3AM: You're obviously a fan from the early days, so was there one clear defining moment when The Smiths first impacted on you?
SG: The corny but true answer is that they impacted upon me on 23rd November 1983. I genuinely do remember, aged 12, watching them do "This Charming Man" on Top Of The Pops and thinking "what is this?". It intrigued me but at that age you don't totally understand things, you're just stirred by them. So it would be more honest to say that the next single, "What Difference Does It Make?" was the one that really 'got me' as it were. I thought it was the most amazing record, or maybe the most amazing riff, that I'd ever heard. It was incredibly powerful and also quite dark and mysterious, and unsettling -- I actually thought that Morrissey looked "frightening" on Top Of The Pops. It seemed very "adult" and, to someone on the cusp of their teenage years, that was very attractive.
3AM: These songs had a huge personal effect on you, then?
SG: Basically until that point I was just a pop kid -- I watched Top Of The Pops with the family, listened to the charts every weekend and probably got whatever knowledge I had from Smash Hits or, god forbid, Look-In. So The Smiths were a personal awakening for me but it just so happened I wasn't alone and many of my age felt that. By the time they split I was nearly 17 so they are inextricably linked with my adolescence and all the hysterical emotions and hormones one goes through during those years.
3AM: It's perhaps forgotten today what a genuinely subversive force The Smiths were. Seeing Morrissey and The Smiths in full flow for the very first time was like being lured into some tantalizing new world you didn't quite understand...
SG: They carried so much with them. Obviously people go on about Morrissey specifically and I'd be the first to admit that I picked up various books and records because of what he said in interviews. My mum had a Sandie Shaw Golden Hits LP (UK, Marble Arch label 1965, great album!) in the loft which I permanently "borrowed". It was strange and quite significant that the first generation of teenage Smiths fans like myself were born between roughly 1966-72 so our parents had all 'courted' in the Sixties. It must have been bizarre for them, two decades later to see their kids get into a band who made records with Sandie Shaw, the icon of their generation. And the cover images too. I have a vivid memory of coming home one day with the "Shakespeare's Sister" single and my mum looking at it, really perplexed, asking why I'd "bought an Elsie Tanner record?". I know a lot of fans like myself whose parents had a funny fascination with The Smiths though few would admit to liking them, but that was important because no kid wants to like a band their parents approve of do they? At the end of the day Morrissey used to make my mum feel "physically sick", so I took that as a good sign! I even stole a few books from my school's English store cupboard, stuff that my class wasn't studying but I wanted to read like Wilde and Jack Rosenthal's script for the Spend, Spend, Spend play. That's quite something when a band actually makes teenagers actively hungry for other art forms. But more than just Morrissey alone, it was that whole sense of pop history they brought with them. By the time I was 16, as well as what was around at the time I'd started listening to Elvis, The Shangri-Las, early Rolling Stones, a whole wealth of music channelled via The Smiths. I may have got into all this stuff eventually through some other avenue but I sincerely doubt it. Same as the cinema angle, it was great at that age to be discovering those early kitchen-sink films like Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.
3AM: Fifteen years or so after the split, why write this book now?
SG: I've felt I've "had a Smiths book in me" for ages and I've been seriously planning it for the past three years at least. I know it must seem that now, with Morrissey touring again, Johnny Marr about to release The Healers album and the NME poll result as the most influential band of the past 50 years, it's a calculated time to issue a Smiths book, but the truth is it's just divine luck. In fact when I was trying to get publishers interested during 2001, all the big houses turned me away because they felt The Smiths were no longer relevant and wouldn't "shift units". Luckily, in Reynolds & Hearn I found a publisher who totally understood the concept and, better still, knew who The Smiths were and what they meant. They did a great Bowie book (Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie) which swung it for me and I think it's fitting that they're a small publisher -- it's very much the Rough Trade scenario of maintaining an independent streak in keeping with the whole Smiths etiquette.
3AM: After all the bad press coverage surrounding the court case and so on, it's refreshing to pick up a book that actually concentrates on the songs again. Was that part of your agenda when writing Songs That Saved Your Life?
SG: Yes, absolutely. It really saddened me that it was impossible to discuss The Smiths without mentioning the C**** C***. As a journalist I can understand why because it's dramatic and makes for a sensational story, but what really depressed me was the way that people began to reinterpret the past as a result of the case. For me it's two separate stories. The Smiths, the band, was one thing. The legal dispute over the profit shares of the company Smithdom Ltd is another. The art they left behind has absolutely nothing to do with the court case and without white-washing the issue, I definitely didn't want to dwell on their business history again. The only point in the book when I felt it was appropriate to do so was in describing the recording of "What Difference Does It Make?" because of Morrissey's famous disappearing act from Pluto Studio in Manchester and its implications [mid-way into the session Morrissey absconded and caught the first train to London because, the story goes, he wanted the band member's financial affairs sorting out] which itself was often referred to during the 1996 high court trial cross-examination.
