Friday, June 20, 2014

A summary of biographies of The Smiths

Between '82 and '87, The Smiths changed the world. They released four studio albums and another 30-plus singles that defined indie and redefined pop. And then they self-combusted.

A decade ago I read Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, Johnny Rogan's then-definitive biography of The Smiths. It was a solid book. I put it down expecting I'd never need to read another word about the band.

But about two years ago, I was looking for insight on where Johnny Marr got his artistic inspiration, creative energy and signature tone. Sick of squinting at YouTube videos of Marr live in concert, I picked up Johnny Marr: The Smiths and the Art of Gun-Slinging. The author is obviously a huge fan, but the book had neither the guitar geekdom I was hoping for or any rockstar gossip.

Desperate for inspiration, I picked up the revised edition of Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87. In it Simon Goddard goes chronologically through every track in The Smiths' catalog, explaining the lyrical references and recording circumstances. Calling it exhaustive is a understatement. Any normal person would have moved on. But I'm crazy and the magnum opus was still out there, Tony Fletcher's 2012 biography A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths. I bought it, but I wasn't looking forward to reading it. It's 700 pages long. It's full of meandering sentences. It includes extensive discussions of north England's housing options and manufacturing economy. And as far as rock 'n roll bad behavior, well, let's just say it ain't Dirt.

Then again, The Smiths weren't Motley Crue.

A Light That Never Goes Out is a fantastic story. I found it compulsively readable, tearing through it in just a couple weeks. (And remember, I knew how it was going to end.) It's the best portrait of The Smiths as a foursome. And it has just enough Manchester madness to satisfy fans of New Order, The Cult and all the other bands that sprang from the scene.

Knowing most people aren't going to read four bios of the same band, I'd say this: If you're a musician Songs That Saved Your Life is great, but if you're a fan read A Light That Never Goes Out.

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