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A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths

4.5 2
by Tony Fletcher

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The definitive book about The Smiths, one of the most beloved, respected, and storied indie rock bands in music history.

They were, their fans believe, the best band in the world. Hailing from Manchester, England, The Smiths—Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce—were critical and popular favorites throughout their mid-1980s


The definitive book about The Smiths, one of the most beloved, respected, and storied indie rock bands in music history.

They were, their fans believe, the best band in the world. Hailing from Manchester, England, The Smiths—Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce—were critical and popular favorites throughout their mid-1980s heyday and beyond. To this day, due to their unforgettable songs and lyrics, they are considered one of the greatest British rock groups of all time—up there with the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, and the Clash. 

Tony Fletcher paints a vivid portrait of the fascinating personalities within the group: Morrissey, the witty, literate lead singer whose loner personality and complex lyrics made him an icon for teenagers who felt forlorn and forgotten; his songwriting partner Marr, the gregarious guitarist who became a rock god for a generation of indie kids; and the talented, good-looking rhythm section duo of bassist Rourke and drummer Joyce. Despite the band's tragic breakup at the height of their success, A Light That Never Goes Out is a celebration: the saga of four working-class kids from a northern English city who come together despite contrasting personalities, find a musical bond, inspire a fanatical following, and leave a legacy that changed the music world—and the lives of their fans.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Smiths, one of the most influential rock groups in the U.K. since the Beatles—perhaps the most influential U.K. band of the 1980s—finally get the complete and vivid biography they deserve. Fletcher, a music journalist who has written well-received bios of rock icons R.E.M., Keith Moon of the Who, and most recently the Clash (The Complete Guide to Their Music) perfectly captures the wit and complexity of the band and its music. Fletcher details the formation of the band in Manchester in 1982 by guitarist Johnny Marr, whose goal was to combine music “led by an upbeat, chiming guitar riff” influenced by punk groups the Clash and the Jam with lyrics that were “’searingly poetic and jubilant” in the spirit of Leonard Cohen. He found his lyricist and lead singer in the now-legendary front-man Morrissey, who provided bleak and funny words to such songs as “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” Fletcher is excellent is describing how the Smiths’ music not only served as a reaction to the synth-based pop music of the early 1980s but also ushered in a new era of “indie rock” outside the corporate music world. He provides complete details of the band members’ intense personal, musical, and business conflicts. Best of all for the group’s ongoing admirers and fans, Fletcher displays an unflagging enthusiasm in describing every aspect of how the Smiths produced “a torrent of brilliant work in a blazing stream of exhaustive glory.” (Dec.)
Kirkus Reviews
A full account of the singularly influential English band, drawing on extensive research and interviews with some (but not all) of the major players. Ever since they broke up 25 years ago, The Smiths have been subjected to an endless stream of biographies and cultural studies. So what does Fletcher (The Clash: The Music that Matters, 2012, etc.) have to add? Up-close scrutiny and a broad sense of perspective. He takes in the local history, delving into the 19th-century politics that formed the gloomy industrial landscape of Manchester, U.K., and shaped the lives of two of its sons: an asexual, vegan, Oscar Wilde wannabe named Morrissey and a T. Rex-worshipping prodigy named Johnny Marr. Fancying themselves the next Leiber and Stoller, they hired bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce and set out on an extraordinary five-year run. Lush, decadent, mopey ballads--about bullying, pedophilia, murder and all-around terminal alienation--appeared at such a frantic rate that not even four studio albums could contain them; some of their best works were singles that arrived in bursts of inspiration. Fletcher, working with the full cooperation of Marr and Rourke, but not Morrissey and Joyce, delivers a credible view of life from inside this whirlwind; he captures the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry of the two leads and closely follows the band's brief journey from local indie curio to New Wave phenomenon. It isn't always smooth sailing; the endless backstage business details are a drag to read, and at times (although not always), Fletcher is too charmed by Morrissey to notice just how unpleasant he can be (especially when he's fantasizing about murdering Margaret Thatcher or romanticizing suicide). An up-to-date and revealing rock biography that sets a standard of completion that will likely prove hard to beat.
From the Publisher
“After reading A Light That Never Goes Out, I'm on the path to understanding Morrissey... In the end, I came away with a richer appreciation of the ethics, psychology, and artistry of [The Smiths]. Plus a burning desire to listen to the music.”
—The Austin Chronicle
“The terrific British music writer Tony Fletcher has just published the definitive biography of [The Smiths].”

