A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga Of The Smiths - Reviewed

They may have only been around for five years, but their legacy is as strong today as it ever was. A weighty new biography looks at the highs and lows of Morrissey and co...
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They may have only been around for five years, but their legacy is as strong today as it ever was. A weighty new biography looks at the highs and lows of Morrissey and co...

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“Jesus! Not another book about the bloody Smiths!” You can hear the collective moan from the world that won’t listen, particularly while big-mouthed Morrissey stands arms-folded outside the gates of British patriotism, lobbing verbal hand grenades at HM the Queen and all who sail with her.

In Jubilee Year, there are some handy anniversaries and marketing opportunities for everyone involved with The Smiths’ cottage industry. It’s 25 years since the band’s self-immolation and the release of ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ and, in early October; it will be 30 years since their first gig at Manchester’s Ritz Ballroom, advertised as “An Evening Of Pure Pleasure” supporting Blue Rondo A La Turk.

Tony Fletcher’s heavyweight A Light That Never Goes Out (The Enduring Saga of The Smiths) steps into the ring alongside Johnny Rogan’s updated twentieth anniversary edition of The Severed Alliance in a title eliminator to slug-it-out with Morrissey’s autobiography, due to be published, rumour has it, this December.

Fletcher, a well respected biographer of Keith Moon (Dear Boy) and REM, states his agenda in an encouraging introduction. He wants “to place the saga of The Smiths in a social context”, offer a more international perspective (he lives in the States) and, perhaps understandably, seems to want to balance the scales with support from Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke, who both contributed new interviews to this book.

In early October; it will be 30 years since their first gig at Manchester’s Ritz Ballroom

Fletcher makes the valuable point that previous biographers, myself included, have “leaned towards the cult of Morrissey”; suggesting we lacked neutrality, particularly while explaining the collapse of the band.  I’d plead guilty to this but only because I had had access to Morrissey; inevitably, given all the legal complications post-Smiths’-split, doors quickly closed to other band members.

Generally, I think Tony Fletcher uses his interviews with Marr and Rourke sensitively and fairly – no one here seems interested in salting old wounds apart from final Smiths’ manager Ken Friedman – but the biographer’s completely wrong to imply that “the two members of The Smiths who offered cooperation with the book were those who have made their peace with the group’s financial failings”. Yes, there was real bitterness and acrimony in the late Nineties and early Noughties after Mike Joyce won his High Court cases, but I believe the dust has now settled.

This doesn’t mean that The Smiths will ever play together again, but at least there’s a collective sense of resignation and acceptance combined with intense satisfaction at what they achieved as musicians and artists. Whatever went wrong behind the scenes – such as Morrissey and Marr’s crippling inability to relinquish control to decent management, Andy Rourke’s heroin addiction, the reluctance to take any breaks during five years of intense productivity and constant touring, the undisputed fact that contractually, as Fletcher observes, “some members turned out to be more equal than others”! – it could not affect the extraordinarily consistent quality or originality of The Smiths’ artistic creations. (Personally, I don’t even think there’s ongoing evidence to support Fletcher’s view of a “terminally tense relationship” between Morrissey and Marr).

One of the most asked questions about A Light That Never Goes Out will surely be ‘why’s it so bloomin’ long’? Keith Richards told his Life story in 640 pages while Ray Coleman’s Lennon portrait stretched to 832. Even Daniel Mark Epstein’s recent The Ballad of Bob Dylan is only 496 pages.   These all tackle extraordinary careers that spanned between 20 and 50 years. God knows length and girth aren’t everything but even the most zealous of Smiths’ fans should laugh at William Heinemann’s criminal decision to allow Norman Stanley Fletcher almost 700 pages on a band that barely lasted five years from creation to cremation?

Yes, there was real bitterness and acrimony in the late Nineties and early Noughties after Mike Joyce won his High Court cases, but I believe the dust has now settled

After initially explaining his intentions as a biographer, Fletcher spends 200 dense pages reliving the individual band members’ childhoods, re-examining the socio, political and architectural backgrounds to their lives and regurgitating the importance of key musical influences, particularly on Morrissey and Marr. I’ve no criticism of Fletcher’s style or research work but I can’t help thinking this has been covered before by writers such as Dave Haslam, John Robb and Johnny Rogan in briefer, more comprehensive fashion. Fletcher gets bogged down in the slum clearances and community redevelopment of Manchester; a subject dealt with authoritatively by Lawrence Foley in the University of Limerick’s collection Morrissey: Fandom, Representations & Identities. 

But on the many occasions when Tony Fletcher does pull fresh facts and quotes together, it’s tremendously worthwhile. For example, his account of Marr’s juvenile delinquency and how it almost led to a prison sentence for involvement with stolen Lowry paintings. Or, when explaining how the Morrissey family tragedies – the premature deaths of both grandfathers – affected six-year-old Steven Patrick and sparked his early disillusion with Roman Catholicism.

Indeed, once Fletcher finally escapes from the pre-Smiths’ era, the real meat of the book (how very droll of me) can be found from pages 275 to 600. Generally, it’s a finely judged re-telling of a remarkable tale with valuable first-hand accounts of the band’s American adventures, their rapid development into a wonderful live act, plus insights into the spiralling pressures and frictions that faced the individual band members. “Out of the chaos, confusion and high drama that passed for everyday normality in The Smiths came some of the most magical and enduring music of their generation.”