3AM: You've unapologetically borrowed the methodology of Ian McDonald's mighty Revolution In The Head. Was that epic tome an inspiration in itself? Was the idea to write something every bit as worthwhile and scholarly as that?
SG: Yes it was and the strange thing is that I really, really don't like The Beatles. I never listen to them and don't physically own any album, but the brilliance of MacDonald's book is that it made even me -- an anti-Beatles man -- want to listen to their records and the way their musical development unfurls across the pages was fascinating. I would never be so presumptuous as to liken myself to MacDonald on an intellectual level because he's much more of a musical academic than me -- it's like he's a wise old sage and I'm just a young whippersnapper really! I know about basic chords but that's more or less it and I was wary of going too much into the musical nuts and bolts so as not to alienate those not musically literate, but the basic premise was, to be crude, a Smiths Revolution In The Head. Something that could be read start to finish, or a reference text. Luckily, because we both write for Uncut magazine, I got MacDonald's blessing as it were, and that was very important for me.
3AM: It surprises me that you're so anti-Beatles, because Marr's music seems very informed by them, from the knowing "Love Me Do" harmonica of "Hand In Glove" to the late Beatle-spiced delight of Strangeways, Here We Come.
SG: It's just a personal thing. It boils down to phonetics -- I just don't like the sound of their voices, John and Paul's harmonies, but I admire and appreciate their importance. There's a great bit on one of the studio master reels where Sandie Shaw is there with Johnny and they're about to do "Jeane" and he quickly picks the riff of "In My Life" -- Sandie even asks him "what's that?"! So there's no denying the influence of The Beatles on Marr. Ultimately, I'm a Stones man, give me Let It Bleed over Let It Be any day. Marr may have been inspired by Macca, but he wanted to look like Keef and musically he took as much from Richards as he did McCartney. Don't forget that, according to Nick Kent, during The Smiths the outgoing message on Marr's answer machine was the opening riff of "Gimme Shelter", not "Back In The USSR".
3AM: A lot of previous writing on the Smiths seems clouded by thin research and the acceptance of certain long-standing myths surrounding the group, whereas yours seems pretty intensive...
SG: Well, I've been researching The Smiths and saving cuttings since about 1984. So 18 years' research, that's pretty intensive I'd say!
3AM: Did you approach the subject from scratch almost?
SG: In a way I did start from scratch or at least I double checked everything I could. There are a lot of distorted myths where lyrical influences are concerned. Like the Carry On Cleo thing with "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" which I dispute in the book as being nonsense. Also I tried to specify dialogue -- like if a lyric was taken from Billy Liar, what scene and who said it, rather than taking it for granted from existing books. There are still lots of alleged lyrical references documented in fanzines and on the web which I left out simply because I couldn't verify them as accurate. For instance, Troubled Joe as mentioned in "A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours" is, some swear, a reference to Carry On Jack. I watched it twice and unless I'm blind and deaf, I honestly can't see the link. I don't doubt there may be errors in my book, but I tried as meticulously as I could to be absolutely thorough.
3AM: So it was a case of sitting down and systematically watching all the associated films from start to finish, was it? And then of course there are all the key literary texts which, er, inform Morrissey's lyrics... Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, for example. Now a lot of that book made it into Smiths lyrics...
SG: Yes, it really was that laborious, though I did have my breaking points -- half way through Wilde's De Profundis I thought enough is enough! Smart's novella is actually quite short, so easy to digest. But it was very interesting going back to the source because I noticed things previously missed. It's kind of like a sport for Smiths fans, they should have an I-Spy book of Morrissey steals. I'm sure more will come to light yet. There's even one in the book that I stumbled upon last minute, so it's missing from the preview copies that got sent out. I know it must seem like being a "big nose who knows" but for me whether they are borrowed phrases or not it doesn't change the way the songs stand and they are still brilliant lyrics -- genius steals and all that. For example, few of us would want to read Emlyn Williams' Moors Murderers book Beyond Belief so "Suffer Little Children" is very inventive in making a new audience take note. Again I was surprised that nobody had previously mentioned that "Suffer Little Children" was an actual chapter title in Williams' book, as is "Hindley Wakes". That was a bit disappointing because "Hindley wakes" is a very clever play on words, as in Stanley Houghton's drama Hindle Wakes, and I always put that down to Morrissey's wit when it was Williams' all along.
