Of all The Smiths’ records, the group’s guitarist Johnny Marr rated “How Soon Is Now?”as possibly their “most enduring”. The song was conceived when Marr was on a hot streak in the summer of 1984. He had just written “William, It Was Really Nothing” and “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” for a forthcoming 12-inch single and began experimenting with a demo, “Swamp”.
Marr, who was just 20, wanted “an intro that was almost as potent as ‘Layla’. ” What he conjured remains instantly recognisable: a fleet of wildly oscillating guitars, whirring like helicopters taking off, pierced by a wailing guitar slide.
The distinctive tremolo throbthat opens the track was recorded meticulously in 10-second bursts by Marr and producer John Porter. Marr has cited Hamilton Bohannon’s “Disco Stomp”, Can’s 1976 single “I Want More” and the syncopated strumming of Bo Diddley’s “Mona”as precedents for the riff. As well as Krautrock, disco and Diddley, Marr took inspiration from hip-hop. His ghostly harmonics refrain is a variation on a vibraphone motif used in US rapper Lovebug Starski’s “You’ve Gotta Believe”from 1982.
The band thought they had created a momentous single, but their label boss at Rough Trade, Geoff Travis, initially deemed “How Soon Is Now?” too unrepresentative of The Smiths’ style. This was a nearly seven-minute song built not around jaunty uptempo rhythms or Marr’s quicksilver jangling arpeggios, but a simple progression centring on an F# major chord and a sparse drum machine-like groove.
The track was initially released as a B-side before peaking (disappointingly for Morrissey) at 24 in the UK charts. Yet this anthem for a miserable night out found acceptance and popularity in alternative nightclubs and was voted John Peel (BBC radio DJ) listeners’ favourite track of 1984.
Morrissey had a flair for opening lines. With “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar, I am the son and heir of nothing in particular”, he manages to be at once autobiographical and universal, direct and poetic, combining a delectable Oscar Wilde-esque turn of phrase (“criminally vulgar”) with a reference to George Eliot’s great Victorian novel Middlemarch (“To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular”). Rarely has crippling social anxiety sounded so charming.
The singer also mined feminist film critic Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus for the track’s title: “How immediately can we be gratified? How soon is ‘now’?”, asks Rosen. Morrissey delivers his lyrics with theatrical composure, his cry for companionship masked by comic melodrama as a lonesome club rendezvous escalates into existential dread.
Few artists have treated Morrissey’s lyrics or Marr’s playing with nuance. Paradise Lost ditched Marr’s poised, precise performance for sludgy heavy-rock posturing in 1997, while Love Spit Love’s Richard Butlerreduced Morrissey’s refrain of “I am human and I need to be loved” to growled callow angst the year before, though his band’s faithfulness to the original’s bewitching atmosphere later proved a fitting theme tune for the supernatural US TV series Charmed.
Wit and subtext are also lacking in pop duo t.A.T.u’s2002 cover, a shrill affair that Marr labelled “plastic” and Morrissey proclaimed “magnificent” before saying he didn’t know much about the group. Informed that they were “teenage Russian lesbians”, Morrissey replied, “Aren’t we all?”
“How Soon Is Now?” is ready-made to be sampled by hip-hop producers and DJs, yet few have done so imaginatively. In 1990 Soho paired Marr’s shimmering intro with a funky breakbeat for “Hippychick”, which became a UK top 10 dance hit, before Kid Rock interspersed the track incongruously with brash rap-rock on “Back From the Dead” in 1993.
One of the song’s more successful heirs is Janice Whaley, whose a cappella harmonies capture the original’s eeriness. The appropriately named Richard Cheese provides a perky lounge act pastiche, while Mexrrissey offer a joyous Latin twist with an infectious offbeat rhythm and a mariachi trumpet taking over Marr’s guitar glissando.
More than 30 years since its release, “How Soon Is Now?” is one of the few tracks still performed by both Marr and Morrissey: the song retains a timeless immediacy.
We’re keen to hear from our readers. Is The Smiths’ original version of ‘How Soon Is Now’ the best? And, how soon is now? Let us know in the comments below.
‘The Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.
Music credits: WM UK, Memory Music, Valley M, Fever, Silva Screen Records, Polydor Associated Labels, Janice Whaley
Picture credit: Pete Cronin/Redferns