John Harris

Journalist & Author

A Light that Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths by Tony Fletcher – review

John Harris finds out why a magical band broke up

“From the beginning,” writes Tony Fletcher, “the Smiths sensed greatness, and to realise that greatness meant a refusal to accept confinement to the margins.”

The point is undeniably true, in so many ways. When the Mancunian guitar player Johnny Marr called at the home of Steven Morrissey in May 1982 and began writing songs with him, their sights were fixed on reference points altogether loftier than those of the alternative-rock milieu they quickly transcended. Marr’s view of the world was shaped by the Rolling Stones, Phil Spector, and the classic songwriting duo Lieber & Stoller. Morrissey added such literary touchstones as Oscar Wilde, and the playwright and screenwriter Shelagh Delaney – as well as an array of opinions and lifestyle choices that embodied a radical break with the go-for-it, consumerist attitudes of the 1980s: vegetarianism, a biting hatred of the Thatcher government and a sense that the singer – who spent the band’s career and beyond claiming to be celibate – was somehow proud to be always in the grip of some malady or other.

They soon realised how good they were: indeed, at 25 years’ distance, the richness of their songs and their breathtaking consistency suggests a place just down from the Beatles. But their career prospects were always held in check by a problem that grew worse as their success increased: Morrissey’s refusal to employ a manager or submit to the standard promotional grind, both of which were at odds with his almost pathological griping about chart positions, radio play and the esteem in which they were or were not held by their record company, Rough Trade.

As he seemed to see it, if the Smiths were commercial underachievers, it was always someone else’s fault – but if you refuse to make videos, blow out TV appearances at a moment’s notice and cancel European tours in the airport departure lounge, then “the margins” are something you will never quite escape. Moreover, without a big figure to oversee the business side of their lives, any comparable group would have probably buckled, something beautifully captured in one Marr quote: “I’ve never met anyone who thinks that the 23-year-old guitar player of a really big band should be the manager.”

All this defines the essential plotline of A Light Never Goes Out, the story of the Smiths told over nearly 700 pages by a former biographer of REM and of the Who drummer Keith Moon, on the basis of interviews with just about every surviving participant in the Smiths’ story – apart from drummer Mike Joyce and, somewhat inevitably, Morrissey himself. The singer’s autobiography is published later this year, and it will be interesting to see how his telling of these tales differs from what Fletcher has amassed: as the story winds on, a chain of no-shows, fits of pique and self-sabotage that reaches its denouement with an episode from April 1987, just prior to the band’s formal break-up.

A video was due to be filmed in London’s Battersea, which would boost the Smiths’ fast-rising profile in the US. Three of the Smiths turned up, but Morrissey hid away in his flat in Knightsbridge. Fletcher is the first writer to have got the full story, thanks to the American video director Tamra Davis, who was part of the three-person deputation sent to try and convince him to change his mind. She gives Fletcher a simple anecdote that captures the moment at which the band began to break up: “I remember very distinctly that I had no idea if Morrissey was standing behind that door laughing at the three of us pleading with him, or crying … Johnny was like, ‘That’s it. The band is over’ … And he walks away.” The crucial moment came later, at a meal Marr organised for the Smiths in a Notting Hill fish and chip restaurant. As the Smiths’ bassist Andy Rourke later acknowledged, there was something grimly fitting in the fact that a group so synonymous with northern grit effectively “broke up in a chippy”.

Such material highlights the extent to which Fletcher has done his research, though it also underlines a tension familiar to anyone who owns more than a handful of rock books. Very few musicians have stories the content of which matches the drama and excitement of the best pop music, and in the Smiths’ case, behind truly amazing songs lay lives often defined by ordinary things. Their happiness on tour depended on a dependable supply of egg and chips. By way of a nod to rock excess, Rourke had a heroin problem, but when he was temporarily sacked from the group, he claimed that Morrissey did the deed via a note left on the windscreen of his car, parked in a side-street in Altrincham.

The main onus on anyone writing about the Smiths, then, is the necessity of evoking the magical singularity of their music, but Fletcher’s book doesn’t manage the trick. He’s too fond of the rock-hack vernacular, so that records are rated by “fans and critics alike”, and music leans towards “the jazz arena” rather than jazz itself. A group so steeped in literature has long deserved the attention of someone with at least the ambition to be a prose stylist; in the same sense, there is something maddening about music so lithe and lyrical being described in prose that often falls flat. And on at least two occasions, Fletcher belly flops: there’s a very clunky evocation of the moors murders, and one borderline unforgivable occasion when he describes the Smiths’ native Manchester as the “Lancashire capital”.

If Fletcher’s writing can be disappointingly tepid, the same applies to the book that has until now been the only serious Smiths biography on the market – Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance by the prolific music biographer Johnny Rogan (Omnibus, £14.95), first published in 1992. It has now been updated – chiefly with revelations gleaned from the mid-1990s court case focused on one of the most remarkable aspects of the Smiths’ affairs: that while Morrissey and Marr received 40% each of the proceeds from performing and recording, Rourke and Joyce were paid a mere 10% apiece (Rourke settled out of court for £83,000; Joyce went all the way, and was awarded around £1m).

Like Fletcher’s book only more so, Rogan’s is a (qualified) victory of research rather than literary panache, built on a great mountain of facts and testimony, and slowed by the rock-book convention of writing about every Smiths album by using a pedestrian track-by-track breakdown. That said, there is a lot to feast on, particularly Rogan’s fond recounting of Morrissey and Marr’s family roots in Ireland and their upbringing in the Mancunian-Irish community, a background they shared with Rourke and Joyce. If their music always fizzed with a vivid sense of Englishness, it was perhaps because they at least partly saw their home country through the eyes of their immigrant parents.

The best Smiths book remains the comparatively brief The Smiths: Songs that Saved Your Life, by the music writer Simon Goddard, the definitive version of which was published in 2004. Inspired by Ian Macdonald’s Beatles book Revolution in the Head, it was built around a simple idea: taking all of the Smiths’ songs and telling their story. In his Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and The Smiths (Ebury Press, £14.99), now published in paperback, Goddard widens his previous book’s mixture of detail and passionate celebration to Morrissey’s entire aesthetic universe, arranged in alphabetical order. There are entries for Alan Bennett, the New York Dolls, the Kray twins – and Dirk Bogarde, on whom Morrissey apparently dwelled in 1994, imagining being able to “live in a mansion flat in Chelsea and see nobody, which would be a perfect life”.

Reading that sentence, I imagine an irate knock at the door, another engagement cancelled, and I think of those uncharacteristically inelegant lines from “What Difference Does It Make?”, a top 20 hit in 1984: “Oh, I’m too tired / I’m so sick and tired / And I’m feeling very sick and ill today.”

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