“If there's a ghost fifth member of the Smiths, it might be Tony Fletcher…Fletcher reveals detail after detail.”
—The Village Voice
“Meticulously chronicles the rise of one of the '80s' best bands. This charming man Fletcher…did a fine job of recounting England's The Smiths.”
"There's no shortage of books on the Smiths, but this 600-page tome is the one fans want, and rightly so." 
“Mr. Fletcher accomplishes the key task of a music biographer, which is a richer enjoyment of the music.”
—The Wall Street Journal  

“Fletcher, who has written biographies of drummer Keith Moon and R.E.M., combines original interviews with quotes and anecdotes from the vast paper trail of the British music press to piece together this enigmatic band’s rise and fall in obsessive detail.”
—The Boston Globe 

“Consistently perceptive… Fletcher demonstrates a great facility for placing the band's work in perspective.”
–The San Francisco Chronicle

“[Fletcher] was blessed with full access to the band’s records, its business associates and, critically, its actual members. Guitarist Johnny Marr and bassist Andy Rourke granted the author extensive interviews….Fletcher’s book is exhaustive in its attention to detail.”
–The Washington Post

“Fletcher perfectly captures the wit and complexity of the band and its music…Best of all for the group’s ongoing admirers and fans, [he] displays an unflagging enthusiasm in describing every aspect of how the Smiths produced a ‘torrent of brilliant work in a blazing stream of exhaustive glory.”
Publishers Weekly

“A full account of the singularly influential English band, drawing on extensive research and interviews...An up-to-date and revealing rock biography that sets a standard of completion that will likely prove hard to beat.”

"Finally, the full story of the Smiths: four kids, a city, a sound, a dream, a scandal, a legend. Tony Fletcher reveals the emotionally intense, wildly comic, totally fascinating details of how this band changed the world. It belongs in any fan’s scholarly room."
ROB SHEFFIELD, bestselling author of Love Is a Mix Tape

"A Light That Never Goes Out is an exhilarating read! Tony Fletcher not only examines the Smiths’ impact on the music and culture in their UK homeland, but he explores their lasting effect on America and their undeniable influence on American indie rock. I highly recommend it."
MATT PINFIELD, host of MTV2’S 120 Minutes AND The Hivecast on iTunes

"An intriguing portrait of an intriguing band that is as rich in intellectual history as it is in rock trivia. Keith Richards, eat your heart out."
GARY MARCUS, bestselling author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning

"Written with love and filled with gemlike moments—like Johnny Marr singing along with a 45 of the Marvelettes ‘You’re the One’ during his first meeting with Morrissey—Fletcher chronicles one of the twentieth century’s most gorgeous and subversive bands. Fans will swoon; the inexplicable rest of you will learn what the fuss was about."
WILL HERMES, author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

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Read an Excerpt



I don’t really feel any kinship with the place. It’s just somewhere that I just so happen to live. It doesn’t mean a great deal to me. And I’m sure I’ll leave very soon—when I’m rich.

—Morrissey, The David Jensen Show, July 1983

We felt like every little town was our hometown. And I think that the people in Inverness and Brighton and St. Austell and Norwich all felt that way when they came out to see us.

—Johnny Marr, May 2011

The story of the Smiths is intrinsically entwined with that of Manchester. And yet the group proved curiously conflicted in their loyalties to the city that birthed them—and which has subsequently claimed them as one of its most successful exports and biggest tourist attractions. It’s not just that the Smiths concluded their first album with the disparaging refrain, “Manchester, so much to answer for,” or opened their second one with the equally negative line, “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools.” It’s not only that they packed their bags and moved to the British capital at more or less the first sign of success (though the fact that they returned to Manchester a year later suggests that they may have gained a new appreciation for their hometown in their absence). It’s also that the Smiths played in Manchester less often in the entire four years of their performing career than they played in London during their first twelve months alone.

