Q. How did the project come about?
A. For starters, I was a fan and a contemporary; I’m the same age as Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce, and Andy Rourke. (Morrissey is approximately five years older.) But primarily, it was because the only other biography on The Smiths had been published back in 1992. Somewhere between the benefit of two additional decades of hindsight, the public’s ongoing fascination for the group, and my own passion for their music, it seemed like time their tale was told. Or that I told the tale. Or both.
Q. You were granted more detailed interviews with more key players, and were loaned or provided access to more letters, company memos, and contracts than any previous author or journalist writing about The Smiths. Describe your experience.
A. I had come of age, as a teenage fanzine editor, alongside many of the key players at the group’s record company, Rough Trade. I’ve long known many of the musicians, producers, and businesspeople associated with The Smiths, on both sides of the Atlantic. I’d conducted Morrissey’s first television interview back in January 1984, and my old magazine (Jamming!) had developed a strong relationship with the band. All of these past experiences and ongoing connections helped open doors for me when it came time to research the book; many of these doors, I should note, had otherwise remained long closed to others.
Q. How/when did you first get into The Smiths?
A. As editor of Jamming! back in 1983, I was sent, if not personally delivered, the first single, “Hand in Glove,” by Scott Piering at Rough Trade, who later become one of the Smiths’ many managers. Word spread incredibly quickly on the group, and by the time I got to see them in concert, that September, they were already all over evening radio and it was obvious that they were going to be huge. I will be honest and say that it was only with the second single, “This Charming Man,” released in November 1983, that I was truly converted. It was absolutely magical—the first genuinely classic guitar-based pop rock anthem to have come out of Britain’s independent music scene—and from there, I was hooked. I saw them in concert every year, got every record, read every interview.
Q. What were some of the most important aspects for you to get across in your biography?
A. As with all my biographies, I really wanted to place my subjects in the context of their times. Nothing happens in a vacuum, least of all great pop music, however much the subjects themselves might wish to encourage such a notion! The Smiths were a product of post–World War II Irish immigration to Manchester, of Roman Catholic schooling, of inner-city slum clearance, of a rapidly declining industrial city that—not coincidentally—became one of the global capitals of punk rock, and then even more musically vibrant with the emergence of a post-punk independent music scene. I make no apology for setting out my stall, so to speak, on all of these cultural developments. I think it makes the story of The Smiths themselves that much easier to understand.
As a Brit who has lived in the States since 1987 (the year The Smiths broke up), I wanted to ensure that I place the band in American context as well. Almost everything written in books about The Smiths tends to start and end in Europe. Yet The Smiths were enormously popular in America—their two albums released in 1987 each sold 500,000 copies without a video or a live date—and it’s important to understand how and why that popularity came about. The increased popularity of college radio, the emergence of Anglophiliac “progressive commercial” stations, and the existence of an “alternative” dance floor all played their part, as did Morrissey’s ability to cross international boundaries, despite what some presumed to be parochial lyrics.
Finally, I wanted to make sure that this was a story about a band called The Smiths, not about a singer called Morrissey or the partnership between Morrissey and Marr. And as such, I was determined not to be drawn into the solo years and the ongoing acrimony, legal action, and lingering bitterness that seems to exist between certain band members. That side of the saga has been endlessly covered. I was determined that my particular narrative should end when the band ended.
Q. What surprised you most about the interview process? What was the most interesting conversation you had?
A. I was warned, early on in the process, that the breakup of The Smiths had caused so much still-existent tension among its major players that I would need to tread very carefully and diplomatically if I wanted to get my interviews. This turned out to be sage advice. I was not totally surprised, but certainly intrigued, by how many of my prospective interviewees checked in with Johnny Marr before talking to me. (By comparison, only two or three people told me that they would only talk with Morrissey’s permission.) Which leads to the most interesting conversation—without doubt, it was the extensive multiple interviews I conducted with Marr. We spoke for 18 hours across two days in Manchester, including an almost unbroken 12-hour interview on the second day, which ended, around midnight, with us taking a nostalgic drive past Morrissey’s old house, where Johnny had first knocked on the door back in 1982. (Even then, we continued the interview process with phone conversations and multiple e-mails.) Johnny was incredibly giving not only of his time but of his memories, his emotions, and his regrets—and the book would not possibly have been the same without his input.
Q. What are the biggest misconceptions people have about The Smiths?
A. That they were miserable. You only have to look at pictures of The Smiths: they were having such a wonderful time throughout most of their five-year arc. Morrissey certainly suffered from periods of depression, and his claims to celibacy, his admission to suicidal thoughts, and his determination to write, as he said in a print interview, “for people who wouldn’t normally go to concerts, watch television, buy records or listen to the radio,” rendered him utterly unique within the world of pop music. But he was also one of the funniest characters in the history of that pop music, as evidenced by any number of his interview quotes—and also by his lyrics, never more so in the frequently misinterpreted “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”