“Generation X’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’” turns 35 today. The lengthy and moody “How Soon Is Now?” was put out as a single by The Smiths this day in 1985. And like many other cultural milestones, its importance took awhile to really be clear.
Even the band – or else their record label, Rough Trade (on this side of the ocean, Sire/Warner Bros. had them but they were on the small indie label in their native land) – didn’t seem aware of how good the song was. It was first released a in fall ’84… as a b-side to the single “William It Was Really Nothing”, which seems quite forgettable now. It was then included in Hatful of Hollow, the unusual second album from the Manchester quartet. Unusual because after only one regular album, they came out with Hatful… which was really a compilation album of standalone singles they’d released, b-sides and live recordings from appearances on the BBC’s John Peel show. It was only when fans began going crazy for it and radio began spinning it that the record company decided they had a potential hit and put it out as a single. Even then they struggled to get it right. While the full-length 6:45” version was released on a 12” single (and later a CD single), the song was shorn of much of the remarkable guitarwork for the 7” single, which was only about half as long.
Perhaps the greatness of the song was overlooked at first by those close to the band because it was atypical of the Smiths. Generally known for short, snappy pop songs driven by straight-ahead jangly guitars, this song was lengthy, atmospheric,slower and echo-ey. The music was composed by their outstanding guitarist Johnny Marr, who had a simple – well, rather difficult really – goal in mind: “I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as ‘Layla’”, he said. Among his inspirations for it, surprisingly, were Bo Diddley and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right.”
With his bandmates, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, they came up with the music, at that time called “Swamp.” Noteworthy was that for whatever reason, Marr ditched his normal Rickenbacker guitar for it in favor of a Les Paul model. Anyway, when that was done, producer John Porter earned his keep and then some. He decided it would sound better with a bit of reverb and effects. So he and Marr went through a process “that took an eternity,” to make it sound like the song we know. They ran the recording of the guitarwork and ran it through three amps simultaneously, with tremolo or vibrato set to different levels on each and recorded the resultant other-worldly echoing sounds.
Enter singer Morrissey a few days later who essentially improvised the nakedly honest, depressed lyrics. The first line, “I am the son, and the heir”, were inspired by a George Eliot novel he was reading that refers to a lad “born the son of a Middlemarsh manufacturer and heir to nothing in particular.” He did the song in just two takes, and Marr was in awe. “when he sang ‘of a shyness that is criminally vulgar’, I knew he’d hit the bulls-eye.”
Indeed he did. Marr recently correctly assessed that it was “our most enduring record. It’s most people’s favorite, I think.” What it wasn’t necessarily, was a smash hit. Although it did their fifth #1 hit on the British Indie chart in just two years (by the end of the decade and their career, they’d score 14 of those), overall it only got to #24 in the UK. Years later it would return to the charts and make it to #16 there. It also was a top 5 in Ireland, but in most other places, nada.
On our side of the ocean, the single didn’t sell much at all and since Sire didn’t bother releasing Hatful of Hollow at the time in North America, fans who wanted it on an album had to wait until it was tacked onto the next Smiths album, Meat is Murder. But even though it wasn’t getting played next to Michael Jackson or Huey Lewis on American hit radio, it had its rabidly loyal fans and quickly became a staple on college radio and the few pioneering alternative rock ones around. CMJ in fact logged it as the fifth most-played song of the ’80s on U.S. college radio stations while in L.A., KROQ ranked it as the 22nd top song of 1984. Toronto’s CFNY was even more enthusiastic. In 1999, they ranked it as the second-best song – ever. (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the one that topped it, in case you were wondering.)
The song was adopted as the anthem of a generation of disaffected, lonely youth and was described by British journalist Louise Segrue as “a triumph thanks to Marr’s genius layering of sliding and oscillating vibrato guitar…and Morrissey’s defiantly anti-pop lyrics.” Or more simply, as allmusic call it, a “masterpiece.”
If the song sounds familiar to you…but not quite, you may have watched a lot of TV last decade. Psychedelic Furs-spinoff Love Spit Love recorded a cover version of it in the ’90s for the movie The Craft which was later used as a theme song for the TV series Charmed.