Any Smiths fan will be thrilled at what Simon Goddard has accomplished here. Within this attractively-packaged 350-page tome – an update to the author’s original 2002 version – resides passionately researched exhaustive appendices about the bands catalogue, as well as comprehensive annotated histories of Smiths shows, radio and TV appearances. It’s all here, and the author is to be commended in the diligence of his research.
But is Songs fun to read for, at best, a casual Smiths fan? Well, as the rating above suggests, kind of? To explain: this isn’t so much a retrospective of a body of work as it is an effort from the author to explain how brilliant his favorite band is… over and over. When I wrote that the material was passionately researched, I mean Goddard is the most passionate person about the Smiths, except for maybe Seymour Stein (more on him below) and probably Morrissey.
Full disclosure: prior to my due diligence of slogging through half of the Complete Smiths Box Set in preparation for this review (I could go no further), “How Soon is Now?” was probably the only Smiths song I could name, it being one of only 3 dozen songs my local radio station would play when I was growing up. So I’ve heard it approximately 400 times, but I don’t hate the song. It’s catchy! That guitar tone! That oscillating riff! Seymour Stein called it the “Stairway to Heaven of the 80’s” (a quote delightfully highlighted by Goddard), which is an insane thing to say, right? Why? Because they’re both longer than 6:30? There’s only one verse, man! I suppose when you’re running a band’s label you might want to say all sorts of grandiose things about them.
Goddard’s fanaticism for Morrissey and Marr didn’t take long to overwhelm me, since he overdoses eight pages into the prologue. “The creationist myth of the Smiths as opposed to the evolutionary reality” is what he calls it, but the book reads more like a grandiose piece of fan fiction. Here’s what happened according this interview I did with Marr. Now, here’s what happened after my [probably] obsessive need to romanticize it:
Johnny Marr, alone, knocks on the door. The unhurried patter of feet down a staircase. The click of a latch. The creak of a hinge. The door swings open. A curious face peers out into the daylight, an untidy dark quaff sloping atop its owner’s head like a crumbling garret. Below is a forehead as if chiseled in granite, eyebrows like an intellectual infantry standing guard above the deadliest of blue lasers lying dormant in its shadows. Lips by Audrey Beardsley, pallor by L.S. Lowry, and all of this anchored in a jutting jawbone wieldy enough to kill a thousand philistines, in words if not necessarily actions. There is no need for us to freeze frame such a visage: its enigmatic tapestry itself commands time take stock.
Huh? You mean this guy? Yeah he’s cute, but… what? Damn it, I can’t tell if you’re trolling me or not.
I read and enjoyed We Never Learn by Eric Davidson of the New Bomb Turks (2010, Backbeat Books), a rough but thorough decade-plus retrospective of the garage rock scene before “White Blood Cells” sold a million copies. I enjoyed it because there were scores of fun stories and juicy tidbits about bands I idolize. So it’s not that music journalism is boring to me, I just think I’d have to be way more of a Smiths fan to dig this stuff. Goddard guarantees at least 3 pages on any given song, whether or not there’s much to say. Check out this crazy story!
A funny footnote to ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ concerns a car journey from the studio in Liverpool back to Manchester while recording the album. “I made a quizzical comment about Morrissey’s lyrics,” Marr later explained. “I put it to him that the line, ‘Bigger than dinner plates’ should really be, ‘Big as dinner plates.’ An eyebrow was very definitely raised at this point and he went away to mull it over. When we reconvened 24 hours later he said he’d given it a lot of thought and was very impressed with my observation. Of course, he then proceeded to do sod all about it.”
Gripping! No stone left unturned. There is definitely good material in here and a lot of the contributors to the band’s sound and success are given their due. You just have to comb through a lot of “and then he said… and then I said” to get to it. I’ll add that the most enjoyable material is saved for the second half, when the tensions and strife that contributed to the band’s breakup begins to bubble and finally spill over.
Goddard says the Smiths’ songs are “The finest art in the history of popular music,” and like many of the superlatives that speckle this book, this is presented as an indisputable fact, and not merely one obsessed fan’s opinion – one I don’t share. Here’s the entirety of my thoughts on the Smiths, about the same as before I opened the book: Johnny Marr is a genius guitar player (NME says so!), and at least half a dozen Smiths songs are pretty good. The end!
(I’m still going to give Marr’s new record a spin, though).
Similar reads:We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 by Eric Davidson, Life by Keith Richards, and Just Kids by Patti Smith.