Monday, March 24, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87

The updated edition that is the subject of this review
In reviewing recent new books on The Smiths, including Morrissey's autobiography and Tony Fletcher's excellent new band biography, a better picture of the personalities behind the music and the beginning-to-end story of the band has emerged.  In musical terms, the Smiths were the Beatles of the 1980s and the body of work they left behind is staggering in its quality and still stands the test of time. The Morrissey/Marr songwriting partnership produced, for the most part, a flawless catalog of songs that still resonate with fans and critics alike. For a band this important that is held so dearly to so many fans' hearts, it's only natural that a book offering an in-depth look at the music itself should be written, and in Simon Goddard's Songs That Saved Your Life, that's exactly what we've gotten.

***special thanks to Katharine at Titan Books for sending me a copy of this book to review!***




The edition of the book that I'm reviewing here is the newly updated second edition, pictured at the top of this post.  I also have a copy of the first edition of the book, which I'd bought many years ago when it first came out. While I will be focusing the review solely on the new version, I will make some references to the original for comparison purposes.

The original edition 
Taking his inspiration from Ian MacDonald's seminal book Revolution in the Head (which he acknowledges at the end of the book), Goddard has set out to write a scholarly song-by-song analysis of the Smiths' music and place it within the context of its time. The layout of this new edition is markedly different from the original and is a major improvement: whereas the first edition had a synopsis of each song followed by a blurb describing any live, radio, or television appearances it may have had, this newer version is much cleaner and easier to read. Each song is described with its recording date, release date (and format), and a more detailed synopsis. The performance discussions are saved for one of the multiple appendices (more on these later), greatly decluttering the main part of the book and making it more readable front-to-back. Enhancing the book and making it more than just a song catalog, interspersed throughout are paragraphs describing what was going on at that moment in Smiths history. Thus, the entire career arc of the band is described in parallel with the song analyses. 

One area in which this book is greatly improved upon over its preceding edition is with the input of Johnny Marr himself. There is a lot of new insight and information offered throughout thanks to Marr's memories and his setting the record straight. Because of this (as well as Goddard's own running commentary on the Smiths' career), the book really does a great job telling the story of the band through their music and gives a different perspective on their all-too-brief lifespan than a more traditional band biography.

The book begins with what I think is the only poor thing about it, which is an introduction that attempts some humor by detailing the original meeting between Morrissey and Marr and the formation of the band as a rewrite of It's a Wonderful Life, presented as a mock screenplay complete with guardian angels commentary. While innocuous enough, it comes across as unfunny and unnecessary; I can see what the author was trying to do with this, but in my opinion it falls completely flat and gets annoying fast. Luckily, it's not too long and is the only blemish on an otherwise fantastic book. The meat of the book is truly enjoyable to go through and reading about the writing, recording, and release of each of the songs brings them to life and offers new perspectives, even if one has heard them all countless times before (as I have). The addition of Johnny Marr's insights and memories is a massive addition over the previous edition and those alone make the book worth buying even if you already have the first one...but it's not the only reason to get this edition.

After the main part of the book, there are several appendices that are all informative and valuable in their own right. One deals with every Smiths song, whether it was performed live, and where and when the first and last performances of it were. Another describes each single and album release, complete with chart placement, cover art information, catalog number, run-off groove message (The Smiths were famous for these), and any important notes pertaining to the release. The final two appendices each chronicle the Smiths' performances on BBC radio and UK television. While the entire book is a treat for any fan of their music, these appendices are absolutely essential for anyone who is interested in collecting the band's music, whether on vinyl, CD, or bootleg live recordings.

There are a few shortcoming in this book when compared to its previous edition, and any real fan of the Smiths should own a copy of both. First, the complete lack of photographs in this new edition is rather puzzling; there was a section of some very nice photos in the first edition and while I can understand perhaps not including any band photographs in this new version, the complete lack of any images is puzzling, especially given how much the author hammers home the point that the band took the utmost care in the visual presentation of their music (ie single and album covers) almost as much as the sonic. Second, while the author does a great job telling the story of the band, including an excellent epilogue where a bit more light is shed on their 1987 split, that introduction is really quite bad...the fact that it rankled me enough that it's stuck in my mind and forced me to mention it for a second time in this review should tell you all you need to know. I applaud Goddard for trying something new with that, but I would hope that if there is ever a subsequent edition of this book that this introduction will be the first thing to be excised.

When comparing the new edition of Songs That Saved Your Life with the first, it is obvious when reading both that the entries for the individual songs are almost completely different (although many effective passages common between the two will be quickly recognized by anyone who has read both editions). The amount of additional information and the vastly improved layout of the new edition, not to mention the invaluable input of Johnny Marr, make this book essential for any fans of the Smiths. While any and every Smiths apostle must have copies of the two great band biographies (Fletcher's aforementioned book as well as Johnny Rogan's), if you're a real fan of the artistry and music of the Smiths, Songs That Saved Your Life is a must-have.

MY RATING: 9/10

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