A Light That Never Goes Out Discussed With Tony Fletcher

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A Light That Never Goes Out, is a recent biography of one of Manchester’s finest bands, The Smiths, formed in 1982 and disbanded in 1987.  Their first single, Hand in Glove, was released in May 1983 on Rough Trade.  With the jangling guitar intro of Johnny Marr coupled with Morrissey’s unique melancholia and melodic vocals,  backed by Mike Joyce’s 50’s rock ‘n’ roll meets 70’s funk drumming and the beating and pulsating bass lines of Andy Rourke,

The Smiths opened their account in British Pop history (and the world) with confidence , swagger, attitude and elegance. Furthermore those merits did not fade, in fact they improved in their brief yet powerful career.

A band of outsiders from the suburbs of Manchester, Johnny Marr the cool kid who played the mean guitar, with the strut of a young Keith Richards, Stephen Patrick Morrissey, slightly older than Marr and the rest of the band, who had been on the fringe of the original Manchester Punk Scene in 1976. A beautiful outsider, with a gift for words, written and spoken, with very few friends, who found solace in sixties girl groups, Oscar Wilde and Carry on Films, with a quiff that was seldom out of place.  In addition, a rhythm section with the good looking and people friendly Mike Joyce and mean, moody and magnificent Andy Rourke. The perfect chemistry of a British pop/rock band stemming from working class roots, and in this case, Irish Catholic immigrants.

They had the look, the music and spoke their minds.  Morrissey championed, and still does, vegetarianism and in 1986 The Smiths released The Queen is Dead album, reaching number two in the charts.  An album that surely questioned the mainstream media consensus of opinion that everyone in the eighties loved the Royal Family. In addition their live shows were powerful, sweating and mesmerizing affairs.  Furthermore, since their formation thirty years ago they have left a legacy and continue to be influential.

The Smiths Tony Fletcher ZANI 3.jpgThat’s why Tony Fletcher’s biography is a fitting study of The Smiths.  He certainly leaves no stone unturned, and his attention to detail is second to none. Fletcher is not a stranger to music journalism, forging a career in writing in 1976 from his bedroom and with the help of the school photocopier, he produced the legendry music magazine Jamming, (which is still going now as an online magazine), and  led to interviewing  iconic people like Weller, Strummer and many more. 

Fletcher had a brief career in TV by presenting The Tube, and even ran the JAMMING! Record label with Paul Weller in the early eighties. More recently he has established himself as a serious music biographical writer ; R.E.M. (R.E.M.arks R.E.M.ade - The Story of R.E.M.), The Who’s Drummer  Keith Moon (Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon) . Not only has he written about music, he was the guitarist of Apocalypse, who supported The Jam on some of the dates of their final tour. Yet chart success did elude them.

A Light That Never Goes Out (an album track from The Queen is Dead), a song about potential suicide and not wishing to go home. Yes, the subject matter may be depressing, but the music of the song is beautiful and Morrissey’s vocal deliverance is poignant).  The book starts with the history of Irish immigration in Manchester which, to begin with, seems too long and drawn out, however once the key members are introduced and The Smiths slowly take shape , you are grateful that Fletcher has laid down the political, social, educational  and religious background of the band.

It is more than just a story of four lads from Manchester in a band, it gives the reader an understanding of the mechanics of a record label and the music industry as a whole. The book details the recording processes of the band and their politics.  It is moving, inspiring, sad and funny, and it goes far beyond what most people see in a band, the press shot, album and quick PR interview on Breakfast TV.   For a long biography, it is a page turner. Therefore ZANI was delighted when Tony Fletcher agreed to meet us and discuss his recent work of art……. 

ZANI – OK straight to the point, why The Smiths?

Tony Fletcher - Basically it had to be done. Yes there are books on The Smiths, my bookshelf at home has a lot of books on the band, but there is only one other biography on The Smiths, by Johnny Rogan: The Severance Alliance. That is twenty years old, I know Johnny Rogan, get on well with him, I think he has done a very good job, given that he wrote the book very shortly after they had split up.

Twenty years later from his book, you get a whole new perspective on the band, with new people to talk to, there is a lot of new information out there.  I think a band like The Smiths deserve more than one biography.  I have written this book for the fans in the UK and the States. They were massive in the US before they broke up, sold half a million albums and they would have been the next Depeche Mode, even though Morrissey hates Depeche Mode they would have been on that scale.  

There are a lot of American Smiths fans, who have never had a book on the band written for them. The book is written for Smiths fans around the world, and it treats America as part of the story.  I don’t think previous books on the band have.

ZANI – Agreed.  Do you think the band should have given Johnny Marr three months off, as he requested, which was refused, and as quickly as they had started, The Smiths were no more? or had the band run its course ?

Tony Fletcher  - It’s a classic hypothesis, I will answer it but ultimately it is somewhat irrelevant - that is what happened, Johnny Marr left. There are a lot of people close to The Smiths, who say if the band had just let Johnny take the break, they just needed some time away from each other, and it would have worked out.  Johnny’s response to that, when I put it to him was “the most we had left in us was one more album,  if they had given me the break. They didn’t, it pissed me off and I left.” I am speeding up a lot of what he said.