3AM: How well documented did you find the Smiths studio sessions?
SG: Not very! It was very complicated. Interviewees contradicted each other with dates and locations, Joyce's tapes said one thing and some studio reels said another, so between the three I had to use my instincts as to what was right. There may be a slight margin of error in some instances, but I'm confident it's pretty much bang on. The Smiths archives are now in the hands of their current owners, Warners, but even then some reels/sessions are missing. Whether they're genuinely 'lost' or in the safe hands of ex-members or ex-producers I really don't know.
3AM: Are you implying there might be some more lost nuggets out there? Their cover of Presley's "A Fool Such As I" from that very last session has never re-surfaced, I believe.
SG: I genuinely don't doubt that there are things out there I've not heard. Grant Showbiz swears that "A Fool Such As I" got as far as a sketchy vocal though neither Rourke nor Joyce could back that up. It's very probably because Showbiz was convinced that any leftovers from that session had been given to Johnny for security, but I managed to hear loads of stuff from that session, mostly different attempts at mixing and overdubbing -- "I Keep Mine Hidden" and "Work Is A 4-Letter Word" plus those two instrumentals. We know for certain that Dale Hibbert has informal recordings on DAT, like the full "I Want A Boy For My Birthday" rehearsal. Who knows? I think the most exciting thing out there anybody could perhaps get their hands on would be Morrissey's pre-Smiths tape of "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" with different music and Bessie Smith's "Wake Up Johnny" which he did in his bedroom in about 1980. It would be great to think that it still exists in the back of somebody's cupboard somewhere.
3AM: Naturally, you've spoken to Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke for the book. Did you even try approaching Morrissey or Marr for their thoughts?
SG: Yes. Morrissey, I didn't expect to get, but he knew about the book and even passed on -- through an intermediary -- a four-worded message to me which was as sardonic as one might imagine (and no I'm not going to divulge what it said, but it was relatively clean!). Sadly, by the time I put in my request with Marr he was already exasperated by the BBC's Young Guns documentary and the 2001 Mojo cover feature, both of which he apparently regretted. As a result I was told that he thought what I was planning was a nice idea but the last thing he wanted was to talk about The Smiths at that time. I've since heard that he's aware of the book now it's out obviously and I've not ruled out the possibility of still talking to him if ever a revised edition was planned in years to come. That all depends on what he makes of it I suppose, but naturally I would love to talk to him. I've still tremendous admiration for Johnny Marr, even though he didn't participate. I've heard his new album with The Healers and it's really good. He still rocks in my books!
3AM: What did you make of his rendition of "Meat Is Murder" at the Linda McCartney tribute? He changed the lyric a little, didn't he?
SG: I was surprised what a great voice he has. Maybe not on that "Meat Is Murder" cover, but he did a Dylan cover -- "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" -- for Uncut's Dylan special earlier in 2002 and it was beautiful. Just him and an acoustic guitar, the whole delivery was incredibly touching. He did change the lyrics of "Meat Is Murder" though not dramatically, but it is very interesting that both he and Morrissey have sung that song after The Smiths with different musicians. As a vegetarian myself, I do find that very comforting somehow. I saw Marr on stage at the Royal Festival Hall Kirsty MacColl tribute a few months ago and he was on fire. The only problem is that he walked on stage followed by David Gray so my hands were in a dilemma as whether to clap or not. Luckily, Gray only sang -- well, destroyed -- "Walking Down Madison" then left, which was a relief. And no, I really don't like Grey David one bit.
3AM: You also talked to other key characters such as Stephen Street, Grant Showbiz... even James Maker. Was it strange actually meeting some of the leading players of Smithdom and talking with them about the whole experience?
SG: Yes, it was, especially since all have very different perspectives based on who they still are or aren't talking to (or being paid by!). Other than Johnny Marr, the one person whose comments I ideally would've liked was John Porter, who's "somewhere in LA", but I was pleased to speak to those that I did. On a trivial level, I think I'm most proud of being the first Smiths writer to talk to Audrey Riley, who played cello on the Troy Tate version of "Pretty Girls Make Graves". She was very sweet and had never been asked about her brief cameo with them until this book.
3AM: James Maker [the lead singer with Raymonde and old friend of Morrissey's who famously go-go danced onstage at early Smiths gigs] always comes across as one of nature's more original creations.
SG: I never met him, it was via email, but he was very frank and was very meticulous that I didn't edit or paraphrase him, which I haven't. I was asked to participate in Granada's These Things Take Time documentary and I remember telling the producers what Maker had told me -- that he never wore white stilettos. He was really adamant to kill that myth.
