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A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths Kindle Edition

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Length: 706 pages Word Wise: Enabled

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Editorial Reviews Review

Q&A with Tony Fletcher

Tony Fletcher

Q. How did the project come about?

A. For starters, I was a fan and a contemporary; I’m the same age as Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce, and Andy Rourke. (Morrissey is approximately five years older.) But primarily, it was because the only other biography on The Smiths had been published back in 1992. Somewhere between the benefit of two additional decades of hindsight, the public’s ongoing fascination for the group, and my own passion for their music, it seemed like time their tale was told. Or that I told the tale. Or both.

Q. You were granted more detailed interviews with more key players, and were loaned or provided access to more letters, company memos, and contracts than any previous author or journalist writing about The Smiths. Describe your experience.

A. I had come of age, as a teenage fanzine editor, alongside many of the key players at the group’s record company, Rough Trade. I’ve long known many of the musicians, producers, and businesspeople associated with The Smiths, on both sides of the Atlantic. I’d conducted Morrissey’s first television interview back in January 1984, and my old magazine (Jamming!) had developed a strong relationship with the band. All of these past experiences and ongoing connections helped open doors for me when it came time to research the book; many of these doors, I should note, had otherwise remained long closed to others.

Q. How/when did you first get into The Smiths?

A. As editor of Jamming! back in 1983, I was sent, if not personally delivered, the first single, “Hand in Glove,” by Scott Piering at Rough Trade, who later become one of the Smiths’ many managers. Word spread incredibly quickly on the group, and by the time I got to see them in concert, that September, they were already all over evening radio and it was obvious that they were going to be huge. I will be honest and say that it was only with the second single, “This Charming Man,” released in November 1983, that I was truly converted. It was absolutely magical—the first genuinely classic guitar-based pop rock anthem to have come out of Britain’s independent music scene—and from there, I was hooked. I saw them in concert every year, got every record, read every interview.

Q. What were some of the most important aspects for you to get across in your biography?

A. As with all my biographies, I really wanted to place my subjects in the context of their times. Nothing happens in a vacuum, least of all great pop music, however much the subjects themselves might wish to encourage such a notion! The Smiths were a product of post–World War II Irish immigration to Manchester, of Roman Catholic schooling, of inner-city slum clearance, of a rapidly declining industrial city that—not coincidentally—became one of the global capitals of punk rock, and then even more musically vibrant with the emergence of a post-punk independent music scene. I make no apology for setting out my stall, so to speak, on all of these cultural developments. I think it makes the story of The Smiths themselves that much easier to understand.

As a Brit who has lived in the States since 1987 (the year The Smiths broke up), I wanted to ensure that I place the band in American context as well. Almost everything written in books about The Smiths tends to start and end in Europe. Yet The Smiths were enormously popular in America—their two albums released in 1987 each sold 500,000 copies without a video or a live date—and it’s important to understand how and why that popularity came about. The increased popularity of college radio, the emergence of Anglophiliac “progressive commercial” stations, and the existence of an “alternative” dance floor all played their part, as did Morrissey’s ability to cross international boundaries, despite what some presumed to be parochial lyrics.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that this was a story about a band called The Smiths, not about a singer called Morrissey or the partnership between Morrissey and Marr. And as such, I was determined not to be drawn into the solo years and the ongoing acrimony, legal action, and lingering bitterness that seems to exist between certain band members. That side of the saga has been endlessly covered. I was determined that my particular narrative should end when the band ended.

Q. What surprised you most about the interview process? What was the most interesting conversation you had?

A. I was warned, early on in the process, that the breakup of The Smiths had caused so much still-existent tension among its major players that I would need to tread very carefully and diplomatically if I wanted to get my interviews. This turned out to be sage advice. I was not totally surprised, but certainly intrigued, by how many of my prospective interviewees checked in with Johnny Marr before talking to me. (By comparison, only two or three people told me that they would only talk with Morrissey’s permission.) Which leads to the most interesting conversation—without doubt, it was the extensive multiple interviews I conducted with Marr. We spoke for 18 hours across two days in Manchester, including an almost unbroken 12-hour interview on the second day, which ended, around midnight, with us taking a nostalgic drive past Morrissey’s old house, where Johnny had first knocked on the door back in 1982. (Even then, we continued the interview process with phone conversations and multiple e-mails.) Johnny was incredibly giving not only of his time but of his memories, his emotions, and his regrets—and the book would not possibly have been the same without his input.

