There’s plenty to be said for longevity. As the Rolling Stones mark their 50th year together, heaven knows there’s plenty to be said.
Sometimes, though, there’s a strong case to be made for brevity. Take the Smiths, the 1980s band from Manchester, England, who created an urgent, glistening style of pop-rock music with a one-of-a-kind, epigrammatic frontman, the unabashedly plummy singer Morrissey. Even in the hyperbolic world of British rock, where the Stones and the Beatles, Oasis and Radiohead have been touted as the world’s greatest, the Smiths were a true phenomenon. And they lasted a mere five years.
Yet as music journalist Tony Fletcher shows in his lengthy band biography, “A Light That Never Goes Out” (so much for brevity), this was one group that accomplished much more than its share in a very short window and has rarely looked back, despite endless calls for a reunion. Fletcher, who has written biographies of drummer Keith Moon and R.E.M., combines original interviews with quotes and anecdotes from the vast paper trail of the British music press to piece together this enigmatic band’s rise and fall in obsessive detail.
The band began when Johnny Marr, an 18-year-old guitar prodigy, decided to approach Steven Morrissey, a slightly older character from the fringes of Manchester’s postpunk scene, where the reclusive Oscar Wilde obsessive wrote withering critiques of local bands for a few of England’s ravenous fanzines.
Marr’s fateful visit to introduce himself to the eccentric Morrissey (who would soon drop his first name) was inspired by the chance meeting of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the great rock ’n’ roll songwriting team behind “Hound Dog” and “Stand by Me,” according to Fletcher. From the beginning, the unlikely partnership was destined to become a similarly fruitful (if much more unorthodox) pairing.
As with so many British bands before and since, the music press fell over itself to declare the Smiths the most exciting thing since the Beatles upon the release of their self-titled debut album. The band chose its name to underscore its identification with commoners, writes Fletcher, at a time “when pompousness was dominant.”
The band arrived fully formed, or so it seemed. Their record sleeves, which featured murky photos of cult British film stars, were as emblematic as Blue Note’s classic jazz covers, and the sexually ambiguous Morrissey poured out his wicked wit in a torrent of memorable lyrics that gave the awkwardness of youth a new universality.
The Smiths were an instant and sustained success in their native United Kingdom, hitting either the top or second spot on the album chart with all four of their studio albums and churning out an astounding run of singles, averaging one every few months.
But with little business sense and a fatal lack of proper management, the band squandered its opportunity to conquer America, despite pockets of wild devotion in markets, such as Boston, that were pioneers in so-called “alternative” radio.
In the end, as Fletcher makes clear, it was Marr who pulled the plug on the band. His own frenetic creativity, combined with his youthful drinking and drugging and Morrissey’s stubborn disregard for protocol, made their relatively quiet split inevitable.
After the Smiths, Morrissey fashioned an archly ironic solo career of cultivating adulation as the voice of the “Unloveable,” as another song goes. Marr, meanwhile, moved on to the role of a hired gun, with such varied acts as Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, Tom Jones, and as the composer of the “Inception” soundtrack.
The Smiths proved that the dream of rock stardom can be fraught with overwhelming turmoil. “[W]hen you start seeing things in a job or a relationship that you start not liking,” said Marr, “you can’t unsee them.” Whatever their struggles, his band’s legacy is deep-rooted. Once you’ve heard the strange majesty of the Smiths, you can’t unhear it.James Sullivan, author of four books, including “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.