One Track Mind: The Smiths, "How Soon Is Now?" (1984; 2011 reissue)

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In its way, Johnny Marr’s riff on this Smiths song was every bit as important in its era as Keith Richards’ on “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” a generation before.

It sounded like angry desperation — and it worked in perfect contrast to the lyrics, which set the stage for an army of as-yet-unborn emo bands: “I am the son and heir,” Morrissey famously sang, “of nothing in particular.” Of course, that was actually a direct lift from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch — but who knew that then? More particularly, who cared? This was so, so 1980s: Somewhere between sentimentality and detachment.

Originally a B-side to the 1984 single “William, It Was Really Nothing,” the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” took on a life of its own in the mid-1980s, reaching the Top 25 in the UK, anyway — and later appearing on both the compilation album Hatful of Hollow and on the group’s second album Meat Is Murder. The song is now part of a sprawling new Rhino reissue project, overseen by Marr himself and issued on Tuesday, that’s simply called: Complete. Featured are all four Smiths studio albums, the live project Rank, and three collections (Hatful of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen and Louder Than Bombs), each of which appeared over a span between 1982-87. Also included in the package are DVDs, art prints, artwork posters, codes for high-quality MP3 downloads, booklets and new liner notes by Marr. There’s even a Deluxe Collector’s Edition — packaged in an individually numbered, trunk-style box, and limited to 4,000 pieces worldwide. In fact, just 750 were reportedly to be available in the U.S., and only at Rhino.com.

The capstone remains “How Soon Is Now?” As its devastating story of despair and recrimination unfolds, Marr just keeps making his grinding guitar sound — worked out, just before the song was put to tape, during a jam session which included the inspirational Elvis Presley favorite “That’s Alright, Mama.” That very repetition, coupled with an oscillating rhythm effect courtesy of a Fender Twin Reverb, gives Marr’s principal riff this sense of ever-evolving complexity — like a lightning-bolt revelation, then like an angry moment of acceptance, then like a cutting reminder of grinding disappointment. There’s a reason that Rolling Stone magazine, in 2010, put “How Soon Is Now?” at No. 90 in its list of the 100 greatest guitar songs.

Of course, Morrissey’s lyrics, sung the next day in just a couple of takes, only underscore Marr’s efforts: “There’s a club, if you’d like to go,” Morrissey sings, sounding weak with sadness. “You could meet somebody who really loves you. So you go and you stand on your own — and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die.”

When the song breaks down into a shambling quietude, almost at the end, it allows Marr a chance to gather himself for another series of thundering stabs at his instrument. But not before a wobbly counterpoint rhythm reemerges, punctuated by these bursts of slap-bass aggression. The tension is palpable as Marr and Morrissey begin tangling again. For the singer, it’s like rejoining in midsentence during an ugly fight — “you shut your mouth! How can you say I go about thing the wrong way? I am human and I need to be loved — just like everybody else does.” For the guitarist, it’s a even harder-edged rebuke, the sound of somebody saying, musically, “I told you so.”

Listening to these records all at once on Complete, you’re reminded that “How Soon Is Now?” isn’t terribly representative of the Smiths’ core sound, which tended toward the acoustic, and even more toward the morose. Elsewhere in this sprawling reissue, there is mostly simmering melancholy — “haven’t had a dream in a long time,” on “Please, Please” from Hatful of Hollow; “why do I give valuable time to people who don’t care if I (octave change here) live or diiie” on “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” from Louder Than Bombs; “please — keep me in mind,” on “Well I Wonder” from Meat Is Murder; and “my only weakness is … never mind,” from “Shoplifters of the World Unite” from the oh-so-appropriately named The World Won’t Listen.

Morrissey seemed to cop to the growing ennui at times, for instance famously singing — you could almost hear him winking — “I know, I know, it’s really serious” on “Girlfriend in a Coma” from Strangeways, Here We Come.

All kidding aside, though, the Smiths’ eloquent reshaping of youthful angst took Brian Wilson’s air-tight 1960s-era childhood-bedroom reveries right to the edge of the window sill. They then looked down at the parents’ quiet, darkened backyard below … and almost really jumped. “How Soon Is Now” is the scream you’d hear next — either way.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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