3AM: How integral to the project was gaining the cooperation of Joyce and Rourke?
SG: I honestly didn't expect any of them to talk to me, because of the court case negativity, so it was a bonus that I ever met Mike and Andy. I contacted Rourke first, then went up to Manchester and met them both. I think it was a case of sussing me out and once they realised I wasn't interested in the same old bullshit as before, they trusted me and that's meant more to me than anything else. I never ever expected to hear any outtakes, let alone be given them to catalogue (which is what Mike eventually did). As a fan it was just mind-blowing, no other word for it. Mike allowing me to hear those tapes just added a whole new dimension to the book and transformed it completely. I can't thank him enough for that. Both he and Andy have had a lot of flack after the court case. Everybody has their own opinion about the case and the whole percentage argument/who was worth what, but all I know is that out of all the musicians and artists I've interviewed as a journalist, they're two of the most decent and down to earth I've ever had the privilege to speak to. Contrary to cynics who consider their involvement in Smiths-related projects "cashing in", it was purely out of goodwill, same as Mike writing the foreword, there was no money involved.
3AM: Presumably, you had to sit down and listen again to the Smiths' entire body of work. Hardly a chore, but what struck you most profoundly about those records today?
SG: Well, I always knew they were "great", but I think I'd underestimated the emotional impact they still carry. I remember a day when I was listening and comparing various versions of "Reel Around The Fountain" and it got to a point in the evening when it was dark and I was sat alone with the Troy Tate version playing and -- this may well sound pathetic -- but the full beauty of the song really hit me. Everything, the words, the guitar riff, the drumbeat, the bass, I was suddenly overwhelmed and next thing I knew I was welling up, sentimental fool that I am. It really affected me that their songs still had that ability and that hold on me and even though it was weird and privately embarrassing, it kind of encapsulated why I was doing this in the first place. Obviously that was a very personal thing, but on a more general level the musicianship really struck me, the way Marr, Rourke and Joyce really gelled. Together they sounded unique -- don't even get me started on that bloody lawnmower analogy!
3AM: Actually, Morrissey claims never to have coined that particular lawnmower adage!
SG: That's true and it's a long-standing myth that Morrissey had said that when it was a metaphor conjured up by the prosecution, i.e. Joyce's counsel, to illustrate how he perceived them. But, unfortunately, though Morrissey said he never invented that phrase, he has now said he didn't disagree with it and he thinks it's true. I don't really want to go down that road, I just think, you know, that joke really isn't funny anymore.
3AM: Reading the book, you realise how prolific the band were. I mean, they recorded together for under four years... So they produced their material at a phenomenal rate, didn't they? There's a school of thought that they simply burned themselves out.
SG: Absolutely, but in a way it was exactly what bands used to do in the 60s, that whole roller coaster discography of albums and loads of non-album singles in between. It was phenomenal but also it did contribute to the final split because by 1987 they, Marr in particular, were burned out. I think being on an independent label helped, but it's strange how today that kind of rapidity is impossible. The Smiths were the last band to really do that and what they recorded in 5 years most other bands would have done well to achieve in 10.
3AM: I get the impression that while Marr was physically and emotionally frazzled, Morrissey was at something of a creative peak and keen to grasp the mainstream nettle. I mean, with Strangeways... and then his solo debut Viva Hate, he recorded two great albums in the one year, 1987. Quite some feat.
SG: I'd disagree about Viva Hate. Even Morrissey admitted later that it was a bit rushed and neither "Bengali In Platforms" or "Margaret On The Guillotine" are great lyrics by any stretch. But certainly I think both of them reached a certain kind of peak together with Strangeways, as songwriters. It was the little things that struck me, like even though I've played it to death, just thinking about a pop single called "Girlfriend In A Coma", you tend to take for granted how daring and ingenious the words to that song are, and again, to get it all out in barely two minutes.
3AM: The other thing that struck me from reading the book was how shrewd The Smiths' musical judgement was. If they excised a verse or edited a track, it always seems to have been for the best. They very, very rarely got it wrong...
SG: Two words -- "Golden Lights"! But I do know what you're saying. It's like the unedited "Queen Is Dead" which is the great hallowed outtake, but when you actually hear it it's a little bit, you know, looking at your watch and thinking "what'll I have for tea?". It's brilliant but you can see exactly why they thought "chop it". Marr always maintained that nothing was left on the cutting room floor and, in a sense, he's half right in that nothing lost or changed was ever replaced by anything inferior. I do think though that it would have been interesting, texturally, if the trumpet versions axed from The Queen Is Dead LP had made it through because it really would have altered the tone of the whole piece.