I know I compared them to Depeche Mode, I also add R.E.M..  I actually sat and looked at The Smiths’ chart positions, compared to R.E.M., and The Smiths were barely an album behind R.E.M..  R.E.M. made half a million album sales in 1986, The Smiths did half a million album sales in 1987. I do think there are comparisons  between Johnny Marr and Peter Buck, (guitar) and Morrissey and Michael Stripe, (vocals)  a four piece band, and what they represented; I think the Smiths could have had that. R.E.M. were smart enough to give each other personal space.  R.E.M. had a crisis on their third album when they almost broke up but also they had a manager saying don’t give up now,  The Smiths didn’t have that.

/The Smiths Tony Fletcher ZANI 44.jpg

ZANI – They did have a problem with a manager, after their original manager Joe Moss left, as he felt he had taken them as far as he could. I liked The Smiths when they were briefly a five piece with Craig Gannon on rhythm guitar and Marr on lead, I got the impression you didn’t seem to like Gannon.

Tony Fletcher - I didn’t mean to give that impression of Craig.  When Craig joined, Johnny was turning into a Rock Star. You need to recognise that, it was the only part of the book where I felt I was taking someone I greatly admire, that being Johnny Marr, to task. He can deny that as much as he wants, the band was turning into something of a rock group. If you actually listen to the American tapes, as I did,  you hear these wailing guitar lines, Craig is playing rhythm, Johnny is going off and you add up all of these elements going together, and you say, Johnny I think for a little while you lost it. I didn’t actually mean to give that impression about Craig, I really like him, he is a sweet person. I think the problem was that Johnny went off, Craig came in and did what he was asked to do, be rhythm guitar and have a relationship with Johnny on stage and in the studio, so Johnny could feed off another guitarist. I think the problem was that for six months Johnny’s head was somewhere else. He needed to solve that, stop being a rock guitarist and go back to a four piece.

ZANI – The best gig I ever went to was The Smiths Queen is Dead Tour Brixton 1986, with Craig.   I liked in your book where you say how the fan base was changing, and a lot of casuals, soul boys, not just from up north, were getting into the band. Their fan base was expanding and changing.

Tony Fletcher - I saw it first hand with The Jam, a changing fan base.  I have this anecdote about a nice kid I went to primary school with, good looking, trendy but not into The Jam.   It was The Jam’s The Gift tour, and I saw this old school friend at one of the gigs.  He actually turned round to me and said ‘what are you doing here?’ and you know at that time I was involved with The Jam, running the Jamming! label and the question should have been asked the other way round.  That in fact was a watershed moment for me that my group was getting hi-jacked, as he was a mainstream fan.

ZANI – From researching the book, did you find yourself going off the band, as you were learning more about them than ever before?

The Smiths Tony Fletcher ZANI 2.jpgTony Fletcher - I was wary of that, and the issues I had with The Smiths, like the court case which was already on my mind, and Morrissey becoming increasingly difficult.   I  also separated Morrissey of The Smiths from Morrissey as of now. My book ends where The Smiths end, and if Morrissey has been extraordinarily difficult with people in the last ten years that is not relevant to my book.  I had a reverse scenario in that I think Johnny was more difficult in The Smiths than he is now.

It’s not the same as when I wrote the Keith Moon book.  I found out half way through that he physically abused his wife.  It became very hard writing about Keith Moon knowing that he broke his wife’s nose three times.

The worst secret about The Smiths, was that Andy Rourke did heroin and I knew that before I wrote the book. As do most people.

ZANI – Remember that well, I was quite shocked.  In the book, I didn’t know the Smiths became a rock band when they travelled the US, i.e. like taking loads of drugs and Morrissey kept himself to himself, but it didn’t shock me. Another faction I like about the book, was the historical build to the origin of The Smiths, like the Irish immigration and their cultural stamp on Manchester, the build up was good. That must have been hard to research?

Tony Fletcher - I probably spent as long on the first chapter as I did with any other chapter in the book, and I don’t apologise for doing it.  Johnny Rogan’s book starts off in Ireland, with the Morrissey family; it makes sense as Johnny Rogan lives in Ireland.  

I wanted to explain about Manchester.  There was a part of me when I was writing that chapter thinking, why am I doing this because all of The Smiths parents came to Manchester after the 2nd World War, so in a way I didn’t have to do it but I felt I needed to because The Smiths came from Manchester. They were the product of Manchester and you need to know the story of Manchester and the Irish there, the story of the industrial revolution. And I hope people who are Smiths Fans, Oasis fans, New Order fans, I hope they learn something of Manchester and realise why this city is an important city.

ZANI – Certainly is.

Tony Fletcher - Manchester is up there with London, New York, Chicago and Detroit in producing music that influences the world. 

ZANI – I do think there is a lot of rivalry within the bands of Manchester.