Such ambivalence can partly be excused and justified as ambition, a determination to escape the relative confines of their semidetached, semiurban surroundings and spread their musical wings across a national, and then an international, stage. From the beginning, the Smiths sensed greatness, and to realize that greatness meant a refusal to accept confinement to the margins. They were never going to content themselves with being anything as trifling as a mere Manchester band.

And yet, more deeply conflicted feelings about their origins are readily understandable. As children, Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr were ejected from their inner-city childhood homes, in the overlapping neighborhoods of Hulme and Moss Side, and Ardwick, respectively, as part of a sweeping program of “slum clearance” that provided them with better housing, but at the cost of community upheaval. All four members of the band were subject to the city’s arcane and draconian (in their case, Catholic) school system, which failed miserably to provide them with a quality education, let alone a means to pursue their artistic talents. And they came together at a time when Manchester was declining more precipitously than any other British city under the weight of poverty, unemployment, and attendant social ills—and yet, during the early days of the Smiths’ unanimous acclaim from the London music media, it often seemed as if they had to fight for every last drop of local civic respect. What, in a sense, was there to be loyal toward?

This, in a more general sense, has long been Manchester’s dilemma. A city that launched the Industrial Revolution, that contributed so enormously to Britain’s wealth, that to a large extent financed and furnished the Victorian empire, did so on the backs of its underpaid, malnourished, mistreated workers. Its inhabitants therefore mix an instinctive pride for their city’s copious achievements (including its ongoing sporting and cultural successes) with a necessary prejudice against their own bosses and municipal leaders who have often sold them out without a second thought. The result is a somewhat cheerful cynicism; Mancunians remain among Britain’s most outgoing and welcoming people despite their history of hardships. The occasional good-natured ribbing aside, there is rarely any genuine antagonism exhibited toward residents of the “soft south.”

As for the Smiths, however, perhaps the main reason they never waved a Manchester flag was because, for three of them at least, their recent family histories lay not in Lancashire but in Ireland. “With so much Irishness around us, my sister and I growing up, never really felt we were Mancunians,” said Morrissey in 1999, five years before he released a solo song stating his composition as one of “Irish Blood, English Heart.” Johnny Marr put it another way: “I don’t think of myself as being English and I don’t think of myself as being Irish. I think of myself as being Mancunian Irish.” If one or both of these viewpoints was true too of the other Smiths, so it was of so many Mancunians down the course of history, because a significant part of Manchester’s wealth—or at least the wealth of its industrialists, who were not readily predisposed to share it—was built upon Irish blood.

Before its transformation in the eighteenth century, Manchester served as but a respectable agricultural center, with an additional reputation for textile production thanks to an influx of Flemish weavers exiled there in the 1300s; it was Liverpool, thirty miles west along the River Mersey, that stood radiant as the “Gateway to the British Empire.” Liverpool’s fortunes were built in part on the export of Manchester textiles, and on guns made in Birmingham, but they were especially enhanced by the exchange of such goods on the west coast of Africa for human cargo, which was then transported for sale into slavery in the West Indies or along the American Atlantic coast before returning from the New World laden with raw goods. Come the year 1800, and Liverpool was considered the second wealthiest city in all of Europe.

By then, however, the harnessing of steam power, and the successive inventions, mostly in the British Midlands and northwest, of a series of jennies, looms, frames, and mules that exponentially increased the production capabilities in the cotton industry, were already serving to shift that balance of regional power. Manchester benefited from these inventions in part due to its existent foothold in textiles, but also because it had the attributes required by the new large-scale industries—natural high humidity, heavy rainfall, a copious supply of soft water, and, thanks to the pioneering Bridgewater Canal that connected a private regional coal mine to the owner’s warehouse in Manchester, easy access to coal and a burgeoning system of further arterial canals. The world’s first water-powered mill was built in Royton, in the east of modern Manchester, in 1764; the city’s first steam-driven mill opened in Shudehill, in the heart of modern Manchester, in 1782. From there, the mills expanded by the dozen, many of them built on the banks of the Rochdale Canal in Ancoats, the border of modern Manchester’s fashionable Northern Quarter. Mills were also constructed on the northern edges of Chorlton-on-Medlock, through which ran the Oxford Road south from the city, and on which was later built the University of Manchester, the city’s most populous seat of higher learning and one that, studies have frequently shown, now attracts students as much for Manchester’s musical reputation as any educational one.

