Saturday 18 August 2018

Is there more to life than Smiths books?

Charming men: Andy Rourke,
Johnny Marr, Morrissey and
Mike Joyce of The Smiths
Charming men: Andy Rourke, Johnny Marr, Morrissey and Mike Joyce of The Smiths
Charming men: Andy Rourke, Johnny Marr, Morrissey and Mike Joyce of The Smiths

Nick Kelly

The passing of time and all of its crimes is making me sad again. So sang Morrissey one of my favourite Smiths songs, 'Rubber Ring'. It's a line which sums up my reaction to hearing that this year is the 30th anniversary of the formation of the band he founded with Messrs Marr, Rourke and Joyce -- a band which stood out amidst the gloom and the grime of the 1980s as a pearl among swine.

It's fitting then that a new 700-page biography of the group should slip on to bookshelves this month. Tony Fletcher's mammoth tome, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths, is an exhaustive labour of love that was three years in the writing but which will be lapped up by fans of the band from Dublin, Dundee, Humberside and any number of provincial towns that pockmark the globe.

Its only serious competitor in the biographical stakes is Johnny Rogan's heaving tome, Morrissey And Marr: The Severed Alliance, which was first published in 1992 but was reissued earlier this summer in an extended edition that brought the story up to date.

Morrissey famously said of Rogan at the time, in typically melodramatic fashion, that he wished he would perish in a hotel fire. One can only wonder what fate he wishes on the author now that Rogan has revisited his life and music in print.

Of course, what Smiths fans are really waiting for is Morrissey's own memoir, which is completed and said to run to 200,000 words in its unedited form, and which is expected to be published by Penguin.

Until then, we have the considerable consolation of Fletcher's book, which is written with a real sense of love and affection for the group who, though they were only together for a mere five years, tilted the world on its axis to a degree not seen since the heyday of the Beatles and the Stones.

Fletcher compares the songwriting partnership of Morrissey and Marr to that of Leiber and Stoller, Elvis's original tunesmiths, who came together in a similar fashion, with one determinedly seeking out the other, intuitively understanding that a pooling of talents would achieve an artistic alchemy that neither could achieve on their own.

The result was some 70 songs over the course of four studio albums and dozens of singles, compilations and live albums that still stand the test of time as one of the greatest bodies of work in the galaxy.

The extraordinary thing is the way The Smiths arrived fully formed. Within days of their fateful first meeting, told in great detail by Fletcher, they had already written the likes of 'Suffer Little Children' and 'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle' together. 'Hand In Glove' would soon follow, Marr obsessively playing the riff he had in his head on his guitar as he was being driven to Morrissey's council house in Manchester lest he forget it. A tape recorder was produced, and musical history was made on the spot there in Morrissey's attic on the King's Road in Stretford.

Fletcher is excellent when it comes to widening the view to include the cultural and historical factors behind the band's emergence and the city from which they came.

The mass emigration of Irish people to Manchester and its surrounding suburbs over the years, particularly after the end of the World War Two, is documented, with each of the four members' Irish roots examined.

Of course, the band crashed and burned all too soon -- I remember reading the NME report of the split in 1987 as a teenager, and feeling a deep sense of bereavement.

The sheer intensity of Morrissey and Marr's working relationship could not be sustained forever.

But especially fatal was the fact that they lacked the stabilising presence of a long-term, trusted manager in the way that the Beatles had Brian Epstein and, closer to home, U2 have Paul McGuinness.

With no equivalent rock underpinning the group, time-consuming administrative tasks interfered with their creative endeavours. Feeling swamped, Marrquit the group. Morrissey, of course, would go on to become a solo artist who would inspire generations of music lovers who weren't even born when The Smiths were in their pomp.

Only this summer he played sold-out shows everywhere from Tokyo to Tel Aviv, from Milan to Manila. In Jakarta, fans who had waited decades to see their hero were in tears as he played his first show in Indonesia.

A mammoth two-month tour of the US kicks off in Boston in October.

Marr's post-Smiths career included collaborations with members of Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Bryan Ferry, The Pretenders, Crowded House, Modest Mouse and The Cribs as well as his own band The Healers.

The Smiths, though, will almost certainly never reform. A very public court case put paid to that, with drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke suing Morrissey and Marr over the payment of royalties. (Rourke settled out of court.)

But we don't really need The Smiths to reform because they already are immortal.

A Light That Never Goes Out is published by William Heinemann

The Severed Alliance is published by Omnibus Press

nkelly@independent.ie

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