When Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr met in 1982, it was the first step in the creation of one of the most influential bands of all time, The Smiths. The English quartet best known for songs like “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” came to define a certain 1980s sound characterized by Morrissey’s delicate singing and Marr’s lush guitar playing. In his new book A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths (out Dec. 4), music writer Tony Fletcher tells The Smiths’ story, using his unprecedented access to the band’s inner circle as well as their letters and contracts. In this exclusive excerpt from the book, we look back at the formation of one of the greatest song-writing partnerships in rock history.
It takes a particular confidence for one unknown musician to pronounce to another that their first meeting has the hallmarks of legend. But then Johnny Marr, eighteen years old when he arrived uninvited at the Stretford home of Steven Patrick Morrissey one afternoon in May of 1982, had such confidence in abundance; what he did not have, and it was the reason he had come knocking on the door of the nondescript semidetached council house at 384 Kings Road that day, was a partner for his singular talent on the guitar.
Steven Morrissey, a writer of speculative merit and a singer of absolutely no repute whatsoever, managed but sporadic bursts of self-assurance. Though he had been a figure about town since punk rock had exploded in Manchester with a special vigor back in 1976, and was respected, even liked, for his quick wit and bookish intellect, he frequently retreated into a shyness that, as he later penned with devastating certitude, was “criminally vulgar.” Unlike Marr, who seemed to be on first-name terms with almost everyone involved in Manchester street culture, Morrissey could count his friends on the fingers of one hand. He lived on Kings Road with his divorced mother. He was unemployed—by choice, for sure, but unemployed all the same. He was turning twenty-three that month. By any standard measurement, time appeared to be passing him by.
Aware of Morrissey’s shyness, Marr did not show up alone. He was accompanied on his mission by Stephen Pomfret, a mutual guitar-playing acquaintance whose presence was perhaps justified by the painfully long time it took Morrissey to descend from his bedroom to the front door. But once Pomfret had made the introductions, then Marr, not known to waste his time on trivialities, announced that he was on a quest for a singer and lyricist, and Morrissey, not previously known to accept strangers into his life at first glance, promptly invited the visitors in.
The trio ascended to Morrissey’s bedroom, where, amidst a life- size cut-out of James Dean and shelves laden with books on feminism, film criticism, and crime, there stood the requisite record player and a collection of neatly filed 45s. Marr, whose encyclopedic knowledge of popular music was arguably unrivaled among Mancunians his age, immediately gravitated to the vinyl, and Morrissey, whose own outspoken opinions on the form had seen him ascend from letter writer to concert reviewer with the weekly music papers over the years, invited his guest to play something. If it was a test of taste, Marr was thrilled to take it: the singles were heavy on the 1960s girl pop that he himself had been busy accumulating on recent trips to secondhand stores, the sort of music he hadn’t dare assume anyone else in his vicinity followed with quite such a passion. By passing Sandie Shaw and the Shangri-Las, much though he liked the British pop star and, especially, the New York girl group, he instead pulled out a rare 1966 flop single by the Marvelettes on Tamla Motown. It was an American jukebox copy, with the center hole punched out, and it didn’t specify the A-side. So rather than play “Paper Boy,” which had the traditional uptempo Motown feel, Marr put on its flip, “You’re the One,” a slower Smokey Robinson composition, and then sang along to prove that he knew the song, that this was more than just a cute gesture. Morrissey was impressed; Marr later said that he felt that was the moment that initiated their friendship.
The pair talked excitedly for the next couple of hours, Pomfret fading into the background, aware that for all the talk of him as a second guitarist in their future band, he was already superfluous to requirements. Morrissey and Marr, so different in age, dress sense, social skills, and various other interests, quickly bonded over that which they had in common: music—a journey that took them from the present day back to Patti Smith and the New York Dolls, then to David Bowie and T. Rex, to the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, and on through ’60s girl pop, to a love for rockabilly advertised by their matching retro “quiff ” haircuts. As they sat there in Morrissey’s bedroom, they spoke of seeing their own names on a record label—not just as artists but as composers. That Morrissey had but a handful of half-formed lyrics currently to his name or that Marr had never completed a song to his own satisfaction mattered little; they could sense in each other a shared sense of purpose and dedication, of craftsmanship and intellect. To borrow a phrase from more of their influences—Lou Reed describing his and Andy Warhol’s work ethic with the Velvet Underground—neither of them was kidding around.
Johnny Marr had a reference point all his own for their meeting. He had recently watched a documentary that detailed how, way back in 1950, a sixteen-year-old lyricist had knocked on the door of a fellow teenage pianist with a view to forming a songwriting partnership; the pair had gone on to become one of the most successful in popular music. It was the account of this unscripted meeting that had given Marr the inspiration to visit the mysterious Morrissey in the first place. And so he couldn’t help himself. “Hey,” said Johnny, “this is just how Leiber and Stoller met!”
Excerpted from A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT: The Enduring Saga of THE SMITHS. Copyright © 2012 by Tony Fletcher. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.