Guitarist Johnny Marr wanted to create a classic riff, a guitar part as recognizable as the introduction to “Layla.” Morrissey was after something more personal, an introspective tour of the shyness that made his teen years miserable. Both succeeded. “How Soon Is Now?” is an 80s classic, a song with a larger fan-base than the band. It has become, as Marr hoped, a song “that everyone knows.” And with his revealing words, Morrissey has stepped into the same lonely shoes filled by such legendary musicians as Roy Orbison and Hank Williams.
When they started out, however, their ambitions were not quite so bold. The Smiths were less interested in writing classics than being different, even if that meant being ordinary. Marr (born John Maher) was only eighteen when the band formed, and he was driven by his contempt for the synthesizer-heavy new wave music that filled the airwaves. “It was just lame corporate nice safe music not expressing any kind of opinion,” he said. He was equally contemptuous of punk, “the Boomtown Rats . . . and naff bands like The Members on Top of the Pops. There was no way I was going to get into that.” So Marr went looking for a new sound, “something that had some depth and was my own.”
Marr found what he was looking for in Steven Patrick Morrissey’s living room. Like Marr, Morrissey was from Manchester. He had spent some time with local bands before deciding to pour his energies into writing. He wrote a couple of books—pamphlets, actually—about the New York Dolls and James Dean. By 1982, he was a housebound introvert, essentially unemployed and not all that interested in doing anything about it, until he met Marr and the creative sparks flew.
The two immediately clicked, and by 1983 they had signed with Rough Trade Records and released their first hit singles: “This Charming Man,” which reached #25 on the British charts, and “What Difference Does It Make,” which peaked at #12. Boosted by the singles, their first album, The Smiths, climbed to #2 on the British charts.
“Real People” Music
Marr and Morrissey had come together around a shared interest in producing something different, but as Morrissey explained, being different meant being ordinary. "For the first time in too long a time,” Morrissey said, “this is real music played by real people. The Smiths are absolutely real faces instead of the frills and the gloss and the pantomime that popular music had become immersed in.” In fact, added Morrissey, this commitment to “ordinary” was why he named the band the Smiths. “It was the most ordinary name and I think it’s time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces.”
Despite the pledge and the name, however, most saw the innovative band as anything but ordinary. They drew immediate flack from critics who thought two of the tracks on their first album sympathetically explored pedophilia. In “Reel around the Fountain” Morrissey told “the tale… of how you took a child and you made him old.” And in “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” he sang that “I once had a child, and it saved my life.” Though he promised "never, never, never, again… all too soon I did return just like a moth to a flame.”
The criticism increased when the band released a compilation album just a few months later that included “Handsome Devil,” which included these controversial lyrics:
Let me get my hands
On your mammary gland
And let me get your head
On the conjugal bed . . .
A boy in the bush
Is worth two in the hand
I think I can help you get through your exams
Oh, you handsome devil
The Sun was the first British paper to go on the attack, but others followed. Morrissey called all of the criticism “tragically depressing.” Marr labeled the attacks an “obvious hatchet job against a new, rising band who are getting a certain amount of publicity.” And the pair pointed out that The Sun, Page 3 and all, was hardly the paper to be striking a puritanical pose. But Morrissey didn’t help his case when he said, "I don't feel immoral singing about molesting children."
Morrissey quieted some of the critics with his next album, Meat Is Murder. He called out heavy-handed parents in “Barbarism Begins at Home” and ripped abusive teachers in “The Headmaster” (“Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools”). He also reached out to animal lovers in the title track:
And the calf that you carve with a smile
It is murder
And the turkey you festively slice
It is murder
Do you know how animals die?
Yet not everyone was impressed. In fact, some wondered how Morrissey could find such uncompromising clarity on animal rights while maintaining an artistic detachment on the subject of child molestation.
Putting the “Ordinary” in “Extraordinary”
Although not included on the initial British release of Meat Is Murder, “How Soon Is Now?” would ultimately prove the most successful track when the album was released in America. Marr’s hypnotic riff brought 60s psychedelia back on line, while Morrissey’s poetic reflection on a common, “ordinary” experience touched home with everyone who has suffered disappointment or loneliness. Typically, even Morrissey’s exploration of the ordinary was extraordinary, as he threw in an esoteric literary reference. The line, “I am the son and heir of nothing in particular,” was cribbed from George Eliot's novel Middlemarch (“To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular”). And another line, in which he characterized his shyness as “criminally vulgar,” left analysts wondering if he was trying to separate himself from the riff raff by suggesting that shyness was a vulgar—as in too common—low-brow trait or commenting on the criminal injustice of the fact that shyness was such a widespread human weakness.
Morrissey may claim to be a voice for the ordinary, but he just doesn’t do ordinary. About this time, he began to carry gladiolas on stage to show sympathy with Oscar Wilde, a turn of the century writer convicted of obscenity. And on other occasions, he wore a hearing aid on stage as an esoteric tribute to 1950s singer Johnnie Ray, a talented artist who was arrested twice for soliciting gay sex. And when Morrissey was questioned about his own sexuality, he refused to be pigeonholed into the “ordinary” categories. “I refuse to recognize the terms hetero-, bi- and homo-sexual,” he stated in 1984. “Everybody has exactly the same sexual needs. People are just sexual, the prefix is immaterial.” To throw even more ambiguity around the whole question, he repeatedly emphasized that he was celibate, essentially asexual, and declared himself the prophet for the “fourth gender.”
By the time that Marr and Morrissey parted ways in 1987, a lot of questions remained. Morrissey had turned complexity and ambiguity into a science. In fact, some critics complained that the only thing that Morrissey expressed clearly was his own misery. The teenaged angst voiced in “How Soon Is Now?” stuck with Morrissey as he turned 30, 40, and 50. In 1997, one critic checked in and reported that yes, “Morrissey is still miserable.” And almost grateful to find that some things never change, Rolling Stone reported in 2009 that at 50 the artist was “as lonely and depressed as ever.” (Rolling Stone 21 Aug 1997, 112)
The Smiths set out to be different, to offer an alternative to the synthesizer-obsessed music of the 1980s, and in this, they clearly succeeded. Their music was a “breath of fresh guitar air amid the preprogrammed tick-tock of the Human League and punk’s rage by the numbers,” said Rolling Stone in 1986 (Rolling Stone, 9 October, 1986, 32). The Smiths also set out to provide a voice for “the ordinary folk of the world,” but here it would appear that they failed. Morrissey was simply too complex an artist, too uncommon as a writer. And celibate, a prophet for the fourth gender, and for the sake of his art willing to cross lines pretty sharply drawn by conventional morality, he just did not live an “ordinary” life.
But then perhaps, that’s the point. Perhaps buried within Morrissey’s complexity and unconventionality is a simple statement: ordinary comes in all shapes and sizes, multiple colors, and as many as two, three, or even four genders. Whether part of the original plan or not, The Smiths made the case that the not-so-ordinary is ordinary, and “How Soon Is Now?” was their most successful vehicle for conveying the emotions of “real people.”