Britain abolished slavery in 1807, and Liverpool’s position at the core of its global trade suffered accordingly; the “Middle Passage” having been eliminated, ships arrived at the Mersey port increasingly laden with raw cotton from India or the Americas, and departed with finished cotton textiles from Manchester for sale around the globe. In 1830, when the world’s first passenger railway line opened, connecting the two great northwestern English cities, there was little doubt which of them held the key to Britain’s future prosperity: “Cottonopolis,” as Manchester had come to be known, the engine room of the Industrial Revolution.

By this point in time, fully one-fifth of Manchester’s population was Irish.1 They had come in part because of the poverty in their homeland, where, especially since the Acts of Union at the start of the nineteenth century, they had been subjugated by absentee British landlords to the point that the greater part of their food production ended up on English dinner tables. They came to Manchester especially for the promise of jobs in the vast new cotton mills, as well as the iron foundries, machinery plants, and glass works that were built in large part to service this industry. And yet they arrived to find themselves shunned by the English, who viewed them not only with the religious prejudice of a Protestant nation, and not just as a threat to employment but, with their foreign tongue (for many of the immigrants spoke Gaelic) and equally distant ways, as a different and inferior race entirely.

As a result, the Irish had been cast into ghettoes, where they lived in quite possibly the worst conditions yet witnessed in a (then) modern society. Details of their hardships were eventually publicized by Dr. James Phillips Kay in his 1832 study entitled The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester. Kay served as physician to the Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary, neighborhoods that, along with New Town (or Irish Town), served as the main residential areas for the Irish immigrants and were, not by coincidence, the core of the city’s squalor. In these areas, entire families of sixteen or more could be found cohabiting in single, sublevel, damp, pestilent rooms barely one hundred square feet in size, crowded in with pigs and other animals. Such was the lack of basic sanitation that on Parliament Street, some 380 people shared a single “privy,” from which the human waste not surprisingly ran over into adjacent houses. (In whole swathes of inner Manchester, there were a greater number of beer houses, taverns, and gin shops than there were toilets.) Allowing too that the city’s rivers were poisoned with any number of odorous colors by chemical dumping and that the air was thickened with polluting soot to the point that the houses were coated black with the stuff, it was no wonder that cholera epidemics often swept the city—and that fully half the city’s infants died before the age of five.

Those children who survived found themselves called to work in the factories and mills; it was a mark of just how deeply they were enslaved in such premises that an 1819 Cotton Factories Regulation Act had been required to restrict their labor even to twelve hours a day. Still, partly because there was no enforcement of these laws until a new act of Parliament in 1833, children as young as five—many of them orphans provided by local parish authorities—continued to be freely beaten, easily injured, otherwise mistreated and abused, and disciplined violently, often dipped headfirst into water cisterns when they inevitably became drowsy from overwork. Men, women, and children alike worked in a machinery-driven din of such volume that the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the Manchester of this time that he heard it before he saw it, using appropriately rhythmic language to bemoan the “crunching wheels of machinery, the shriek of steam from boilers, the regular beat of the looms.”

Likewise, in his groundbreaking report, Dr. Kay rightly compared “The dull routine of a ceaseless drudgery” in the mills to “the torment of Sisyphus—the toil, like the rock, recoils perpetually on the wearied operative.” Yet Kay could not hide an underlying contempt for the unskilled Irish among these toilers. With free use of the term “savage,” he cited their “contagious example of ignorance and a barbarous disregard of forethought and economy,” and concluded that “such a race is useful only as a mass of animal organization, which consumes the smallest amount of wages.”