Tony Fletcher  - I don’t know, The Smiths supported James.  One thing I didn’t get to the bottom of, was why Morrissey wasn’t impressed by Joy Division.  I know Morrissey would have liked to have had Tony Wilson’s approval, but he doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about Joy Division, which surprised me because you would think that Morrissey in 1979 might have thought that Joy Division is representing my Manchester.  

The Smiths Tony Fletcher Joy Division ZANI 1.jpg

ZANI – Well when I read Pete Hook’s autobiography on Joy Division and Ian Curtis, there seemed to be a lot of rivalry between them and other Manchester bands such as The Buzzcocks, Slaughter and The Dogs. As we know Joy Division was signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory.   Talking about record labels, do you think that The Smiths should have left Rough Trade sooner ?

Tony Fletcher - No I think the opposite, and I think their behaviour towards Rough Trade was quite deplorable.  I hope I have made that clear in the book. The Smiths would not have succeeded the way they did on any other record label. From my own experiences which I brought into the book, my band Apocalypse demoed to the same guy at EMI, who The Smiths had  demoed  to in the same year, 1982.   He signed us, not necessarily over The Smiths, but we were signed to EMI and it was a disaster.   It would have been a disaster for The Smiths too because they wouldn’t have had the clout to say don’t treat us this way, like they did with Rough Trade.

Rough Trade bent over backwards to make The Smiths successful.  My biggest criticism of The Smiths is that once they had made it Morrissey seemed very ungrateful of what Rough Trade had done.  But there were things that Rough Trade couldn’t do in terms of getting them higher chart success.

ZANI – You think Geoff Travis was a good guy, and what could they do in terms of getting them higher chart success ?

Tony Fletcher  -  He was absolutely a good guy, I think the valid argument is: Rough Trade got them number one albums. But you really needed deep pockets back then, to keep getting top ten singles,  because singles involved a lot of radio one DJs, a lot of free merchandise. It involved a lot of things Rough Trade couldn’t afford.  But  I  do think Morrissey has a point, if The Smiths had been on a bigger label, after they had already become big, i.e. had they jumped ship to EMI three albums in, they may have had more top ten hit singles.  But I don’t think their albums would have been bigger, I really don’t, I think they would have been more like The Jam, top five hits. The Jam didn’t sell a ton of albums like The Beautiful South did, for instance.

ZANI – Going back to managers, The Smiths always had a problem, as mentioned earlier. Do you think they may have had a less rocky ride and stayed around a little longer if Joe Moss had stuck with them?

The Smiths Tony Fletcher Johnny Marr ZANI 1.jpgTony Fletcher -  Joe Moss was a father figure, who set The Smiths up perfectly.  It is very interesting because he made it very clear that he wasn’t going to manage The Smiths forever , just set them up,  but maybe if he had felt that Morrissey had trusted him he would have stuck at it.  I think Joe Moss was actually shrewd enough to see that if he didn’t get out early it was only going to end in tears later. He wanted to leave the band in good hands, but The Smiths were never in good hands because that was the problem, they could never accept a manager.

But it has gone full circle because he is now Johnny Marr’s manager.

ZANI – That’s nice. Did you find people that forthcoming, talking about The Smiths or was there a wall of silence?

Tony Fletcher  - There weren’t too many problems, some people wanted to know if it had Morrissey and Marr’s approval.   I think having Johnny’s support for the book helped enormously . Once people realised there was nobody telling them not to speak to me, they were very forthcoming.

ZANI – The Smiths story is a moving and powerful one, humour, warmth, tragedy, which as a fan I loved it.  How do you view the book ?

Tony Fletcher  - Well, as you say a moving story. It’s also a story of a really intense love affair, where it’s not going to last forever where it is too intense and you know you are not going to grow old together. I think that is what happened with The Smiths.  If you look at the seventy songs Marr and Morrissey wrote together in four years that is phenomenal.  I do think there was the potential, if they had been smart enough, to be as big as R.E.M. and do another ten albums. But they left an almost flawless track record,

What it means in terms of the book is that basically it is an epic story of an epic love affair I guess.

ZANI – Can’t argue with that, and your next project ?

Tony Fletcher - I am really excited about this.  I am hoping we can come back and talk about it in eight months time, it’s a memoir called Boy About Town (Jam song).  It’s the story of my teenage years, doing a fanzine, growing up in South London, football, music, being in the studio with The Jam, and going to Rough Trade, it’s also a coming of age story. It is fifty short stories all linked together and I honestly think it is the best thing I have written. I am thrilled that it is coming out.  Even though it is personal there are huge chunks of it that lots of people can relate to.  

ZANI – Look forward to it, and what Smiths song do you think goes hand in hand with your book?

Tony Fletcher - The one I keep going back to is The Headmaster Ritual.

ZANI- Mine would be, Well I Wonder

Tony Fletcher – Good choice.

© Words – Matteo Sedazzari / ZANI Media

Photo of Tony Fletcher used by kind permission of Posie Strenz

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths Available on Amazon


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