Thursday, October 04, 2012
BOOK REVIEW - A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT by TONY FLETCHER
I raced through all 698 pages of this epic tome in just under a week. I learned quite a few new things about one of my favourite bands of all time....which was pleasing. However, I also fund myself shouting out loudly at other times as the author got something wrong or offered an opinion that really jarred with me....especially his theory on how the band's audience seemed to, in his eyes, transform itself from twee-indie pop wallflowers to lager-guzzling lads out to have a dance and a sing-song with a hint of violence....
To be fair to Tony Fletcher, it is impossible to provide the definitive biography of the band when two of its members don't give you interviews for the project - in this case it's Morrissey and Mike Joyce. Having said that, there's loads provided by Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke as well as many many others who worked closely with the band such as producers John Porter and Stephen Street and the likes of Geoff Travis at Rough Trade which provide a great deal of depth and understanding.
It's a book made up of 40 relatively short chapters that are almost like mini-essays, beginning with superbly-researched material along with interviews with long-lost school friends which provoke a fascinating and interesting look back at the childhood of all four members which, to this outsider's senses at least, does capture really well working-class family life in Manchester in the 60s and 70s.
The story of the band's formation, career and eventual break-up is also covered in a chronological order which makes the book relatively easy reading and it did, at times, take me back to that glorious student bedsit era when I, along with many others, discovered the band through the pages of the UK music papers and listening to sessions recorded for the John Peel and David Jenson shows on BBC Radio 1. Much of what is written has been covered in previous books on the band by the likes of Johnny Rogan and Simon Goddard, but where A Light That Never Goes Out tries to excel is analysing why, how, where and when the it all went wrong.
History tends to point the figure at Andy Rourke for being a secret junkie, Johnny Marr for being the one who took the huff and Geoff Travis for being a stubborn and pig-headed record boss. Fletcher's book would suggest otherwise.
To be fair, I think history has been unkind to Geoff Travis in respect of The Smiths, mainly as a result of Morrissey's attacks on him over the years stemming back to the recording of Frankly Mr Shankly. Fletcher is more sympathetic, highlighting just how beneficial it was for The Smiths to be on Rough Trade instead of a major and provides a reminder that in offering a long-term contract the indie-label was taking a bit of a chance if the band's appeal wasn't as great as Travis believed it could be and it is good that his version of events is allowed to be told - and it's a reminder that The Smiths were, for all their talent and hard-work (particularly in the studio), a nightmare to manage, completely unpredictable and often unreliable.
There are events recalled in the book that had me as a fan cringing in embarrassment. Nothing can excuse the way some people closest to the band were dealt with in such an inhumane and off-hand fashion and it is to Marr's credit in particular that he admits he is shamed by some events and wishes they had turned out differently.
But....and this is where I think that ultimately the book is left wanting....the lack of input from Morrissey means we aren't given the full picture. I am certain that many of his views will be at odds with those of the likes of Marr, Rourke, Travis et al - and it will be fascinating when, if he ever does deliver an autobiography to read just how much his versions of events differentiate. To be fair to Fletcher, he can only deal with the material he has available and for the most part does a good job.
It's an impossible task to write THE definitive version of The Smiths story. If it was something you lived through then the author will inevitably offer views and opinions about events that are at odds with yours and make you feel that you could do the job better - and again I have to return to Fletcher's analysis of the audiences at gigs which are so at odds with my recollections that I almost gave up on the book I was so angry. But then again, there was a great deal that I agreed 100% with - particularly an opinion that a gig at Glasgow Barrowlands that I was lucky enough to be present at was regarded by many as the band's finest ever.
Overall, I do recommend the book to anyone who is a fan of the band. There's more than enough to inform you and entertain you....just try not to get too annoyed when you disagree with some of the views and opinions offered.
Here's a song mentioned in passing yesterday....
mp3 : The Smiths - Girl Afraid
A reminder that even with a throwaway b-side, this was a band who were simply the best.