Q. What are the biggest misconceptions people have about The Smiths?

A. That they were miserable. You only have to look at pictures of The Smiths: they were having such a wonderful time throughout most of their five-year arc. Morrissey certainly suffered from periods of depression, and his claims to celibacy, his admission to suicidal thoughts, and his determination to write, as he said in a print interview, “for people who wouldn’t normally go to concerts, watch television, buy records or listen to the radio,” rendered him utterly unique within the world of pop music. But he was also one of the funniest characters in the history of that pop music, as evidenced by any number of his interview quotes—and also by his lyrics, never more so in the frequently misinterpreted “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”

From Booklist

Indie cult heavyweights the Smiths never charted a single higher than number 10, but they are widely considered to be an important musical component of British pop music of the 1980s. Their enigmatic vocalist and lyricist, Morrissey, is a bit of a hero to the disaffected, which only adds to his and the band’s angsty cachet. Of course, they broke up in 1987, but with rumored reunions that never materialized and the individual members’ post-Smiths activities (as a solo), Morrissey has cracked Top 10 lists), their self-conscious legend lives on. In relating the story of the band, Fletcher centers on Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, digging deep in terms of the details of the band’s creative process and progress—but with plenty of time for conjecture about the comprehensively enigmatic Morrissey. If readers are curious about, say, the ongoing mystery of Morrissey’s sexuality, Fletcher provides ample discussion of the various extant theories thereon. Morrissey just likes to know people are thinking about him. The result is a highly detailed—if a little ardent—omnibus Smiths and Morrissey source, useful as a reference and a straight-through read. --Mike Tribby

Product Details

  • File Size: 5733 KB
  • Print Length: 706 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Archetype (December 4, 2012)
  • Publication Date: December 4, 2012
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008ENAY56
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #462,155 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Tony Fletcher is the author of six non-fiction books, a memoir, and a novel. His biography of drummer Keith Moon has been named in many a Best Music Book list, and his biography of R.E.M., updated in 2013 as 'Perfect Circle,' has been published in over half a dozen countries. His 2009 study, 'All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music From The Streets of New York 1927-77,' published in 2009 by WW Norton, covered multiple musical genres and was internationally acclaimed. His most recent biography, 'A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths' was published by William Heinemann in the UK, and by Crown Archetype in the US, and is now available in paperback. A memoir of his South London schooldays, 'Boy About Town,' is also now available in paperback through Random House in the UK and USA.

Fletcher gained his entry into music journalism by founding a fanzine at his London school in 1977; by the time Jamming! ceased publication in 1986, it was selling 30,000 copies a month. Along the way he interviewed the likes of Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, Paul Weller and U2, as well as dozens of up-and-coming, predominantly independent post-punk acts.

A contributor over the years to a multitude of magazines, newspapers, radio and television shows, primarily in the UK and USA, Fletcher now lives with his family on a mountaintop near the village of Woodstock in New York State. There he runs, skis, maintains his web site, serves on his local school board, and plays Hammond B-3 and Rickenbacker in the Catskill 45s, a group that only performs songs from 45 calendar years ago.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Benton on December 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
A fantastic book that took me a little longer than normal to read through all 600+ pages because I kept putting it down to listen to The Smiths' music, on vinyl of course that was being referenced in the chapters. Fletcher provides great context here from background on the city of Manchester and the educational and religious upbringing of the band members to in-depth details on the band's formation and rapid success in just a few short years and their eventual breakup. Numerous accounts on The Smith's songwriting process and recording techniques plus input from band members, management, road crew, record label execs and staff. So much ground is covered and it never gets dull. I thought I knew a bit about the band but turns out there was so much more to learn. They're Irish! When I first started listening to The Smiths in 1985 with Meat Is Murder I was heavy into loud American guitar bands especially Minor Threat, Black Flag, X and The Minutemen but the lads from Manchester blew me away (and most of my friends) with such an amazing less-is-more sonic approach coupled with the amazing wit of Morrissey's lyrics. Fletcher expands on that and shows you how it all came to be and how The Smiths have made such an impact not only in their home country but in America as well and puts to rest myths surrounding them. The short life span of the band seems to fit somehow with their story but the fact is that The Smiths' music has a timeless quality and always sounds fresh. Buy this book and read about this amazing band and in that process discover a little something about yourself along the way.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Ron Hawkins on December 25, 2012
Format: Hardcover
All you need to know about The Smiths. I can't imagine that any further book on The Smiths is needed unless Morrissey decides to publish his own version of events.