Feel free to disagree, but I do think that Tony Fletcher has made several strange editorial decisions in planning A Light That Never Goes Out. By deciding not to detail the lives of the band members post split, it sometimes feels as if they all died in a plane crash soon after the autumn of 1987. This does allow him to avoid the spirit-sapping legal minefield of court cases, and also frees him from passing any comment whatsoever on Morrissey’s solo career, but I’m baffled by this refusal to connect with later and current lives. (E.G. It’s strange reading about Morrissey’s teenage love of the New York Dolls or Bowie or even Tony Visconti without any reference to his work with them in the 1990s and the early 21st Century.)

Generally, it’s a finely judged re-telling of a remarkable tale with valuable first-hand accounts of the band’s American adventures

What they’ve all achieved, or even failed to achieve, since The Smiths collapsed surely has a bearing on this extraordinary story? More importantly, what hasn’t happened in the long lean years since 1987 – i.e. the reunion! – surely needs to be tackled head on. Isn’t this part of “the enduring saga of The Smiths?”

Similarly, Tony Fletcher decides not to go into great detail about the inspiration for many Smiths’ songs because he suggests that Simon Goddard has already comprehensively dealt with this subject matter. This slightly reverential, almost defeatist awareness of what’s been written before leads him to make general assumptions about his readers’ knowledge of the story.

For example, he briefly suggests Morrissey and Marr called themselves The Smiths simply because they wanted to sound ordinary, working class and down-to-earth in a daft ‘80s pop world full of Duran Duran’s and Spandau Ballet’s. No mention that it might have been connected with their mutual love of Patti Smith. Or with “The Smiths”, a couple scarred by their contact with Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Or perhaps Morrissey was inspired by Hesketh Pearson’s The Smith Of Smiths? (Pearson also wrote a biography of Oscar Wilde and was a friend of Lord Alfred Douglas). Or even by John Keble Howard’s novel The Smiths of Surbiton?  We’ll never know for sure but I do think biographers ought to offer evidence or have personal opinions on such key matters.

More unforgiveable, after initially sounding knowledgeable and well-read on the subject of Oscar Wilde, Fletcher goes and spoils it all by writing that “both Wilde and Lord Douglas were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labour”. This is absolute bollocks. Crucially, only the Irishman Wilde was tried and crucified for “vicious practices” by the British establishment. Douglas, a member of the aristocracy, escaped any punishment and would soon turn on his former lover, condemning his homosexuality.

Morrissey and Marr called themselves The Smiths simply because they wanted to sound ordinary, working class and down-to-earth

I honestly don’t have any punch-ups to pick with Tony Fletcher. Flattery gets him most places and he does say one or two friendly things about my own “cult” biography, Meetings with Morrissey. Nevertheless I’m baffled by some of his musings on the last days of The Smiths. Without any acknowledgement, he refers to my Spring 1987 interview with The Cradle, featuring Ivor Perry and Craig Gannon which first alerted everyone at NME to the growing crisis within the band. In it The Cradle’s talkative manager John Barratt let slip that “The Smiths are going through great personal turmoil”. But Fletcher suggests that “nobody seemed to pick up on it.”

In reality, the opposite was true. The crisis became well known to the staff at NME, particularly as some of us were in close contact with Rough Trade, The Smiths’ label. But we genuinely didn’t want to aid or abet the destruction of the paper’s favourite indie band. Most of us hoped that, once ‘Strangeways...’ had been released, everything would work out fine and Morrissey and Marr would be reunited onstage again. Others were wilfully less optimistic. One of my soul boy colleagues Paolo Hewitt – who passionately hated The Smiths – used to come into the office every morning and ask “have they split up yet?” It was only after reconciliation had failed that NME reluctantly ran the “Smiths to split?” story on August 1 1987, which I soon followed with my sad ‘Tomb It May Concern’ ‘Strangeways...’ obituary.

Many years ago, when I interviewed that awkward bastard Ray Davies of The Kinks, he struggled to articulate his creative frustrations as an ageing musician. “Whatever I do next,” he complained, “I know I’ll never be as good as ‘Waterloo Sunset’.”

I can’t help thinking that this is also the dilemma faced by everyone who writes about great music, whether it’s The Smiths or The Beatles or Beethoven or Mozart. However purple and poetic the flowing prose gets, however much research and detective work, however many eye-witness accounts or personal revelations the biographer or autobiographer can commit to pages, the printed word will never equal the emotions of great music. However talented, writers and commentators like Tony Fletcher can only look back at the formative and creative years of artists while struggling to explain why things went so perfectly right and then, often, so horribly wrong.

Most of us hoped that, once ‘Strangeways...’ had been released, everything would work out fine and Morrissey and Marr would be reunited onstage again

At the end of the day, the truly important thing about the enduring saga of The Smiths is the lasting beauty of their art; the extraordinary way that planets aligned and their talents combined. And perhaps the most positive aspect of their story – I hope Morrissey wouldn’t disagree with this – is that they’re all still alive and kicking. (Mozzer, the old codger, has started thundering towards his Sixties but the other three haven’t even hit 50 yet!)

Despite the difficulties they faced, disregarding all the complex legal rifts between them, we surely should acknowledge the fact that, between 1982 and 1987, these four men – all four of them – united to create some of the most popular music this unhappy planet has ever heard and seen.  Brilliantly crafted and performed; lyrically filled with hope, sensitivity, humour and intelligence; together they created an uplifting, enduring soundscape for those struggling with life’s complexities.

As W.H. Auden once wrote:  “the lights must never go out, the music must always play”.

'A Light that Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths' by Tony Fletcher is out now and can be purchased here.

More articles about The Smith

Meetings With Morrissey

Early Stone Roses & Smiths Man ‘Funky’ Si Wolstencroft Interviewed

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