairly, not taking Morrissey or Marr's side: for all that we know about Moz's exasperating and downright callous behavior toward many of his fellow human beings, Marr's reputation as the nearly blameless one in the entire Smiths story is taken down several pegs in this book, and rightfully so; to his credit, Marr looks back on certain matters with appropriate regret and takes responsibility for his behavior. And again, it must be pointed out, he was only in his early 20s during that entire period. Taking that into account, I would say he handled himself pretty well. Finally, this book is one of the few that gives due credit and recognition to the contributions of Rourke and Joyce, both of whom are too often overlooked or dismissed as ancillary to the Smiths' success. Both were musically and spiritually as integral to the sound, image, and personality of the band as Moz and Marr, and the Smiths wouldn't have been nearly the same (or nearly as good) without them. It was nice to read that, while Morrissey continues to treat them as little more than simpletons who lucked into being in the Smiths, Marr is able to look back and realize that he and Moz treated the rhythm section quite poorly in many ways and would do it differently if he could go back and do so. Best of all, he continues to have a strong friendship with Andy Rourke, who has been a lifetime friend to him.

While the aforementioned books by Rogan and Goddard remain essential reading for any Smiths fan, this book absolutely joins them on that lofty perch, and in its fair and across-the-board telling of the Smiths' story, both musically, personally, and business-wise, seems to amalgamate those two prior books and indeed tell the definitive story of this legendary and unique band.

MY RATING: 9.5/10

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