The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #24: How Soon Is Now? by The Smiths (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #24: How Soon Is Now? by The Smiths.

“How Soon Is Now?” is a funny song in many respects. It is a song whose sound has come to represent the entire genre of Alternative music from the 1980s and 90s and yet, it never charted well and was only, initially released as a B-side single. “How Soon Is Now?” opens with as iconic an opening guitar riff as any song, from any era but, because it was created using so many experimental techniques, it became notoriously difficult to play live and, as such, there are few videos of The Smiths actually ever playing this song in concert. Many Smiths fan view “How Soon Is Now?” the same way many Nirvana fans view, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which is to say, none of them view the song as being the band’s best work nor do they think it acts as being truly representative of who the band really was. And yet, here we are at the very end of this countdown, with a song that is universally regarded as one of the most important songs ever created. How did that happen? Let’s find out why. Here is the story of “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths.

“How Soon Is Now?” was never released as a stand-alone single. It was placed as a B-side to a song called, “William, It Was Really Nothing” and didn’t appear on an album until The Smiths released a compilation album called, “A Hatful of Hollow” in 1984. One of the reasons stated for not releasing the song as single was that it was seven minutes in length, which was thought to be far too long for a conventional radio song. As also mentioned, the fact that the song was difficult to fully replicate live meant that it was not a song that should be promoted thus creating an expectation among fans that they would buy the single and then see it performed at the next Smiths show. So, “How Soon Is Now?” was left to find its own legs, so to speak. Which it did….in clubs and basements and bedrooms by those for whom this song became an anthem.

The lyrics to “How Soon Is Now?” were written by Morrissey, as they always were in this musical partnership that he and Johnny Marr shared. As songs go, the lyrics are rather sparse, compared to the musical structure, which carries the lion’s share of the weight in this song. But, that is not to dismiss the lyrics because, as Morrissey was often able to do, he tapped into the emotional angst of an entire generation of lost souls with two verses that went, as follows:

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.”

As was often the case with Morrissey, he drew inspiration for his lyrics from classic works of literature. In this case, he borrowed the line about being “The Son and Heir of nothing in particular” from the book, “Middlemarch” by George Eliot. But, most of all, Morrissey captured what it felt like to feel awkward and shy and unwanted and unseen. We lived in a world then, as now, where we were led by the media and by advertisers to believe that everyone was living lives of glamour and pleasure and that we could too, if only we were in better shape or more fashionable or whatever. But, the reality for a great many of us was that we felt that we were underwhelming and not deserving of happiness. We looked at our less-than-perfect bodies and our ordinary clothes and wondered how we were to ever stand out and be noticed. That is what Morrissey captured with his lyrics to “How Soon Is Now?”. He said to the world that he was shy and awkward, too. At the end of the song, he wrote that:

You go to the Club on your own.

You leave on your own.

You go home and you cry and you want to die“.

Whether or not the metric we use to evaluate our own self-worth should be predicated on how we are viewed in the eyes of others, through the socially-distorted lens of the media, is up for debate. But, what isn’t up for debate is how easily we all fall into the trap of self-defeatism. We give up before we even give opportunity the chance to find us on the dance floor. So, we sit at the bar, heads bowed and listen to the words and chords of a band who got us like no other ever did. “How Soon Is Now?” is our anthem. And, judging by how popular the song has become over time, the army of the disaffected must be legion.

So, without further delay, here is one of my favourite “sounding” songs of all-time. “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths is a song that spoke to the young man I used to be and continues to speak for millions the world over, almost forty years after it was first released as a throw-away B-side song that never felt as though it fit in. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths, can be found here.

The link to the video for a behind-the-scenes look by Johnny Marr, at how the song was made, can be found here. ***In this video, Marr talks about the type of music that inspired him as a young boy and, in particular, a man named Bo Diddly. Marr mentions that “Bo Diddly beat”….I wrote about that here, should you care to learn more about that.

The link to the video for a short documentary about “How Soon Is Now?” and why it holds such an important place in music history, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Smiths, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the best and most important music since forever. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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