College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 5

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5. The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?”

“What is Johnny doing? That’s just noise.”

Geoff Travis, the founder and chief of Rough Trade Records, wasn’t pleased with “How Soon Is Now?” when he first heard it. As lead singer Morrissey later recalled, Travis heard the distorted, artfully wobbling guitar lines Johnny Marr recorded for “How Soon Is Now?” and immediately determined that the only suitable use for the track was deep, discarded filler, relegated to a B-side. That’s exactly where it first wound up, on the flip of the 1984 single “William, It Was Really Nothing.”

Marr wrote the music for “William, It Was Really Nothing” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” in relatively quick succession. In a sense, he was in a dialogue with himself, starting with a brisk, bouncy song and countering it with more of a loping waltz, in order to create different dynamics in the music the band was putting out. In the extended writing session, there was yet another song in him, and he once again took an attempt at contrast as inspiration.

“On Sunday night, I kicked back and treated myself to writing something completely different from both those songs,” said Marr. “I had a short, upbeat one and a short, sad one, so I decided to write a long, swampy one with a groove. I always wrote songs in batches of three and usually still do.”

Once the music was complete, it was time for Morrissey to add the words. He pulled out his notebook full of potential lyrics and went to work, beginning with lines (“I am the son, and the heir, of a shyness that is criminally vulgar/ I am the son and heir, of nothing in particular”) adapted from the weighty nineteenth century George Eliot novel Middlemarch (“To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular”).

Once complete, Morrissey evidently didn’t care to use any of the lyrics to serve as the song’s title. Marr had dubbed the track “Swamp” as an instrumental demo, but that also wouldn’t do. So Morrissey instead looked to another book. He borrowed a phrase from Marjorie Rosen’s 1973 feminist pop culture treatise, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & the American Dream, in which the author ruminated on the culture associated with nineteen-sixties beach party movies: “How immediately can we be gratified? How soon is ‘now’?”

“How Soon is Now?” likely would have stayed a minor curiosity within the Smiths’ catalogue if not for the advocacy of Britain’s most influential radio personality. Based on listener feedback, John Peel named “How Soon is Now?” the best song of 1984, which immediately sent the label scrambling to properly release it as a single. There was a new problem, though. Morrissey was already bored with “How Soon is Now?” and instead pushed for “Shakespeare’s Sister” as a single. A compromise was reached. “Shakespeare’s Sister” would indeed get a push from the label, but “How Soon is Now?” had to be first.

In the U.K., the single tanked, largely because devoted Smiths fans already owned the song, both on the “William, It Was Really Nothing” single and the 1984 compilation Hatful of Hollow. In a way, the homeland reception was irrelevant to the label bosses. They thought the slightly rougher edges of “How Soon Is Now?” made it the ideal choice to help the band make headway into the U.S. market. Signed to Sire Records for North American distribution, the Smiths were prepped for a surge onto new shores in conjunction with the release of their 1985 album, Meat is Murder. According to the band, Sire Records bungled the job from the beginning.

“They had no intentions of the Smiths ever meaning anything on a mass level,” Morrissey told Creem magazine at the time. “And they still don’t. And they’ve made several marketing disasters which have really been quite crippling to us in personal ways.”

One of those misjudgments that left Morrissey feeling personally affronted was a new sleeve created for the U.S. single release. The original packaging in England featured an image of actor Sean Barrett in the 1958 film Dunkirk, his head bowed and his hands clasped in prayer. Since the photo made it vaguely look as if the young man was cradling his crotch, Sire Records got squeamish about repeating the art for the evidently more sensitive and impressionable U.S. audience. (To be fair, it was the era of the Parents Music Resource Center’s rabble-rousing over ever-so-lurid material landing in the record collections of America’s youth.) Sire released the single with big dark blue printing on a putrid yellow background, remarkably managing to create a sleeve that was simultaneously bland and an eyesore.

The Smiths were further angered by the music video Sire Records put together for “How Soon is Now?,” largely consisting of near-random visuals and a little bit of grainy footage of the band. According to Morrissey, the group’s minor presence in their own video supposedly caused them to be “swamped with letters from very distressed American friends.”

Although the label rejected accusations of working directly against the band’s wishes, they acknowledged that all was not rosy.

“We did not do it without their permission, but they did not exactly applaud us,” Sire Records told Spin magazine. “We felt we needed a video to make promotion more effective.”

The band that courted grievance and misery found yet more to make them upset. They were angered that “How Soon is Now?” was tacked on to the U.S. release of Meat is Murder. At the time, the Smiths operated with a basic lack of understanding about the difference between record store sales in the U.K. and the U.S. There was a brisk singles market in the nation the Smiths called home, but those releases were more promotional in the States, used to move albums. Later, the members of the Smiths would allow they retrospectively understood the decision, and the tampering with the Meat is Murder track list wasn’t really a big deal. Reflecting on the situation, Marr alighted on another unique upside.

“Years and years later, I know that people are vegetarian because ‘How Soon is Now?’ had been snagged on the front,” he said.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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