. . .
“A shyness that is criminally vulgar”
“How Soon Is Now?” just might be my favorite Smiths song.
However, “How Soon Is Now?” was originally a b-side. “How Soon is Now?” was originally a b-side!!!! “HOW SOON IS NOW?” WAS ORIGINALLY A B-SIDE!?!?!
That’s right: along with “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” “How Soon is Now?” was on the b-side of the 12″ single of “William, It Was Really Nothing.” But only the 12″. So if you bought the 7″ of “William, It Was Really Nothing,” you got four fabulous minutes of music, but you missed out on one of the greatest songs ever recorded, 6:43 of utter classic rock ‘n’ roll.
Luckily, your kid bought the 12″ import of “William, It Was Really Nothing” at Tower Records — I think the only Smiths seven-inches I ever bought were “Hand in Glove” and “Shakespeare’s Sister” — and was appropriately blown away by “How Soon is Now?” I mean, that tremolo guitar floating out of the speakers like Bo Diddley in outer space gave me instant flashbacks to the Rolling Stones’ take on Diddley’s “Mona (I Need You Baby).”
However, there was one key difference between the two songs: the rhythm section. In “Mona,” Charlie Watts & Bill Wyman were right on top of the rhythm — emphasizing every single beat — but in “How Soon Is Now?” Mike Joyce & Andy Rourke were slightly behind the beat, giving the guitars a ton of sun and air, even though they actually played to something that wasn’t even close to the final version of the song.
When Marr first demoed the song, there wasn’t any tremolo guitar, but rather a swampy guitar part influenced by The Gun Club’s version of CCR’s “Run Though The Jungle.” And so Marr, Joyce and Rourke plus producer John Porter all got stoned and laid out the basic track, creating loads and loads of space for Morrissey to sing whatever and whenever he wanted to.
Anyways, after everybody else but John Porter went home, Marr decided that he needed something tie the whole song together (like the rug in The Big Lebowski) and decided that a big Bo Diddley-type tremolo guitar — a sound he’d first really heard on a big British single he’d heard as a kid called “Disco Stomp” by Hamilton Bohannon — was exactly what was needed.
And so, using the kind of stay-up-all-night studio hacks — running the basic guitar through four speakers, as Marr & Porter each worked the vibrato switchs on a pair of speakers — that would now take 30 seconds to do these days, they got their etherial, swirling psychedelic sound. Not only was it not like anything The Smiths had ever recorded, it was unlike anything anybody had recorded. And Morrissey’s vocal & lyrics just sweetened the deal.
I am the son and the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular
Now, I know that you’re gonna say: even for Morrissey, the lyrics of “How Soon Is Now?” might be too much. But I can tell you this: in the summer of 1984, I was in the middle of an epic cold streak featuring a series of bad timings, misplaced crushes and a general lack of understanding how to attract women. So maybe this all hit home a little bit too much, especially with Marr’s scary-ass slide overdubs and his squalling leads that set up and surround the chorus adding that much more sad atmosphere.
You shut your mouth, how can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does
Morrissey’s voice breaking on “loved” is awesome. Also really cool: Joyce’s groove-breaking drum roll at the end of the chorus. And because they have nearly seven minutes of song to work with, Morrissey repeats the verse and the chorus again, as Marr starts piling on the sound effects: not just the wailing slide guitar, but weird, seemingly disconnected licks that decorate the swirl.
There’s a club if you’d like to go
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
That most certainly wasn’t me at 21. Nope, not at all. Move along, nothing to see here. Meanwhile, the tremolo guitar is doing its thing; the rhythm section is choogling along, and all sort of aliens are being conjured up by Marr, as Morrissey makes one last plea.
When you say “it’s gonna happen now”
Well, when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone
But, of course, it’s ain’t gonna happen. Not now, not ever. And Morrissey recognizes that to the point that he takes a whistling break, which is so weird and out of place, he’s kinda taking the piss out of himself. Or maybe he just wants to add to the overload of strangeness that swirling all around him. At some point near the end, there’s a breakdown, all the way to just the tremolo guitar, because why not?
If “How Soon is Now?” was originally relegated to b-side status — supposedly Rough Trade balked at how much it didn’t sound like any of their other songs, crucially missing the point — The Smiths and their record companies on both sides of the Atlantic almost instantly realized that it was something special. Mostly because everybody who heard it totally freaked up. And so Rough Trade put it on the U.K.-only Hatful of Hollow in November of 1984, and eventually released it as its own single in January, 1985. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Sire stuck it at the beginning of side two of Meat is Murder, where it outshone pretty much everything else on the album.
Needless to say, putting it on Meat is Murder — not credited on the back cover nor with lyrics on the inner sleeve — pissed off Morrissey & Marr to no end, and the video that Sire commissioned for MTV was insult to injury, even though it might have been the single biggest driver for the Smiths’ U.S. popularity. Meanwhile, back in the U.K., the single version of “How Soon Is Now?” — with the 7″ excising three full minutes, why? why? why? — stalled out at #24, which was disappointing for all concerned, of course, but of course, it had already been for sale twice before.
However, the most important thing was that The Smiths had expanded the definition of what constituted a Smiths song, and that was incredibly important for the next two years, as they would continue to expand those boundaries with more long, weird, psychedelic songs, most of which you’ll be reading about in the next couple of weeks or so.
And so 40 years later, of course, “How Soon Is Now?” stands as an utter classic: one of those songs that’s been sampled, covered and parodied countless times in the interim, and will no doubt be loved by future generations of youth who are overwhelmed by their youthfulness and love a crackling great groove song.
“How Soon Is Now?
Did you miss a Certain Song? Follow me on Twitter: @barefootjim
The Certain Songs Database
A filterable, searchable & sortable somewhat up to date database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.
Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)
Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page