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The Smiths FAQ

by Jeff Penczak Rating: Release Date:

If you approach the latest in Backbeat’s seemingly endless FAQ series (nearly 50 titles strong and counting) with the attitude that you’re going to punch holes in Luerssen’s subtitle ('All That’s Left to Know About the Most Important British Band of the 1980s'), then you’re missing the point of what this (and most FAQ entries) are all about.

With over a dozen books, as well as nearly 100 magazines and music and fan sites in his bibliography (although, surprisingly, omitting Backbeat’s own Morrissey FAQ from earlier this year), Luerssen has certainly done his homework, although it’s debatable whether you’ll find something left that hasn’t previously surfaced. Also up for a good argy bargy is his claim that we are about to embark on the tale of Britain’s “most important band of the ’80s.” I could easily recommend Spacemen 3, New Order, The Cure, and Jesus and Mary Chain for the same title, but let’s just accept his claims at face value.

Unlike many FAQs, Luerssen’s book is written closer to straight biography, with paragraph headings standing in for “Questions” and the subsequent paragraph(s) “Answers”, or elaborations on the topic. I’m also glad he chose a traditional chronological process, which allows readers to uncover their Smiths’ “FAQts” as they happened, rather than hunting around the book to locate which thematically-linked chapter or section a juicy morsel may be hiding under. This approach also allows the reader to follow the band’s progress and development in a linear fashion, understanding how earlier events may have influenced later song titles or lyrical references. (For example, Morrissey’s early Catholic upbringing provided fodder for ‘The Headmaster’s Ritual’, while a documentary on farm animals he saw as a teenager led to his vegetarianism and the controversial title track on Meat Is Murder.) The early history of each band member will also enable fans to seek out pre-Smiths projects that their favourite member used as a stepping stone to fame and fortune!

The book also seems aimed at the casual Smiths fan who wants to know a little more about the lads that produced some of their favourite music from the ’80s. Trainspotters and potential stalkers have probably already hungrily devoured most if not all of the numerous biographies Luerssen namechecks throughout his book, making this more of a well-researched and fairly detailed term paper or doctoral thesis than the end all and be all of Smiths biographies that truly include “all that’s left to know” about them. It tells its story in a straightforward manner, dropping in key moments in the bands’ onstage and offstage lives without uncovering any showstopping, press-baiting whoppers that I’m aware of.

Also, by not speaking with any of the band members, Luerssen completely relies on third part hearsay delivered by previous biographers. However, to his benefit, he has the advantage of perusing numerous recountings of band events and does not appear to favour one particular biography over another, including Morrissey’s own Autobiography, which is heavily pilfered for info. His objectiveness on that front is admirable and allows the reader a fairly unbiased report of most happenings. (Of course, everyone knows that musicians are not always, how shall we say, completely honest with their interrogators, so Luerssen is treading a thin line when he relies on any interview quotes for “factual” confirmation of the topic he is discussing.)

For this writer, The Smiths were best appreciated as a singles band who released two great albums (the eponymous debut and The Queen Is Dead) and two filler-laden snoozers, along with a horrible, contractual obligation live album whose fitting title (Rank) is all that needs to be said. Casual fans are encouraged to check out arguably their finest album, the U.S. singles and rarities roundup Louder Than Bombs to hear them at the peak of their powers. That and a Best of or two should get you everything you need. Unfortunately, Luerssen fails to compact all the releases into any sort of authoritative Discography, so you’ll have to once again scour the book to find everything, although most of the packages are discussed in a Reissues section (that confusingly doesn’t address “reissues” of the four studio LPs.) I also would’ve liked to see a Gigography. (Even though Luerssen does give a detailed overview of many concerts that occasionally make you feel like you’re in the front row, I shouldn’t have to go to Wikipedia to find all the details of what one would expect to be such an obvious FAQ).

I had a few other quibbles, but they’re more annoying than damning, the biggest one being the decision to inexplicably omit all the band members from the otherwise robust Index. This makes focusing in on your favourite member’s history nearly impossible – you’ll simply have to thumb through the entire book to find what you’re looking for. Luerssen also spends too much ink on the age old “Is he or isn’t he” queries about Moz’s sexual proclivities which, of course, have nothing to do with the music.

Nevertheless, pretty much everything you need to know is revealed: how they met, their early lineups and jobs, their favourite artists and early influences (and suggestions of artists THEY influenced), side projects and guest appearances, rudimentary song analyses and commentary, recording session details, where they are now, and such additional trivia tidbits as:

  • Who briefly appeared as a regular on a Granada TV show before The Smiths
  • Who was arrested for fencing stolen art
  • Who spun disco records at a Manchester night club
  • Where the idea for gracing all their sleeves with obscure movie stars came from
  • Their debut album was recorded at a studio owned by a member of this British Invasion band
  • Which song title comes from a movie about birth control
  • Which song caused their debut album to be banned in several UK shoppes
  • The future bassist in this band provided the Moz photo on the debut’s inner sleeve
  • The theory that their debut failed to reach #1 due to a delay pressing the cassette version!
  • This future superstar opened The Smiths’ debut US gig (1983 New Year’s Eve show in New York City)
  • On the other hand (there’s a glove…just kidding!), this legendary ’60s British star enjoyed a Top 30 hit with her version of three Smiths’ tunes – her first hit in over 15 years
  • How Morrissey got his nickname, and who came up with it
  • Who referred to ‘How Soon Is Now’ as “the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ of the Eighties”
  • What was their first official music video
  • What was the original title of The Queen Is Dead
  • What’s Moz’s favourite Smiths track
  • What was Moz’s first “musical” performance on a Smiths album
  • Conversely, what is Marr’s first vocal performance
  • What soundtrack provided the band with their first US release
  • Who were “William”, “Sheila”, and the DJ Moz wanted to hang (on ‘Panic’)
  • This late superstar rented her apartment to Marr and his wife, named an album after Marr’s nickname for her, and also sang backup on several Smiths tunes
  • What single was pulled because their label owner thought it was about him (it was!)
  • Where was the band’s final live performance
  • Which track was released in the US before the UK

Still, there are some interesting tidbits that you’ll have to purchase Backbeat’s companion Morrissey FAQ to uncover. For starters, D. McKinney’s song analysis is more in depth (and opinionated – she doesn’t hold back the venom on the clunkers, an honesty that’s disappointingly omitted from Luerssen’s tome, wherein almost every song is praised). Her first 100 pages cover The Smiths, and her FAQ includes details on all the cover stars on their singles, a fairly complete discography (although even McKinney frustratingly fails to accumulate all the various alternate releases and side projects that the members were involved in), a more robust Bibliography (with the sources for specific articles clearly detailed), and reproductions of some of Morrissey’s famous “Letters to the Editors” of New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds, et.al.

But if you’ve been smitten by The Smiths’ incredibly catchy, jingle-jangle output and don’t have the time, money, or inclination to sift through dozens of books and Wiki articles to get all the facts, Luerssen’s FAQ-filled semi-biography will answer almost everything that you really want to know.

Comments (9)

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What soundtrack provided the band with their first US release? Was it Ferris Bueller?

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What single was pulled because their label owner thought it was about him? Frankly Mr Shankly

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That was too easy, as technically, they really only had one label - unless you count Seymore Stein at Sire!

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Ah, so you read the book! But technically, that's not the answer because FB didn't have a soundtrack & it's a cover version in the film

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Although I believe the book does incorrectly identify FB

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But who declined to play piano on the song?

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It was on a soundtrack, but to a different film that was released 4 months earlier.

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No not read the book, just guessed because of the timing of the film and Louder Than Bombs compilation

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I've no idea on that one.

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