The Infinite Jukebox: The Smiths”How Soon Is Now?’


When it came to having a cavalier approach to singles in the Eighties, New Order were the unashamed masters. It wasn’t that they took unconventional steps, but sometimes it was like they were deliberately anti-commercial. Eventually, they either learned better or they got fed up playing games, but for a while there they were the kings of doing the nonsensical thing.
I can think of only one contemporary band who ever pulled off a stunt to rival New Order, and that was The Smiths, with ‘How Soon Is Now?’
I was an eager Smiths fan for a few years, packed inside my years following New Order. It began with dear old Peely playing ‘This Charming Man’ one night, which I immediately thought of as the Postcard sound, done right (you’ll understand what I mean if you were there too) and ended less than halfway through the only time I ever saw the band live, during the all-day G-Mex gig, the Festival of the Tenth Summer.
But for that few years, I was indeed enthusiastic. I bought the singles as they came out, quickly enough to capture original picture sleeves, like when Morrissey had to stand in for Terence Stamp, I think, to duplicate an unauthorised still on ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ The fifth one was the disappointingly nondescript ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’; not just nondescript, but also short, at 2 minutes and 10 seconds. It’s b-side was even shorter, a mere 1 minute and 50 seconds, though every second of it was lush and gorgeous, because this was the achingly wonderful ‘Please Please Please (Let Me Get What I Want)’.
Still, a total of four minutes of music spread across a 7” single was not really value for money in most people’s books.
But I was a fan, and fans bought everything, and besides, there was a bonus track on the 12”, and my Lord it was 6 minutes and 50 seconds long, and it was called ‘How Soon Is Now?’
First of all, how insane was that? That’s three-quarters as long again as the other two tracks put together. Who does that?
And then I listened to it. And listened to it again. And again. Who, in their right mind, throws away something like this on the bonus track on a 12″ single? Are they all completely deaf to what this is? Or are they setting out to out-perverse New Order, because if they are, they’ve done it.
I now know that ‘How Soon Is Now?’s placement was down to Rough Trade label-boss Geoff Travis’s aversion to it being released at all, it being such a compete contrast to the rest of the group’s music. So the answer was that Travis at least was completely deaf to ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and if it had been up to him it would have been a secret known only to the group itself.
Given how widespread people’s musical tastes are and can be, I rarely say things like this, but I am genuinely flabbergasted that someone like him could not recognise that here was a monumental, magnificent piece of music, an epic. Who cares that it was totally unlike what had come before it?
Cribbing a bit from Wikipedia, I can report that the song is built around the use of a single chord, F#, and that Marr wanted a swampy sound (the track’s working title was ‘Swamp’). But interesting though that is, I concern myself with effects, not causes. And ‘How Soon Is Now?’s first impact came from the contrast between its shimmering effects, the multiple guitar licks built upon the base of Marr’s sustained, growling, crawling, almost grinding rhythm, the guitar riff that isn’t a riff, that sustains and multiplies throughout.
The song peals in on a higher guitar lick, but the rumble takes over. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce maintain a complex yet simple beat, metronomic in its crispness yet lacking any element of a dance-beat, as Marr crosses and criss-crosses the slow chugging rhythm with layers and layers, and Morrissey slides across the face of the song, singing melancholy lyrics of shyness and vulnerability that were, in many ways archetypal Smiths, but which, in their self-pity were in complete contrast to the solidity, the complete self-confidence of Marr and the implacable sound he’s built.
In the end, like Morrissey’s crippling introversion, the song has no ending. The music has formed itself into a barrier, an unscalable wall. It has no ending, the riff is perpetual motion, the guitars play and dance and the song has to be faded out because it cannot be stopped. The song could last forever – one take was apparently fifteen minutes long – and who would care?
‘How Soon Is Now?’ is the thing that The Smiths will ultimately be remembered for, a hundred years from now, no matter how separate it is from the rest of their music. It was thrown away as the extra track on a 12” single. It became the band’s sixth single, in a version edited down to 3 minutes and 41 seconds, a song already released on a single, released as a single, but only got to no. 24, after three Top Twenty hits. We’d all bought it already. On reissue, seven years later, it reached no. 16.
But it’s still an amazing song, an amazing performance, a thing of tensile strength and extraordinary daring that, despite the decision of some people to condemn the guitar-based rock track as a passé remnant of the Twentieth Century, still sounds as vigorous and magnetic as the day I first heard it, and will remain so.
Not bad for something they threw away and wasted.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: The Smiths”How Soon Is Now?’

  1. Many thanks Martin …. as I am older than you I confess to being totally unaware of the Smiths (apart from fawning articles in the Guardian etc) until (after I retired) ‘I put The Queen is dead’ onto my phone .. I spent a fair bit of time walking that year whilst my wife recovered from an operation… I then knew what all the fuss was about – stunning… and this track even more so. wow! what an amazing riff..reverb whatever… darkness visible I would say.
    Shame Morrissey is now such a jerk, but back then with Marr’s amazing guitar work I can see their appeal.
    As always a good post indeed .

  2. Thanks Roy. I would love to see Morrisey being refused entry back into the UK for being of Irish heritage. just to seriously piss him off. Johnny Marr is a genius and ‘How Soon Is Now’ is the track that will carry his name into the 22nd century and beyond.

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