This is over 600 pages long and I read it in about five days, like Guralnick's first book on Elvis Presley this work immediately goes to the top of popular music biographies. The research, the level of detail, the balanced comment and Mr Fletcher's straightforward storytelling skills have all combined to make a fine work.

The main thing that I like about the book is that the author has focused strongly on the backgrounds of the various characters, especially Morrissey and Marr, placing them in the context of their times. The book is very strong in providing an understanding of the Manchester music scene the various Smiths emerged from. The fact that Tony Fletcher is a contemporary gives additional depth. We have also a great deal of information on The Smiths creative process, the business side and the touring (I didn't realise that The Smiths were as big as they were in the United States and were on the brink of major breakthrough).

It's a pleasing book in that there is very little dirt to reveal, we are reading about young popular musicians doing the work of popular musicians. I'm not greatly interested in Hammer of the Gods type biographies. The only disappointing 'revelation' (and it isn't one really) is Morrissey's meanness and reluctance to pay people, he probably pips Rod Stewart as the meanest man in rock. Morrissey and Rodders in the same sentence! Well he only has himself to blame.

I am a big Smiths and Morrissey fan but I am not familiar with the minute details of their career so there may be errors, I doubt that the errors are major.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Hal Martin on April 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I have read several books about The Smiths, and I would have to say that this is by far the best. Fletcher is not clingy-sycophantic about the band, as some writers are, and was somewhat in their circle at the time, which lends his writing an air of legitimacy.

The stuff I found most fascinating and illuminating were the bits about Moz's youthful writing exploits as a chapbook scribe, playwright (he sent a play to Tony Wilson of Factory Records, who unfortunately lost it), and small-time music journalist. Fletcher has had access to letters of Moz's that we may well never see (though I have read his books on James Dean and the New York Dolls, quite easily available on the net), and I can't be the only one who thinks a collection of Moz letters/early writings would be a great thing to read.

Apart from that, well, Fletcher (sometimes nearly too) comprehensively documents the band from start to bitter finish 'in a chippy.' Many details will be already well known to Smiths fans, but the biographer still manages to find a great many details for the casual reader and obsessive apostle (and I would not consider myself one of these people, just somebody who loved The Smiths and Moz as a teen 20+ years ago) to dig into. A great, fun, fascinating read, and definitely one to listen to all the albums as you read, the songs exploding louder than old still-potent bombs in your head.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jen in CA on January 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wanted to like this book, I really did. But this a book that claims to be about the Smiths, yet does not get into talking about the Smiths until around page 200. Before that we are treated to some history about the industrial revolution and Manchester's place in it. There is deep background on the slums and housing developments of Manchester and a lot of information about the family history of both Morrissey and Johnny Marr. There is a lot of information about the Manchester music scene prior to The Smiths. I mean, there is just SO MUCH INFORMATION about things that are peripherally related to the Smiths, but not actually related to the formation of the band or about the band itself in anything but the broadest sense. Yes, there would have been no Smiths if they hadn't both been raised in Manchester, but that's self evident. It doesn't need to be elaborated upon so thoroughly.

It becomes frustrating pretty early on in the read, waiting for some juice, some info, the dirt on the band and instead being given the barest hint of detail about the band itself but loads and loads of info about Rough Trade and other Manchester bands. I felt like the author danced around everything but never really delivered the goods. Every time I thought, "Here we go, now we'll get into it," it meandered off again. The timeline of the Smiths is there, but the real story, the behind the scenes particulars that I was hoping for were frustratingly elusive.

It also ends abruptly. The author references the lawsuit that Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke brought against the band several times but the book ended without any discussion at all about the what the members of the band did after the breakup.
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