EML’s Favorite Songs – THE SMITHS: “How Soon is Now?”

The other day I heard “How Soon Is Now?” by the Smiths on the radio, and was reminded of what a brilliant song it is and how much I love it. The highlight of the song is Johnny Marr’s mesmerizing and wailing tremolo-heavy guitar riff. The song was difficult to record and was even more difficult for the band to perform live. In 1990, Marr explained the recording process to Guitar Player Magazine: “I wanted it to be really, really tense and swampy, all at the same time. Layering the slide part was what gave it the real tension. The tremolo effect came from laying down a regular rhythm part with a capo at the 2nd fret on a Les Paul, then sending that out in to the live room to four Fender Twins. John (the band’s producer) was controlling the tremolo on two of them and I was controlling the other two, and whenever they went out of sync we just had to stop the track and start all over again. It took an eternity.”

Co-written by band vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, the song was initially released in August 1984 as a B-side of the single “William, It Was Really Nothing”. The band and their producer John Porter felt that with “How Soon Is Now?”, they had a potential hit on their hands, and wanted it released as a single. However, their record label Rough Trade felt it was too different from the Smiths’ signature sound and released it as a B-side instead. Porter later angrily recalled “They totally threw it away, wasted it.” Fortunately, several British radio stations began playing the song, and it soon became the most-requested track. The song was subsequently included on the band’s compilation album Hatful of Hollow, which was released in November 1984.

The song was released in the U.S. via Sire Records that same month, with “Girl Afraid” as the B-side. It was expected to sell well and, for the first time, a video was made to promote one of the Smiths’ songs. It was also re-released as a lead single in the UK in January 1985, with “Well I Wonder” as the B-side. Unfortunately, the single failed to chart in the U.S., and peaked at only #24 in the UK.

In a 1987 interview with Creem magazine, Morrissey expressed his disappointment: “It’s hard to believe that ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was not a hit. I thought that was the one.” He also stated that he hated the video Sire Records produced for the song: “It had absolutely nothing to do with the Smiths. Quite naturally we were swamped with letters from very distressed American friends saying, ‘Why on earth did you make this foul video?’ [After] we saw the video we said to Sire, ‘You can’t possibly release this… this degrading video.’ And they said, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t really be on our label.’ It was quite disastrous.

Well, as with a lot of great songs that were not big hits at the time of their release, the Smiths have been vindicated with “How Soon Is Now?”, as it has endured as their most popular and beloved song. In 2014, NME ranked the song #4 on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Pitchfork named it the 10th best song of the 1980s, and in 2010, Rolling Stone ranked it #477 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.

The song lyrics were inspired by Morrissey’s own crippling shyness and how it made finding a romantic partner difficult. His vulnerable, haunting vocals beautifully convey his loneliness and despair.

I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular

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

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

When you say it’s gonna happen “now”
When exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone

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

And here’s the offending video:

10 thoughts on “EML’s Favorite Songs – THE SMITHS: “How Soon is Now?”

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