For most of the 80’s I lived in New Jersey, newly married and still willing to drive 200 miles back to Baltimore just for a party with my sister and her friends. The Smiths formed in 1982 and broke up in 1987, but during that brief period, they created something extremely powerful. For me, the sound of Morrissey’s voice brings back long drives down rain-slicked highways, the flick of the wipers and the smear of headlights going in the opposite direction.
Tony Fletcher was born in Yorkshire, England and grew up in South London, a fan of the punk rock scene. He got into writing about the music as a teenager, publishing a fanzine called Jamming! from the time he was 13. He moved to New York in 1988 and was a fan, as well as a reviewer, of the Smiths. He’s written an amazing biography of the band, entitled “A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths” and he’s agreed to be interviewed for my blog.
Baird: Tony, I’ve read in your comments on Amazon that your history was interconnected with the band and their music, which primed you for writing this particular biography, but why now? Was there an inciting incident, a moment when you decided to go forward with the project?
Tony: There was no one inciting incident. I did come of age with the group and was very much part of their audience, although having started out young in music, I was already editing a magazine by 1983 and so, rather than follow the Smiths around the country (as I had done previously with the Jam), I followed them as a fan but also perhaps something of a peer.
I saw them in concert many times, interviewed them, put them on the cover of my magazine, and eagerly anticipated their frequent single releases. Their impact at the time was absolutely enormous, and yet it hasn’t withered over the years; if anything, the Smiths’ influence now is greater than ever. Realizing that there had only been one biography on the Smiths, and recognizing that it would be twenty years old in 2012, I decided to take on the subject for myself, and hopefully improve upon that previous biography.
Baird: This book is enormous – over 600 pages of text, 25 pages of notes, 10 pages of bibliography, 5 pages of additional interview sources. The research is astonishing. Did you know it was going to be this complex when you began?
Tony: Probably. Brevity is not my strong point, and my Keith Moon biography was actually about 25% longer! It’s difficult to strike the right balance: there are those who seek something shorter and more concise, but there are plenty of ardent Smiths fans out there who would read as much as you could give them.
In hindsight – or rather, with the benefit of a little more editing time – I think the book could have been satisfactorily 10% shorter or so, but that’s always the case, and personally, I am proud that it has this much detail. The Smiths were, after all, a very literary band.
As for the additional notes, etc., much of that is mandatory nowadays with large biographies; gone are the days when you didn’t have to cite all your sources or reading materials.
Baird: Can you talk about your writing process? Were you writing the entire time as well as interviewing, or did you have a distinct research phase and then a writing phase?
Tony: It’s the latter. There are indeed very distinct phases. There’s a first phase of gathering up the idea, writing the synopsis and hopefully gaining a book deal at the end of it. During that time, I read other books, listen to the music, watch the various video/film clips and, by writing a synopsis, gain a sense of the book that I would ultimately like to write.
The second phase is the interview phase, which can go on forever if you’re not careful; in my case, it certainly went on for 18 months or so. At some point, you have to enter the third phase, of writing the actual book, whether or not you feel you’ve contacted every possible source or conducted every possible interview. Although the reality is that the interview process continues to some extent while writing, I like to separate the two, because once I go into writing mode, I get quite anti-social, which is not an effective interviewing technique!
There’s a fourth phase as well, working with one’s editor(s) and then even a fifth, making last-minute changes on the typesetting, but I guess those could be included as part of the writing process.
Baird: How did you organize all the vast information that you were gathering over a period of time?
Tony: I would like to say that computers make it easier, that one can drop various files into various folders and, should they get ‘lost,’ ‘find’ them again via a search toolbar. At the same time, I rather miss the old-fashioned technique of being surrounded by piles of magazine cuttings and interview transcripts and being forced to retype the entire book every time one wants to make significant changes. (Thinks about this some more…) Actually, no I don’t miss the old method. It truly is wonderful being able to keep everything on computer, from music to interview audio files to transcripts, notes, downloaded images etc etc. But for me it’s always been important for writing to be tactile and one of my favorite parts of the process is printing out a chapter, sitting back on my bean chair with a Uni-ball, and wreaking havoc on my words!
Baird: The Smiths have continued to gather a following of young fans, many of whom were born after the band broke up. What do you think is the most compelling reason for their continued fame?
Tony: In part, it’s because they broke up prematurely, before they could even make a bad record. The near-perfection of their career, and its prolific nature (70 Morrissey-Marr songs in four years) is somewhat jaw-dropping and inevitably inspiring. And also because they broke up prematurely, we feel almost cheated by the fact that we didn’t get a longer, more fulfilling story, and so I think we’re instinctively fascinated by the details that we have and are constantly seeking out more information.
But most importantly, it’s the music. I find it very pertinent that by swimming against the musical tide of the 1980s – you’ll find almost no Juno-8 synths, massive booming snare drums, very few Linn Drums, and of course a bare minimum of embarrassing promo videos – the Smiths have ended up sounding timeless.
In 1984, the year of the Smiths’ first album, it was Frankie Goes To Hollywood whose first three singles went to #1 in the UK, but who talks about that band now other than as a textbook example of overblown (and overcostly) hype? Similarly, when the Smiths toured the States in 1985, it was Tears For Fears who had the multi-million album sales, but the Smiths get more airplay and credibility these days. And that’s not unconnected to the other important reason for their continued longevity: Morrissey’s lyrics. He spoke to the unloved, the unlovable, the hopeless, the hapless, but also to the angst-ridden and the angry, the romantics and the ‘ruffians,’ and such people exist within each and every generation. A handful of lyrical references may be confined by their times, but for the most part, the message is immortal.
Baird: Do you have an idea for your next project? If so, can you tell us what you’re working on?
Tony: My next book is a memoir, Boy About Town, published (for now) in the UK only, by William Heinemann in July 2013.
It’s a top 50 short-story countdown of my 1970s schooldays and sets out to be part pop music history, part coming of age story, part social commentary, and more besides. I’m absolutely thrilled with it.
Beyond that, and an update of my R.E.M. biography given that they broke up in 2011 and we wanted to bring that book Perfect Circle, as it’s being called. I haven’t settled yet on the next long-term non-fiction project. As you can imagine when you’re writing 700 pages or so, you have to be truly devoted to your subject to spend that much time with it!
Baird: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions and share your story with us.
Tony Fletcher will be reading and discussing his book “A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths” at Green Apple Books in San Francisco on Friday, January 18th at 7pm.