3AM: Ah, the trumpets versions of "Never Had No One Ever" and "Frankly, Mr Shankly". As alternate versions, they really stand up in their own right then, do they?
SG: Yes they really do! I think both official versions are great but the trumpet "Never Had No One Ever" is particularly impressive and the comparison I make with Radiohead's "Life in A Glasshouse" I still stand by. Even though it wasn't released, it was years ahead of its time. The trumpet "Shankly" just makes me laugh, there's definitely something farcical about it.
3AM: The quality control of their singles is amazing to behold: "This Charming Man", "William, It was Really Nothing", "Bigmouth Strikes Again", "Panic", "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" etc. etc. etc. Being such connoisseurs of the two-minute pop single, it seems unbelievable now that they never really had that one massive breakthrough hit.
SG: It's strange. Johnny Rogan was interviewed for Granada's recent These Things Take Time documentary, and he said that in his opinion they never had a single that was punchy enough to get to number one. I think that's shite! "Panic" should have been number one at the very least. I think it had less to do with the material than the fact that they were on an independent label -- people do forget that, it's not like Blur or Oasis who had major corporations behind them, billboard advertising, MTV, radio A-lists. The Smiths really were up against it and that they got as high as they did at that time was truly miraculous. It was a cultural thing of course. Just look at the UK number ones of 1986 -- Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" and Nick 'Wicksy' Berry's "Every Loser Wins" for fuck's sake. A nation that propelled Europe's "Final Countdown" to the top spot simply didn't deserve "Bigmouth Strikes Again" if you ask me.
3AM: What's your impression of Morrissey at work in the studio? Does he seem to have his lyrics solidly worked out or does he draft them as he goes along?
SG: They do seem to have been very solidly worked out, but it's interesting where he does make changes. One that I didn't mention in the book (there were so many and the book could be only so long!) which perhaps I should have is in an early take of "I Want The One I Can't Have" when he sings "he killed his mother when he was 13" instead of "a policeman". Now somewhere between take one and take two he thought "Nah, mother's not right, I'll make it a policeman instead" and that I think is quite remarkable. I think he always knew what he was going to sing but he often ad-libbed to experiment with what sounded good phonetically and rhythmically. And he was right -- "policeman" fitted that song so much better than "mother". His lyrics are Freudian enough as it is without that!
3AM: As great as the music was, and is, there must have been times when Morrissey stepped into the booth and delivered his vocal and a song just burst into a whole new dimension?
SG: Definitely, I think that whole thing of keeping the others in the dark worked. One of the most intriguing is "Half A Person" -- if you listen to that without the vocal, or imagine it without the vocal then, and think how anybody else would have applied lyrics to it then you realise how clever Morrissey was because he makes the chorus overlap into what Marr probably saw as the beginning of the next verse. When he sings "I like it here can I stay...", he's wrapping up his chorus but on top of the returning verse chords. I don't think any other singer would have had the foresight to do that and make it sound as natural as he did. But it also works the other way -- there's an instrumental master of "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" where you really appreciate what an intricate melody it is and perhaps how more profound it could have been with less "frivolous" lyrics.
3AM: Stumbling across a previously unknown Morrissey/Marr song must have been quite a moment... but does it really bear comparison with the rest of the Smiths' back catalogue?
SG: Sadly not. I'm wary, because of the press attention and the NME news story, of building up "A Matter Of Opinion" too much. People must remember that it's not like Nirvana's "You Know You're Right", it's not a studio recording. It's a tape player in the corner of a room capturing a band who've only been playing together a few weeks and the vocals are poor quality. BUT it is a lost Morrissey/Marr song so it is absolutely fascinating. Seriously though, just listen to Buffalo Springfield's "Mr Soul" (it's on the Neil Young Decade double CD which everyone should have) and that is EXACTLY what "A Matter Of Opinion" sounds like musically but with different words and a vaguely different vocal melody. It's not a lost masterpiece by any means but it's very illuminating to hear a fully-realised song that got dropped because from thereon Morrissey doesn't seem to have added words to anything if he didn't deem the music good enough. Discovering "A Matter Of Opinion" did nearly give me a heart attack but the funniest thing was when I rang up Mike and said "erm... what the hell's this?" and he said, really casually, "oh yeah, that song" like it was no big deal that it had never been mentioned before. Having said all this, it would be worthy of release on a CD boxset or something but I don't want to exaggerate either its quality or content just so if (when?) people finally hear it they're not disappointed.
3AM: I was interested in how organic the process of writing the music often was, with songs being improvised out of studio jams. Previously, I'd assumed most tracks arrived fully-formed from Johnny Marr's plectrum...
SG: To some extent they did come from Marr's guitar, particularly in the beginning. Marr always drew the lines but often it was through group jams that the songs were 'coloured in' and fleshed out. Marr never told Rourke and Joyce what to play, he just guided them and if it wasn't right he told them (or sometimes if Morrissey didn't like it he'd whisper in Marr's ear and then Johnny'd have to tell them!). I was never trying to suggest that the composer credits be questioned, but especially towards the end it was a collaborative process in terms of getting the groove. Marr was the genius but Rourke and Joyce were the eager craftsmen who were able to realise his ideas as a group. You can't create something like "Death Of A Disco Dancer" with session musicians, that can only come from musicians with a sixth sense of what each other is capable of and where each other might be going. Plus the whole thing about using soundchecks as practices I also found revelatory. Some of the tapes Mike has, you can physically hear "Bigmouth" coming together, stopping and starting and "not like that, like this" and it's amazing. It's like being a fly on the wall listening to genius at work. That's one reason why I'd like to see this material in the public domain, to validate the musical contributions of all four members and put an end to the sceptics who insist that anybody could have done what Rourke and Joyce did.
3AM: Some of the little details you uncover are fascinating also. In the initial takes of "There Is A Light..." for example, Morrissey sings: "There is a light in your eyes and it never goes out." A tiny insight like that is very revealing...
SG: It is, isn't it. I found that one particularly interesting because I always though that the light was, I don't know, in someone's bedroom window or in the car or something. So it being a light in one's eye, like the symbolic light of love, I think that's just beautiful. Very interesting to ponder on why exactly he cut that out, it certainly adds to the mystery. But I was fascinated also that at his recent UK shows, even playing "There Is A Light" as the encore he never sang the song's title at the end (the audience normally compensated) and he never used to when on stage with The Smiths either. These are the things that keep one awake at night I suppose.
3AM: I like the way you question accepted Smiths lore in the book. The Troy Tate tapes, for example, their aborted attempt at a first album. Listening to them now they do sound like they could have made for an excellent debut LP, don't they?
SG: Yes, especially when you listen to something like The Strokes' Is This It because the Tate album is no more lo-fi than that. Some tracks maybe are a bit wobbly but I think definitely "Pretty Girls Make Graves", "Reel Around The Fountain" and "Miserable Lie" are better than those that finally appeared on The Smiths. I don't know if it would have been as big a hit but Tate's "What Difference Does It Make?" is also extraordinary. They did what they did but personally what I'd like to see is a 2CD reissue of The Smiths' 1984 debut album, one CD being Porter's, the other Troy Tate, so people could compare. I think that'd be a very valid reissue -- Warners, if you're reading this?
3AM: I've always rated the piano coda on Tate's "Suffer Little Children".
SG: It is a great little epilogue. On the master reels of Porter's remake there's a take of Johnny recording that part again, it lasts about three minutes and at the end he jokingly says something about it being "the 12 inch version". But I do actually think that Porter's production is the better. I don't think the segue between the main song and the piano part ever really worked on the original Decibel demo or the Tate version, it was always a bit clumsy. And the fact that it was saved and re-invented as "Asleep" made it more worthwhile. The Decibel demo though is very freaky, when you hear the Hindley voice hiss "Lesley! Edward! John!", it's really disturbing.
3AM: You don't accept that The Queen Is Dead is their masterpiece either, do you? Even heretically questioning its track-listing! I know, it's been asked many times, but why do you think Strangeways... in particular suffers so badly by comparison?
SG: Surely everybody must have by now questioned The Queen Is Dead's tracklisting?! Strangeways, well it's just the classic stigma of being issued posthumously and the cover is pretty shit. I know these things shouldn't matter but they do. Musically I think it's in a class of its own and maybe the fact that it wasn't played live gives it a certain freshness even now. I still nominate it as the best Smiths album, as a critic, though as a fan looking back my fondest memories are actually of Meat Is Murder which, on a purely personal level, I probably listen to more than the others.
3AM: Having re-evaluated the songs as it were, if you had to nail your flag to the mast, what would you rate as the Smiths' greatest track?
SG: Probably, and that's a big probably, "The Queen Is Dead". Even though it's not the best album, the title track is, well, as I call it in the book, "their unequivocal masterpiece". But it's too hard to say really. Already I'm having second thoughts. I'd have to nail my flag to about a dozen masts simultaneously before I stopped saying 'probably'.
3AM: I think there are plenty of songs in the Smiths canon which are oddly underrated. I think you make a great case for "Death of a Disco Dancer"...
SG: I just love "Death Of A Disco Dancer" to bits, I think it's a masterpiece and I hope everybody who does read the book tries the "some bits" experiment at the end [if you crank the volume up high enough, around the 5.23 mark, you can catch a clearly chuffed Marr begin to say: "Some bits of that were incredible..."] but you've got to be really careful before "Girlfriend In A Coma" starts because it has to be so loud to hear that it'll take the roof off. Actually very few individual songs are what I'd call underrated. I think "Shakespeare's Sister" is perhaps very underrated as a single and certainly "Jeane" and "Wonderful Woman" have suffered from non inclusion on any album, and again "Jeane" is one of my favourite all-time Smiths tracks too. At the end of the day it's a matter of personal taste. I'd probably say some songs are overrated by fans. I've never liked "Unloveable"; others reckon it's quintessential Morrissey/Marr. Each to their own.
3AM: "Jeane" is quite exceptional. I'm particularly fond of the acoustic Sandie Shaw version, with Morrissey on backing vocal. They seem to have knocked that one out quite effortlessly, with a minimum of fuss.
SG: It was literally done in one or two takes during the "Heaven Knows..." session. Sandie's version is exceptional and it's a crime that it's pretty hard to track down on CD nowadays. I'd also recommend people try and get the 1984 Saturday Live BBC session, it's fairly common on bootleg, because the unplugged "I Don't Owe You Anything" with just Marr and Rourke is superb.
3AM: The instrumental demo "Heavy Track" from the Strangeways... sessions, with its early 70s rock feel, sounds a very exciting find. It's a shame Morrissey wasn't as responsive to that kind of thing as he later became on, for example, Southpaw Grammar, because it sounds like one of the few missed musical opportunities of The Smiths' career...
SG: "Heavy Track" would have been great with lyrics, but then so would "The Draize Train" -- I'm with Geoff Travis on that one. "Heavy Track" could have been the last great Smiths rocker, like "London" but longer, but then even the second instrumental at the last session, annotated in the book as "Untitled Instrumental (Streatham #2)" is wonderful, really moving and would have made at the very least a great B-side. These things only really feel like missed opportunities though when you think about "Golden Lights", which still irks.
3AM: Well, I suppose "Golden Lights" was an uncharacteristic topple into kitsch in the Smiths' discography, worthy of The Beatles and "Mr Moonlight". But I never had any problem with "Work Is 4-Letter Word". I've always thought it's a more than amusing enough piece of pop.
SG: It's strange because, as I say in the book, as a song I don't really have a problem with "Work Is A 4-Letter Word" either. I don't think it's great, but it's okay and nowhere near as shit as "Golden Lights" and as it happens I love the originals of both, especially Twinkle's.
3AM: Was there a tangible sense, though, that the other Smiths were somewhat aghast at covering a Cilla Black song?
SG: From what Mike and Andy told me, they definitely weren't happy covering it. Obviously Morrissey must have been incredibly persuasive, or maybe it was to "keep him happy", but at the end of the day nobody actually downed tools and said "no way". I just think, as Rourke says in the book, there was that feeling that it had all become "less precious". The writing was on the wall but nobody wanted to admit it perhaps? Again, one very important piece of information I bring up in the book which nobody had ever raised before, was that before they used the Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet walk-on from late 1984 onwards, previous to that and during their tour for The Smiths in spring 1984, they used to walk on stage to Cilla's "Love Of The Loved" (a Lennon/McCartney song but, hey, even I like it!). So I can understand why it must have seemed natural for Morrissey to pick that ill-fated cover.
3AM: With this enormous wealth of outtakes and demos and unreleased pieces, it seems there would be more than enough for a Smiths Anthology. Do you think it's going to happen someday?
SG: You're asking the wrong person I'm afraid. In the case of the studio outtakes, it would take for Morrissey and Marr to agree on a tracklisting, format etc etc, and let's be frank, if Morrissey's recent comments about Johnny are a sincere reflection on his feelings for his former co-writer, that isn't going to happen is it? With Mike's tapes, it's complicated because technically he owns them so there's a vague question mark as to whether or not he could release stuff independently... but it's a legal minefield and the last thing The Smiths need right now is ANOTHER legal minefield. All I can say is attempts have been made in the last 2 years to release unreleased material, officially, and they've been perplexingly stalled by those who would actually benefit financially to a large degree. A Smiths Anthology would sell absolutely thousands, that much is obvious. All I can hope is that, now this book has highlighted what's there, those who have hitherto restricted this material being released see sense. The next few years will see plenty of anniversary opportunities though -- surely the opportunity will be too good to miss? As to will it happen -- Charles Cross revealed about "You Know You're Right" in his Kurt Cobain book and a year later it was out in the CD racks. So there's hope yet we could all be moshing in HMV to "Heavy Track" come Christmas 2003.
3AM: If Morrissey added vocals, it could be The Smiths' "Free As A Bird"!
SG: God forbid!
3AM: People generally claim these days that the band had run its course. Does the evidence really support that?
SG: Personally I actually do feel that it probably had run its course in terms of the Morrissey/Marr composer credit if I have to be brutally honest. I think the only place to go was in a direction Morrissey refused to follow and I really feel that for their last year perhaps Johnny Marr was writing aware that there were limitations upon him. That's evident in the early "Draize Train" demos which have a slight New Order vibe about them. Marr was by no means a luddite, he wanted to experiment and I think he'd felt he'd exhausted a certain kind of guitar music. I think the only way they could have continued was to address that. "A Rush And A Push..." could have been just the start of the guitar-less Smiths. Remember that the next year, 1988, saw New Order's Technique -- how would The Smiths have responded to the technological innovation of their Mancunian rivals in the age of acid house? "Back To The Acid House"? We'll, perhaps thankfully, never know.
3AM: It's funny though, REM occupied a very similar position to The Smiths at the time and look what happened to them! Also, when you remember how Morrissey exploded, figuratively at least, in the US around 91/92, you get the feeling that had they steadied the ship and stayed the course a little longer they could have been mind-bogglingly massive.
SG: One can speculate to the point of distraction. Somewhere along the way they would have lost something I think, the momentum at the very least. How many more years could they have kept up the pace of non-album singles? Something would have had to give, I fear. But I always console myself with the fact that they never made a shit album or, like with Morrissey since, an album where there'd be maybe a handful of good songs and loads of filler. They weren't 100% perfect at times, but I think the mainstream would have made them even less so.
3AM: Eventually though The Smiths did gain mainstream acceptance, I think. But it was only by default, and somewhat vicariously, via the success of bands like Suede, Blur, Oasis, Pulp who followed the path that The Smiths had carved.
SG: I think that in the initial aftermath, by 1989 and Madchester, Morrissey was looking obsolete. The week "Fool's Gold" came out so did "Ouija Board, Ouija Board" -- so suddenly The Smiths represented the unfashionable, dead 80s whereas the Roses and Mondays seemed to embody the bright new hedonistic hopes of the new decade. So they definitely fell out of fashion but within just a few years, by 1992 when UK guitar music was in a dire state, Best got to number one in the album charts because in that 5-year span already a new generation had come up, maybe weaned on the Roses and embracing Suede, to whom this stuff was a revelation.
3AM: And Britpop itself was something of a Smiths tribute movement...
SG: Just before Britpop I remember Blur being hailed as "The Greatest British Band Since The Smiths" which -- though preposterous -- highlighted that The Smiths had yet again become this benchmark of greatness. So in a way it did help their cause, all those scrappy Indie compilations like Shine which would sandwich "How Soon Is Now?" between Cast and Sleeper must have accounted for something. I mean it became the theme to Charmed for crying out loud! When Aaron Spelling gives the Morrissey/Marr songbook the thumbs up, how mainstream can you get?
3AM: Yes, the other day I saw Dame Elton John claiming he thought The Smiths were a "great band" and I bet he never said that in 1984!
SG: I think someone ought to tell Reg that a few weeks ago Morrissey was introducing his new song "The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores" on stage with the decree "bring me the head of Elton John"! It is weird when you hear that J K Rowling loves them, and Helena Christensen, half of Eastenders. Smiths fans are everywhere!
3AM: Finally, what do you think the lasting legacy of The Smiths will be?
SG: Quite simply, the music. Long after they, and their first league of fans are dust, the songs will live on. They really were the most phenomenal band ever and though yes I'm bound to say that, I still have moments listening to their records or watching videos or reading something where I just think, excuse language, "Fuck me!" and I feel like a giddy teenager again. There's a life, aura and vibrancy about their work which will date no more than that of The Beatles (for me it surpasses The Beatles but then I'm biased). I wrote a book about The Smiths because I'm in love with the music, if people like my book then it's a testament to the records that inspired it and it's to those alone that people will always return. The best thing anyone has said to me about Songs That Saved Your Life is the best thing that I could hope anyone to say about it -- that it made them want to listen to their Smiths records again, pulling the old vinyl out of the rack or dusting down a CD they haven't played for years. I really can't ask for more than that.