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"How Soon Is Now?" may be a 1980s classic, but musically, the song was influenced by the sounds of the 1950s and 1970s.
Johnny Marr wrote the song's distinctive riff before going into the studio. He was partially inspired by the "stomp" of 1970s disco. "As a kid I was fascinated by Hamilton Bohannon's 'Disco Stomp' and 'New York Groove' by Hello, and I wanted to make something with that stomp" (source), he said. But Marr was also passing through a Bo Diddley phase, also saying, "I was playing Bo Diddley stuff everywhere I went. I wanted it to be really, really tense and swampy, all at the same time." (Source)
The result was a disco "stompin' groove" coupled to a Bo Diddley-like tremolo.
Producer John Porter immediately recognized the potential within the riff, but he thought the chord progressions needed work, so he told Marr to jam on an old Elvis tune, "That’s All Right." After dropping the whole thing several keys, Porter and Marr tied the riff to the new chords and sent a tape to Morrissey. After piecing together lyrics from several songs in process, Morrissey recorded the vocals (allegedly, it only took him two takes to nail it).
Porter realized he had a distinctive package. "I thought...now we've got something that we can sell in America," he said. "Now we've got a band that could be like R.E.M. are now." (Source)
Dedicated fans of the Smiths will disagree on whether "How Soon Is Now?" is truly indicative of the Smiths' soul and style; many believe the song is more "mainstream" and commercial than the band's best and more representative work.
Ironically, though, it's the band's calling card. It's their most well-known song (at least, to non-Smiths fans), and it continues to be recognized by critics and list-makers. For example, it's ranked #477 on Rolling Stone's list of greatest songs, #28 on Q magazine's list of 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks, and #72 on Blender's list of the "500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born."
Even Morrissey and Marr have suggested that the song isn't their favorite, but Marr in particular has to accept responsibility for its mainstream popularity. Marr said that he set out to produce a classic riff, one as universally recognizable as Derek and the Dominos' "Layla." And in building the riff, he drew upon some pretty mainstream influences including disco and Bo Diddley.
Moreover, when the song was completed, they all realized that they'd produced a song with mainstream hit potential. Producer John Porter said that he believed the song would turn the Smiths into a band with an R.E.M-like appeal.