By the end of the 1830s, cotton accounted for fully half of Britain’s export earnings, but there had been little change in living standards. When the German-born Friedrich Engels came to town in 1842, sent by his father to oversee the family’s cotton spinning mill in the hope that the experience would temper the young man’s radical beliefs, his exposure to the effects of large-scale industry encouraged him instead to formulate his own vision of society alongside his political partner, Karl Marx, with whom he would meet and devour economic theories at Chetham’s public library (the oldest in Britain) during the latter’s visits to Manchester. Engels and Marx would later pen The Communist Manifesto, but first, in 1845, Engels was to publish The Conditions of the Working Class in England, at the age of just twenty-four. In it, Engels—suspecting that it was more by design than accident—astutely noted of Manchester how its city center was filled with impressive offices and warehouses, and the main roads out of town were lined with well-kept shops. As such, a businessman “commuting” from his suburban village, or a visitor whom he might wish to impress, could make the journey in and out of the city center without exposure to the destitution of the working-class residences that lay hidden behind the main roads in a vast, unmapped configuration of alleys and terraces and jerry-built cottages—out of sight and, to many, out of mind.

Detailing the conditions of the slum people and the factories that employed them as a powder keg ready to explode, Engels framed his study not just as an indictment of the Industrial Revolution but as a warning of an inevitable Workers Revolution. “The fighting proletariat will help itself,” he believed. Yet Engels, like Kay before him, seemed to simultaneously believe that self-emancipation was beyond the Irish. In a special section of his “Conditions” devoted to Irish Immigration, he stooped to every caricature ever identified with the nationality:

“The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink. What does such a race want with high wages?”

It has sometimes been suggested by Engels apologists that these comments were a form of bitter sarcasm, perhaps intended to reflect the views of the Industrial barons, but his conclusions still made for awkward reading: “Even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilised, enough of the old habits would cling to them to have a strong degrading influence upon their English companions in toil, especially in view of the general effect of being surrounded by the Irish.” Engels’s theory was to be immediately put to the test, as potato crops repeatedly failed across Ireland in the 1840s, leading to famine and the mass emigration of up to a million young Irish in less than a decade, many of whom followed a now familiar journey—to the mills, works, and slums of inner Manchester.

Manchester gained renown as more than just the birthplace of modern capitalism and communism. In 1801, the Church of England Sunday Schools in Manchester, proud of their part in helping to educate the poorest of factory children, paraded them to the Collegiate Church on Whit Monday to hear a special holiday sermon. The practice soon spread across the country, while growing more popular in Manchester so that by the middle of the century, a minimum of 10,000 “scholars” could be found marching behind church banners; in time, the children would come to anticipate the Whit Walks as an alternate Christmas, a day for new clothes and financial gifts from relatives and friends. Other events carried a heavier weight of history. In 1819, years of worker unrest following the Napoleonic Wars culminated in an astonishingly large crowd of 60,000 gathering in the city’s St. Peter’s Field from all across Lancashire to hear the top orators of the day call for parliamentary reform.

Meet the Author

TONY FLETCHER is the author of six books, including Moon, the bestselling biography of Keith Moon, and Remarks Remade, the definitive biography of R.E.M. He has contributed to many publications and television shows on both sides of the Atlantic, including Newsday, Spin, Mojo, Behind the Music, and more. He lives in New York’s Catskill Mountains. He can be found at www.ijamming.net.

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A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
sorayanair More than 1 year ago
As a big fan of The Smiths and being someone who has already read Morrissey’s autobiography, I was interested to see what insight someone outside of the band could give on The Smiths. First of all, do not be put off by the book’s 700 pages. When reading it, the stories that Fletcher documents and the exciting facts you learn, keep this book from seeming long and instead, you will not want to put it down. What I really enjoyed about Fletcher’s work was that he was quick to correct the misconception about the band – that they were miserable. Fletcher documents the mental health issues that Morrissey encountered, but also makes sure everyone knows how witty the lyricist is; Girlfriend In A Coma is a great example of Morrissey’s sense of humour. The details of Morrissey’s relationship with Johnny Marr is a highlight of the book and as the reader, you are able to feel a connect to these two Indie icons because of Fletcher’s great writing and research. It is obvious that Fletcher has put a lot of effort into researching the Manchester band and this pays off; The Enduring Saga of The Smiths is a fine piece of literature that showcases Fletcher’s writing ability, as well as, showing exactly why The Smiths are regarded as the greatest Indie band of all time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago