Book: A Light that Never Goes Out

From Coronation Street to court cases, Tony Fletcher’s biography is full of fantastic facts and incendiary quotes, but somehow lacks sparkle 

-Kathryn Bromwich

a light that never goes out

Remember when Morrissey was known for his ground-breaking music and lyrics, and not for being a massive racist cock? Firstly, I should admit that the Smiths are one of the few bands whose entire discography I could sing along to word-for-word. Deep down, I still believe that anyone who doesn’t feel this way must have skipped the Sulky Teenager phase altogether, which, surely, makes them incomplete human beings.

Yet, what with This Charming Man being played to death in every ‘indie room’ throughout university and Morrissey’s increasingly unpalatable views, it is easy to forget just how exhilarating a band they were. Throw your mind back to your teenage years, when the Smiths were the only ones who really understood your literary aspirations, staunch liberalism, loneliness, existential gloom, vegetarian leanings and pathetic love life. And then start reading this book.

Incredibly, this is their first comprehensive biography since Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance in 1992. And as such it is certainly thorough: music journalist and former Keith Moon and REM biographer Tony Fletcher has been meticulous in his research, procuring exclusive facts through interviews with all the key players (excluding Mike Joyce and, naturally, Morrissey). At 700 pages and over a kilo, even the most obsessive Smiths fan – vegan, brooding, and with a life-size cardboard cutout of a naked Morrissey in their bedroom – will be satisfied.

Early on, Fletcher promises not to focus unduly on Morrissey, but acknowledges that a Smiths biography centred mainly on Johnny Marr would miss out on much of the brio and flourish that made the Smiths what they were. The book makes a good job of covering both of them in detail, while not forgetting bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, giving ample space to the unfair royalties rates and subsequent court case.

Starting with a fawning intro and an unnecessary reference to 500 Days of Summer, the book finds its stride when it describes, in remarkable detail, the first meeting of Johnny Marr and Morrissey. The two bequiffed young Mancunians, with their shared Irish stock and working class credentials, bonded over their love of Sandie Shaw, songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, and Patti Smith.

Fletcher then backtracks for two hundred pages to discuss their upbringings and time at school, including Morrissey’s ‘abysmal’ school St Mary’s and his brutal PE teacher, which on the plus side provided rich lyrical inspiration for songs such as The Headmaster Ritual and Frankly Mr Shankly. Obsessed with Coronation Street, 12-year-old Morrissey wrote scripts for it and sent them to the show’s producers, which were routinely rejected.

After leaving school, Morrissey went through what he refers to as ‘the lost years’, which were largely spent living at home with his beloved mother, perfecting his hair, and incessantly writing angry letters to the music press about how punk’s lack of musical sophistication did not please him. A budding writer, Morrissey penned a play which he sent to Tony Wilson (sadly lost, although Wilson remembers that ‘the characters lived on toast’), a lengthy poem about his idol James Dean, and a full-length fanzine about the New York Dolls, whom he later disowned. His close friendship with radical feminist artist Linder is shown as being instrumental in forming his views and personality. During this time, Morrissey also absorbed some important lessons from Bowie (sexual ambiguity, provocative statements) and Oscar Wilde (puns, the willingness to ‘borrow’ whole lines from his favourite songs and films).

These years, however, proved to be necessary: Fletcher claims that Morrissey had first to be a failure before he could become a success, or he would not be able to convincingly sing lyrics such as “please please please let me get what I want, Lord knows it would be the first time.” Morrissey’s sexuality (or lack of it) is sensitively handled, neither confirming nor denying anything but hinting towards the ‘homosexual but probably celibate’ consensus.

Marr, on the other hand, was living a fairly blessed existence. Apart from one occasion when he was pelted with eggs  and fired from the local Coop, at the age of seventeen he was talented, outgoing, had a steady relationship with the love of his life, and his stylish clothes and encyclopaedic musical knowledge made him popular in the Manchester music scene. His appearance at Morrissey’s door is described as ‘saving’ the singer.

Fletcher goes on to describe the band’s meteoric rise to fame and eventual break-up five years later. Each chapter starts with a quote or two, and unsurprisingly there is no shortage of inflammatory statements: “I am somewhat of a back-bedroom casualty. I spent a great deal of time sitting in the bedroom writing furiously and feeling that I was terribly important and feeling that everything I wrote would go down in the annals of history or whatever. And it’s proved to be quite true,” quips Morrissey. The quotes, however, quickly go from tongue-in-cheek to dangerously self-important and pompous.

While Marr’s decision to leave the band is ascribed to the more conventional excess of drink and drugs, Morrissey’s fatal flaw was falling prey to his own mythology. His comments in Melody Maker about post-Motown black musicians and the paranoid claims of personal persecution and murky conspiracies caused many Smiths ‘apostles’ to rethink their opinion of him. The band’s lack of proper management and the difference in lifestyles between drug-free, diurnal Morrissey and the less salubrious rest of the band were both factors which contributed to the band “breaking up in a chippy” in 1987. Fletcher ends the book here, alluding only briefly to Marr’s and Morrissey’s solo careers and the protracted acrimony that followed.

Overall, the quality of writing is variable: generally readable and clear, Fletcher occasionally veers into clunkiness and cliché (“pop music was destined never to be the same”) and the sporadic minor inaccuracy. Somewhat tediously, he details the recording, contracts and managerial discussions in plodding specificity, listing schedules, gigs and meetings without the authorial flair or fun trivia necessary to keep it consistently interesting. His interpretation of the songs is compelling and supported by evident technical musical knowledge, but at times these parts lack clear structure. The background information on Irish immigrants, Thatcher, the Winter of Discontent, and 70’s and 80’s music sometimes feels a bit like padding, albeit interesting and informative padding. Nevertheless, the book is solidly and amusingly written, full of incredible anecdotes, and finds the right balance of conveying affection for the band without being star-struck.

And if your thirst for the Smiths is not quenched by this weighty tome, fear not. Morrissey’s 660-page autobiography is rumoured to be published imminently by Penguin, and while not likely to be a paragon of objectivity and fact-checking, promises to be a rambunctious read.

A Light that Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths, by Tony Fletcher (William Heinemann, 6 Sep 2012)

This review was originally commissioned by Sabotage Times, who then realised they already had a review of this book. D’oh.

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