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Book Review: The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life by Simon Goddard

For a band that only released four forty-minute albums and eleven non-album singles, The Smiths have enjoyed a long and influential shelf life. True, they were only together five years (1982-1987) and much of their popularity rested on continual repackaging of their rather short catalogue of original material. But the songwriting of vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr has elevated The Smiths’ reputation to that of being among the finest of the 1980s Indy rock bands. Performance-wise, there’s no question bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce were more than a worthy rhythm section, even if Morrissey and Marr felt the songwriting team deserved 80% of the royalties, their bandmates only 10% each.

For writer Simon Goddard, the band was more than an icon of the 1980s. For him, The Smiths were simply the best band that ever was. Following their repackaging lead, he has just reissued his 2002 The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life, this time for Titan Books. Clearly, Goddard sees The Smiths as near mythological figures. After all, he opens the book describing the moment when Marr and Morrissey first met from several imaginative vantage points, including the angels Joseph and Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life. Makes sense. In the movie, the angels help out a common man played by an actor who often represented the simple fella next door. Likewise, the very name “The Smiths” signaled a band that was not interested in rock and roll pretensions. Morrissey, in particular, wanted to play straight-ahead retro rock without all the synthesizer dance-beat trappings of the era. He wanted a fusion of the New York Dolls and British ’60s icons like songstress Sandi Shaw.

After setting the stage, Goddard gets down to the analytical nitty-gritty. Song by song, track by track, he relies on interviews with the participants to describe how the music was composed, recorded, and then how the hits and misses were received by critics and fans. It’s hard not to agree that his history is as definitive as any book on The Smiths needs to be. But that means a necessary prerequisite for any reader is their own detailed familiarity with the band’s canon. This is no introduction to The Smiths that will entice the uninitiated. If you haven’t heard, multiple times, The Smiths (1984), Meat Is Murder (1985), The Queen Is Dead (1986), Strangeways, Here We Come(1987), or the many combinations thereof, reading Songs That Saved Your Life would be like attending a poetry reading where all the poets are reciting their verses in Swahili.

But if The Smiths did indeed craft the songs that saved your life, The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life will be the ideal literary companion to your music library. I admit, having never seen the original 2002 version of this title, I have no idea how much new material or revision has occurred. Judging from Goddard’s introduction and the Foreword by Mike Joyce, this re-packaging is designed for those who missed the book the first time around. So if you’re in that number, this analytical biography is for you.

About Wesley Britton